Friday, May 02, 2008

Faith Works 5-3-08
Jeff Gill

Accidental Pilgrimages

There’s an interesting feeling you get when you’re telling a story you’ve told a bunch of times, and the punch line gets a rollicking outburst . . . from half the group.

Then you watch and listen as the translator builds to a crescendo of Espanol, followed by . . . laughter, and smiles.


Earlier this week, when the Aztec Dancers of the Word of the Holy Child Teopiltzintecuhtli troupe arrived at the Great Circle with their translator, I wished again that I’d taken Spanish instead of German in high school and college. Oh, well. The Latin years helped me follow more than I’d even hoped (“porta” for door, “ala” for wing, “et cetera” for etc.).

They will be dancing and singing this evening at the dedication of the Great Circle Museum, which I’m very proud to have played a role in developing, under the skillful direction and thoughtful composition of Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society (he has good penmanship, too).

6:00 pm folks will gather there off of Rt. 79 or the 21st St. side, coming down from the Reese Center at OSU-N where we’ll have spent a day hearing talks and discussion about the role of globally significant sites like Stonehenge, the Mexican Pyramids where the Aztec Dancers are from, and the Newark Earthworks.

But I was thinking about a tall cross I’d stopped at just a few days before, on a road that was once the Santa Fe Trail. I was heading for a retreat center and 35 congregational leaders in the Church of the Brethren, where knowing German came in handy, if only for a few small jokes. The descendants of Saxon and Bavarian Anabaptists came to settle the high plains, and brought the traditions of Menno Simons and Jacob Amman and the Pietism of Philip Spener which all play a role in the modern Church of the Brethren tradition.

Driving towards Great Bend, I pulled over at this twenty foot tall cross and a historical marker (I do that occasionally, which means usually). The cross has the letters “IC – XP – NI – KA” on the center of the arms, very like those on First Presbyterian in Granville, so I knew even before reading the plaque at the base that this was an ancient abbreviation for “Jesus Christ, Victor.”

The spot marks where the Coronado Expedition of 1541 spent a season with the Quivira Indians (later known as the Kansa, hence the state’s name) before turning back to Mexico. Not a typo – 1541. Hispanic culture in America has deep roots.

There’s also a marker for Cow Creek Station, where I later learned the “real” Buffalo Bill (last name Mathewson) plied his trade, shooting buffalo and defending parties of settlers.

In Great Bend and Ellinwood, Kansas you can find the stray cornerstone with German inscriptions. And there are more Mexican grocery stores every day. Tides of immigration ebb and flow, and faith traditions come and develop.

German heritage doesn’t tend to erect tall crosses, but down near Greensburg, Kansas, where a terrible tornado hit a year ago, destroying the town but creating a strange new opportunity, pioneer farmers built the world’s largest hand dug well (Google it; it’s cooler than you think). Each tradition leaves it’s own mark on the land, even a 1,200 foot diameter circle in soil and sod.

So I’m back here in Licking County, with these songs and scenes rattling around in my head of priests offering a mass over four centuries ago, pioneer cemeteries, Dominican convents with beautiful stained glass and bearded lay pastors singing “Shall We Gather At the River” in the basement auditorium. All as feathered and jangling dancers prepare to offer their songs of praise to a Child who brought relief to the thirsty and light to our darkness.

And tomorrow and next week I get to preach at Central Christian in Newark because their pastor and many members are in Kansas, working with church folks from many traditions and many states to rebuild the wounded community of Greensburg, with sustainable and energy-efficient means, helping them truly become “Green”-sburg.

Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is within you,” and all around you at the same time . . . if you follow it, you will be brought back to yourself, and see where you were anew.

Kind of like dancing around the Great Circle.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s delighted to be back at Central Christian for two weeks to preach about prayer! Tell him where your journey took you back to yourself at

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