Why pilgrims flock to the Holy Land
The ongoing conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories affects not only the Muslims and Jews living there. It touches the nearly 250,000 American Christians who travel to the Holy Land every year to explore sites associated with biblical narratives.
Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage (NYU Press, 2014) is the first in-depth study of the cultural and religious significance of American Holy Land pilgrimage after 1948, and the book sheds new light on a multibillion-dollar industry that shapes how many American Christians practice their faith. Author, Hillary Kaell, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Religion, shows that contemporary pilgrimage can reveal a lot about 21st-century Christianity
Kaell — who travelled to Israel with two different groups of pilgrims and interviewed 131 individuals from across the United States before, during and after their visits to the Holy Land — allows the pilgrims to speak for themselves in her book’s pages.
The interviews with both Protestants and Catholics from different regions of the U.S. show that American Christian pilgrims share some important unifying characteristics:
- More than 70 per cent of American Christian pilgrims are female
- Nearly all are between the ages of 55 and 75
Kaell’s work reveals that these women often undertake their pilgrimage at a transitional moment in their lives — such as after the death of a spouse or post-retirement. Though women often make these journeys alone, they understand this very individual choice as an extension of their family responsibilities.
And what do these contemporary pilgrims think about the political conflict that continues to rage in the Holy Land? Interestingly, Kaell observes that what pilgrims experience while in the region doesn’t tend to change their political views: “Any on-the-ground interactions that might disrupt their existing perspectives are either unconsciously revised or ignored altogether, and most pilgrims will go to great lengths to avoid conversations about the current conflict.”
Central to Walking Where Jesus Walked is the question of how pilgrims negotiate tensions between the personal or individual — the pilgrim’s choice to make the trip, and their relationship with the divine — and the public responses or hoped-for impact on their families and communities.
While pilgrimage is often understood in terms of “seeking,” Kaell’s interviewees usually think of it as a deepening: they make the journey when their faith is already strong and they want to explore it further.
“For the pilgrims themselves, the trip is really a hybrid,” says Kaell. “It is ordinary, because it’s a continuation of their everyday spirituality, and extraordinary, because it’s a very long way from home and many pilgrims haven’t travelled much before.”