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Ryan Kuja, spiritual director and writer
For our pilgrim practitioner and guide feature for the second Pilgrim Principle, “A Pilgrim Immerses Themselves in Culture,” we’re highlighting Ryan Kuja, a spiritual director and writer currently serving in Colombia. Read how Ryan engages the fourth Pilgrim Principle below and learn more about how he practices immersing himself in culture, in his book, From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, and at ryankuja.com.
What is it that compels you to travel the world?
One of my favorite movies is a surf film by Taylor Steele called Castles in the Sky. I first watched it on an overnight train from Varanasi to Siliguri, India. In the beginning, end and in a few parts of the middle of the film, various stanzas of a poem called Unstuck in the World are recited. It begins, “There once was a man who became unstuck in the world. He realized that he was not his car, he realized that he was not his job, he was not his phone, his desk or his shoes. Like a boat cut from its anchor, he began to drift.”
Intentionally cutting ourselves free from the anchors of the daily grind, of our habits and stresses and routines, is necessary and travel is one tool invites us to temporarily leave our anchorage and set sail into the unknown. Travel has always been a way I get unstuck.
I’ve loved to travel since I was small. As a family, we took trips many times a year, mainly weekend and week-long trips to the mountains and beaches of New England in the region where I grew up. As I got older, going somewhere relatively close by with my sister and parents shifted to going on solo trips or with friends to places like Colorado and California. In my early twenties, I lived overseas for the first time in South Africa and Mozambique, and later, as an aid worker in South Sudan and Kenya. So travel has taken on many different iterations. Some of it has been short trips and some of it has been living and working abroad. But I’d say all of it in some way, whether a surf trip to Nicaragua, a research trip for a class in grad school to Haiti, or living in the bush near the White Nile in South Sudan is somehow linked to the desire to be cut from the anchor, the longing to see and experience and know the unknown, the desire to be unstuck in the world.
How do you think travel and faith intersect?
Faith isn’t about belief. Belief might be part of faith, but real faith according to Kierkegaard and many wise theologians, philosophers and spiritual teachers across time, is about a leap of faith into the absurd, into the meaninglessness, into the dark depths of uncertainty and unknowing. And related to that travel can be a spiritual practice that cultivates a deeper entry into the faith journey in many ways. One powerful way is that travel can facilitate an encounter with the Other—those who are different from us culturally, racially, ethnically, linguistically, religiously. Encountering Otherness can bring up a lot in us—anxiety, fear, the desire to change the other to look like us. We tend to see the Other as an Alien. When we open ourselves up to intentionally encountering difference with mindfulness, with awareness of what comes up deep inside of us at a primal level, travel becomes a decentering practice. We come to see that the Alien isn’t out there but in here. We come to see ourselves with new eyes.
T.S. Elliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In light of faith, the decentering nature of encountering the Other can being us to see ourselves with new eyes. In can help us wake up. It can help us see with new eyes. And that is exactly what faith is all about, the journey of seeing our blindness and waking up from our slumber.
How has immersing yourself in other cultures impacted your own journey and how you live at home?
Travel and living cross-culturally has probably been the single most impactful aspect of my life’s journey. And it has been heaven and hell; I’ve experienced more life and more death while overseas than at home. I’ve had months’ long periods of bliss, like while living in South Africa in 2003, followed by being abducted in Zimbabwe that same year. Experiencing hell and heaven, death and rebirth have never been so potent for me as during experiences I’ve had in places like South Africa and India and South Sudan.
I love what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” I used to be a consumer of experiences in travel when I was younger. That has shifted greatly. I am much more awake and aware, conscious of my own foreignness. I am also acutely aware of how I, and so many Westerners, continuously project our longing for the exotic on other people and places. Many North Americans travel simply as consumers shopping for an experience. There is no thought of, say, exoticizing and romanticizing others when we see indigenous people living in mud huts in an isolated village. In this case, for example, we would tend to project our Western, idealized notions of “simplicity” or “simpleness” onto contexts and people that we know nothing about and never give it a second thought. Or touring an urban slum in Nairobi or Mumbai or Johannesburg, peering voyeuristically into the lives of people who are oppressed by social, economic, and political domination systems, as if at a zoo gawking at animals. We need to be thinking about these sorts of things, but they aren’t usually on the minds of most travelers. At one time, they weren’t on my mind either. Having traveled to over thirty countries, and having lived in 12 cities and several rural areas on four continents, I’ve come to see the harm I’ve done and others do if we don’t wrestle with some of these deeper issues, and ask hard questions about how conscious we are regarding travel. Being a global citizen has helped me wake up, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully. I am grateful for that.