With travel writer Rick Steves headlining, this year’s Fall Convocation offered a truly international experience. Attendees heard keynote speakers from three different continents, praise music in 17 different languages and human stories of hope and struggle from around the world.

“I felt like the globe came to Perkins,” said Priscilla Pope-Levison, Associate Dean for External Affairs and coordinator of the event. “It all came together in the best possible way.”

Some 150 people attended the convocation, “Mission Quest: Finding Your Place in God’s World,” on November 11-12 at Highland Park United Methodist Church and the campus of SMU. Sharing the stage with Steves were the Reverend Dr. Samira Izadi Page, a native of Iran who leads a ministry to refugees in Dallas, and the Reverend Dr. Célestin Musekura, a Rwandan and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM).

Travel as a Spiritual Act

Despite temperatures in the 20s, nearly 1,200 people turned up at McFarlin Auditorium on the first evening of the convocation for Rick Steves’ keynote, “Finding Your Place in God’s World: The Road as Church.” (The turnout was boosted thanks to a partnership with KERA radio, which promoted the event and co-hosted a reception beforehand.)

In addition to hosting a PBS travel show and writing numerous travel guides, Steves is an active member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Over the course of his career, he noted, his European travel guides have evolved from focusing on practical travel tips (“how to get the train”) to encouraging travelers to appreciate art and history to helping travelers come home with a broader perspective.

“First there are tourists, then there are travelers and then there’s the ultimate: pilgrims,” he said. “A tourist has a bucket list. A tourist takes selfies. A tourist isn’t looking for much transformation. But if you’re only focused on duty-free shopping, you’ve really lost an opportunity. There’s so much to learn.

“The ultimate thing is for us to get to know the other 96% of humanity – to take this opportunity to get over the border and gain an empathy for other people,” he said. “We can learn more about our own home by leaving it. The best souvenir to bring home is a broader perspective.”

Travel challenges notions we assume are common sense, he added. “The normal person on this planet does not sit on something to use the toilet. We think we are the norm. As a traveler you gain that broader perspective, and it wallops your ethnocentricity, and that’s a good thing.”

Steves quoted Pope Francis’ words as a sort of personal travel mantra: “Allow yourself to be amazed.”

“I love that idea,” he said. “In our travels, I love that childlike enthusiasm for whatever I’m learning. I love to go to the cheese-monger in Paris, who says to me, ‘Come over here. Smell this cheese, it smells like zee feet of the angels.’ These people are evangelical about their cheese. This shop is a festival of mold. And he wants me to appreciate it. These are the magic moments.”

He described his first few trips to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and how he felt outrage for all the money spent on the treasures and art, instead of the poor. Later, however, he approached the site through a lens of appreciation.

“I finally realized: I needed to park my Protestant sword at the door,” he said. “If you’re not a Roman Catholic, become a Roman Catholic while you’re inside St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Steves believes that Americans can learn from the European notion of “pragmatic harm reduction” in dealing with social problems, in contrast to a more moralistic approach in the U.S.

“In the Netherlands, where marijuana is legal, a joint is about as exciting as a beer,” he said. “The irony is – they smoke less pot than we do, and less than the European average. When you legalize, use does not go up. Other societies deal with the same problems in different ways, and we can learn from them.”

Steves recently traveled to Iran, where he encountered many contradictions: massive banners advocating “Death to America,” and Iranian people who extended an exceptionally warm welcome. He recalled the Iranian woman who stopped him on the street and asked if he was an American journalist. When he said yes, the woman said, “I want you to go home and tell the truth. We are strong, we are united. We just don’t want our girls to be raised like Britney Spears.”

His experiences in Iran convinced Steves that fear tends to influence us too much, and travel is the antidote.

“I think it’s important to get out, because when you travel, you become less afraid,” he said.

21st-Century Mission

On Monday, the Reverend Dr. Samira Izadi Page (M.Div. ’10, D.Min. ’16) and the Reverend Dr. Célestin Musekura presented a two-part plenary exploring the question, “What is mission in the 21st century?”

Page described her family’s perilous escape from Iran, where she was persecuted as a Shiite Muslim, and their arrival in the U.S. as refugees in 1989. Although born and raised a Muslim, Page began having visions of the Virgin Mary at age 6.

“I knew my life belonged to the church even though I did not know what the church was,” she said.

