Progressive Pilgrims


I dropped my parents off at the bus station last week. Watching them anxiously prepare to board the bus, I kept thinking how amazed I was that this day was actually happening. I felt like a proud parent. A role reversal indeed, thinking back to all the times that they drove me to a bus depot or to an airport, watching me take off on yet another adventure. Finally, this was their time. Now several years into retirement, they were heading off to Israel to participate in the Baha’i pilgrimage.

If anyone who has met my parents was asked if they have traveled abroad, I would dare to guess that the most likely answer would be yes. It’s hard to believe that they have not ventured far and wide, getting to know distant cultures and marveling at the diversity in geography and terrain. Or tasting the local foods with a mix of excitement and trepidation. But, until now, they have not traveled abroad. Sure, they’ve been to Canada, Hawaii, and crossed the border into Nogales when they lived in Arizona. Yes, and they also lived for a year in Alaska. I’m not discounting those cultural experiences. They have helped shape who they are and their perspective on the world. But they don’t tell the whole story.

These are people with an unending interest in global communities and diverse cultures. They formed a company in the late ’80s in order to publish a newsletter for American schoolchildren that would introduce them to peers in other countries. The newsletter contained stories about the children’s homes and schools. I can remember, as a tween or teen, traveling with my mom to a couple of education trade shows to help market the idea. It was quite progressive – there really was nothing like it at the other booths I saw – and this effort helps to illustrate the kind of global mentality that was commonplace in my house. Our house was filled with items from all over the world, mostly gifts from guests in our home. We hosted a visiting scholar from China for a year while I was in high school. As members of the Baha’i community in Madison, my family was more exposed to international culture than we may have been otherwise.

I believe that this last bit is the real key to how two people with very little personal experience abroad could be so open to other cultures. My parents have been Baha’is for almost 50 years. It’s given them an opportunity to meet and share experiences with people from all over the world. Having both grown up in small town Michigan, they did not have these experiences until becoming Baha’is. Although they did not travel abroad to experience it, their willingness to seek out multiculturalism gave them a perspective similar to those who have traveled extensively.

I’ll have to admit that I run into a chicken or the egg question when writing about this topic. Are my parents globally focused because they are Baha’is? Or are they Baha’is because they are open to be globally focused. I suspect that the answer is mostly yes to both questions. When originally introduced to the Baha’i Faith, they needed to already have a fairly progressive worldview in order to find it appealing. And certainly their experience as Baha’is has helped them to develop their love for world cultures. Either way, it’s a credit to them to have developed such a mature vision of the world.

I’m a big fan of Rick Steves. He built his travel empire from the ground up by tapping into many travelers’ desire to experience foreign destinations like a local. He often says that travel has the ability to broaden perspectives like nothing else. And I agree with this wholeheartedly. My own experience has helped prove this to be true. In 1991, I was a rudderless 16 year old with some pretty crappy views on politics and patriotism. During the Gulf War, I got swept up in some of the nationalistic fervor that, even in liberal Madison, showed up in the form of that ever popular “love it or leave it” mentality. Oh, those slogans. Just thinking about them now makes me twitch. All of that changed, however, in that summer when I convinced my parents to let me go to Mexico to a Baha’i youth conference.

Honestly, I just wanted to travel. I figured I would meet some friends and maybe do some good too, but I wanted to see Mexico, to just be there. I did meet some friends and I think I did do some good. But what I ultimately did was completely change my perspective. I was immersed in the culture for six weeks, and I was hooked. Maybe my mind would have opened up naturally anyway, but I can definitively point to that summer as a turning point in my worldview.

Clearly, travel can help to bridge cultural divides and to further international harmony and understanding. But, as much as I would like to see everyone get the chance to travel to faraway places, live among locals, and breathe in the culture, it’s obviously impractical to expect that could happen. Instead, like my parents, we can learn to visit the international communities in our back yards.

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