The Pilgrimage That Wasn’t
In reflecting on the images I captured during my two press trips to Jordan, one this fall, and one in 2007, a sharp contrast emerged. Five years ago, I traveled with a contingency of mostly Catholic and Anabaptist journalists to Jordan during the month of Ramadan. Then in September 2012, I returned to the Holy Land, where I joined a group of largely evangelical writers.
On my initial foray into this predominately Muslim country, our group seemed to view the trip as a learning pilgrimage, where we soaked in the history and hospitality that greeted us at every turn. Even though we did not enter the mosques while the men were praying, the repeated calls to prayer lent a rhythm that connected us somehow with a culture seen in a negative light by many U.S. evangelical Christians. During this first trip, I did capture a few shots of tourist bling, as well as the comical Christian-on-a-donkey a la Mary. But most of my photographs depict my immersion into this culture by walking on Jordanian soil. Toward the end of our trip, I tried to at least carve out a mini-pilgrimage during our one-night camping trip to Wadi Rum. Ah, the magic of Lawrence of Arabia! I reveled in the kindness shown by our Jordanian hosts, who even set aside a space where we could meditate under the stars.
But then a particularly devout soul suggested we all sing kumbaya, and the blather continued on well into the night. Finally, around 4am, I caught a few snippets of silence, until a Jesus-jumper burst into my space with her bare arms swinging in the breeze. (In this culture, this represents the equivalent of a woman going topless in Western cultures.) In my sleep-deprived state, desperate for some semblance of silence, I mistakenly deleted all the photos from this failed attempt at any semblance of a pilgrimage.
By the time we hit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site where John gave Jesus a divine dunking, I still held on to a shred of hope that my repeated requests for a bit of peace might be honored. Maybe, just maybe, I could recreate a bit of the spiritual silence I encountered during my last trip. But once again, the evangelical travelers’ chatter about their personal encounters with Jesus blinded them to the needs of other pilgrims who simply wanted to be.
This shift in my pilgrimage experience also reflects my own spiritual journey away from organized religion. In 2007, I was a Christian author with the distinction of serving as Senior Contributing Editor for the religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door. Also, I was about to publish my third book, The New Atheists Crusaders and the Unholy Grail. Despite my hyper-chatty state, this extended pilgrimage marked the beginning of my lifetime quest to turn my travels into pilgrimages.
Flash-forward five years. I have now left the professional Christian (read “evangelical”) publishing world, and instead I contribute to largely secular outlets, including American Atheist and Free Inquiry, and am working on my seventh book, titled Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues. In my ongoing pilgrimages, I find I have more in common with spiritual atheists than evangelical and emergent Christians. Depending on the day, I waver between calling myself an Anglican. connecting with the spirit of my late father the Rev. Dr. Karl C. Garrison, Jr. (1942-1978); an apophatic, dwelling in the mystery; or an agnostic, admitting that I just don’t know.
But the soil of Jordan still speaks to me. While this country can embrace me no matter where I am in my walk, I realize that moving forward, I need to surround myself with fellow pilgrims and avoid the debris left behind by the 800-pound godly gorillas.
This land can teach us how to be still and connect with our fellow global citizens, if only we will listen.
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).