A week after returning from an Atlantic Institute-sponsored trip to Turkey I feel like I'm returning to normalcy in life, but I know in my heart that I am forever changed. I am cleaner, fresher, spiritually renewed. The immediacy of this energy may fade, but the experiences of openness, of vulnerability, of intimate sharing with fellow pilgrims will echo for the rest of my life.
As with my previous trip to Turkey with the Atlantic Institute, the ten day trip was packed with action from dawn to dusk - often much later! - and our adventures were culturally and historically incredibly rich. But this intense exploration was much more than an educational trip: it was the context for deep and powerful human interaction, conversation, and spiritual journeying.
Our traveling group of eleven was racially and culturally diverse and comprised four Muslims (a Serb and a Bosnian among them), four Christian ministers, a TV channel COO, a Mormon and Buddhist. We started with a couple of days in Istanbul where we visited the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya, and the Blue Mosque, and where I received my first Communion, administered in the parish church of Pope John XXIII by the Catholic pastor traveling with us; from there we caught a boat to Bursa to spend a day looking at the sights and visiting the silk market; and from there a long and late night bus ride took us to Izmir, our base for visiting Ephesus and environs. We flew from there to Cappadocia, which is one of the most bizarre and incredible places I've ever been, and after a hot-air-balloon ride, we returned to Istanbul to visit organizations and go shopping in the Grand Bazaar. We packed a lot into our time together.
And it would have been exhausting were it not so rich in conversation and cultural exchange. Our travels included two dinners hosted in Turkish homes, both very different socially and culturally, but both incredibly rich in warmth, hospitality and love. It included a profoundly moving visit to a school where we were welcomed into the political and cultural situation as well as into classrooms and the cafeteria where we experienced the wonder of joyful and loving youth. It also included joining our Muslim brothers and sisters in prayer at local mosques, an experience which was transformational for many among us, most notably the women and one of the Christian ministers who variously found the spiritual connectivity and the warmth and friendship of the mosque community mind-blowing. These experiences, combined with long hours together, opened our hearts to incredibly intimate conversation. We learned of the strength and autonomy experienced by two of our travelers when they each made the decision to cover (ie wear the Muslim shawl); we heard heartbreaking stories of exclusion from our Mormon traveler, but also learned of the beauty and incredible compassion of his faith tradition; and our African American travelers - both ministers - led a group conversation about the experience of being black in America.
I return renewed in my faith, my spiritual practice, my whole life. My commitment to my own path of meditation is stronger, and I am also renewed in experiencing the power of Muslim prayer, of the Qur'an, of Ramadan (which will soon be upon us), and in my commitment to visit the churches of my new friends and worship with them. Above all I am committed to continue the work of creating environments for us to really get to know people who are not like us, and to experience the awe and joy of being part of a vast and diverse human family. As one of the travelers wrote in a recent email, "The beauty of God is drawing us into a closeness that causes us to feel free to feel. How else can we explain adults crying in front of people they only just met?"
- Written by Gareth Young, Visit his blog www.garethjyoung.com
Gareth Young was drawn to spirituality in the late 1990's at the height of a successful twenty-year career in finance and M&A. He left the corporate world in 2006 to pursue both independent business livelihood and his spiritual path. In addition to becoming a successful entrepreneur, Mr. Young is one of the founding members of the Red Clay Sangha, an Atlanta Buddhist community, and is very involved in interfaith activities, currently serving as president of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. He is an author whose credits include two novels, "The Grace of Guilt," and "An Unexamined Life," a contribution to "Sacred Spaces," along with his weekly blog, Interfaith and Spirituality. He also has as several other writing credits and books in process.