Spirituality meets travel in William Claassen's “Journey Man”

Mar 23, 2013

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. 

When the world called, William Claassen said "Yes." 

The Columbia author has hitchhiked across North America, worked on a kibbutz in Israel and 

He recently published his third book, "Journey Man: A World Calling." The book tells of his travels through nine countries on four continenets over a 30-years span.

Underneath all those journeys, there's something spiritual. 

As a sophomore in high school, Claassen went on a church work trip to a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Growing up in a conservative town north of Wichita, Kansas, he'd never thought of Native American traditions being integrated with Christian traditions – but while in Arizona, that's just what he saw. 

"I think maybe that was the beginning of an awakening for me," he said. "Or an opening into spiritual and religious practices that were much broader than what I had ever experienced in my life up to that point."

After his junior year of high school, he worked on a Quaker project. There, he experienced another form of worship – this time, one that involved a lot of sitting in silence. And with it, he experienced another door opening, another awakening. 

And in 1973, he had another pivotal experience. He had monastic retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Other than what he'd read, he had no background in monastic practice, and he wasn't Catholic. But it was an introduction to yet another way of practicing religion. 

Since that retreat, he's continued to have other silent retreats – and other spiritual experiences. He's been part of a Buddhist sangha, and has been active with Sufi Muslim groups, to name a few. His interest has grown and continues to grow.

His journey have also involved some unplanned religious run-ins. In 1976, when he was hitchhiking from New York to Alaska and back in celebration of the nation's bicentennial, he hitched a ride with an Assemblies of God minister. The minister asked if he was saved, but the conversation went much deeper than that. The minister shared intimate details about his life, his family and his beliefs, and Claassen was able to ask questions and share his background – and that background is quite mixed. 

Claassen's family was a mix of Presbyterians and Mennonites – "traditional" protestants on his mother's side, and Mennonites on his father's side. 

Later, he was part of an Episcopalian community. In the 1980s, he was involved with a Catholic parish in Oregon that was a sanctuary for a Guatemalan refugee family. At the time, he was doing work on Latin American solidarity issues. 

As for the future, he would love to spend  some time in Ethiopia – there's a strong monastic tradition in the northern part of the country, in an Orthodox environment. He also hopes to go to Uruguay and Paraguay, and explore the Guarani population there. 

All of these travels are responses to life's calls – life calling him some place, and him responding with a "yes."

Do you find that traveling itself is a spiritual experience?

Absolutely. There's a British writer and producer by the name of Stephen Poliakoff, and I recently saw a film of his, and one of the characters in the film made a statement that "As long as I keep moving, I know who I am," and that really rang true to me. There's something about being on the road, there's something about continuing to move that reveals something about myself, and also keeps me open and to some extent vulnerable and available to whatever I happen to be experienceing at the time. And to me, that's – there's a spiritual element to that. So definitely, long treks, hitchiking, being on the road, being in a culture that I'm not familiar with, is very much of a spiritual experience for me.

You write that you like to carry a spirit-filled amulet – one example being a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Why do you carry something like that?

I think when I first started traveling long distances, I discovered that there were certain things that were helpful for me to have. I mean on a practical level, a Swiss army knife, basic cooking utensils, ground cover, a basic tent. There was also something about collecting items, spiriti-filled, or items that were reminders of somthing that created a foundation for me, or just a sense of well-being or security, so as I continued to travel, I began pikcking up amulets. They could be stones, they could be the St. Christopher's medal that I do cary with me, a little figure from Peru, a little stone figure. Just various little items that I put in my pocket, and if I'm in a situation that's particularly uncomfortable, or when I just feel like I need to be grounded, an amulet, or a little figurine, or a stone from a river in India, can be very helpful, can be very grounding for me.

What do you hope people get from reading "Journey Man"?

What I would hope that a reader would gain from reading this book was encouragement -- or is encouragement -- to follow their calls, to respond with a yes. If there is an intuitive  feeling about a strong interest, a passion toward something, then move on it -- go with it and see where it takes you. 

Listen to the full 10-minute conversation below: