Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Out of Africa:
 A Pilgrimage Reflection

Father John J. Lombardi

Joy: This was the most common word to describe the various experiences of a Pilgrimage mentioned by some pilgrims recently.

Sixteen Americans just spent 17 days on pilgrimage to South Africa and Tanzania-it was a Pilgrimage of Miracles. As a matter of fact, one of our hosts, Marcellino, choir director of the Cathedral in Arusha, Tanzania, said it was a miracle that we all came together-their forty member choir and our pilgrimage group-and played soccer, sang songs, ate a sumptuous meal, did some traditional African dances, and drank together

(a little vino) like old friends. It was like a dreamy-spiritual-banquet of ecstasy. Ray, one of our pilgrims, said after the night of revelry: "How do you explain this to your other friends?" So well put, and felt!

Kinda likewise, I just talked to some other pilgrims who went to Nicaragua and, apparently, their experience seemed the same: joy amidst poverty, service and love throughout.

Our group went to Africa on a "Mission-pilgrimage" consisting of "Three S's": Service, Spirituality and Safari-all these we hoped would be wrapped in prayer and encountering God in Africa in so many different ways. As Ray said again, in describing his ecstatic African pilgrimage: "It's been great. It's like trying to draw a picture of a beautiful smell-it's hard to translate." And yet the joy was, is, real.

In this Sunday's first reading from Isaiah (Is 66:18-21), we are told of God's universal Love for all mankind, and how His Salvation is to reach throughout the whole world. The Lord Jesus calls us all to be missionaries-wherever we are, in whatever kinda way. Digression: A recent speaker to Mt St Mary's, Don Piper, who wrote the bestselling book, "90 Minutes in Heaven"-said his job and mission in life, after he literally died, experienced Heaven, and then came back to life, was to tell as many people as possible that Heaven is real; that God still performs miracles and that Jesus Christ is the Way, Truth and Life. Anyway, one person in our pilgrimage group said, after her beautiful experiences, she wanted to be a missionary to Africa; another said she wanted to possibly become a religious sister, and a couple of teen boys expressed interest in the priesthood. These "epiphanies" and stories of vocation (calling) were delightful surprises along the way which only a pilgrimage could bring about. One of our mottoes of the Pilgrimage was "Abandon to God's unfolding Gifts"-and these stories of vocation were just some of the "gifts" we received, and show how inspiring it is to discover God's manifestations in various lands throughout the world, as Isaiah describes and impels us to do.

The word most used to describe their "fantastic voyage" might be magical. Why? The many children and adults who received us with smiles, hospitality and warmth-so spontaneously and deeply-was absolutely overwhelming. The exoticness of Mt Kilimanjaro enchanted us with cool temperatures and beautiful fauna and it's snowcapped mountaintop. The fun, communal meals of us pilgrims together after an exciting day's work were "team building" and relaxing (not to mention nourishing!). Serving orphans, the sick in hospitals, street children and learning about their various plights was heartwarming and built up solidarity in the Body of Christ we could have never imagined. The beauty of the various lands of desert, plush mountains and animal homelands was all new and adventurous. The parties held for us pilgrims-one complete with a roasted goat which is given only for special guests and momentous occasions-included some dancing and other revelries of singing and tributes, too! The beautiful masses with Swahili music wafting us into gentle ecstasy were transforming. The constant hospitality and welcoming made us feel at home away from home and left us hardly wanting to leave.

What were some other experiences of this Pilgrimage and lessons for us all? …

Prayer: Daily we 16 pilgrims offered Mass, holy hours, the Rosary and also the Liturgy of the Hours (Breviary-prayer book of professed religious) no matter where we were-in airports, chapels, AIDS hospices, game parks (in the Serengeti we prayed on an open road after viewing some giraffes). We decided this would not be a tourist trip but, rather, a "pilgrimage of prayer of the Three S's" where and when we would be encountering God and His constant revelations-whether thru service, spiritual prayer or safariing. Perhaps our biggest joy was singing (we had some fine pilgrim-singers to lead us) while visiting hospitals, the sick and orphaned in their rooms: so many of the poor looked up, smiled and greeted us. The soft music of "Immaculate Mary" and other songs helped in healing in melodic ways that our sparse Swahili could not. Handing out rosaries and holy cards brought immediate satisfaction to so many-something they could hold on to. A young male Masai warrior received a blessing as he visited his ailing dad in the hospital. His bright, silver jewelry and tapestry of ornamental clothing and décor upon his deep, dark skin was beautiful to behold: Isaiah's Vision was becoming real for us. On our last day of pilgrimage we encountered a priest from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who wanted to join us. Sure: we're all on pilgrimage, and he was heading for ministry in Marseille, France. He was a reminder to us: while we were ending our pilgrimage he was beginning his, he was on constant pilgrimage. Michael Rubeling, a young teen pilgrim, said that because our visits to various venues were somewhat short, we had to "make a good impression in just a few minutes": often this came only thru greetings, smiles and embraces-for us, this was what we could do to "spread the Good News". Words often failed, so the heart shining forth of the pilgrims was an irreplaceable way of spreading the Joy. We had "to be up for it" each step of the Way and our pilgrims did so consistently…Are you praying in your daily life? When you go thru your life, do you detect Jesus in those you see and visit with? Are you postponing the present moment to spread Jesus while waiting for some other opportunity and missing the present moment?

