A Journey with Our City, Ourselves, and Our God

A pilgrimage of pain and hope

by Reynolds Chapman

I live in Durham, North Carolina, and our city is trending right now. Seven years ago we started to hear the buzz about the accolades we were achieving from travel magazines and food blogs, and I would refer people to a one-pager with all our awards. Now there’s a website with a running stream of accolades containing a full page of new kudos for each month. What’s bringing people to Durham? As our Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tagline suggests, we are “Fresh Daily.” We love new things. We herald a hub of entrepreneurs, universities with cutting-edge research, a creative class burgeoning in the aesthetic of old tobacco warehouses, and a redeveloping downtown with a cascade of restaurants lining the main streets.

But people who look a little more closely notice the “Tale of Two Durhams.” As the downtown experiences a renaissance and the nearby neighborhoods gentrify, the people who can’t afford to live or eat in the city center are displaced. The influx of jobs and new residences disproportionately go to white residents over people of color. For a city that was designated by the Daily Beast as our country’s “most tolerant,” some wonder if perhaps we should be less tolerant of the disparities that exist under the surface. If Durham’s going to thrive, they want it to thrive for everybody. They also know there’s a larger story that has shaped the city Durham is today. And whether people are new to Durham or whether they have lived here their whole lives, there is a spirit of curiosity about how Durham’s past has led to its present.

Room for the Church to Grow

I direct the nonprofit DurhamCares, where our mission is to mobilize residents to love their neighbors. A year ago, the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School asked if we would partner with them on leading a Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. It would be an opportunity where Durham residents could dig deeper into the story of Durham, below the surface of the rustic apartments and newest breweries. Instead of going to a distant land, pilgrims would take a focused spiritual journey in the place we call home. It would be shaped by our Christian tradition, recognizing that in our world of theories and abstractions, the church has much room to grow in becoming a placed people. We at DurhamCares didn’t hesitate to say yes, thinking “What better way to mobilize people to love their city than to help them know and understand their city?”

The concept of the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope was developed by Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor who served churches during Apartheid in the 1980s. In his book, A Mile in My Shoes, Hudson tells of how he was burdened to expose his sheltered congregation to the suffering of people under Apartheid’s rule. The most Christ-like leaders who had shaped his spiritual growth, such as Desmond Tutu and Dorothy Day, were people in close relationship with those who suffered. But he knew his congregation couldn’t come with a conventional posture. They needed to “come as pilgrims, not as tourists; as learners, not as teachers; as receivers, not as givers; as listeners, not as talkers.”

Hudson identified three essential pilgrimage ingredients: encounter, reflection and transformation. Pilgrims would encounter places and people who would witness to both the pain caused by oppression in South Africa and their hope and resilience in its midst. They would reflect on their encounters so they could avoid quick assumptions and listen to how God was shaping them through the experience. And ultimately, the pilgrims hoped to return transformed.

Hudson’s vision came to Durham when the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School led a Durham-focused pilgrimage for students ten years ago. A few of us who are now part of DurhamCares and the Center for Reconciliation had participated and been deeply transformed by it. In the years that followed, the Center for Reconciliation led pilgrimages in Uganda, Richmond and Baltimore. But a regular opportunity for people in Durham to be on pilgrimage in their own city was elusive. So we decided to pick up the mantle.

When we began creating the format and methodology, it was a priority for us to embody the values we sought to cultivate in the pilgrimage experience. Our first activity was putting our feet on the ground by going on a pilgrimage together through a neighborhood in Durham. We took our time with the pace of our planning, considering all the experiences and stories of each of the people in our organizations. We took a retreat together for reflection and sharing. Out of our time together we reaffirmed Hudson’s overarching values of encounter, reflection and transformation while also adding the values of place and story.

Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

In addition to the values, we came up with the structure and schedule for the Pilgrimage.
The Pilgrimage consists of two major components: the Pilgrimage Weekend and Pilgrim Journey Discussions. The Pilgrimage Weekend runs from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. We hear the story of the Eno and Occaneechi Native American tribes in Durham; we visit historic Stagville, North Carolina’s largest plantation at 30,000 acres and enslaving 2,000–3,000 people over the span of its history and funding many of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill’s original institutions; we spend half a day downtown visiting streets, buildings and homes that have shaped the city’s history; we hear from civil rights leaders who organized protests in the 1950s and are still living in Durham today; we hear from business leaders of Durham’s Hayti community, a prominent black community dubbed “Black Wall Street” in its heyday but destroyed by the building of the Durham Freeway; we worship at a historic church; we hear the story of the Latino Community Credit Union; and we finish the weekend with a panel of leaders to talk about the pain and hope in Durham now.

While the sites and speakers allow pilgrims to experience the tangible contours of Durham, the pilgrimage is incomplete without space for reflection. Throughout the weekend, pilgrims eat meals together to build community and make sense of what they are encountering. They read passages from Scripture and are prompted with questions both systemic and personal. The central question is this: How are Durham’s story, your story, and God’s story connected? It’s a question that moves us to reckon with the realities of our city, search ourselves to see our own place in it, and affirm that God is in the midst of the city, both in the most painful places and in the most hopeful.

The Pilgrim Journey Discussions are gatherings for two weeks prior to the Pilgrimage Weekend and three weeks following. The transformation that pilgrimage seeks requires intentional preparation and continued reflection. This reminds pilgrims that the Pilgrimage is not a one-time experience, but rather a way of life. The Pilgrim Journey Discussions serve as an on-ramp from everyday life into the Pilgrimage Weekend and an off-ramp back.

And as the pilgrims hear one another wrestle with their own stories in light of their encounters, they lean into each other, creating and receiving community through their journey together.

What do we hope will come from the Pilgrimage? Like Trevor Hudson, we want to see transformation. While transformation cannot be engineered, the Pilgrimage sets a context that allows individuals to be transformed in their encounters and reflections. But the vision is beyond individual transformation; we hope that when residents of our city grow in cultivating pilgrimage as a way of life, our faith communities, our neighborhoods, and our institutions will be transformed and that people will live with intentionality around connecting God’s story, Durham’s story, and their own stories.

After leading three pilgrimages, we have indeed seen transformation. Visiting the sites generates frequent comments of, “I never realized this was right in my own city.” Connecting the history and current issues compels people to be more engaged in their community. The living and active power of the biblical story is kindled when it’s read in the context of Durham’s story. But perhaps more than anything, the greatest transformation comes through the conversations and relationships that are built throughout the journey. The Pilgrimage is no more than 20 people from different ages, ethnicities, denominations, and tenures in Durham. And as the pilgrims hear one another wrestle with their own stories in light of their encounters, they lean into each other, creating and receiving community through their journey together.

One of the gifts of the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope is that it is not limited to one context. It’s possible that you may be able to lead a Pilgrimage in your own context. When we designed our methodology, we made it so that others might be able to use it in other places. But before you begin, take ample time to listen to God, to your community, and to yourself. It is not something that can be entered lightly. But when a group of people intentionally encounter their city with a posture of listening and learning, it has the power to transform us and our communities.


For more information on the pilgrimage or about creating a pilgrimage in your context:

Contact Reynolds Chapman at rchapman@durhamcares.org

Visit the DurhamCares website

Watch their pilgrimage video

Read reflections from two pilgrims here.

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