The Youth Pilgrimage Process

Our CAP (Confirmation and Pilgrimage) class of high schoolers will be heading to England and France next summer, so I thought now is a good time to share with everyone how we made that decision. It is important to note, first of all, that this is a pilgrimage - not a community service trip, mission trip, or vacation. A pilgrimage is defined as “a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). This is an important distinction to make as our students embark on this trip - important for them to focus on the journey, and important for the rest of us to know how to support them in the coming year, and while they’re on the journey.

I have been one of the teachers of this class for two years along with Jessica Barnhart. Court Wirth joined us last year as Linda Hart ‘retired.’ Last winter, I was also hired to be the Youth Ministries Director, so I’ve had a crash course in the whole youth program. One thing I’ve learned is that it seems like many people don’t know much about this program. One of my goals is to make sure everyone in the congregation knows more about the entire program.

Last September, we had a meeting with our students and parents about the upcoming year. One of the things we talked about were our goals for our pilgrimage. We tried to stress the difference between goals and hopes. A goal is something that we have ability to achieve, while a hope is out of our control. In terms of pilgrimage goals, it would appropriate to say that we want to visit as many historical churches as we can because we can take steps to make that happen. It wouldn’t work for us to say that we want to feel a sense of epiphany on our pilgrimage, because no matter how hard we try, there is nothing we can do to guarantee something that’s out of our control.

With that in mind, we came up with goals such as growing together as a group and bonding, gaining independence, learning about the history of Christianity and Anglicism, learning about new cultures, and meeting new people. Those are all things that we could do, but also things that could be done almost anywhere in the world. We knew that we needed to figure out our goals before we figured out where we were going, because it is more important to find a destination that fit our goals, rather than figure out goals that might fit a destination.

During our classes during the last school year, we used these goals to start thinking about how they are important to our group, and to focus our studies. During the second half of the year, each of our students did a short presentation on a possible destination, with our agreed-upon goals in mind. The students provided thoughtful ideas that were all over the world. Some fit our goals better than others, so we focused on those in the end.

In the spring, we got a taste of what it will be like to travel together, as we went on our Urban Adventure. As a group, we travelled by train to Portland, where our students were put into two separate teams. Each team was given a list of locations with addresses, and they had to navigate to each place, without using their phones or other technology. Each team had an adult with them, but our job was to stand back and let the kids lead the way, even if it meant that we got on the wrong bus, or walked right past one of our locations (both of these things actually happened!). We learned quite a bit about travelling as a group, how to communicate with each other, and some of the strengths of each of our students. As teachers, it was amazingly valuable to be able to observe our students in this ‘foreign’ situation.

After Urban Adventure, I shared an online poll with all the students and teachers of all the destinations we’d discussed during presentations. Then all three teachers met with Bingham to share all the thing things we’d learned during the trip to Portland, discuss our goals, look at the poll results, and go over the students’ destination presentations. Bingham had such great insight to add to the process, as someone who had gone on pilgrimage with past groups. His questions really helped us focus in on the best destination based on our goals and student presentations.

I want to share two of the main things that helped us come to our decision of England and France. First, during the student presentations, most students included more than one country in their plans. We discussed how this seemed like it was very important to many of our students, and how it achieved our goals of learning about different cultures and learning about the history of Christianity. Second, one of the best presentations that was well thought out and well presented was on England and France. We had already decided that one of our destinations would be England, and we were looking into how we could get to an additional country easily and inexpensively, while not taking too much travel time. During the presentation on England and France, the students were clear in explaining how this could work since the two countries are neighbors.

In fact, in our poll, Italy was the country that had the most votes, but we couldn’t figure out a way that we could spend the entire pilgrimage in Italy and stay within budget, or a way to get to Italy from England that would meet our travel criteria. While we were disappointed that we wouldn't be honoring the most votes, we were confident that this compromise of offering two different countries would be appreciated by the students.

During our last J2A lesson of the spring, Jessica, Court, and I let the students know of our plans to go to England and France. We had a bunch of travel guides to each country, and started brainstorming locations within each country. During the discussion we had a few different itineraries on the board, some sleeping in a new town every single night. We had to keep going back to our goals, and deciding if our plans lined up with our goals. We decided that going to a different town each day would make it hard for us to really get a sense of each location and its unique history, culture, and people. Remember, this journey should have an ‘exalted purpose or moral significance.’ It’s hard to find much moral significance if we spend more than half our time on trains and buses. We narrowed down our towns, and ended up with towns that fit our goals, and enough time in each to make it feel like more than a whirlwind vacation.

Our itinerary, at least as it stands now, and is very subject to change in the coming year is to fly into London, spend the day exploring, then head to Oxford for a couple days. Then, we’re planning on spending two days in Exeter before going to Canterbury. From Canterbury, we’ll make our way across the channel to France, where we’ll spend a couple days in Paris before flying home.

During this coming year, please keep an eye out for our pilgrims. Let them know you’re excited for them and for their journey. Tell them how you’ll support them with prayer while they prepare and take their journey. I’m sure they’ll appreciate knowing that the St. Mary’s community is encouraging them every step of the way.