Peter Grier caught the travel bug at an early age. But as he journeyed off to destinations across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, he began pondering the relationship between his Christian faith and his wanderlust: Does God really want us spending time and money on travel for its own sake, apart from any missionary or evangelistic motivation? In Travel: In Tandem with God’s Heart, Grier—who works with students at several Irish universities as a Christian Unions team leader—walks through a Christian approach to travel. Andrew Wilson, an avid hiker and author of Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther, spoke with Grier about his adventures abroad and how they have deepened his faith.
What drove you to start exploring the world?
I grew up in Belfast during the 1980s and ’90s. It was a troubled spot with much violence, and I lived through it all. Because so few people wanted to come to a country that was so divided, it was very monocultural.
It was also monocultural in another way: It was one of the largest evangelical Christian populations in the world, certainly in Europe. I grew up in a Bible-believing household, got taught the Bible from a young age, and experienced the privilege of the community there establishing me in my faith. It was only when I went off to university in Nottingham that I started to meet people of different worldviews and upbringings. That was a great challenge and a great turning point in my life of faith. Since then I’ve worked with various Christian unions to help students of faith maintain their belief and explain it to the world.
I was traveling a lot—mostly by car— for my job, and I kept hearing that it was a waste of time to be spending so much time on the road. Which got me thinking: How can it be useful for my life of faith? At the time, I was also living with a final-year student at the university, a great friend. He decided when he was finished that he would fly to New Zealand and cycle back to Ireland over the course of a year. When his parents found out, they called me and told me I had to stop him, that the trip would perhaps destroy his faith, and besides it would be a waste of time. At the same time, my friend came to me and asked me to convince his parents that the trip was a good idea.
And so I suppose I’m writing the book for people like him. I wanted to explore how travel can help our faith.
Where did traveling begin for you?
My first independent travel experience was at age 16, heading off in the summertime with an evangelical mission on the beaches of Belgium. I remember being stopped on the train on the way back by the Belgian police; they asked where my guardians were and told me I wasn’t supposed to be traveling alone!
That was one of the many experiences that gave me the confidence to travel the world. I also have a sister who lives in Africa and just married a man from Vanuatu; another sister has lived in various places including Brussels. I have a heart for mission and try to get away each summer with mission groups, but I also travel on my own to explore various cultures less impacted by Christianity.
Tell me about some of the highlights and disappointments of your world travels.
On one of my early trips to North Africa, I did a home-stay with local family who spoke only Arabic. I was petrified to begin with. But I was able to stay in their house and eat with them. The father ran a stall at the local market, and I got to see the how he interacted with both locals and tourists. Those are the joys you look back on.
I remember a student who stayed with us in Ireland for a month and spent his first eight days hanging out in his room Skyping people back home in Taiwan. I finally knocked on his door and said, “You’ve got one month to explore Ireland: Why haven’t you left the house yet?” He replied, “Oh, I’m waiting for good weather.” That pretty much sums up how I traveled to begin with, waiting for and chasing picture book experiences instead of learning to make the most of every situation. I had to learn to adapt.
I remember backpacking through South America as a young man and encountering not so much the local culture but the subculture of travelers, many of them young people like myself, on a quest for something. I remember an atmosphere of intense hedonism: not just sketchy sex and drugs, but a larger, more wholesome desire to flood the senses and find intimacy with other people. As someone who works with students, how do you teach them not to tame but to direct these God-given desires?
Not diminishing their adventurous desires is absolutely key. Some Christians—many in the circles I grew up in—want to immediately point to the problems with any particular activity, which isn’t the warmest way to invite people to discover life to the full with Christ. If God has created the world, then we should expect to experience the implications of that with all of our senses as we travel the world.
We can be quick to point out from the top of a mountain the awesome beauty of creation and expect it to be obvious to others that God made it, which can actually put people off. But when you spend hours traveling and hosting travelers, when you spend long evenings chatting, eating good food, and sharing the joys and struggles of life—that’s when people genuinely open up. Here is the real chance to partake of life and faith. It’s not just beauty that is meaningful, either. Here in Ireland there are castle ruins every few miles, sitting broken down in farmers’ fields. We know that they were meant to be more than they are now. We all know this, but the Christian worldview is quite unique in expressing this truth, which many people find difficult to express otherwise.
What can you recommend for us to see in Ireland?
A tiny village called Ardmore, down the coast from where I live, where there’s a monastery founded by a fifth-century saint named Declán. Many people think of Saint Patrick as the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, and yet Saint Declán actually arrived before him. Visiting those sites and the round towers is inspirational. You get a sense of how seriously these men and women took their faith and their travel, how they desired to go off to places that did not know the name of Jesus or the joys of living for him. I confess that history bored me in my school days, but traveling really drove me to start reading and learning about these figures, both from people of old who have passed away and left their accounts and from local people who have stories to tell.
Your book addresses a tension between the desire for movement and the value of stability. Saint Patrick and other missionaries to Europe were Benedictines, who took a vow of stability. They evangelized by first traveling out—and then putting down deep roots. As travel has gotten cheaper and more commonplace, and as communication has shrunk the world, what’s the place of staying in place?
There’s clearly no one-size-fits-all answer. My friend who cycled the world found, even after networking extensively and making stops with lots of friends along the way, that his journey was probably the loneliest experience of his life. And one thing he said it taught him was the value of people who invest themselves in others’ lives in deep ways, more than just an hour on Sunday morning. And so he’s really bedded down for life in Ireland now, rather than yearning after more adventure.
I think, increasingly, the students at the university where I work realize that there’s something unique about Christian community, and when they see such unity in diversity—how we love one another—they start to look toward Christ. When you’re living an independent, individualistic life, which many travelers lean toward, you do miss out on the richness and beauty of true community. You can also opt out of many of the problems that come from living alongside other humans who are just as prone to silly things in their hearts as you are. I hope that travel can prompt people to reflect upon what it means to be a church gathered as well as a church sent.
I’m reminded of the great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who once drove back to England from his home in South India and, famously, was able to find a church to worship in every single Sunday of that long trip, save one. Tell me something about the diversity of Christianity that you’ve encountered in your travels.
Travel has really opened my eyes to see how Christianity is far more diverse and wonderful than I could have imagined from within my own culture. It’s blown my mind how God has shaped his church and grown his kingdom in various settings. Some of the richest times have been sitting with the underground church—a real privilege, as having a Western visitor is not very safe for those trying to stay under the radar. To meet in secret with some of these believers, to experience the depth of their faith in challenging circumstances, to see their wholehearted commitment to the Lord Jesus and the worship of him—that is bound to bring forward the main things in Christianity. You’re not going to end up having a complete falling out just because they have a slightly different theology of the end times or something like that.
Such a setting binds you so tightly that you feel ashamed to split over minor things which, in Ireland, Christians might be happy to split over. That will forever be etched on my memory, and any time I have cause to disagree with my brother or sister, my experience of the persecuted church will come back to me, urging me to live with and learn from my fellow Christians.
What travel plans do you have for the future?
I’d really love to move to a radically different part of the world where Christ is not known so much, bed down there, and see what that teaches me. Perhaps in one of the Islamic cultures I’ve been visiting recently: to experience life together with fellow believers there and to learn from our Muslim friends and their different way of looking at the world. I might even create a business to help people conserve their local culture. Then I could bring that experience back to the Irish church, so that the tiny evangelical church scene here might see more of the real blessing of worldwide sending and receiving.
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