Those going through the baggage area of the Taipei airport recently were in for a bit of a surprise — and a serenade.
A group of women and men of various ages, along with a tall Mandarin-speaking Anglo, were holding hands in a circle, singing their return home.
The song they sung was from the place where they had journeyed: Taize.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker John McCall, based in Taipei, recounted the group’s journey, which was more of a pilgrimage.
This is the fifth time that McCall and a Taiwanese colleague have taken a group of Taiwanese pastors, seminary students and university students to Taize in Burgundy, France.
Many are familiar with Taize’s songs and worship, known for their chant-like, sacred beauty. But for McCall, the experience is much greater than music.
Founded in 1940 by Brother Roger, a Protestant, Taize is an ecumenical monastic community of more than 100 monks who receive more than 100,000 visitors each year, making it a center of Christian pilgrimage.
“Taize is a Christian community of reconcilation, which brings together Christians from almost every tradition and content,” he said. “Taize doesn’t just talk about God’s love — it encourages these diverse folks to live a life of love together for a week in community.”
In a given summer week thousands of mostly European youth descend upon Taize. The majority of these young people come from post-Christian backgrounds and for many, this is their first encounter with God. They come to Taize seeking something they have not found in their day-to-day lives.
“In this day where young people can spend hours on Facebook or other forms of social media without looking into the eyes of another human being, Taize, without Internet, offers an opportunity for these European youth to find themselves using limited English to communicate with Swedes, Germans, French, Poles, Indians, Chinese, Taiwanese, Africans and North Americans,” McCall said.
Most of the Taiwanese seminary students that McCall has taken to Taiwan are used to Christian camps where there are very few non-Christians in attendance. It can be a culture shock for them to encounter so many young people with practices they are unaccustomed to in their Taiwanese Christian circles. But McCall has found that the trip can be an exciting and enriching learning experience.
One of the Taiwanese students who traveled with the group speaks almost no English, but he does have an amazing ability to communicate with others.
“The day before we were leaving I was waiting in line when a German college student in front of me heard that I was one of the leaders of the Taiwanese group,” McCall said. She told him that in their German group the day before all of the students were talking about this Taiwanese college student and their admiration of his ability to connect so easily with people.
This is just one example of an encounter with “the other” that led to connection rather than separation. It is important for the Taiwanese group to experience the European youth, but it’s equally important for the European youth to learn from the Taiwanese.
Taiwanese can be good tourists, McCall said. But this trip was a pilgrimage.
“We sought to meet God on the way, to listen to our own hearts and to listen to our neighbors who look different and speak in a different way,” he said. In the midst of that encounter they found grace, acceptance and love.
“Our week in Taize gave me hope for the church and for the world,” he said.
The European youth can seem so sophisticated and suave. “But as I got to know these youth and as our Taiwanese shared their deep faith with them, I saw hearts which were being softened and opened to the Good News that God wants to bring them and us life in all its fullness.”
Taize is, of course, a long way from Taiwan. But as McCall and the group stood in a circle at the baggage carousel in the Taipei airport they sang one of the Taize songs and prayed together.
“We left each other not as tourists, but as pilgrims — those who join Christ on the way, living with joy and a deep trust that we are not alone.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.