Should I Take My Child On Pilgrimage?

This summer, my eight-year-old daughter asked to join me and 17 members of our church on a Wonder Voyage pilgrimage to South Africa. At first I hesitated to bring her because I was focused on the ways she might impede the goals of the experience. In hindsight she did alter the trip, but in a beautiful way. To decide if she could join us, I had to reflect on the purpose of pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage isn’t a vacation. It is a trip on which you intentionally look for God, trusting that he has shown up in remarkable ways to people who have journeyed there before you. Pilgrimage is a trip in which the goal is not so much relaxation of the body, but restoration of the soul. You measure the trip’s “success” by the number of times you experience awe and wonder. Eventually I realized that God had called my daughter to this pilgrimage just like he had called the rest of us. From that point on, I never doubted that she was supposed to be there.

Casey and his daughter.

Casey and his daughter.

For every way in which my daughter’s presence prevented me from repeating some of my favorite aspects of past pilgrimages, it also facilitated new holy experiences I would not have had had she not been there. For example, I couldn’t just go to the District Six Museum to quietly look at artifacts of apartheid. Instead, I had to find words to describe to her how a society could choose to do such things to people. I couldn’t just enjoy the experience of meeting with Archbishop Tutu. I first had to teach her who he was and impart to her the incredible truth of how the loving way of Jesus can change the world. We spent a lot of time doing “grown up things” like visiting a prison, serving poor communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS, and hanging out at the tiny preschool my church has supported for nearly 20 years. She had a remarkable ability to find joy everywhere we went.

She insisted our trip leaders tell funny stories to pass the time on long drives and her love of singing often encouraged all of us to sing along. I’ll always remember the night we drove out on safari and the driver turned out the lights of the truck so we could see the stars. After a few minutes of quiet rapture, my daughter began to quietly sing the Alleluia refrain of “Seek Ye First.”

I am absolutely sure the other adults on the trip loved and appreciated her presence. She began as a sort of adorable mascot but soon became a fellow pilgrim. Her wonder-filled eyes helped the rest of us look for awe and wonder, and her lack of cynicism helped all of us release ours, and her faith came to inform our faith.

Time will tell how the whole experience will impact her life, but isn’t that also true of all of us who went on pilgrimage? This is where my role as parent comes in. Whenever we look back at pictures and videos of our adventures, I try to gently turn the conversation to wonder  and where and how God was with us. I invite her to think about what God may have wanted her to see and experience. Frankly, I need to ponder these questions too, so this is yet one more holy aspect we get to share.

I don’t know that I’ll bring one of my kids on every pilgrimage I undertake, but I know I won’t hesitate when another opportunity arises. And not just for their sake, but for mine, too.

Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard.

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