Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pilgrimage at Gettysburg: The mix of commerce and commemoration

I've always been a slow learner. I was three days into teaching summer school at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg before I realized: this is a place of pilgrimage! All week I'd dodge cars packed with tourists rubber-necking along the road that bisects campus -- this was, after all, the seminary featured in the charge at Seminary Ridge. Every morning I'd jog out Confederate Road, past monuments to the armies of Tennessee, North Carolina, Northern Virginia. This was a site of pilgrimage: I'd better check it out.

My colleague Leonard Hummel took me around the battlefield and showed me how to "read" the monuments. A square pedestal signaled a Union monument; rounded pedestals marked the monuments of the Confederacy. Officers were always on horses: if the horse had one hoof in the air, the officer had been wounded in battle; two hoofs flying meant he'd been mortally wounded; four hoofs planted firmly on the ground told us he'd lived to fight again. The battlefield read like a three-dimensional script.

Signs in town were easier to interpret: "Authentic Civil War Artifacts!" "Military Antiques!" "Ghost Stories in Haunted Cellar!" "Are Ghosts Real? The strongest emotion of mankind is fear of the unknown. Nightly Ghost Talks: 7:30pm." Gettysburg managed to be simultaneously a place of commemoration and a busy marketplace. I sat on the porch of a cafe and let it all wash over me.

Here's what I learned: Travel flirts with the unknown -- that's why we do it. There are a lot of responses appropriate to the unfamiliar. Fear is only one of them: there's' also resistance, denial, delight, hope, attention. Tourists respond to the unknown by consuming it, whether by purchasing artifacts or doing ghost walks or buying postcards. Pilgrims respond to the unknown by simply being there. It occurred to me that we'll see the same mix on the Camino, in our immersion trips to Mexico City and El Salvador, and in ourselves, as I saw on the battlefield.

It's unavoidable, but it's worth noticing.

I'm building out the distinction below between service learning, pilgrimage, and now tourism: servants go to do, tourists go to consume, and pilgrims go to receive. We'll probably do a little bit of everything; we'll probably be all three.

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