Joy: All along the way, there was the constant hand waving, smiles, greetings, embraces. One time we went to visit a church on Mt Kilimanjaro and, all of a sudden, children began piling into the church, then more and more and hundreds more. Then they began singing songs and welcoming us into their "Eucharistic home". We were amazed by their exuberance and love and warmth at receiving us so readily. Another time while leaving on our last visit of the pilgrimage, a little sad, perhaps, a large group of school children ran up to our bus on a hillside where a soccer game was being played, smiled, waved and greeted us-as if to say "farewell" and "bon voyage"! At one of our "reflection sessions" of pilgrim-sharing, so many mentioned these stories and Shannon, a teen pilgrim said that it was Jesus Who united us all-He was the "common element" Who bound us together. In this Sunday's Gospel the Lord calls us to enter thru the narrow door". It is Jesus, not any other person, no matter how good, Who saves us and enables us to spread the Good News. So many of the pilgrims mentioned also how deep a Faith they saw in the Tanzanians-in the Mass the deep reverence, on the streets the greetings in Christ's Name; how readily people prayed in sick homes-all these were manifestations of the Love of God. And, so, we thought we were the missionaries but, all the while, we were being preached to, gently and consistently-that it is not so much how much you own, but how much you are owned by Jesus…How much do you spread Joy to others-esp those in need? What is holding you back from embracing Jesus in your life?

Pinch myself: Often I would do this as I thought: Am I really in Africa, the place of childhood dreams? When I was safariing in the Serengeti I pinched myself: wake up to present moment revealing, yes, lions and zebras and wildebeests (and many other creatures great and small in their native environment). I couldn't believe I was visiting South Africa, once home of apartheid and Nelson Mandela (we saw many of his pictures throughout Africa).

While we, ourselves went "on mission," we often learned as much as we gave away. Upon returning I told a friend of the Tanzanians' warm hospitality and constant joy and overwhelming exuberance we received-- and my friend responded: "Because they don't have anything."

Recently, I was walking down the Grotto steps and noticed a Mt St Mary's student having lunch with some other pilgrims from Eritrea-Africa. Katelynn, a first year student here from Baltimore it turns out, was passing by and the Eritreans invited her to their soiree. Katelynn was laughing and seemingly home away from home. As I, myself, was invited to lunch, too, I asked her how her time "at the Mount" was going, and she quickly responded, "Each day is good to excellent". I admired her attitude and thought that sentiment summarized the Pilgrimage in Africa for many of our pilgrims. One pilgrim said after just two days of pilgrimage: "If the pilgrimage ended today I would consider it a success." I was a little homesick for Africa upon returning back "home," and Katelynn's attitude and embrace of our home here, and the Africans who came to visit her, us, made me think: "Africa came to me"!

While on pilgrimage near Mt. Kilimanjaro we met a couple of ladies who took jobs at the Amani boys home we visited. To us they looked kinda "suspicious"-translation: non-African (by this time-day 15 of our Pilgrimage, we had gotten used to being "minority" and "visitors" and so forth-another Unfolding Gift of God!). Sure enough, Beth was from Memphis and just joined work in Tanzania; and April was from Vermont and recently studied, of all places, in Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Univ.! It was incredible: fun and inspiring that we all met half a world away. We pilgrims respected Beth and April for their dedication and S.O.S.-Sense Of Service--another form of God's Love to all the world-and the added impact that our fellow Americans were serving overseas and, in a way, challenging us to serve, too..

After the talk on "90 minutes in Heaven," I was conversing with Don Piper's son, Chris, who said that their organization is non-profit and supports a homeless ministry and disordered groups. I was immediately stuck by this father's and son's beautiful faith, their missionary zeal and also how they love to help others. Chris said, cheerfully in Texas tone, "It's fun to give away."

We all had tons of fun and spiritual joy in our pilgrimage. Ray, my fellow pilgrim said: "It's like, when walking the streets, we're rock stars, attracting so much attention and warm hospitality." Better than rock stars: pilgrims and missionaries. Consider the calling yourself!

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi