Does social media change the terms of youth pilgrimage?

With summer on, many Episcopal parishes, including mine, have sent or will soon be sending teenagers on “pilgrimage.” Our youth group is in San Francisco for a week, visiting tourist sites and sacred spaces. I’ve been pondering how social media has changed the terms of this rite of passage, in that parents, friends and our entire congregation can keep up with every move these kids make, via Facebook, a blog they’ve created, email, video clips and Twitter.

And parents and friends are busy posting good wishes and advice to these teens on a near hourly basis. Does all this day-to-day, hour-by-hour communication with the folks back home dilute the experience of pilgrimage? Isn’t part of the point of such a journey to be separate, to find God in the unfamiliar, to grow in healthy ways away from home and family as part of the path to adulthood?

Similarly, to what extent are we changing the experience of church camp through Facebook, e-mail and Twitter?

I welcome your thoughts.

Comments (6)

Separation from parents can be done in a healthy way AND add to the experience. A pilgrim who's so homesick that he or she can't participate/concentrate might need to touch with home or, in the extremes of the moment, work with adult sponsors on a plan to get home.

Does the presence of social media mean that a process is "too open"? Well, I'm not sure how closed we want to be. Also, being connected to the technology is like an as-it-happens commercial for what the church is about doing.

On the other hand, group cohesion sometimes calls for an embargo of a time certain. If these times are understood and practiced with mutuality and care, a group of disparate persons can become a functioning unit.

On the remaining (third) hand, access to the technology is often the first common denominator, at least for many youth, at least around here anyway, and that's the easiest way to build the group. I can't imagine doing diocesan camp last year with high-schoolers without the defining moments of "Show me a picture of your family" or "What's your Twitter handle?" These moments facilitated friendships and mentoring that continue.

Torey Lightcap

When we were kids, we welcomed the time away from parents, home, etc. Cell phones are great for an emergency, but they do not need to go everywhere and be turned on 24/7. Parents do not need to be sending messages to their kids 24/7. Cut the cord, people. Let the kids experience life. Leave the cellphones, laptops, iPads, etc. home. As long as the chaperones have a phone for an emergency, that is all that is necessary.

A pilgrimage or retreat is just that. A time to get away, and spend time looking within. I'm going on retreat in a few weeks, and I won't be taking anything electronic with me at all. When I was a kid, we didn't have electronics and we survived fine :) Turn the bloody things off!

I wonder what makes one thing a pilgrimage as opposed to a group trip. I hear the word pilgrimage used to cover a variety of excursions and travels. What makes a pilgrimage different from all other types of trips?

The technology genie is out of the bottle, and there's no sense wishing to turn back time. The on-site, up-to-the minute reports do provide loved ones and funders with news as it happens. Lots of little moments get shared that might otherwise be forgotten.

Speaking as someone who had a chance in 1975 to live for a few months with a family as an exchange student, I'm a little sorry for young adults who live with the expectation of the 24-hour news feed. I do recall the strangeness of the first day or two, the sense of isolation at not being able to speak the language, and the bemusement of my host family, who probably were wondering what they'd let themselves in for. If I'd been able to instant-message my parents during those first hours, would that have been helpful? Maybe. Instead, I had to figure out a way so soothe myself and tune into my host family. I learned a surprising amount of the language in a short time because that was my outlet for communication. I did keep a journal, and I think that I probably wrote more because I knew that I could edit and select what to share with family and friends. When I wrote letters home, I had to sit and reflect on the stories I was telling, and they had at least a small amount of insight and analysis. This selectivity isn't the opposite of "openness;" I wasn't keeping secrets. But it meant that my parents and friends didn't get my first, visceral reactions to new foods, sights, and smells. They got the "It tasted funny the first time, but now I kind of like it" perspective.

Even a few years ago, when technology was available but not ubiquitous, I found that during a six-month trip it was a blessing to be out of Internet and cell phone range. In remote areas, I had to focus on the people I was visiting, not the way of life I'd left behind. I prayed regularly and systematically for people at home, as they prayed for me. I can't imagine traveling overseas without access to telecommunications now - it wouldn't be practical - but an important part of foreign travel for me has always been the quality and closeness of friendships with the people I meet while I'm away, as well as the sense of soul-connection (feeling their presence even when we can't talk or message) with friends at home.

My biggest question is whether the introduction of easy, cheap, and constant communication changes the nature of a stay abroad. It sounds as if the focus is now on communicating with the folks at home and bonding with fellow group members from one's own culture, rather than with residents of the host country. If my impression is true, then I think that's a big loss.

I don't know how it would feel to be one of the pilgrims, and I understand what you are getting at. But I do think connecting the wider church community in the way is a very good thing. The youngsters are part of that wider group whether they are at home or away, and it's good for both sides to enhance that connection. Social media provide a wonderful way to that.

Cathy Kerr

Social media contact on "pilgrimage":
Most of the commenters seem to agree that it's not a bad thing, and I don't disagree. Some mentioned putting genies back in bottles, and I think most of us would agree that's pretty impossible.

Liz hit the nail on the head by asking if our modern version isn't more of a group trip.

Does the immediate communication of social media/the internet dilute the pilgrim experience? No. We've diluted the experience by diluting the definition of the word. Pilgrimage was conceived to describe a weeks or months long trip, typically made as a supplicant or a thanks-bearer to an impossibly remote site and typically in the company of other pilgrims that one did not know prior to the trip. Hopping a jet for a few hours to visit another modern city with internet connectivity is hardly walking to Compostela, or the Holy Land. The essence of the word lies in the journey and how one undertakes it.

We could learn from the Muslims here, I think. When they make pilgrimage, vast swaths of it are intentionally done on foot, in prayer, in the company of brothers and sisters in the faith who are knew to the pilgrim, and dressed in similar aesthetic manner, eschewing outside communication for the duration. The modern version we send our teens on may be quiet holy and beneficial and wonderful, but it's certainly something different.

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