210: Students Take a Pilgrimage Through the Lens of a Camera

or now we see in a mirror, dimly — but then we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then, I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians 13:12

We asked 10 young adults, contemplating lives in various forms of ministry, to take up their cameras and help us see our world a little more clearly. They are part of an innovative spiritual formation program called Transforming Leaders, which is part of a nonprofit group in Michigan called the Young Leaders Initiative. You can read all about it at their Web site, if you wish — but first let me tell you about this fascinating experience in which these 10 young men and women hit the streets of Ann Arbor.

    Their assignment: “Spend an hour in spiritual mindfulness, trying to peer through the dim lens of daily life to catch an image of where you are at this very moment, on this day, in this place.”
    Of course, this practice taps into longstanding disciplines in Buddhism, Christian contemplation, Muslim reflections on God’s daily guidance — streams of Jewish spiritual reflection — and on and on.
    But we didn’t go into all of that. We made it very simple. We made it — clear:
    Take up your camera.
    Go into the world.
    Got that? Really see.
    And capture an image of your spiritual state — here and now.

    Here’s what they found:

Tony Gorga, 20, a student from Albion College, said, “This was so brief and direct.”
    Many of the 10 ventured far from our meeting place in their spiritual reflections, but Tony spotted this striking image within 200 yards of our starting point.
    “I have work that I need to do in my spiritual life,” Tony said. “This was such a clear image of that.”

Thom Victor, 21, who studied political science, economics and religion at Central Michigan University, said, “My spiritual state is irony and there it was at the top of the kiosk: a play about Karl Marx right next to a poster for summer jobs.”
    That’s the daily struggle most of us face, Thom said. As a Christian, “Jesus tells us that wealth can distract us from God — yet we still need jobs. That always will be the tension in life — needing money and needing to follow a spiritual calling, too.”

The group discussion about these 10 photographs got more complex by the moment. And, Ben Bower, 20, an Albion College student in religious studies and philosophy, kicked it up a notch with his photo of a warning sign at a construction site. One big reason that we need spiritual community is to pool our knowledge about life’s challenges — because the world can be a dangerous neighborhood.
    “I really feel that God is calling me into places that are not the safest or most comfortable,” he said. “And I need to take a step back and talk to other people who’ve been out there in ministry. I want to listen to them talk about what dangers they’ve encountered, what mistakes they’ve made. I want to be conscious of the risks and challenges and dangers — and learn from them as I move out into the world.”

All of these images could be described as visual prayers, but Joel Pier-Fitzgerald, 23, chose an image that even incorporates the words of a possible prayer.
    “Right above these words is a map of the bus system,” Joel said. “But like most maps of urban transportation systems — it’s incredibly complicated. We know we need to pick a path, but we can’t quite figure out where to go. The map is right there, but it’s so hard to read it. Ultimately, though, we do know there’s somewhere we can go — someone we can ask for help. We can ask the driver.”

This wasn’t a somber experience! Far from it! This collective pilgrimage through the photographs they captured soon became playful and provocative.
    Steven Shepherd, 20, a Michigan State University student who studies telecommunications said that his own educational discipline at the moment is: Nerdism.
    So, when he hit the streets, trying to clear his vision and really see the world — “I found that I started taking pictures that were pretty depressing. But then I thought: I’m not a naturally depressed person. What can I see that would lead me toward a more happy path — get me coasting more happily through life — and I found this laughing Buddha. That was perfect.”

Rachel Hashimoto, 20, a Hope College student in Japanese and youth ministry, made a fairly striking discovery in her experience on the streets. She was walking around downtown Ann Arbor, an urban landscape, but like Robert Frost she spotted an alternate pathway that stopped her in her tracks.
    She said, “There it was: An overgrown path that went right off the sidewalk where everything is so easy and is laid out — so open and clear-cut. But here was this — this unexpected, rough, overgrown path. And I really liked standing there and looking down that path, but it wasn’t easy to tell where that little path might lead me.”

