Thoughts from the Road

March 12, 2017

First UU Church of Winnipeg, Rev. Nicoline Guerrier

Our pilgrimage began two years ago, late June, after we piled our bags into a rental car in Portland, Oregon. From there we headed six hours south to Tule Lake, a dusty town along the northernmost edge of the state of California. Tule Lake had housed the largest of the ten camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the Second World War. Two thirds of these internees were American citizens, and at its peak, Tule Lake had kept 18,000 prisoners on its large piece of arid land, sectioned off by guard towers and high, barbed wire fences. Our mother had spent a portion of her childhood at this camp.

The word “pilgrimage” started being used for internment camp visits as far back as the late 1960s, when “Sansei” – third generation people of Japanese origin like me - organized learning expeditions to the camps. Unlike religious pilgrimages that visit holy sites, these journeys served a different kind of devotion: to building connection between Sansei and their older relatives who could testify to how quickly and arbitrarily civil liberties can be lost; to keeping place-based memory and history alive, so that we never forget the different purposes for which the land we live on has been used; and to building safe spaces for survivors to share their stories.

We weren’t exactly sure what we were seeking when we set out. The trip had arisen out of a sense of calling that couldn’t quite be explained. I knew that for me, coming to know the actual place where the internment happened – witnessing its particular quality of light, or learning the contours of its landscape – felt like it would be a key to something beyond what stories or photographs could teach me.

But there was something else, too. Typically, Japanese Canadians and Americans don’t talk much about their internment experiences. So for my sister and me, our pilgrimage also grew out of some indefinable longing to learn more about our mother’s story before she came to the end of her life. And we thought it was more likely to happen if we all travelled to Tule Lake together.

Even if we didn’t know exactly what it was we were seeking, I’d have to say it probably didn’t turn out quite like we expected. Because the camp had been torn down, the sombre gridwork of tar paper clad barracks we knew from pictures was gone, though a single salvaged building sat on display at the visitor’s centre. Our mother remarked on some familiar vistas, since the camp had hugged the eastern side of a dramatic, trademark butte where boys – not girls – were allowed to slide during the winter.

But for our mother, nothing else was really recognizable. The desert conditions from the war years had been transformed by irrigation, so scrub and dry grass now covered the arid soil that she remembered blowing all over the camp. And the smells, she kept saying, were all wrong, now that latrines, kitchens, a bustling human presence, and coal – piled everywhere for camp fuel - had all disappeared.

Still, just when we were back in the car and leaving for the long, return drive north, we crossed a small rail line on the outskirts of town. This bumpy ride over train tracks unlocked something in our mother’s memory. She’d always known they’d been brought there by train. But since the train’s windows had been blocked out by paper on the inbound journey, she had never been able to connect her experience of the camp with the terrain they had covered to get there. “This must have been where we came in,” she remarked, with an air of finally filling in a piece of a puzzle.

So somehow, just when we were on the point of leaving, the pilgrimage seemed to offer her some mysterious gift. And for me, standing on that same soil with my sister and mother, experiencing it together with them, knits me more firmly into the history of my community.

There’s been an explosion of interest in pilgrimages, lately. How many of you have been on a pilgrimage of any kind?

Muslims, of course, have never stopped going on hajj, the obligatory, once in a lifetime pilgrimage to their holy city of Mecca. But in recent decades, Christians and even people of no particular faith have been lacing up their boots and seeking out ancient pilgrimage routes. The most popular of these has been the Camino de Santiago, also known simply as, “the Camino.” It’s a collection of walking paths, covering as much as 800 kilometres, beginning on the western side of Europe. All lead to the shrine of St James the Apostle, in Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwest Spain.

Some travelers complete their journey by walking an even older path that continues to the ocean, at Finisterre – “the end of the known earth” – which is also the title of the David Whyte poem I read to you earlier. If you want to know more, I’ll point you toward Ivor Lockhart, a member of this congregation. Ivor is head of the Winnipeg chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims – part of a worldwide network of people who have walked the Camino and who seek to keep its special magic alive once they return home.

People who walk the Camino carry their belongings on their back. Locals, and other travellers address them as “pilgrim” - from the Latin peregrinus – which means traveler from afar. It might look like just a trip, but it’s both an inner and an outer journey. You could say it’s more a spiritual practice. By devoting themselves to the journey, pilgrims are taken away from their usual patterns of preoccupation and relationships. Walking the Camino means this essential pattern: walking, resting, walking some more, finding a place to stay the night, washing yourself and your clothes, eating, sleeping, then rising the next morning to do it all again.

