Faith prints, wisdom exchanges part of TourMagination trips.
By Mike Strathdee
As Printed in The Marketplace - September/October 2017
Even in her childhood, travel was a passion for Audrey Voth Petkau.
“I always had a dream to see the world,” she recalls. “I remember early on, looking at a map of the world, and pointing to Switzerland, and saying, some day, I’m going to get there.”
As owner of TourMagination (TM), a Waterloo, On-based provider of faith-based group tours for Mennonites and other Christians, Petkau has visited many countries on every continent. “I can honestly say I am much richer for the friends that I have made as I have travelled with TM.”
Travel was a regular part of the Winnipeg native’s childhood vacations. Each summer, her father, Toby Voth, would take two weeks away from his company, which designed and built large steel structures, and take the family on an adventure.
Trips included Florida, Texas, California, Mexico and New York City. “All seven of us, plus the dog in a station wagon, driving for days. We would almost always stay in one motel room. You can imagine the inevitable conflicts that arise with so many people in close quarters, but my father always made it fun.”
Her father became a pilot and purchased a small plane so he could travel to his job sites, mostly in northern Manitoba. “Occasionally, if we were lucky, he would take one of us to accompany him. That was a thrill for me. He liked new experiences, and he taught me to approach the world with an open mind.”
Other lessons learned from her dad included how to relate to people, in life and business. “He and his brothers started a construction business in Winnipeg that prospered, and became an industrial contracting company. My father was very personable, and made friends with everyone. Though he was a successful business owner, he paid attention to people at all levels of society.”
“In business, my father set an example of honesty in all relationships. He cared about people, even those who didn’t pay him. He wanted to find a way to negotiate and work things out, rather than take things to court, and he never held a grudge.”
Audrey attended Bible college in Winnipeg, then married husband Terry, who works for Habitat for Humanity Canada’s national office in Waterloo. She raised their two sons, worked in banking, went back to university to study apparel design, then operated a small business for a decade. “Like my father, I enjoyed being my own boss. As soon as I learned my own trade, I went into business.”
Active in church and Mennonite Brethren conference boards, she found her interest in education and history prepared her for her current work at TM.
Initially hired by TM in 2002 as office manager, she became co-owner with Wilmer and Janet Martin in 2010. She became sole owner in 2016.
TourMagination started in Lancaster, Penn. and did its first tour in 1970. Now headquartered in Waterloo, the firm has a receiving office in Ephrata to receive US mail.
Wilmer Martin, Petkau’s predecessor, did his first tour, an overview of European Anabaptist sites, in 1973, as a young lay pastor. By the late 1970s, Martin owned TM along with partner Henry (Hank) Landis. Landis sold his stake in TM to Martin in 2009.
The firm does 16-20 tours a year. Audrey travels on four or five trips annually. Many of TM’s tour guides are academics or Mennonite church leaders. “All of our tour leaders share an open-hearted desire to learn from others, express a vibrant Christian faith, and share an expertise, either in Biblical scholarship, or related to a particular country we travel to.”
Asked about her favorite destination, Petkau finds it difficult to pick less than a handful. But she concedes that Israel is a favorite. “If you ever doubted there was a Jesus, you don’t doubt it after coming back from Israel/Palestine. The Bible means so much more, makes so much more sense, and becomes more familiar after you have visited Nazareth, and Jerusalem, and other places that we have read about through the years.”
Antarctica, Europe, Morocco and such rugged destinations such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also make her list of favorite destinations. She has many fond memories of interaction with Muslim people in the latter countries, finding them hospitable and kind.
“It surprises you every time you go — one person will extend themselves to you, unexpectedly,” she said.
“I have also been impacted by the generosity of strangers on my travels. I recall meeting a Muslim imam in a remote village in Uzbekistan… Though he didn’t know us, the imam invited our tour group to his brother’s home and shared a meal with us. His warm hospitality was touching.”
One of TM’s distinctives is its efforts to connect participants to the work of MEDA, Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference in the countries the tours visit. “Where possible, we expose our travellers to the fine works of these organizations around the world.”
“For us, travelling has always been beyond tourism. Over the past 40-plus years, TourMagination has worked hard to make each trip a meaningful experience. On our tours, we visit popular tourist sites, but we also learn about the cultures we are visiting while interacting with the people. As tour members hear from the people, their hearts are moved to pray, and at times,take action.”
Faith prints and wisdom exchanges are the terms Petkau uses to describe her company’s efforts to add significance to sightseeing. “My goal is to live authentically,” she said. “I am challenged to live every day, to live a more God-centred lifestyle, and I see my work with TourMagination as an expression of that God-centred way of living.”
A faith print is a generic experience, what TM promotes as a company. A wisdom exchange is a specific engagement on a tour that involves talking to local people, sometimes learning from each other and sharing with each other, Petkau said.
“These kinds of experiences leave a faith print on the hearts of those who travel on our tours, and on people in the communities we visit.”
The faith print concept was coined at a TourMagination staff meeting five years ago. “It’s what we want to be identified as (providing through tours),” Petkau says.
To be more intentional about faith prints on tours, TM sometimes includes optional charitable projects. Volunteer service opportunities and wisdom exchanges in which tour members can participate.
All service projects are developed in consultation with requests from the community. “We live out our faith by serving the people we visit. On some Holy Land tours, have volunteered at Nazareth Village in their harvest of olives. “As with our giving projects, we will ensure our service opportunities actually benefit the people we are trying to help.”
Petkau describes her current business status as being well into the first year of 10-year plan.
“Most people sell a company when they are 60, and I bought one. It’s ok. Because I have the energy, and I like the challenge, and I’m up for it, well, I feel I am up for it.” ◆