For the better part of the last week, I have been on a pilgrimage with 18 youth and 4 other adults from Plymouth and Greeley First Congregational. The idea for this trip was born out of last year’s Confirmation class and my experience in my Pilgrimage class at Iliff. Our time was equal parts experiential learning, spiritual practicing, and (not enough) sleeping. We learned from and served with different communities in search of new or different expressions of the Divine Mystery. Ultimately, our hope was to foster deeper experiences of God for all participants on the trip. Now, I want to share some highlights of what we did.
We drove down to Crestone, where we were greeted with extravagant hospitality from Rev. Melissa and the Little Shepherd in the Hills Episcopal Church. We learned that Crestone is a town of 120 people, settled in Colorado’s geographically largest but demographically poorest Saguache county. Crestone is a funky little place, with no stoplights or restaurants and dozens of spiritual or religious centers. Decades ago, Crestone donated their land to religious communities who promised to show the world a better way of neighboring, and it became the spiritual hub it is today. Half of us slept in Little Shepherd’s historic log cabin chapel, and the other half slept in their fellowship hall. They let us use their kitchen, and all 23 of us shared their single bathroom.
After settling in, we went to the Tashi Gomang Stupa. There are at least seven Stupas around Crestone, but this one is the largest and highest Stupa, offering beautiful views of the San Luis valley and a reverent meditative atmosphere. We learned about how people from the nearby Zen Center hike up to the Stupa each morning for meditation.
Later that night, we hiked up to the Crestone Ziggurat for some stargazing. The Ziggurat had been built in the 70s by the father of the Queen of Jordan to be a place for personal prayer and meditation. The night we were there was clear and stunning. Many of our students had never seen that many stars. Personally, I’ve only seen the Milky Way that clearly a small handful of times.
Question: if we started each day with such intentional practice, how would it change the way we live our whole lives?
First thing in the morning, we went to visit the MahaLakshmi Temple. Again, we were embraced with radical hospitality. We learned about their daily fire ceremony, engaged in some community service - cleaning, strawberry-picking, carrying fire wood, shop-keeping - and they fed us both breakfast and lunch. The fresh strawberries at lunch were just magical. One student said they tasted like sunshine. After spending a good deal of time with the community there, I was struck by their devotion to daily worship, spiritual practice, and universal welcome.
We left the Lakshmi temple and went straight to visit the volunteers at the Crestone End of Life Project. They run the only open air funeral pyre in the country. This project and these people deal with death in a way that is altogether sacred, celebrant, reverent, and joyful. At the end of my life, I just might move to Crestone so that I can be sent off by COELP.
Question: how can our churches embody the same radical engagement and nuanced approach to life and death?
We spent the morning packing, cleaning, and working in Little Shepherd’s community garden. Several of the church members came to teach us how to garden. We prepped buckets of produce for the community food bank. One of Melissa’s congregants donated some of their local beef, and we used that and greens from the garden to make a taco bar for lunch. We offered our thanks and our goodbyes. Then we hit the road for Santa Fe, where we enjoyed an authentic New Mexican dinner at Tomasita’s before getting to the United Church of Santa Fe.
United is a UCC church that started in the 80s, and Rev. Talitha Arnold has been with them almost since their beginning. She welcomed us in with a tour of the building, teaching us about how they have intentionally created their sacred church spaces to center the natural sacred environment of Santa Fe. They have a water feature in their sanctuary, which is adorned with wood and adobe bricks and bright windows. A walking path takes you all the way around the church, where they have several different spaces dedicated to outdoor worship services.
Question: how do our sacred spaces and practices connect us to our environment?
We joined United for an outdoor communion service. Some of our students got to read different parts of the liturgy. Immediately following, we were invited to watch their summer choir rehearse, which was a total gift. Together, we reflected on how United is different from Plymouth and First Cong Greeley. Rev. Talitha offered a sermon that encouraged us to find God in the Body of Christ, that is, the people of God who are the Church.
That afternoon, we explored Meow Wolf. One of our students was able to crack the entire story - and if you’re familiar with Meow Wolf, you know that takes some work and lots of imagination. When we got back to the church, we journaled about finding the sacred in the creative artistry of that exhibit.
Question: where are the most unexpected places that you have found God?
The Poeh Cultural Center tells the story of the Tewa People, the Spanish and Catholic colonization of New Mexico, and the Pueblo Revolution - the first fight for freedom in North America. This story is not told in many of our history books, but it gives important context for the cultural and religious landscape that today’s America was built on. Later, when we visited the Santa Fe Plaza, we were standing on the same ground where the Pueblo Revolution was won. Their story was told through native art like paintings, clothing, pottery, clay figures, and animation.
After our time with the people at the Poeh Cultural Center, we made it to the Santuario at Chimayo. The students described this place as “heavy” and “peaceful.” There are photos and crosses and candles all over the grounds, each representing thousands of prayers. The dirt is holy. And again, there was art everywhere - statues, stained glass, mosaics, paintings, and wood figures to name a few. We learned about Guadalupe and saw how Chimayo is a spiritual pilgrimage place for Vietnamese, Native, Mexican, and Western Christians.
That evening, we visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. These grounds were also fully decorated with statues, mosaics, and stunning architecture. Through the whole day, especially following some of the religious motifs I had noticed at Meow Wolf the day before, I was moved by the devotion, care, and attention given toward creating and maintaining the beauty of these spaces.
Question: where do we see our Creator in what we create?
We packed up and cleaned up first thing in the morning. United is one of the most simply beautiful churches I have ever got to spend time in, and we were so grateful to have their hospitality. We loaded up and visited the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market before hitting the road.
There are plenty of other things I didn’t write about here - we went to the Sand Dunes, swam in some pools, danced downtown, and ate SO much good food. We also spent time each day doing contemplative practices together. Arguably, the most important aspect of a pilgrimage is the communitas - and these students built a special community that laughed and played and screamed and cried and prayed and will be with them for a long time.
Thank you, Plymouth, for making experiences like this possible. We are cultivating a beautiful future Church.