And as with any walking meditation, people tell me that no matter what intention they arrive with, the Camino works its power and something life-changing happens. My guess is, pilgrimage leads people both to ask, and to answer the question, “What is life for?”

Part II

Those of you who have been around this church over the past couple of years will know that the congregation’s been experiencing what’s called an “interim,” or transition period. These two years mark the time between settled ministers, and they are meant as a time of discernment. Who are you now? What does the world call for from you? And it’s come to me that in some ways, as with a pilgrimage, this interim time has been a journey that gradually uncovers a single question.

If it’s true that pilgrimage is like a meditation on the question, “What is life for?” I’d say that for the congregation, this interim time is for discerning, “What is church for?”

The interim minister brings the eyes of a traveller from afar, someone who knows Unitarian Universalism deeply, but is an outsider to local church culture. This makes the interim uniquely positioned to hold up a mirror to you, the congregation.

Like the new perspectives that gradually rise up along on the Camino journey, this mirror is there to give you a different view of yourselves than the one that is usual, the one embedded in the routines of daily life. Our movement insists on trained Interim Ministers so that congregations have the best possible chance of developing healthy self-awareness. An interim time well spent will lead a congregation to make key decisions concerning its future – like calling a new minister, but also, setting goals for itself – out of discernment and intention, not habit.

Today, I’m only going to mention a few of the things I’ve been noticing along this two year road. I’ve been sharing them along the way, and will write them up in a report for all of you before I leave at the end of June. But here’s some of what I’ve seen with my traveler’s eyes:

I’ve invited you to experiment with change during my time here. You’ve listened, asked really good questions, and more often than not said “yes!” As a group, I notice you are not afraid to play a little, and that will stand you in good stead.

During your last two budget cycles you’ve begun grappling with the real costs of running a church, and you’ve done this in an era where insurance companies and our movement itself have developed a new focus on accountability. This has been good news from a safety and liability point of view, but it’s raised costs as well. And for those of you wondering about the rising cost of ministerial compensation, it might be important to know our movement has the highest standards for credentialing of any North American denomination. Further, over the past twenty years, the cost of getting a Master of Divinity degree and fulfilling the many other training requirements for UU ministry in the United States - where most of our ministers are still trained (myself included) - have increased 250%, and take an average of 4-6 years to complete.1

How do you make your decisions? In a small church, it’s most comfortable when decisions roughly get made by consensus. People who don’t buy in usually move on, and if a long time lay leader disagrees with a decision, the group tends to do an about-face. I still notice you doing that sometimes, but I sense that pattern is starting to change.

I’ve noticed that as a group, you tend to be folks who sign up and show up for things at the last minute. Though things usually still get done, it can be a little stressful!

What I’m noticing above all, though, is that now – this far into the homeward journey - I’m finally hearing you start to talk to each other about what church is for.

I hear it beneath some of the difficult conversations you’ve begun having with each other lately. These are conversations about things like:

Where do our UU values most come alive? Is it in democracy, where each person needs to be able to weigh in on all decisions? Is it in identity, when we allow ourselves to be shaped and changed by this unusual faith tradition?

What are the skills needed for leadership in this church, and what resources do you offer leaders – especially new ones – to help make their job easier?

Is justice something you do “out there”? Or is justice also expected in how you are with one another, how you relate to visitors, how you organize your building and worship space?

I especially hear questions about what church is for beneath the brave conversations you’ve begun having about what growth might mean for this congregation, as you prepare to move forward in partnership with a new minister. You’re feeling growth pains now, as this space and building come close to being filled to capacity on Sundays.

What will get sacrificed, if you squeeze more chairs into this sanctuary? Who gets priority use of the small number of main floor, accessible rooms on Sunday after service? What welcome do you offer folks whose hearts are broken open before, or because of Sunday service, when there is almost nowhere in the building outside of the worship hour for cultivating that ‘still, small voice’ we sang about before and aftecr the meditation?

To me, this all depends on how you answer the question, “What is church for?”

There are churches in our movement who believe church is for “community,” and community alone. The truth is, those churches operate more like social clubs. They may talk about changing the world, but tend, in fact, to retreat from it.

And like pilgrims making their way along a lengthy and difficult path, I see you as seeking something more. So even though not all these conversations are easy, I think that’s okay.

There’s a phenomenon among Camino pilgrims. Sometimes, just when they reach Finisterre and have to contemplate the homeward journey, they are overcome with grief. They don’t want the pilgrimage to end.

I’d say, could it be that right when the pilgrimage – the outward journey - feels like it’s coming to an end, it’s then that the inner journey is truly beginning? Because what are all these lessons for, if not to be turned back into the soil of your own backyard and used to grow your life?