It was the first night of a month-long, cross-country family car trip. My father, who loved to travel, hatched the idea and planned the details with the help of AAA. He and my mom bought a station wagon, topped it with a Sears luggage carrier, packed up all four kids, and headed out from North Carolina to California. I was 11 at the time.
My sister was 17. My older brother was 15, and my younger brother was 8. My parents were either crazy or saints. Maybe both.
That first night, Dad drove hard to arrive in Huntsville, Alabama, in time to see the moon landing. We made it to the house of my uncle and aunt just in time to watch the grainy pictures show up on the TV in their living room. We stared in awe as Neil Armstrong bounced around the lunar surface and made his iconic comment about a giant leap for mankind.
I’m sure the sight was particularly moving for my aunt and uncle, who both worked at NASA.
The family headed out the next morning for the rest of our adventure. I ate Mexican food for the first time in Texas before we walked into Mexico at Juarez. We visited the Grand Canyon.
We gawked at giant redwoods. As a kid, I especially was thrilled to go to Disneyland. It was the first time (but not the last) that “It’s a Small World, After All” would get looped in my brain. My sister even got an autograph from a minor soap-opera star named Mike Farrell, who would later rise to greater fame in the TV series M*A*S*H.*
In San Francisco, we visited family friends, ate Chinese food, and rode a cable car. On the way back east, we drove through Kansas where I got my first bee sting and saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
All the way, my younger brother and I played car games like “I Spy.” My older brother drove some of the long stretches of desert highway in Nevada. At several stops, my sister dyed her hair new colors. All the while, we listened to the radio, hearing songs like “In the Year 2525” and the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
Ours wasn’t a sophisticated trip. We were tourists in every stereotypical way. I even wore my Brownie camera on a string around my neck. But I am grateful that my parents valued travel and found ways, within the limited budget of a minister and a teacher with 4 kids, to make it happen. That they understood that the moon landing was important enough to build in to our trip. That I was able to learn early in life that the world was far bigger than the small town in which I lived.
I doubt that early experiences of travel destined me become a biblical scholar. But maybe they helped me to notice the differences between ancient cultures and my own and not to assume that everything in the past or the present is just like my own neighborhood. Appreciating the strangeness, the otherness, of the Bible can be a cross-cultural experience, one that can help people value difference.
I am proud that Lancaster Theological Seminary’s Leadership Now program for youth understands the power of travel to shape a life. As I write, leaders and students are travelling in Thailand. (Click here to see more images on flickr.)
I also am proud that my institution requires a cross-cultural experience of all M.Div. students. Each student must spend 3 weeks in a culture of the developing world, learning from believers in diverse political, economic, and religious settings. Recent trips have included Central America, Turkey/Lebanon, Egypt, and India.
In January, my colleague Anabel Proffitt and I will lead a group to Israel and the Occupied Territories, learning from Palestinians and Israelis committed to peace-making. It will be a far cry from Disneyland. But I thank my parents for getting me started with travel and with appreciating the diversity of the world.