Recently I came upon an old hand made “guidebook” that Lena and I created for my parents and brother Nick when they visited Chicago to attend my graduation from seminary in 1981. As we knew they would be around for about a week—we wanted to be prepared with ideas of places to visit, restaurants to eat in, and sites to see. You can get a glimpse of some of the ideas we had for that time if you look carefully at the photo of the fully illustrated schedule we had for my family’s visit. (As you can see, Giordano’s Pizza was an essential entry on the list.) Notice, there is even a page listing “additional options!” Sadly, the Chicago “Cloud Gate” sculpture and Oprah’s Harpo Studios were not yet a thing.
Finding this old hand-crafted booklet reminded me how much fun it can be to be a tour guide. Many of us reside in our cities and houses and rarely think of what might be of interest to those who are visiting our region for the first time. We are so busy with work and home life that we give little thought to the character of the place we live. But it is a good thing every now and then to think about what I would show a friend in my city if I were paid to be their tour guide. Of course, it would depend on their interests. Art galleries? NBA basketball? Minor League soccer? Hiking trails? Local murals? Vegetarian Restaurants? Magic shops? (Do those still exist?) Breweries? A moonlight kayak trip? Garden tours? If you were a guide, what would be the top three things you would show someone visiting your town?
Tour guides can be a wonderful help in experiencing a new place. Lena and I have had many wonderful ones in our travels. Sometimes we have hired the guides directly. Sometimes they were provided by a tour company. Sometimes they have just been good friends who are residents of an area. Sometimes we have found them on the spot in the place we visited. Sometimes they cost a lot of money, sometimes they were a bargain, sometimes they took donations, sometimes they were free.
Sonia Tavoletta (I think that was her name) took us on a manageable but detailed tour of the Vatican Museums. Trust me, this museum is overwhelming without some help! Phil Hughes was an extremely energetic guide to the Beatle’s sites of Liverpool. We made stops at Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, and he quizzed us on “deeper cuts” into places and people featured in Beatle’s songs. Péter Pölczman, a Hungarian travel guide, led us on our Rick Steves Eastern Europe Tour. As do many or the Rick Steves guides, he taught us history and politics, managed our schedule, recommended places to eat, and offered us friendly and wise counsel when things got too overwhelming. A well trained volunteer from SF City Guides walked us around the city and carefully explained much of the Art Deco era architecture to be found in San Francisco. A good guide can mean the difference between a trip that is wonderfully memorable or a nightmare. Thankfully, because of quality tour guides, most of our journeys have been the first type.
Spiritual Practice: Listen to Voices That Challenge You
Our common practice in 21st Century North America is to fill our inboxes, our screens, our digital feeds, and our minds with the words and voices of people who agree with us. Some have called this reality the “echo chamber.” But what if we deliberately seek out and listen to voices that challenge us? What if we intentionally break out of the echo chamber? What if we open our minds to people whose reality and viewpoints are so different from our own that there is actually some pain in listening to them?
I’m not sure I can do it for very long, but I have had this experience. Sometimes it comes as an unexpected thought from a person when my guard is not up. Sometimes it is a kind but jarring comment from someone I know and trust. I have one friend who deliberately listens thoughtfully to newscasts and opinion pieces that stand in opposition to his own political point of view. I wonder how a listening stance of true openness to voices of opposition might change me?
One particular experience comes to mind. In April of 2017 I traveled to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan with a group from our church. As I was in charge of coordinating this trip, I deliberately chose a travel company called Mejdi Tours. I selected this company for many reasons, but the most important was that they led trips that they then described as “Dual-Narrative” Tours. What this meant in practice is that we had two different tour guides with us the whole time. These guides had two very different histories and backgrounds. In our case, one was a Palestinian Muslim who grew up in Israel, and one was an Israeli Jew. Both were younger men, one was married, one not. It would have been nice to have one guide who was a woman, or perhaps someone who was older, yet these two men provided us a real breadth of perspectives—on history, on politics, on culture, on religion, and on life in this fascinating part of the world.
Eldad Brin was a native of Jerusalem, a scholar, with a dry wit and a skeptic’s mind. Samer Siam was also born in Jerusalem, lived and studied in Ohio for 10 years, and brought his own unique warmth and humor. Neither guide had met each other before our trip, but working together they opened up an amazing window into an Israel and Palestine we would never have seen in its fullness if not for both of them. We found our preconceptions challenged, strange people and places made a bit more familiar, and complicated situations made understandable.
It makes me wish I could have “multi-narrative guides” everywhere I go in life. I need to be challenged, but I am rarely willing to do it unless I feel some safety with and trust in my guide. Maybe there are times and places I can even be that guide for others. My hope for all of us is that we can truly listen to voices beyond our own, voices that help us grow in openness and understanding. Our lives depend on it. The future of our world depends on it.