LIMA — The Rev. Patricia Meeks has only been the pastor at Sugar Creek Church of the Brethren since January, but it has been an exciting year for her and for her congregation.
This summer, Meeks and three other Church of the Brethren pastors, Andrew Sampson, Brian Flory and David Bibbee, all from the Fort Wayne area, traveled for two weeks to Ireland and Scotland as part of a grant study.
The Bethany Theological Seminary in Indiana received the grant, which is for “sustaining pastoral excellence,” eight years ago through the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly Co. They received $2 million.
Meeks’ group of four pastors was the last group, as the money is now gone, and the grant is complete.
“Between 60 to 70 groups have gotten grants from that money over the past eight years,” Meeks said.
To qualify for the grant, all the members of a group had to be functioning pastors in a church. There were three to six pastors allowed in each group.
“You didn’t necessarily have to be Church of the Brethren,” Meeks said, “but most of the groups were.”
Each group headed to England had to come up with a question to study. Meeks’ group applied in March 2011 and decided what it wanted to study and where it wanted to go by May 2011.
“It is a complicated question,” Meeks said. “To put it simply, we were led to study Celtic spirituality and how we’ve lost our connection with spirituality. In the U.S., spirituality has become more about legalism and religion.”
The group, which included Meeks’ spouse, Dennis, was gone from July 23 to Aug. 6 and arrived first in Ireland. The pastors visited many of the historical churches in that country, including Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the national cathedral of Ireland. They also visited the campus of Trinity College in Dublin and toured the city of Belfast.
For Meeks, one of the highlights of the trip was when the group visited Giant’s Causeway, located in Northern Ireland on the coast.
“It is one of the most stunning features on the planet,” she said. “Many artists and writers have gone there for inspiration. We all fell in love with it because it is so pure. It’s untouched by civilization, and that made it noteworthy for me.”
Once in Scotland, the group traveled to the Isle of Iona, where the pastors stayed eight days at the MacLeod Centre, a spiritual retreat center which is part of Iona Abbey. The abbey dates back to the seventh century and was where the group did most of its workshops and worship services. These were led by well-known international lecturer, musician and author, John Bell.
While on the Isle of Iona, Meeks' group also took a day trip to Staffa, part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Staffa is also the location of Fingal’s Cave, which is similar in structure to the Giant’s Causeway. Because of its size, the naturally arched roof and the echo of the waves, the cave has a cathedral-like atmosphere.
“Staffa was rich in natural history,” Meeks said. “(Felix) Mendelssohn wrote his ‘Hebrides Overture’ there. There were also other things like the Basalt ruins.”
While Meeks enjoyed the entire trip, the Isle of Iona and Staffa were special to her.
“Everything there is very old, the nunneries and churches. It’s easy to see why people went there and settled there,” she said.
For Meeks, the trip gave her an awareness of the things that get in the way of spirituality.
“There is a connection with the natural world, and that natural world is where we get our energy from,” she said. “What I was trying to bring back to my congregation was that we need to make it more of a priority to keep that connection.”
While there, the group learned a lot about its original question. While the visitors have not come to a definitive answer, they are well on their way to answering it.
“The Native Americans were very connected to the earth and their surroundings,” Meeks said. “The Celtics were like that, as well. What happened to that? We have a hunch that it had a lot to do with the Industrial Revolution and our need in this country to move west and build the country.”
The group will have to answer the question by February. The group members fly to Los Angeles, Calif., to give a two-hour presentation on their findings to the six other groups that also did grant studies this year and select faculty from Bethany Theological Seminary. Their presentation will include the books they read, their travel experiences and what they learned through it all.
In the mean time, Meeks’ congregation has been very supportive of her trip and studies.
“Considering I’m new here,” she said, “they have been very accepting and very excited about what I have learned and brought back.”