God and Country
I was blessed to have been born an American as well as being part of both a Christian and Jewish family. This background gives me flexibility and different perspectives when designing my educational travel programs.
While I design for and conduct many public schools' travel programs, I am not permitted to explore God or faith with them. (It's hard enough to display patriotism!) That's difficult for me since I was brought up that there was no separation of church and state, but there seems to be a difference of opinion in this nation. As I am in the business of providing educational travel programs, I need to be of service to all my groups, and I try to be a good servant. However, it is far more satisfying for me to work with faith-based groups. Every road for me, is a road to Damascus. Additionally, I approach my profession as a ministry: Hebrews: 13:2*
It is my opinion that taking a trip should not mean taking a vacation from one’s spiritual life. I like to call these special programs: Faith On The Road. There is no getting around it: Judeo-Christian ethics have been a guiding force in the formation and development of this nation. Even those who have no faith should not neglect the influences of God and religion since they are germane to the understanding of our government and national identity.
Many of the schools I have worked with throughout the years are faith-based. Most of the Christian schools I currently conduct are Lutheran (MS and ELCA - they are great supporters of student travel), but there are also several Baptist, Bible Church, Calvary Chapel, Catholic, Episcopal, and Seventh Day Adventists in my portfolio.
Interestingly enough, I also design and conduct an eight day East Coast historic trip for a large Jewish Day School where the faculty and students are observant. A few years ago, they left an Israeli-based company because there was so much emphasis on faith and Jewish culture, the American history and programs were neglected. There has to be a balance. (This particular school also offers trips to Israel and Eastern Europe for their upper school, so they can get their Jewish culture there in depth.) Naturally, keeping kosher is the biggest challenge and I need to plan the trip around the food! (The Seventh Day Adventists simply require vegetarian.) We spend almost the entire Sabbath on foot and don’t get to eat dinner until 11:00 PM! (The trip takes place around the longest day of the year!) But Shabbat service is included, as well as the required and spontaneous prayers and songs each day. I follow the same observances as my group, with the exception of paying for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged kosher lunches, and other sundries on the sabbath. It’s exhausting, but spiritually rewarding.
However, many faith-based schools look specifically for a ‘Christian’ or ‘Jewish’ company to run their programs because they ‘require’ someone of their faith or denomination to plan and conduct them. Why is that? I am often asked if my company is, ‘Christian’, or if I am, ‘Jewish’. This is actually not only illegal, but insulting to me both personally and professionally. It would seem that only an individual of their faith or denomination is capable to offer a faith-based travel program. If I answer that I serve all, I hear the click of the telephone. We don't even get far enough to discuss ability, quality of program, or pricing. They might be missing out on a custom designed program that could actually contain more educational and Christian/Jewish content.
I honestly don’t see that it really matters as long as the program is responsive to their needs and sensitively designed to give the teachers, leaders, Pastors, Rabbis, etc. the opportunities to convey their message and accommodates worship. The companies I am contracted with all operate on a solid business ethic patterned on ‘ best practices’ and Judeo-Christian principles. While there are some excellent Christian and Jewish tour operators in the industry, there are several companies I will not work with that capitalize on some indication of 'faith' in their name, but conduct themselves in a less than honorable manner. Discernment is very important here and asking for references should be the best indicator.
And as for tour leaders? For several years I was with a very large student tour operator that had a Christian division. I was frequently called upon to ‘cross divisions’ and replace their Christian tour guides midstream because they did not know enough American history or the nitty-gritty logistics of touring. Many of these guides were brought in from the West Coast or Midwest to conduct East Coast trips. Their scripture was sound and they were all personally fun to be with, but they weren't very familiar with the cities etc. apart from the usual tour sites. In contrast, I left the theological side to the school leaders. teachers/pastors (and in some cases, home school leaders), and took care of the touring and history. It was a true partnership and we each respected our respective areas of expertise. I left a lot of the interpretation up to the group leaders since there are subtleties of theology amongst denominations and sects. Frequently, I would add or introduce a spiritual message, first asking for permission from the leader of the group. I was pleased that I was requested again by each and every one of these groups, much to the amazement of the staff of both divisions; they had not realized how deeply spiritual I was. I know of several colleagues in the profession who are capable of doing the same, but they are not with Christian or Jewish companies.
The design of a faith-based educational travel program should follow curriculum, denomination, and objectives. In addition to all the historical sites and activities, I like to ask whether worship or fellowship is to be included. There are many churches and synagogues that would welcome groups and occasionally prepare something special for them. One can find them through the school's home church or synagogue.