Page became a Christian, earned two degrees at Perkins and founded Gateway of Grace, a ministry to refugees. She defined mission as “the outworking of God’s benevolent purposes for the healing, restoration and salvation of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit through the church.”

Mission work today, Page said, requires humility and unity – as well as an ability to embrace “the messiness” of mission and a willingness to speak the truth.

Christians in Nigeria, Iran and Pakistan are being persecuted and enslaved, she said. “We don’t talk about these things in the U.S. because it’s not politically correct and we don’t want to fan the flames of Islamophobia. So persecuted Christians get abandoned. How do we speak the whole truth?”

Page shared the story of a refugee, an atheist, who came to Gateway of Grace after he’d been tortured in Iran. The man was wracked with pain because his teeth and feet had been shattered, and he was living in terrible conditions. Thanks to the community and the kindness of people who helped heal his body and provided him with a better home, the man is now part of the Gateway of Grace community, attending and serving faithfully. That’s mission in the 21st century, Page said – reaching one person at a time with the healing that ultimately only Christ can bring.“The agape mind-set says that God wants refugees to know they are loved, through the love of community, the body of Christ, you and I,” she said. “If we can serve one person, and let them know the transforming love of God, that is mission in the 21st century.”

A Ministry of Tears

 Célestin Musekura talked about growing up in a village in Rwanda. His mother had dedicated him as a priest in the village’s animistic spiritual tradition; he spent seven years offering the blood of animals and chickens in hopes of keeping his family safe. He never saw a white man until 1979, when a Baptist missionary named Kyle arrived in his Hutu village.

“The missionary made it clear that only the blood of Christ could redeem me,” he said. “I thought Jesus was the ancestor of this white man, the missionary. But Jesus is not an ancestor of the white people. God is not white or black. He is for everyone.”

Musekura spoke gratefully of a widow in Cleveland, Ohio, named Mary, who paid for his schooling. She learned of the “skinny, ugly boy who needed to go to school,” and even though she had very little, Mary earned extra cash picking up trash at night. She sent the money that paid for his schooling. She passed away five days after Musekura graduated from Bible school in the Congo in 1983.

Mary and Kyle did not live long enough to know that their efforts were not in vain. “But they trusted that God would do something with the skinny, ugly boy,” he said. “They trusted and they worked by faith.” Ultimately, Musekura earned his Ph.D. and became a minister.

The genocide in 1994, Musekura said, “changed the way we perceive missions.” Before 1994, Rwanda had more than 3,000 missionaries, who were ‘succeeding’ because more than 90 percent of Rwandans had become Christians. “But four years later, we murdered one another,” he said. “That’s because the focus was on conversion, not discipleship.”

After the genocide, he said, ministry often consisted of simply crying with people who’d lost family members. To be a missionary, Musekura said, “First you need to be a listener. Listen to their stories before you open your mouth. Feel their pain. Maybe cry with them.”  

Between Musekura’s and Page’s presentations, attendees were treated to a musical program performed by IziBongo, a Dallas-based group named after a genre of South African Zulu praise poetry. Playing instruments from a variety of cultures, the group riffed seamlessly from musical renditions of John 3:16 in Mandarin; to the Lord’s prayer in Dzongkha, a language of Bhutan; to Psalm 136 in Gikyode, a language of Ghana; to an acapella performance of Beethoven’s “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” in English.

Pleasantly Surprised

Malinda Fasol and her husband, Marty Leewright, signed up for the Fall Convocation to hear Rick Steves – but left with much more.

Although the couple has followed his PBS program for years, Fasol said, “We walked away having even more respect for him, because he was able to go deeper spiritually. We really appreciated that.”

“We heard very powerful insights from one of the most well-traveled humans in the world,” added Leewright, who also praised Robert Hunt’s sold-out workshop on Cultural Intelligence, offered as part of the convocation.

The couple – she’s a college professor, he’s an attorney – work together training attorneys, judges, mediators and others. “I found this particularly helpful because we are interested in cross-cultural factors in conflict resolution,” he said. “We learned how we all bring our values into our communications, and how important it is to be aware of the values that others are bringing into the communications.

In the program’s last session, Steves, Page and Musekura answered questions from the audience. Pope-Levison was struck by the diversity of the group and the unity of their message.

“These were three different people doing very different ministries,” she said. “But all were calling on North Americans to open our hearts to refugees and to understand that, as Rick Steves said, we are all God’s children.”