Traveling and crossing cultures has shaped me in profound ways, and has molded my faith and theology in response. Mark Twain is quoted as saying:
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
I find that quote meaningful because in my own experience, spending time in another culture and encountering a person different from myself has developed empathy and an understanding of all people as my neighbors to be loved. As our globalized world becomes smaller and some people and nations exclude others, a significant encounter with people of another culture, faith, and life experience has the potential to enlighten one about our shared humanity and identity as those created in the image of God.
ISRAEL-PALESTINE In the fall of 2018, Wilshire Baptist Church and Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas took a joint tour of the Holy Land of Israel-Palestine and Jordan. I was fortunate enough to attend this trip and thereby share my first experiences of Jerusalem and other biblical lands with both Christians and Jews. Seeing the ancient sites and sights was spiritually nourishing, and contextualizing our scriptures in their geography, their history, and their religious traditions has shaped the way that I teach and preach.
This trip thankfully did not ignore the contemporary geo-political realities of the region in favor of a pleasant tour. Our group held dialogue with people of varying identities – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian, and more – and we learned the complexity of the situation. We also met with various organizations and individuals who are working toward and advocating for peace in the region. I returned to the US with a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by minority groups in modern Israel and with a stronger hope that peace can one day prevail because people of faith are contributing to it one step at a time. Several of the groups we met are utilizing arts and education to facilitate relationships between people with often opposing identities. These are not the avenues we normally look to for bringing peace, but they may foster peace through sparking imagination and empathy that will move toward creative solutions.
TANZANIA In September of 2018, I led a 10-person group from Wilshire Baptist Church to visit the African Inland Church in Tanzania. The primary purpose was to learn from the Tanzanian diocese in which our church had sponsored a school and funded the construction of a girls dormitory. In a culture that makes it challenging for girls to complete their education without risk of assault or discrimination, this dormitory enabled around 100 students to avoid a dangerous commute to school each day. I was inspired by the determination of the children and the consistent witness to God's faithfulness provided by their teachers.
On this trip, I gained experience leading an international team and I learned a lot about evangelism from the Tanzanian Christians. While they may have had a different philosophy or theology of evangelism, they shared the gospel as deeply connected with justice and salvation here and now. Their responsible social work and community development alongside their faith showed me a holistic approach to evangelism. This was a terrific example showing that Christians need not fully agree in theology or cultural outlook to contribute to God's peace in the world.
NORTH AFRICA In 2016, my wife and I visited field personnel of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in North Africa. Primarily our trip was to visit the personnel whom my wife had met previously, and to see their work. We had the opportunity to meet some girls who were formerly in a state-run home for young women who had been disowned and cast out by their families. Their powerful stories inspired me to advocate for the rights of girls and vulnerable people in other situations of abandonment and neglect.
We also met some of the college students who they worked with to mobilize for various social justice projects in their city. The passion of those field personnel for the people they minister to and their responsible philosophy of missions helped guide me toward a better understanding of my own ministerial goals.
LONDON In 2015 I had the opportunity to participate in a Learning Lab with Matryoshka Haus in London. On this trip, I was part of a group that spent a week in the London area learning about what various groups were doing to engage in spirituality or reinvent church in innovative ways. We saw churches that have opened their doors as a meditative space for professionals in the financial district. We saw people who banded together to transform their community through a communal garden and partnerships with juvenile detention centers for mentoring and employment in the garden. I also was able to learn from and network with some key Methodist and Anglican innovators in the UK.
These creative ways of imagining church taught me to consider ways in which the church contributes to spirituality that can make life meaningful and transformative for people outside typical religious institutions. Because I believe that an encounter with Jesus can change someone's life, I hope to implement some lessons learned to bring Jesus' good news to those who may be alienated or forgotten by many churches.
JORDAN AND EGYPT A summer spent doing mission work in Jordan and Egypt was a formative trip that changed me and shaped my perspective of missions and ministry. Spending multiple months in a culturally-distant place like the Middle East had a profound impact on my relationships with other people. I came to realize that although we had different perspectives and values, I also shared much in common with my Arab friends that I did not expect. Because I had significant theological differences with the other Americans I worked beside, I was also surprised by moments when I seemed to hear more of Jesus in a Muslim friend than a Christian one. This created some conflict in myself and prompted me to examine my own faith and how God is at work among all people.
Navigating these interactions with other people and learning to function in a place where I was the outsider prompted me to consider others’ perspectives and gave me deep empathy for those who live their life as outsiders in some way. I also came to see the need for inter-religious relationships and dialogue because of the violence that often occurs when people do not understand each other. Particularly, I have sought to quell some of the anti-Muslim sentiments around me in some contexts within the United States. Through the leadership of my supervisor, I discovered the possibility of a powerful ministry through non-traditional church settings that mentor and develop people in a unique way.
GREECE AND TURKEY A travel study trip to Greece and Turkey during my undergraduate degree was my first international trip and was a moment when the Bible came alive to me as a book with a particular history and written by particular people. Paradoxically, I realized the historical constraints on the biblical text by standing in places where it was written and where Paul walked, but I also realized in a profound way that the Bible continues to be a source of God’s movement and God’s voice if we can partially enter its culture.
I also had the opportunity to visit the ministry of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Athens and their work with Albanian refugees living in Greece. Seeing their practical ministry to immigrants who struggled to find employment and survive was a pivotal moment in my developing passion for responsible missions and action for social justice.