An unwanted trip to the Dominican Republic changed life for Stephan Tchividjian, pastor, business leader and grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham.

Tchividjian spoke about “The Power of Faith-based Travel” and led a panel discussion on growing ministry through faith-based travel during the sessions hosted by the Faith Travel Association in New Orleans recently.

He explained that he traveled a lot as a child because his father was from Switzerland. His family went to Europe often — even crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth once.

But in high school, his parents “forced” him to go on a two-week trip to do relief work in the Dominican Republic, his first faith-related travel.

He thought the trip would ruin his summer but heard that a girl he liked was going.

“I can spend two weeks and maybe really fall in love with this girl,” he said he thought at the time.

Except not “even 10 minutes into the flight … she’s already beginning to flirt with the guy sitting next to her.”

Tchividjian said, “I had this deep sinking feeling like the next two weeks are going to be completely wasted. That changed in 48 hours. Why? Because of the experience. I began falling in love with the people in the Dominican Republic. Began to understand their plight and circumstances. Began to understand that they were no different than me other than they were born in the Dominican Republic and I happened to be born in the United States.

“I forgot about the girl and fell in love with the people,” he said.

Tchividjian started the afternoon session by pointing out that most of life’s highlights are not memories of things. Memories come from experiences.

And he quickly turned from experience to faith.

“There’s many definitions of the word faith; you can look them up in the dictionary. My favorite is the one that we find in the Bible, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.’ ” (Hebrews 11:1)

“I hope that we don’t relegate faith travel to ‘this is a place we go to and see some sites,’ ” he said. “… It’s much more than the site, it’s what that represents. It’s the sacrifice that went into those sites. It’s the history. It’s beginning to understand the substance.”

Travel helps people move from the hope and provides the evidence.

“We hope for world peace, we hope for joy,” Tchividjian said. “It’s easy to just sit on our couches and think about it from afar. … But when it’s the substance, it’s the experience.

“Don’t look at the world from afar, seek to be a part of it,” he said.

He shared how one of his daughters made her first trip to the Middle East at age 16. That trip began to change her worldview “as she is beginning to fall in love with a people. And fall in love with a part of the world. And now as she watches the news, it’s a whole different experience.”

He used three ideas of how faith and experience color travel.

Experience of faith to act

“In the West, we can fall into being participants. We come, we view from afar, as if we are spectators,” Tchividjian said. In faith-based travel, “You have a chance to become part of the story.”

He talked about a friend who is the child of a missionary doctor in Nigeria. His father had built a hospital in a remote part of the country.

This friend left Nigeria at 18 and eventually built a very successful aviation company in Florida.

A few years ago, this friend took his wife to Nigeria for the first time. Upon arrival, he realized the hospital became dilapidated after his father retired.

“He and his wife have spent the past 5 years refurbishing that hospital, a $4 million to $5 million project. He’s bringing it up to standards with the latest technology. He’s building a runway and getting an airplane. … Why? Because a successful businessman and his wife decided, ‘Let’s take a couple of weeks so I can show you where I grew up.’ … He could have looked at pictures in his living room, but because he was there, all of sudden he began to experience” change.

Faith to learn

Tchividjian spent a lot of time talking about how the experience of travel leads people to learn.

Among the most dramatic of his experiences was as an 18-year-old traveling to Jordan, Lebanon, Instanbul and Britain.

As they were driving through the desert, a friend who was a biblical scholar would point to things such as Bedouin tents and explain how the Bedouins live in a manner similar to the way Abraham lived.

“As much as we were in a modern country, I was transported back in time. I was seeing and feeling and smelling things as if I was really (in the) Old Testament,” Tchividjian said.

They were in Lebanon just after the Marines were killed in the 1980s. There they saw reminders of war: shattered glass, militias yelling at them and being awakened by helicopters.

He recalled being at a dinner party: “The host was out in the street, anxious and nervous. I remember him demanding to know the owner of every single car on the road because he wanted to make sure they were guests at his house, and he wanted to make sure there were no car bombs.”

He summarized this as learning the reality of “living in a place of tensions and the great compassion you begin to have for the people who live in the various places of tension. You think of those who care for the refugees and who live in places of war or who live in places of religious and political tension.

“As a young man, my worldview was shaping because of experience.”

The faith to influence

Tchividjian said he and his wife decided to take one daughter out of her private Christian school in her senior year.

“This daughter is our wild child, the one that kept my wife and I awake at night,” he said.

They sent her to South Africa for four months to work with a small group of young people with a charity.

“Some of our peers asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ … I said, ‘No, if you’ve lived with her, South Africa’s not even far enough.’ ”

She’s gone back to Africa several times since.

“We’ve watched this transformation of this child who came back to the United States and started this little charity. She’s helping kids who live in difficult situations.”

The transformation wasn’t because of her school or her parents’ lectures or counselors.

“She had it all,” Tchividjian said. The transformation “was because she got on an airplane and immersed herself in a whole other culture.”