Guest Essay:

We Traveled to Seattle:
A Pilgrimage of Transformation

by Ken Butigan
Franciscan School of Theology &
Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley


Seattle proved to be the last great pilgrimage of the twentieth century.
Aside from the occasional fealty and homage paid by e-pilgrims to the geeky founders of Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, Seattle hardly resembles a pilgrimage site in the traditional sense.

While rife with abundant charm, the self-described Emerald City perched on the cusp of the Pacific Rim is no Jerusalem, Rome, Machu Picchu, or Benares. But then again, pilgrimage itself has undergone a profound transformation in the last hundred years. While millions still swell Mecca, Lourdes, and the cities dotting the Ganges every year, another form of  "sacred journey" emerged in the twentieth century with as much or even more power. Those who traveled to Seattle in late November to protest the World Trade Organization meeting there consciously or unconsciously participated in this new, potent form of pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage for our times

Modern pilgrimage was paradigmatically defined by Gandhi's 1930 march to the sea. His 261-mile procession challenged the British monopoly on salt. More importantly, it defied imperial rule once and for all. Here was a bold public ritual in which spirituality and politics were dramatically interwoven. It was a sojourn from bondage to freedom palpably symbolized in practical, corporeal, kinesthetic actuality. These were real, live human beings mobilizing the most powerful symbol at their disposal-their inspirited bodies-in loving, relentless resistance.  Theirs was literally a movement: a restless journey to the ocean and, eventually, to liberation. 

Since Gandhi's pilgrimage, others have followed in his footsteps. We recall Martin Luther King, Jr.'s pilgrimage in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African-Americans, and the peregrinacion that Cesar Chavez led from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 to call for economic justice and dignity for California's migrant poor. There have been numerous other pilgrimages around the world demanding an end to violence and injustice, including journeys to the Nevada Test Site and other atomic proving grounds located on the land of indigenous peoples.

Then there are the other pilgrimages: pilgrimages of remembrance, of reckoning, and occasionally, of healing. The survivors of the Holocaust who journey to Auschwitz. African-American pilgrims who cross the ocean to see with their own eyes the embarkation points on the West Coast of Africa where slaves were dispatched to America. Nisei and Sansei who travel to the Manzanar and Tule Lake concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. The U.S. veterans who stand  brooding before the Vietnam Wall in Washington.

The pilgrimage to Seattle

"Pilgrims," Richard R. Niebuhr writes, "are persons in motion-passing
through territories not their own-seeking something we might call
completion." James Preston speaks of pilgrimage as "spiritual magnetism."
In more traditional terms, Jean and Wallace Clift point out that there are
many different reasons why pilgrims set out on their journey: to hope and
ask for a miracle; to give thanks; to achieve pardon; to answer an inner
call; to experience a place of power; to express love of God; to reclaim
lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of ourselves; to prepare for death; or
to get outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen.

Pilgrimage, in short, is an actively mobilized process of bearing witness
to woundedness and to the mysterious possibilities of sacredness.
Tens of thousands of people journeyed to Seattle to protest the injustice
of the WTO and the perils it poses to indigenous societies, labor
standards, human rights, civil liberties, and environmental integrity.
While these concerns were largely expressed in political and sociological
terms, I would interpret them as deeply cultural and profoundly spiritual.
The dizzying events that transpired in Seattle represent many of the
motivations for pilgrimage. These "modern pilgrims" were drawn-almost
magnetically, as Preston would phrase it-to a place that momentarily
intersected with history and challenged its crushing inevitability. The
urgency of this journey came from a deep intuition that the great web of
violence in which we are caught today is spun by large economic and
political forces, and that the instructions for this "web design" for the
next decades were about to be codified in a very few short days on the
shores of Puget Sound.

It is not enough to view this as ideological or a form of political
analysis. In fact, we "traveled to Seattle" to defamiliarize the familiar,
to ask for pardon, to reclaim lost parts of ourselves, to express gratitude
that we have one another and the Earth, to show love for a God whose name
is Justice and Compassion and who longs for the Beloved Community, and to
hope-and ask for-a miracle.

And what did we get? The December 3 headline of the San Jose Mercury News read: "Protests' Power to Alter Public Awareness." The banner of the top story in the Sunday edition of th e Los Angeles Times on December 5
declared, "WTO is Humbled, Changed Forever by Outside Forces."
These are very preliminary judgments, but they signal the way in which the
juggernaut of globalization has, at the very least, been problematized.
There is an ambiguity attached to so-called "free trade" in a way that was
not true a very short time ago. The events in Seattle broke the spell of
inevitable and unquestioned authority of global capital. This, in turn, has
laid the groundwork for a process of social and cultural transformation
which has the potential to make the world more just, more ecologically
sensitive, and ultimately a more peaceful place.

Pilgrimage of nonviolent change

Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled one of his essays the "Pilgrimage to
Nonviolence." In spite of the impression left by much of the media
coverage, 99.98% of the people who participated in the Seattle activities
echoed King's "nonviolent pilgrimage" in word and deed.

Sadly, this was not the case with the Seattle police. The police created an
unnecessarily provocative and confrontational atmosphere with unprovoked
attacks on peaceful demonstrators (and a relatively small group of vandals
who broke windows and spray-painted graffiti on storefronts and sidewalks).
Countless others exercised nonviolence and thus symbolically embodied the
heart of the pilgrimage required to change ourselves and the world: the
journey in which we as individuals and as a people recognize our own
woundedness and sacredness so that we can see, and respond to, the
woundedness and sacredness of the other. In such a journey of love and
courage, neither self-righteousness nor violence has a place.

A pilgrim future

The word pilgrim comes from the Latin legal word pelegrinus, meaning a
"stateless person" or a person without a country. It has the connotation of
one who "journeys between states." As we struggle to understand and live
out interdependence without succumbing to the seduction and trap of the
monoculture that "globalization" promises, perhaps this sense of
pilgrimage-as a transformation beyond either nationalism or corporate
integration-can fruitfully illuminate the journey we are called to
undertake together in the coming century.

Ken Butigan participated in the events in Seattle as a peacekeeper with the
Global Exchange contingent. He was born in Seattle.  Ken is an adjunct professor at the Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He directs "From Violence to Wholeness," a program in nonviolence education for the Pace e Bene Franciscan Nonviolence Center and is co-editor of  Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1984). He can be reached at

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