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Faith-based destinations invite groups on spiritual journeys

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Southeastern destinations nurture the faithful and welcome pilgrims

By Lori Erickson

On some trips, all we want to do is kick back, soak up the sun and relax. But there’s another kind of travel that has drawn humans for millennia: spiritual journeys where the goal is to deepen one’s connection to the holy.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, more than 300 million people visit religious sites each year. Some are well-known, such as Jerusalem or Lourdes, but people also travel to out-of-the-way shrines, remote monasteries, and serene retreat and meditation centers.

The success of the books (and later films) Eat, Pray, Love and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is another indication of people’s interest in the spiritual side of travel.

“Faith-based travel is a large and growing market,” said Julie Hoover-Ernst, executive director of the Faith Travel Association. “In the United States alone, about 25 percent of travelers are interested in taking some sort of spiritual vacation, and that doesn’t include the many groups that combine service or mission trips with tourism to religious sites. People are looking for authentic, rich experiences that open their hearts to the spirit and nurture their ties to other pilgrims.”

Every corner of the world has spiritual sites. Here are six faith-based destinations in the Southeast region where groups can deepen their connection to the holy.

Festival of Faiths
Celebrating diversity of faiths

Tibetan Buddhist monks lead a prayer, Festival of Faiths, Louisville, Ky.

Tibetan Buddhist monks lead a prayer, Festival of Faiths, Louisville, Ky.
Photo: Festival of Faiths

For two decades, the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky, has been fostering religious tolerance and understanding. Typically held in May, the five-day event has been called “The Sundance of the Sacred,” with lectures, music, film, photography, poetry, theater and panel discussions featuring some of the world’s greatest religious leaders and teachers.

Past presenters have included the Dalai Lama, Huston Smith, Richard Rohr, Karen Armstrong, Coleman Barks and Deepak Chopra.

Each year is organized around a theme, from Sacred Journeys and Coming of Age Through the Eyes of Faith to Death and Transformation.

Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France
Historic landmark in New Orleans

In New Orleans, the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, is one of the city’s most beloved landmarks. Located next to Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter, parts of the building date to 1794.

Groups can enjoy tours focused on the history of the cathedral and then visit the Old Ursuline Convent, built in French Colonial style between 1748 and 1752. The former convent houses a museum with an exhibition that changes each year. “Holy Women, Holy Gifts,” a celebration of the contributions of vowed religious and laywomen, will run from Oct. 3, 2015, through May 30, 2016.

Explorations in Antiquity Center
Bringing ancient history to life

House and millstone, Explorations in Antiquity, LaGrange, Ga.

House and millstone, Explorations in Antiquity, LaGrange, Ga.
Photo: Explorations in Antiquity

The Explorations in Antiquity Center in LaGrange, Georgia, brings to life the history and culture of the ancient Biblical world. Founded by Dr. James Fleming, an expert in the archaeology of the Middle East, the center’s mission is to present the latest scholarship in vivid, experiential ways.

In addition to hundreds of artifacts on loan from the Israeli government, its exhibits include replicas of a first-century synagogue, a New Testament-era tomb and a Roman theater.

One of the most popular programs for groups is a four-course Biblical meal with explanations of social and religious customs relating to food. Another involves visitors in bread-making over a wood-fired oven similar to those used by desert shepherds. While the bread is cooking, participants make butter for the bread and then taste the fruits of their labors.

“We try to bring the ancient world to life through all of the senses,” said Derrick Lewis, chief operating officer for the center.

Eternal Word Television Network
Reaching the world from Alabama

Near Birmingham, Alabama, groups can tour the studios of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the largest religious media network in the world. Pilgrims can get glimpses of the behind-the-scenes technology that sends programs to more than 140 countries and may get the chance to be part of live TV programming such as “Threshold of Hope” and “Life on the Rock.”

The EWTN complex includes a chapel and a friary for the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, who welcome pilgrims, celebrate Holy Mass and give inspirational talks.

Billy Graham Library
A journey of faith

Billy Graham Library, Charlotte, N.C.

Billy Graham Library, Charlotte, N.C.
Photo: Billy Graham Library

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, tells the life story of the nation’s most famous evangelist and continues his mission of bringing Christianity to the world.

The 20-acre grounds include his 1927 childhood home as well as a library built in the shape of a barn in recognition of Graham’s upbringing on a dairy farm. The building houses multimedia exhibits; a bookstore named Ruth’s Attic in honor of Graham’s wife; and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, a restaurant serving meals as well as ice cream treats.

After touring the library and childhood home, groups can visit the Video Media Services department at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Walter Anderson Museum of Art
An unexpected spiritual destination

The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, shows that even secular institutions can provide spiritual insights.

Walter Anderson was an eccentric artist whose talent went virtually unrecognized during his life.

After his death in 1965, thousands of works of art were discovered, including a room in his cottage where every inch was covered with swirling patterns and dreamlike images. Psalm 104 was found on the floor of the room when he died; it is speculated the verse provided the inspiration for the work. The entire room was moved to the museum, which also displays many other pieces of Anderson’s work inspired by the spirituality of the natural world.

Groups can participate in an art-making project (typically printmaking) after touring the museum.

Looking for more spiritual journeys? Chapels, shrines and missions welcome wayfaring groups seeking sanctuary from a busy day of touring. Check out our list of five wayside religious sites for peaceful reflection.

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