A minister’s family journey to sacred spaces a world away, shared with his church family in beautiful images, words

Our small, close-knit congregation at The Welcome Table Christian Church in southwest Arlington enjoyed quite a treat — two, really — on the first Sunday of Advent. It was also Commitment Sunday, as we all made our pledges of support to the church and its vital outreach efforts for 2023.

First of all, after our morning service, we broke bread during an all-church barbecue luncheon in the sanctuary. It was delicious, including some scrumptious desserts that several members graciously made to share with us all.

And, while we were enjoying the Rudy’s-catered meal, our amazing pastor, Jeremy Skaggs, entertained — and educated — us with a slide show of over 160 photos from the European sabbatical trip that he, wife Laurie, daughter Libby and son Hayden (two of their four kids) took in late May/June. The family shot countless photos, and to limit his presentation to a reasonable length (with Laurie’s help/cajoling), Jeremy cut the number to about 200. Unfortunately, technical difficulties kept us from seeing about 40 of them.

In a perfect touch, the family also decorated every table in the sanctuary with themes of the various places they visited — Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm and lots of others — with magnifique photos, brochures and other mementos, adding special pieces such as a Lego Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and churches in the City of Light.

At every stop along the way, in France, Italy (Venice), Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands — I hope I’m not leaving any countries out! — the Skaggs family’s life-changing, life-affirming trip focused on sacred spaces. Traveling extensively by train, they took in nearly every place of worship they could find, most dating back centuries upon centuries, and learned so much about each. Some they had researched and planned to visit; others they stumbled across, like in Venice, where Jeremy said there’s practically a church at every turn.

It was mesmerizing to listen to him speak so knowledgeably about all the churches/cathedrals — their history, architecture, artwork, royalty/spiritual leaders buried inside, the damage sustained by many during wartime, the gigantic doors, and much more.

Just a few of the breathtakingly beautiful churches the family visited were the Reims Cathedral, Chartres Cathedral, Basilica of Saint-Denis and Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde in France; Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth in Venice; St. Peter’s Abbey and Cemetery, the Cathedral of Salzburg and University Church of Salzburg University, all in Salzburg, Austria; the Basilica of St. Michael and former abbey in Mondsee, Austria — where the memorable wedding scene in The Sound of Music was filmed; The Westerkerk (“Western Church”) in Amsterdam; and Helligåndskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) in Copenhagen.

For months before the family left on their sabbatical adventure, Jeremy talked excitedly about the prayer labyrinths he couldn’t wait to see and spend time walking in and communing with God. I’ll have to be honest — I don’t know much about labyrinths other than the little I’ve read online, but they became commonplace in Christian churches in Europe during the Middle Ages.

In simplest terms, they are spaces to walk and pray, but they can be anything to anyone who seeks a deeper connection with self or with God. I’m sure Jeremy has a more precise count, but it’s safe to say he and his family saw (and walked) dozens of labyrinths along their journey. It’s a miracle in itself that Jeremy did all the walking the trip required on his bum left hip, since he was four months away from a badly needed second hip replacement.

While in Sweden, they spent time on the island of Gotland, where, according to Jeremy’s FB page, they drove 302 miles, explored 29 medieval churches and walked 10 labyrinths — and Libby found one secret passage. In Stockholm, the family was stunned to see a Texas flag hanging outside a restaurant, only to learn it’s actually owned by a Texan! Of course, they had to eat there, and of course, barbecue was consumed.

The trip was a spiritually fulfilling experience for the four of them. But nowhere was the emotional impact more palpable than when they crossed from Austria into Germany to visit the Dachau concentration camp north of Munich.

Jeremy showed the congregation a few heart-wrenching photos from the site as well as several of the memorials and chapels. It was really difficult to see. He choked up when a photo he took of a drooping, dying rose that someone had inserted through the small exterior window of a gas chamber appeared on the screen.

The sabbatical trip was funded through a grant from the Eli Lilly and Company’s Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, created in 2000. Jeremy was one of seven pastors in Texas, and 190 nationwide, to receive the grants last year. According to the Christian Theological Seminary, which has administered them since 2012, “The grants honor the immense amount of energy, time and leadership that pastors invest in their congregations.”

Congregations in the 2021 program received grants totaling almost $9 million.

“The grants help congregations honor and support their pastors by funding a respite from persistent ministerial duties and enabling pastors to engage in a period of extended reflection and renewal,” according to the Christian Theological Seminary’s website. “Recipients may use the respite for activities that allow them to reflect and renew while engaging in activities such as travel, scholarly research or immersive experiences with different cultures and traditions.”

What a wonderful gift to our church and an incredible opportunity for Jeremy and his family to grow their spirituality in a bonding way they’ll never forget. Our congregation family is blessed to have him as a strong, reasoned, reflective and passionate voice bringing us God’s word each Sunday — while also preaching the gospel of love and inclusiveness that God’s people need to hear, take to heart and spread. 🙏 ⛪️

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