The 2023 youth pilgrimage to Juneau, Alaska, will always have a special place in my heart for numerous reasons. To begin with, the location of The Shrine of Therese was the site of my son Nelson’s pilgrimage in 2013, which I was unable to attend. Having the opportunity to go 10 years later felt like a gift to my soul. As youth director at Trinity for the past 25 years, leading 13 youth pilgrimages, I have been to many different spiritual sites, but the Shrine is one of the most beautiful and spiritual places. Why, you ask? The abundant natural beauty with whales and sea lions swimming within view of our lodge, the stone labyrinth just outside our front door, and the snow-covered mountains across the bay are just a few of the abundant “God moments” we encountered. It is easy to feel close to God at the Shrine.
The youth program at Trinity follows a set structure, with two years in Rite-13 and two years in Journey-to-Adulthood (J2A). A set of dedicated adults–parishioner volunteers–commit to lead the group for the full four years of each cohort’s program, which culminates in a spiritual pilgrimage. As Mother Julia said at our pilgrimage presentation this past Sunday, it is truly a gift to have people who are so invested in the formation of young people. Church provides a unique environment for adults who are not their parents or their teachers to give them counsel and a safe space to ask big questions as they mature and grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Jim Maher, who has been in youth ministry with me for 25 years, was one of the J2A leaders scheduled to go on this pilgrimage. However, he passed away from a courageous battle with cancer last fall. It is truly heartbreaking that Jim, a person who found God in the great outdoors wherever he traveled, was unable to go to such a beautiful place to experience God’s creation. We all missed having him with us, though it is clear his leadership with this group in the three years prior to his untimely passing had a big impact. Some of the teens were able to attend Jim’s funeral, and all of them were gifted a “bee kind” button by Jim’s family from the memorial service. Each day of the pilgrimage, they wore their buttons in honor of Jim.
On every pilgrimage, there is an ah-hah moment where a pilgrim “gets it.” This is the moment when they realize the purpose of the trip or the love of God or each other. At the very end of our pilgrimage, a teen approached me at 4:30am as we were about to leave for the airport to travel back to Indianapolis. He asked if he could place his “bee kind” button on the stone labyrinth. With that heart-felt gesture, Jim was given a space at the Shrine.
It is a deep blessing to spend eight days in community with teens and adult leaders on a spiritual pilgrimage as they find a connection with God’s love and with each other.