As Quakers, we are called to see that of God in each person. And what if the person is the girl selling Chiclets on the streets of Quito, Ecuador, trapped in a life of poverty, or a nomad of Egypt’s White Desert carrying his entire day’s meal, shelter, and prayer amulet in a drawstring camel sack around his neck?
Can we see and touch that of God in people from distant places? Traveling, especially foreign travel, challenges us to examine closely our true relationship with basic Quaker teachings. Such questions call on us to examine (and perhaps push beyond) comfortable boundaries. They ask us to examine, maybe for the first time, our image of God and religion. It tests our conscience, our faith, and our appreciation for prayer and devotion that may differ from our Quaker beliefs.
My interest in foreign travel began as a child. Through my Cuban mother and Jamaican father, I learned from an early age that the world beyond U.S. borders was rich in culture and diversity. My mother especially instilled in me a deep appreciation for my Cuban and Caribbean heritage. Some of my earliest memories include standing beside her learning to cook red beans and rice and fried plantains, and from my father, learning to grow basketball-sized green cabbage and Scotch bonnet peppers as tall as weeds. My family, like a patchwork quilt, consisted of Chinese-Jamaicans and Cubans of every shade from sandy pebble to chocolate brown. This experience was enhanced growing up in Brooklyn, New York; on my little, partly tree-lined street of somewhat neatly kept row houses was a Haitian family as well as Italians, African Americans, Irish, and Puerto Ricans. The experience of "other" was familiar, even normative. In this sea of ethnic diversity people from far away places came together to realize the "American dream," and I flourished. At times, this tumultuous mix of races coexisted in a warlike stance, and at other times we were inseparable. My best friends included Irish twins two blocks away and a Haitian girl who lived in the corner house with the sycamore tree out front.
The desire to travel was fueled by the loss of my mother when I was 16. As a maid and a single parent, my mother raised four children in ghetto surroundings; I vowed to see and experience the world as a way of making up for her untimely death. Initially, my interest in traveling to other cultures was one of saying that I saw this or that, checking things off a list. Gradually, however, traveling challenged me to look deeply at myself and at my patterns of behavior and prejudices, and I came to respect and honor cultural differences. Traveling allowed me to see beyond the barriers that separate me from others—race, language, and custom—to look at the universal truth in all people. One truth is that people everywhere in the world desire the same things—love, compassion, and kindness, for example. Language and custom need not form walls of separation, I discovered, if the intention is to meet each person with respect, honesty, and humility.
Often my foreign travels have led me to look at the world through the eyes of other religions. The experience of meeting people of many faiths—Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Budd-hist, to name a few—has expanded my consciousness and appreciation for my chosen faith and practice in Quakerism. It has proven my decision to be part of the Religious Society of Friends a true, conscious, and informed choice. It raises questions like: How do I see the "other"? Do I return from a journey to the other’s faith differently? How far can I go in embracing and meeting the other and remain Christian?
The context of my world is framed by being a Westerner, a Christian, and a black woman in contemporary urban society. The meaning I make out of life experiences is, in part, the result of this personal, biological, and sociological perspective.
Pilgrimage: A Step Beyond
The act of traveling, and in particular pilgrimage, is about changing our relationship to reality. It is about embracing a wayfarer’s spirit with a poet’s heart. We can study rivers, trees, and mountains, but unless we enter into intuitive communication with them we can know about them, but we don’t know them.
The ancient image of pilgrimage suggests a curious soul who walks beyond known boundaries, crosses fields, and touches the material and spiritual worlds. The pilgrim endures a difficult journey to reach the sacred center of her world, a place made holy by a saint, event, or by sheer energy. The pilgrim’s motives are manifold: to pay homage, fulfill a vow, mark a life transition, rejuvenate the spirit, or honor a loved one. She has reached an emotional crossroads; she surrenders to the mystery of her heart’s longing, trusts that she will find what she needs in the journey, and has faith in the process.
Ultimately, the pilgrim unfolds to a deep transformation of the soul that cannot be achieved by the casual traveler. The pilgrimage is a journey of asking questions, listening to one’s heart’s desire, and discerning direction. And yet, to experience God, the sacred, the Inner Light, one does not require a special journey, learning, or ability. To experience, to know God, to allow the act of travel to be sacred is an invitation to inner knowing, to see with childlike eyes, reconnect, and to remember that we are made in the image of God. This connection is deeper than any boundary defined by custom or culture.
Whether we find ourselves perambulating a Buddhist stupa, at satsang (a meeting of devotees with a teacher) in a Hindu temple, at a sweat lodge in the Canadian woods, or enjoying an afternoon in the cloistered walls of a monastery, we learn about ourselves over and over again. We are invited to release the self, to know God, to remember the sacred. It is in this letting go that we pass from the border of differences that divide us to enter the Inner Light of God. In an article, "Great Circle Dance of Religions" (in The Community of Religions, edited by Wayne Teasdale and George F. Cairns), Brother David Steindl-Rast said, "The heart of every religion is the religion of the heart. . . . ‘Heart’ stands here for the core of our being where we are one with ourselves, one with all, one even with the divine ground of our being."
I stood at the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru and found God as the early morning fog lifted from the mountain to reveal a sacred lost city. I found God at the most holy temple of Bodnarth Stupa in Nepal; Borobudur Temple of Java; the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India; the Great Sphinx of Cairo, Egypt; and in the sacred cathedrals along the ancient pilgrimage route in northern Spain known as El Camino. I found God in the beautiful and complex dances of the native Balinese people. In finding God in these places, I have been stretched beyond words and language to look more closely at myself as I look at others.
As Quakers, we see the Inner Light of God in everyone, and for me, God can have many faces—Muhammad, Shiva, Great Spirit, Krishna, Buddha, and Yahweh.
Whether our next travel takes us to a distant land or just to the next town, we can benefit from the teachings of Native Americans: embrace the stranger we meet along the way with kindness, and be in gentle relationship with the Earth—with rivers, wind, and trees—as we would with our relatives.