Pilgrimage and pandemic

Dear colleagues,

Matthew Anderson is a Lutheran pastor, a teacher at Concordia, and a friend of the college. (He’s teaching a course on St. Paul online for us this semester.) He’s also a pilgrim. Over the years he’s trekked across parts of Canada, Iceland, Norway, and now up and down the stairs in his house. I know this because he has a new podcast called Pilgrimage Stories—and because he was interviewed on CBC Radio over the weekend. (You can listen to the two-part interview online: part one and part two.)

For Matthew, pilgrimage takes many forms. I could think of many examples as I listened. I thought about trips I was fortunate to take while I lived in England to historic pilgrimage locations like Iona or Lindisfarne. There was the story we heard last Wednesday after our community worship of attempts to find the remains of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, and the quiet prompting that resulted from that humorous journey. I thought also about the thousands of people who marched through the streets of Montreal this weekend demanding justice for Joyce Echequan, the indigenous woman who filmed medical staff mocking her before her death last Monday in Joliette Hospital. In the interview, Matthew cites one description of pilgrimage as “transformational travel.” Each of these, in their own ways, is an indication of travel that is aspiring towards transformation—for the participants and for the broader society.

Sometimes I find myself wondering if this pandemic is a kind of pilgrimage. Certainly it has been a journey, with ups and downs, tough trekking and smoother paths. Many things we once took for granted—the kind of support that government can provide to individuals and businesses, for instance, or the worship life of a church—have been entirely transformed.

But pilgrimage is not just about transformational travel. It’s also, as Matthew makes clear, about destination—places like Santiago, Trondheim, Canterbury, Rome, Kahnawá:ke. If the pandemic is a pilgrimage, what’s less clear to me is the destination towards which we are headed. Will we return to our old “normal,” an unequal society living in unsustainable fashion? Or can the journey of this pandemic be sufficiently transformational that we find ourselves headed in a more equitable and sustainable direction? I find myself asking these questions particularly about the church. What is the destination that the church is headed towards in this pandemic? What is the vision of a “new normal” that may be emerging as we walk this pandemic path? The answers to those questions are not clear to me, but they seem particularly urgent.

When you’re on pilgrimage, perhaps the best advice is this: remember where you’re going, lace up your boots, and put one foot in front of another. That’s good advice for a pandemic too: keep focused on the new society and new church we want to build and take it one step at a time.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.