Service travel: a vacation or vocation?

After the recent, tragic death of Anthony Bourdain, the famous foodie and CNN travelista, The New York Times described his traveling philosophy as treating each new place as an “environment to interact with, something that changes you through the encounter and that you inevitably change by visiting.”

Maybe Bourdain’s life can inspire new travel pilgrims. Such folks can be called both volunteers and servants. Upshot: Go on a trip, encounter a new country and culture, but also give back to it, learn from it and transform yourself — and hopefully the world.

As I head out on a trip with 20 other pilgrim-volunteers to Lourdes, France (helping around the famous baths there), and then hiking the Camino in Spain, I’m excited for all of us as we both encounter magnificent cultures, but also change into someone new.

When traveling in 2010 on a service pilgrimage to Zambia, which included a visit to Victoria Falls and a safari, one of our pilgrim volunteers was inspired by the international volunteers we met in an aid center there and said she wanted to return. She is now there on a two-year stint with the Peace Corps.

More people are doing this — making adventure volunteer trips overseas. Kind of like eco-tourism began a decade ago, service trips are in vogue nowadays. Maybe for you: this summer or next?

I still remember, from my pilgrimage service trip in the summer of 1993 to India, meeting Nan and Kirk, a couple from New Mexico who volunteered bi-annually with (then) Mother Teresa and her sisters in Calcutta. Marital bliss comes in different forms.

On a service trip to Peru (Machu Picchu was a goal), our group served high in the Andes. A dentist friend and a dozen others served the poor there and watched them grinning at a fountain as they tried to use their first-ever toothbrushes.

One of our past pilgrims is now serving the poor in Tunisia, North Africa. Another servant tourist of ours will join the Franciscan order to serve the poor all over the world.

Once, when we were serving in Tanzania, we met some other westerners who were from, where? Baltimore! We formed an immediate kinship with them — a solidarity in serving.

In Paris a few years ago, our youth learned that solidarity doesn’t always require words. The homeless couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t utter French, though each group grew from our outreach nonetheless.

A difficult lesson I needed to learn, and also pass on, was that the poor overseas sometimes want to give us Americans food, candy or a small gift in return for our service. My initial reaction was to decline this gesture. It took time to realize it is better to give and receive, and to help our youth and volunteers to graciously accept gifts from the poor, as this was their humble, yet eloquent, expression of gratefulness.

Maybe you can’t travel afar. You can learn and serve a different way, then. We received a Cameroon priest recently who described his village, where children have no clean, running water and literally die from it. Our people here gave generously to his cause, right from the pews.

So travel if you can and experience adventure, but serve regardless — and grow.

Rev. John J. Lombardi ( is pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock and author of “Thirty Three Breaths: A Little Book on Meditation” (Cathedral Foundation Press).

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