When I signed up to be a youth pastor, I knew I was signing up for lock-ins, youth group games, and a whole lot of pizza. I looked forward to confirmation classes and late night bible studies. I counted down the days until summer trips and youth conferences. However, what I never could have expected was a trip like the one we just took.
Every four years, the senior high youth at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church are invited on a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual and historical pilgrimage to Scotland and Ireland. The hope of this trip is to expose our students to some of the most significant places in our faith’s history, while also modeling spiritual practices like separation, examination, and reflection. This trip was established before I joined the staff, and it was an honor to help lead this iteration of the tradition.
On Friday evening we returned from two weeks full of laughter, shared meals, small group discussions, reflection, blue skies, and sacred spaces. I am writing to share some of the highlights of that trip.
1- No phones
It is our norm to constantly be connected, so as part of our pilgrimage practice this year, we decided to go with no phones. This decision put a larger emphasis on communal engagement, face to face relationships, and space to be still. The result of this “no phone practice,” resulted in hundreds of hours of card games, inside jokes, the invention of “hall ball” in the hostel hallway, and more. Rising sophomore Caroline Richard, claims that “getting to play so many card games with friends,” was one of her favorite memories of the entire trip, and I would have to agree. Sometimes being disconnected from our busy world is exactly what we need to truly connect with God.
2- St. Giles Cathedral
One of our first stops in the city of Edinburgh was to St. Gile’s Cathedral. We arrived in time for the noon worship, which was a simple prayer service. It is not common to find a Presbyterian church of such grandeur, so we spent a significant amount of time walking around, studying the stained glass windows and noticing the ornate details. It was undoubtedly a holy experience to stand in the same room where so many brave people of faith, like John Knox himself, gathered to worship so many years ago.
I am convinced, there is no better place to journey for a spiritual pilgrimage, than the tiny Isle of Iona. Iona is located off the coast of Scotland, and takes a full day of travel from Edinburgh- It took two buses, two ferries, and eight hours of travel. However, the journey is worth it.
Iona is the home of the oldest church in the United Kingdom, as well as the very famous interdemonional abbey. Worship was held at the abbey twice a day- at 9 am and at 9 pm, so we quickly organized our schedule around those simple services. In between, we spent our time hiking, watching the sunsets, gathering for small group discussion, exploring the shores, soaking up the sun in the garden, enjoying afternoon tea, playing card games, and studying scripture.
Rising senior Emma Ghighi described Iona best when she said, “we all find ‘thin places’ throughout this world: places that just feel a little bit closer to God then others. For me, Iona was a thin place and one where we made the most connections. Whether it was running into the freezing cold water or three hours spent alone in silence, you could tell that God was among us and working to strengthen many friendships.”
4- Solutitude Time
One of the most formative experiences of the whole trip was our “solitude.” During our first full day at Iona, everyone was tasked with the challenge to spend three hours outside, alone. They were allowed to wave to people, but could not engage in discussion. They could read, journal, hike, or wonder anywhere they wanted to on the island- exploring caves, the sea, the mountain tops, and sheep pastures- but it had to be alone.
Rising senior Caroline Singleton reflected on our solitude afternoon, saying “I think sometimes we forget how refreshing it is to be alone. The solitude time on Iona gave us the opportunity to reset and be fully present with God in nature, and in a place as thin and beautiful as Iona, it definitely wasn’t hard to feel God’s presence.” For most, those three hours alone, without a phone or a screen in sight, created a very holy experience.
5- Troon Home Stays
We spent one night in the tiny coastal city of Troon. It was a blip in our overall travel itinerary, but one of our most meaningful nights of the experience; for the people of the Old Troon Church hosted and fed our entire group in their homes. They made us breakfast, served us tea, showed us around town, and gave us a safe and warm bed to sleep in. The people of the church showed us a radical type of hospitality that we will not be quick to forget.
6- The Belfast Peace Walls
For several decades now, Belfast has been known for the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It’s a complicated divide, tangled up in politics, that one could never fully understand in just a few short days. However, while in that beautiful city, we did our best to listen and learn. Our first day in Belfast we spent several hours walking the peace walls- nearly 40 kilometers of concrete and metal barriers that divide protestant and catholic neighborhoods throughout the city. Many walked away with questions about peace, and who defines that.
7- Scottish “Clan” Groups
One of the best traditions of this trip is to divide all the youth into “Clan Groups,” which serve as small groups throughout the trip. Each group had a clan name. Some of those names included “Clan Fish n’ Chips,” “The Clan with a Plan,” “Clan Tartan Sauce,” and “Clan McMonie,” after Rev. Blair Monie. A special part of each day was gathering into our clans for a scripture reading, reflection, games and discussion.
8- Phishwanton Woods
One of the memorable experiences of the trip was a day spent volunteering at Phishwanton Woods. Phishwanton Woods is an organization that provides education and craft experiences for youth with mental health concerns. The woods themselves were absolutely stunning, and the center was designed to be a fully sustainable. Together the youth worked hard to saw wood for their fires in the winter, to weed the medicinal herb garden, and to learn from the farmer’s about their experiences.
I could go on and on with stories of the trip- stories of sunset hikes in Iona and the polar plunge; stories about tea time, the green hills, or communion in the abbey. I could tell stories of new friendships and breathtaking scenery; stories about our or our service day or the Super Ferry. I could go on, because all the best trips are like that- difficult to explain, but bursting with memories. I hope you’ll check out our Youth Photo page for trip photos, and make sure to ask questions of the youth when you see them!
I never could have imagined a trip like this.
It was holy and it was unforgettable- just like a pilgrimage should be.