    Here was another invitation to look much deeper beneath the opaque surface of the urban landscape. This image really is one of those wonderful little spiritual “trap doors” we can spot each day — if we’re really looking. It was spotted by Lynne Dunne, 21, who studied Christian ministry and mission at Spring Arbor College and now is working as a chaplain. It’s a section of sidewalk in Ann Arbor — 99.99 percent of that particular sidewalk comprised of brick pavers.
    At first, Lynne was struck by this image as a powerful illustration of spiritual diversity. “The asphalt patch here doesn’t look like what you’d expect. It doesn’t look like the other bricks here — but it does the job very well and keeps people from falling,” she said.
    Then, she began to ponder the vocational themes in this little discovery. “Someone patched this carefully so that people wouldn’t fall.”
    We’ll never know what man or woman, in the course of a day’s work, took care to secure this community with a careful application of asphalt — but hundreds walking down this path are safer because of it. There’s an inspiring affirmation in that little patch beneath our feet for all of us, especially someone like Lynne who is pursuing chaplaincy.
    All those lessons — those prayers, really — are embodied in a small rectangle of asphalt most of us would completely overlook.

    For some, despite the relatively short duration of this spiritual experiment, the visions were absolutely amazing! Perhaps it was that  Michelle Fitzgerald, 20, a Central Michigan University student in Spanish and social work, was still grieving from the loss of a grandfather recently. Perhaps her vision was especially acute — especially sensitive to the world’s spiritual possibilities — but she captured one of the day’s most mesmerizing images.
    “This is an empty bus stop because I’m feeling quite empty right now. My Grandpa just died. I feel as though the world is moving all around me and yet I’m somehow empty. I was close to him and I miss him,” she said.
    And yet —
    And yet — if you look closely at the bus stop — reflected images of Michelle and one of the other young pilgrims are there in the left-hand glass panel of the bus stop — their visual essence hanging there in the glass, captured by the camera and spread to the whole world today via this Internet story.
    “It’s very haunting,” Michelle said. “The bus stop is empty, yet really — I am there — and with a friend, too.”

Sari Brown, 21, a comparative religion major at Marlboro College in Vermont, was one of the few pilgrims who tackled the most challenging spiritual work of all: In addition to looking deep into the landscape — and peering deep into her own spirit — Sari peered into the lives of other people.
    Her multiply faceted vision resulted in this photo of a busy woman hurrying past a cheerful street musician — trying her best to avoid contact with the man.
    “There’s so much going on here,” Sari said. “There’s this woman with her brisk gate trying to ignore what’s going on all around her. And there’s this guy playing his music, trying to reach out.”
    Here’s what made Sari’s photograph transcendent. At first glance, you may think of this photo as a two-dimensional moral metaphor.
    No. Sari said, “The truth here is: I am both of them.”
    She explained: “Sometimes I’m the man. Sometimes I’m the lady. Sometimes I’m both at the same time. I have all of these philosophies in my life about love and compassion — and yet — you know — you know, a lot of the time I’m too caught up in my own little freaking errands of the day and I’m rushing right past –“
    Right past the world.
    Right past the community.
    Right past herself.

Finally, how could a collection of spiritual images in the summer of 2008 be complete without a “Wall.E” image?
    Kim Bos, 21, captured this photograph. She’s a senior at Michigan State University in a wide-ranging program with a dual major involving, in part, international relations and Middle East women’s studies.
    “Where I am spiritually is: Growing against the odds. So, I was seeing things everywhere that are not supposed to be growing where they’re growing,” she said.
    “I’m a plucky little plant — regardless of what happens,” she said. “I’ll grow.”

AND SO should we all, hmmm? So should we all.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK! And, if you care to express yourself visually — as these 10 young adults did — then send us a photo from your summer journeys that is meaningful to you. Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal reflections — but our readers enjoy them as well.

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