For Christian schools and home schools, there are other opportunities to visit historic houses of worship and many of them offer their own educational programs and tours. One of my favorites is the re-creation of the Second Virginia Convention that culminated with Patrick Henry’s stirring, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” This program, through St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, can be arranged any day except Sunday for a fee that goes to their ministry. One of the male leaders is chosen from the tour group and dressed in the robes of the colonial pastor; he enters with the Virginia founding fathers, and reads the opening prayer which starts the meeting. (I've seen a couple of temporary 'conversions' here!)
There is a wonderful Underground Railroad experience at the Bethel AME Church in Lancaster, PA that actually served as an actual station. It’s called Live it Bethel Harambee and presents the slave experience within a Christian context. Phoebe Bailey is the contact and please be sure to include the fellowship lunch with the best fried chicken you've ever had in your life! (I've brought public schools here, but had a lot of 'splaining' to do in order to justify it in an historic context.)
Pamplin Historical Park Overnight Civil War Adventure Camp can also add in a Christian component with prayer and song, which would be historically accurate. If you don't have time to spend the night, they offer full day and half day interactive visits of their camp and museum.
Evening activities with local singers, entertainers, or faith-based historic character interpreters can be included. Meetings with government legislators as well as motivational speakers can also be arranged.
For Roman Catholic groups I schedule a Mass. If they have a priest on board and they will be in Washington, DC, they can attend Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Their own priest can celebrate in one of the world’s largest churches. A visit to the John Paul II Cultural Center is also a wonderful experience.
There are also some interesting religious memorials, monuments, and sites. One that is not well-known is the Franciscan Monastery near Catholic University. You don’t have to be Roman Catholic in order to spiritually profit from the tour of the catacombs. (These catacombs are both inspiring and very, Indiana Jones!) Literally it is the, "Holy Land in America ".
There are ‘Classical’ private schools (i.e ACCS: The Association of Classical and Christian Schools ) and home school groups which already exist or are in the process of forming. Their curricula blend Christianity with the classical/ancient world. What a wonderful way to put the life of Jesus, Judaism, and early Christianity into context! Believe it or not, one can design tours around classical themes in Washington, DC and New York! If one can think beyond the box, one can look at the National Mall as the Roman Forum, our presidential memorials as temples, and our government discussed in ancient and religious context. Latin and Greek language can also be reflected in the program. This requires a true collaboration between teachers and the travel program planner. Working with a professional that knows not only the 'sights', museum collections and exhibits, as well as the indoor and outdoor art and architecture of the city, is invaluable. There aren't any 'packages' that offer this.
Getting back to my Jewish group, there are so many wonderful museums and programs that can illuminate their program. However, these programs should also be integrated into the Christian experience to promote greater understanding of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish contributions to the nation. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsors educational programs and on Wednesdays one can meet a survivor and perhaps have a conversation. If you're not there on a Wednesday, they have a speakers' bureau and for a fee, a presentation can be arranged. I always advocate first person encounters and this one can be especially powerful and poignant.
Philadelphia is a another treasure trove of colonial American Jewish history. A visit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, the first synagogue in Philadelphia (Mikveh Israel). and perhaps participation in one of their programs is a joyful experience. This museum is a Smithsonian affiliate and is located along Independence Mall. They also have a walking tour of many historic religious sites which is included in the Holy Experiment in the City of Brotherly Love.
A personal highlight for me is visiting Temple Emmanuel, the largest synagogue in the world. My last apartment in New York City was exactly two blocks from it and I often 'snuck' inside to peek at the stained glass and architectural details. They have a marvelous museum and the docents enjoy explaining Jewish life and culture to all sorts of groups. If the group is not visiting Washington, DC, the Museum of Jewish Heritage nestled in Battery Park/Hudson River Park and near 'Ground Zero' is well worth a visit. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum chronicles the several families of diverse backgrounds that lived in one tenement building. Their first person program gives a true account of the life of an immigrant and an appreciation of the living conditions in cramped quarters.
And you haven’t eaten until you have been to a real New York kosher deli! My choice is Katz's on Orchard Street. If you don't know what to order, just look around at what someone else has and say, "I'll have whatever she ordered!".
I hope this gives you some ideas to ponder for your next trip. Please don’t limit yourself to a few companies because others don't have names that reflect your faith; open yourself up to other providers, programs, and venues that might serve you and your group far better. If you are interested in any of the above programs and the company you are currently traveling with, or contemplating traveling with, says they cannot or will not honor the request, find a company that will.
The Tour Marm
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained Angels unawares.
Suggested Reading for Washington, D.C.:
Myths in Stone by Jeffrey F. Meyer
Religious Dimensions of Washington, DC.