Mark Twain’s famous line about travel has popped up on my Facebook feed a number of times over the past few months: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” The quote comes across as a slightly less offensive and more erudite way of telling people to “get out more.” I happen to agree whole-heartedly with Twain’s sentiment. The scope of our experiences create the lens through which we view and interpret the world, and in that vein, travel, whether it is across the world or across town, can be an indispensable shaper of our worldview. As much as we wish our opinions were formed by indisputable logic or our theology shaped by perfect renderings of Scripture, this truth is inescapable: who you’ve met, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen has immense sway on how you exist in the world.
Everyone’s account of life is, to borrow language from Emily Dickinson, an account told slant, and I think we’d do well to remember this truth. Healthy dialogue amongst people who disagree seems to be an endangered species of discussion. Conversations escalate into arguments, and we either cover our ears or raise our voices. In any honest and probing conversation, we hit a wall where logic and argument stops and story must begin.
For example, I cannot talk about refugees without remembering the stale air of a refugee camp in western Uganda. The camp was home to people from Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, and several other African nations. It was the most hopeless place I’ve ever been. Calling this place a “camp” makes it sound temporary, as if in a few years, the thousands of refugees would be able to get on with their lives. That wasn’t the case. There was no sense that anything would ever change for these families who had fled violence, war, and famine. Each family was given a small plot of land that was not arable. Bags of flour, rice, and beans were rationed out for each family depending upon how many children they had. They spent their days on patches of unusable land in a country where they did not speak the language, did not know the geography, and had no means or legal status through which to better themselves. Living in this refugee camp was one step above death. Meeting refugees and hearing their stories confirmed this. They had escaped life-threatening situations only to end up confined to a rectangle of dust.
“What are you going to do for us?” one refugee from Sudan asked. “Groups like you come every day, but you do nothing.” His honesty left me speechless. Whenever refugees come up in conversation, I cannot help but think of that visit; I cannot help but hear this desperate father’s voice, saying “you do nothing.”
Concerning another current event, I can’t think about the Israel/Palestine conflict without the voice of a woman named Nadia in my ear. In seminary, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. We spent a portion of the trip staying with Palestinian Christian families in Bethlehem, and our hostess was Nadia, the matriarch of the family. Her house was decorated, like my own grandmother’s, with ornate picture frames displaying her grandkids. On the night we arrived, Nadia’s husband, a hunched man with a thick mustache, walked out of his bedroom in a night gown to greet us and have tea. Their son Rami lived with them. Rami was blind, laughed loudly, and spoke impeccable English and German.
We went to the Church of the Resurrection on that trip and kissed the slab of marble covering the tomb. We spent time praying on the hillside where Jesus may have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. But Christ was nearest, I believe, in the tea we shared with Nadia and Rami. Today, my perspective on what peace in Israel/Palestine looks like must take into account the conversation I shared with Nadia and Rami and the hospitality I felt staying under their roof.
And again, when the consequences of nuclear proliferation became a recent conversation with a friend, my mind immediately went to an experience in Hiroshima, Japan. Hiroshima is the city that was levelled by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States during World War II. A museum at the center of the city is filled with debris from that day: metal buttons that hadn’t incinerated with the rest of the clothing, warped steel from the four-figure heat of the blast, diagrams showing how an atomic bomb works over time. A red orb dangles ominously over a replica of the old city. It demonstrates how the bomb detonated so that it would result in mass casualties. Walking through that museum changed me.
Today, the city of Hiroshima is dedicated to peace. It is one of the loudest advocates for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, because it knows firsthand the horror of nuclear warfare. Meeting people from Hiroshima who tell the stories of the bomb’s lingering physical and psychological effects impacted my view of nuclear proliferation. Obviously, one doesn’t need to see Hiroshima firsthand to support non-proliferation. But experiencing that city had an unmistakable impression on me.
Finally, I’ve had the incredible privilege of traveling far and wide, but perhaps the most important trips I take are to Garfield Park every Monday. Garfield Park is one of those neighborhoods in Chicago that most people avoid. It is only 20 minutes down the Green Line, but it is a world away. Traveling there is a spiritual discipline. I know that if I do not travel to the parts of Chicago that only make headlines for their sins, I will never have the experience of meeting the men and women who remind me that even in Garfield Park, bad is outnumbered by good ten to one.
The experiences we have color our perspective of the world. Therefore, we ought to cultivate experiences that foster empathy, compassion, and understanding. We rarely think of experiences as things we can steward. Experiences just happen to us! But many of us have the ability to travel to unfamiliar parts of town, to sit with people and hear their stories, to put ourselves in the path of encounters that will challenge and change us.
Nadia’s house, the refugee camp, Hiroshima, and Garfield Park are a few of the places that shape my politics, my prayers, and my understanding of who God is and how He works in the world. You have your own stories, and they’re meant to be told. If we want to push past walls of disagreement and frustration, we will need to tell more stories.
“Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” says Dickinson.
There’s no other way.