This week, we’re focusing on heroes. Follow us through the week and you’ll learn a whole lot more than you might imagine. Oh, the places we’ll take you this week! We’ll rove from America’s heartland to China, from the tale of a young hero to a conversation with a noble old prophet on Wednesday who still is jousting with giants about the meaning of faith.
All I can say this week is: Stay tuned!
TODAY, I’m pleased to introduce a young hero. At least, in my book, Matthew Streib “had” me with these lines in the introduction to his brand-new Web site, American Pilgrimage:
“Everyone always leaves America to find spirituality. From Delhi and Jerusalem to Guadeloupe and Lourdes, there are guides and travelogues and voyagers who have found themselves, found their ancestors, or found God.
“But what about our country?”
Well, in each new age, we need new heroes like Matthew, who at 26 has set off on his bicycle to chronicle America’s spiritual nooks and crannies.
Such a voyage launched my own career in journalism. More than 30 years ago, during America’s bi-centennial, I set off around North America for months of travel by bus (and occasionally by boat and by thumb) and, since the Web hadn’t been developed in 1976, I chronicled my adventures as a series of weekly columns for the Flint Journal.
There have been other similar pilgrims. When writing in this mode, we’re actually part of a wonderfully rich genre in American letters. In fact, if you’ve got a favorite roving hero from America’s past — send me an Email. I’d love to hear from you on this theme. We’re assembling another Reader Roundup page for Friday, so get me your note in the next couple of days.
But, let’s jump into our week right now with a letter specially written from the road by this young hero for ReadTheSpirit …
An Epistle from Matthew
on his American Pilgrimage
As a child, I never had a faith of my own. My parents were agnostic and incurious about religion. God was never discussed. When I first looked for any religious text, all I could find was an old Oxford Annotated Bible in the basement that my mother had used for a class in college.
But I’ve always felt called to faith, and since I was 13, I’ve been on a journey to find a tradition that I can call home. From attending Jewish Shabbat and Catholic Mass with high school friends to eventual degrees in religion and its history, I am on a path of constant learning about interpretations of God. And because of my upbringing, I feel like a blank slate that is being filled.
This has brought me to my present pilgrimage, a seven-month exploration of American faith with nothing but a bicycle, a backpack and my essential equipment. I am visiting religious sites that are vibrant, compelling, and show the unique complexities of Americans’ connection with the divine.
When many people think of pilgrimages to find God, they think of travel to the Old World, to Mecca and Jerusalem, Tibet and Lourdes, the foundations of faith. But America has so much to offer that is often overlooked.
Few other countries can rival the amount of faiths that have arisen and thrived in America, from the Church of Latter Day Saints to Shambhala Buddhism to the Shakers. The United States, a melting pot without a state church, has been host to constant questioning, restructuring and revelations, with periodic Great Awakenings adding new ideas and perspectives to the mix.
I seek to find out why America is so special and unique, and remains a dynamic incubator of religious innovation. Granted, polls from places such as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that increasingly, Americans are choosing categories such as “no religion” to describe their faith. While many interpret that as stagnation and atheism, it’s really just a symptom of a greater change.
In the month that I’ve traveled so far, I’ve found Jews at a Quaker gathering, Methodists at a Mormon pageant, and Church of Christ members at a Buddhist retreat. Even at diners, campsites and rest stops, I rarely encounter someone who doesn’t have a story about their faith, even if they don’t subscribe to a religion. Americans aren’t losing their faith, they’re rediscovering it in new ways and they don’t know how to categorize it.
During my pilgrimage, I visit at least one new site every week, and plan to see most of the country and almost every faith I can think of by the time I’m done. And on my blog and in my podcasts, I’m trying to package my journey in such a way that others can experience the richness that this country offers.
Every week, be it acting out a scene with Mormon actors, chanting Buddhist mantras to gong accompaniment, or exploring Catholic crypts, I am constantly questioning and reexamining what it means to be close to God.
I may never find the tradition that suits me perfectly, but I take comfort in the fact that I am trying. And, as many religions say, the path is just as important as the destination.
CARE TO READ MORE?
- Visit American Pilgrimage yourself to follow Matthew’s journeys and stories.
- You might enjoy jumping back and challenging yourself to our Quiz on Pilgrimage.
- One of our more popular reader-participation stories was about taking a Pilgrimage to IKEA.
- And, among our more ambitious series at ReadTheSpirit is our five-part Pilgrimage to Iona.
- Please — tell us about pilgrim stories that have touched your life — or about your own pilgrimages. We love to hear from you here at the Home Office, and more importantly than that — other readers love to hear from you.
- COME BACK TOMORROW for Hero quizzes — plural.
- AND, TIVO A GREAT FILM: We’re recommending a PBS “POV” documentary Tuesday night, “9 Story Hotel,” and if you’re using a Tivo to record it — here’s the Web link to set your Tivo for “9 Story Hotel.” We’ll tell you more about the film on Tuesday.
SO, please — tell us what you think. Click on the “Comment” link below — or you can always Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.