Beliefnet
This week, Burt and Peggy Oliphant of Red Lodge, Mont., are joining thousands of Mormons trekking to Palmyra, N.Y., to participate in one of the largest outdoor religious pageants in America. They will witness more than 600 actors simulating the conversion of founder Joseph Smith, complete with Hollywood-style special effects that include explosions, earthquakes and volcanoes. Then they will follow Smith's footsteps through Sacred Grove--where he had a divine revelation that led to formation of the church--and his recreated home.

"We could go to more unusual places than this," explains Burt Oliphant, who first came to the annual pageant 5 years ago. "But we feel here like we are coming home because here are the spiritual roots of our faith and a community of like believers."

The Oliphants are among a growing number of Americans who are casting aside old assumptions and meshing their vacations with their religious faith. Previously, the faithful spent their free time in prayers and Scriptural study at their churches or synagogues. But this kind of religious vacation belies former assumptions that religion and secular society are always at odds.

While many of us will languish at seaside and mountainside this summer, a large and growing segment of Americans will vacation with a religious flavor and in diverse venues, helped along by an eager segment of the travel industry.

Two and one-half million Christians will travel abroad in 2001 compared with just 1 million 20 years ago, says Irving Hexham, who is the editor of Christian travelers' guides to Great Britain, Italy, Germany and France.

Soluna Tours Sacred Journeys, which organizes tours to both new-age and classical religious locations, accompanied by scholars, ran three tours in 1995. In 2001, it will send 30 tours.

The Virginia-based Ariadne Institute offers two pilgrimages and one retreat for women, including sites on the islands of Lesvos and Crete. There, female pagan goddesses and feminine aspects of Christianity, such as nunneries and the mother-daughter relationship of Anne and Mary, are explored.

The outdoors, too, is a natural site where vacation and religion fuse. Dave Wienk is Web master at www.fisher-of-man.com, where Christians can find vacation spots that are compatible with Christian values. When he started the site several years ago, 50-60 hits came weekly. Now, through more search engines, the religious market brings 3,000-10,000 weekly hits. Wienk sees the Christian component as ranging from a family-friendly environment to the sponsorship of daily Bible instruction and prayer opportunities.

Christian family camping has burgeoned, too. In 1996, approximately 5.5 million people attended Christian camps and conference centers. In 2000, nearly 7.5 million attended. They come to sites such as Forest Home in California's San Bernardino Mountains, which hosts 60,000 residents yearly and 100 families weekly through the summer season.

Bible lessons for adults and children, time alone to pray and dinner as a family punctuate a full day of outdoor activities. Mount Hermon family camps in California have seen the same rush of seekers. In 1996, its revenue was $1.5 million. In 2000 it was nearly $1.9 million.

Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Retreat Center in the Catskill Mountains, begun part time in 1992, now teaches year-round the spiritual underpinnings of Judaism through prayer, meditation and dance.

Why this surge of pilgrims into diverse vacation settings?

Partially responsible are the usual suspects: maturing baby boomers now seeking religion. Lillian Abdur Raman, 45 years old, is one who, after becoming a Muslim 26 years ago, left her home in Indianapolis to travel last year with her husband for hajj, the Islamic holy pilgrimage to Mecca. "People need to reconnect with God," she explains, "so we go back to these ancient places."

But the search of aging baby boomers such as Raman is only part of the explanation for the increase. Religions comprise more than beliefs. All faiths have a material side: foods eaten, symbols displayed, clothing worn and buildings of worship. Because American society is so materialistic, this concrete expression of faith becomes especially important in the United States. Time away combined with the spirit is the newest expression of material religion.

Spiritual vacationing is burgeoning because the believer can be faithful in a very American sort of way.

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