Travel and Sojourning

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Friday, January 4, 2013 – flying from Minneapolis-St. Paul to London

Airplane in flight
Creative Commons (smemon87)

On Day 2 (well, that evening and into the morning of day 3, most likely) we’ll fly from MSP to London, which will be the home base for the first week of our course on World War I.

While a Delta 767 seems like a poor excuse for a classroom, and the hours of 9:30pm-6:00am (CST) a poor time for learning, I do hope students treat this journey, too, as a part of the course.

At the very least, I’ll encourage them — having just spent a day imaginatively immersing themselves in early 20th century America — to now imagine themselves in the boots of American soldiers crossing the same ocean in early 1918, en route to the Western Front. Of course, we will be traveling in much greater comfort and safety (no U-boats, though that threat had been largely neutralized by 1918) and with zero little (you never know) chance of facing a German machine gun or the Spanish flu on the other end of the journey. But some of the same emotions might be present: eagerness for adventure and exhilaration at the prospect of new experiences, intermingled with anxiety about entering the unknown.

To complicate this experiment in imagination, I’ll also point out that many American soldiers would have experienced the crossing with an ambivalence far surpassing the commonplace doubts of any soldier nearing combat for the first time:

African-American Soldiers Coming Home, 1919
African-American Soldiers Returning Home, 1919 - National Archives

• Irish Catholics draftees deeply unhappy at the prospect of fighting alongside the British, in whose empire Ireland remained, despite an abortive uprising in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916….

• Third- or fourth-generation German-Americans (a sizable share of the population in 1918) like the Gehrzes of Milwaukee, who no longer spoke German or maintained close ties to the mother country, but who knew that their very name convicted them of treason in the eyes of some countrymen….

• African-Americans, who found themselves crossing the same ocean as their enslaved ancestors in order to risk their lives for a country that treated them as separate and unequal.

And while they’re reflecting on the perspective of these different immigrant groups, I might further ask students to consider how the very act of travel itself has changed drastically in recent decades.

In the 1870s and 1880s all of my mother’s great-grandparents left Sweden and traveled thousands of miles to places like Lund, Wisconsin and Paxton, Illinois, in search of better economic opportunities than the rocky lands and short growing seasons of Scandinavia could provide. Many of my colleagues and students at Bethel have ancestors who (unlike my Lutheran and Mission Covenant forebears) rejected the baptism of infants central to life under a state church, encountered some amount of persecution, and sought religious liberty in the New World. Whatever the cause, these Swedes’ migrations added them to the long list of peoples throughout history who have found it necessary or desirable to uproot and start new lives in new locales. Or been forced to uproot and start new lives (like the ancestors of the African-American soldiers pictured above).

As staunch evangelicals, these Petersons, Andersons, Nelsons, and Larsons in my family tree inherited the concerns of a 16th century German monk-professor named Martin Luther, whose life changed dramatically when his abbot sent him on a months-long walk to Rome. While most such trips have not led to the kind of profound disillusionment that embittered this particular pilgrim’s memories of the shrines he visited, pilgrimage has been a deeply meaningful (not to mention difficult and dangerous) form of travel for Christians and other religious groups for centuries.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela - Creative Commons (sedoglia)

To some degree, all Christian pilgrims can experience what Presbyterian pastor Blair Bertrand said of his journey to Santiago de Compostela: “…contemplating the Psalms, talking with my fellow pilgrims, visiting Gothic cathedrals, and seeing the natural beauty of Spain all pointed to a reality greater than what sits in front of me each day…. We were in some sense journeying toward God and God’s Kingdom.” (quoted in Tony Jones’ The Sacred Way)

For migrants and pilgrims alike, “going home” doesn’t mean what it did before. Instead, both types of travel ultimately remind Christians of one of their oldest identities: we are sojourning in this world as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11), since “here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14).

So I will suggest that students consider treating what they’re doing in this January term as an act of pilgrimage — an external manifestation of the interior journey that begins when anyone joins Jesus on the Emmaus Road and becomes a person “of the Way,” seeking truth in the person of Jesus Christ. They might not find much that seems redemptive or holy in the story of World War I, but they may well find Christ, since he was certainly present in the trenches we’ll walk through, where soldiers awaited death and suffered pain (as he had), and in the cemeteries we’ll visit, where people mourned the wrenching loss of family and friends (as he had). And they may get a vision of a “reality greater than what sits in front” of them in the Midwestern suburbs.

And even if students decline that suggestion, at the very least I hope they don’t treat a study course as an act of tourism, which is how most middle- and upper-class Westerners since the Victorian Age have understood travel. It could scarcely be more different from sojourning.

View of the Eiffel Tower from a Hilton Hotel in Paris
The Eiffel Tower, as seen from a Hilton Hotel in Paris - Creative Commons (John Trainor)

Sojourning anticipates difficulty and accepts dislocation. Tourism promises pleasure, leisure, and convenience. Consider this sales pitch from advertising executive Don Draper to a fictionalized Conrad Hilton in a third season episode of Mad Men:

Rome, Tehran, Tokyo are magnificent destinations. And that’s really been the focus of almost every campaign you’ve had until now. How to lure the American traveler abroad. What more do we need than a picture of Athens to get our hearts racing. And yet the average American experiences a level of luxury that belongs only to kings in most of the world. We’re not chauvinists, we just have expectations. Well, now there’s one word that promises the thrill of international travel with the comfort of home. Hilton. “How do you say ice water in Italian? Hilton.” “How do you say fresh towels in Farsi? Hilton.” “How do you say hamburger in Japanese? Hilton.” Hilton—it’s the same in every language.

Sojourning expects no home in this world; tourism promises to replicate the traveler’s home anywhere and everywhere, ultimately reassuring her that “There’s no place like” it.

So while I want to create spaces in our itinerary to let students “see the sights,” I also want this kind of travel to be somewhat disorienting, dislocating, and disturbing — perhaps to an extent that will surprise students who simply liked the idea of spending the depths of Minnesota winter in London and Paris.

Tomorrow… We reach London, seek shelter, and visit the cinema.

<< Day 1                 >>Day 3

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