I was surprised on Saturday when I looked at the bulletin for Sunday and the only part I had in leading worship was a Q and A about my pilgrimage. The thought of sitting in the pews waiting for a series of unpredictable questions made my stomach queasy. I did tell the church that I would be there on Sunday, but that because of my mid-week arrival and all the details of returning after 74 days, not to plan anything anything in the service that I would have prepare for. They did honor my request. But, I did not expect to be written out of the whole liturgy. I called Erik, our Commissioned Lay Pastor, early on Sunday and asked him to give me some parts of the service so that I could re-intregate into the life of the congregation and the rhythm of worship. I was relieved that I could assume my usual place in the chancel area.
For this first Sunday back I did not have to prepare a sermon. They just asked me to take about 15 minutes for an informal Q and A about the pilgrimage. There were questions about my greatest accomplishment, what is on my mind now, how many tires I went through, and if I sang to keep myself occupied. The one question I wanted to share in the blog today was this one: “How did you initiate conversations along the way?”
This was an important question as I found that my approach to people took a subtle shift after about two weeks into the ride. I began the ride being more upfront about my intentions for the pilgrimage, my role as a minister, the fact that this trip was sponsored by Eastminster, and my wanting to listen for the stories of people and where they fit into the current dialogue and shift between religion and spirituality. I soon discovered that this approach was not very effective for the vast majority of people I met.
On a number of occasions as soon as the discovery was made that I was a minister either the conversation slowed to a halt or an awkwardness took over while we continued the conversation but danced our way around issues of religion, spirituality, faith, and God. When I reported this to one of my members he was surprised and declared, “I don’t understand this. You are one of the most open and easiest people to talk to that I know.” But, what works for my members and friends after months and years of building relationships does not hold true for strangers on the road. There people don’t really know me and can only rely on first impressions and a gut feeling. When knowledge of my identity as a minister and my association with church emerged too quickly in the conversation their preconcieved perceptions drove the direction of the conversation.
It wasn’t long before I adopted a more comfortable approach for myself and, I imagine, for those people I met. I just became a gray-beared guy out on a touring bike, riding through small towns, grinding over mountain ranges, and with an occasional grimace on his face from the usual smile. I learned to share my story of this being a personal spiritual pilgrimage retracing my roots of all the places I had lived. Sometimes the conversation ended there and other times we made a connection and talked more about the things that shape our lives–including the people, the landscape, and our backgrounds. What I learned to do was to let go of some pre-conceived agenda of what my conversations were to be about and just let them unfold as two strangers who happened to meet out on the road. In that context, my role as a pastor and my intention to listen for the religious/spiritual story in our communities, often became part of the conversation, but only as an expression of the connection we had already made rather than being the purpose for the connection. I learned to let go of my agenda and just make connections.
My reflection today is just to ackowledge that those of us in the religious community have a perception problem. More often than not when my religious identity became known or I interjected spirituality into the conversation an uneasiness took over. I can only guess what was going through the minds of those who began to look for a way out. Possibly, “Oh, I really am not interested in being preached to” or “I really am not comfortable sharing my faith with a complete stranger” or “I have to be careful what I say now!”
I don’t believe it has to be this way, but we have a whole history that has resulted in these negative perceptions and people closing up when the topic of religion comes up. We have a history of making people objects of our need to proselytize or “save them” rather than treat them as people with their own integrity and dignity. We have a history of a moralistic streak that judges a person for their language, behavior and thoughts (Oh, you really shouldn’t be angry or say those kinds of things!).
Imagine living in a world where people discovered that you were religious and they immediately opened up rather than closed down. Imagine a world where the first thing a person thought was “Oh good, here is a person who will listen to me. Here is a person whom I know will accept me for who I am.” Imagine a world where the first images of a religious person feel like an invitation to something deeper rather than a warning to steer clear.
I started the pilgrimage with an agenda to let people know who I was and what I was doing in order to “get the story”. What I discovered is that part of the story is that there is a wariness and a distrust of religious professionals and people. I also discovered that the real story was to be found when I became just another traveler and pilgrim on the road. I learned very quickly to let go of my agenda and just look for an opportunity to connect. Besides that working better it was a helluva lot more fun!