Martin Gray owns two pairs of pants, three shirts and a pack for carrying his camera equipment. He just so happens to be on a mission from God. His purpose, as he sees it, is to photograph every major religious site in the world, so that their images can be preserved before these structures disappear because of wear and neglect. To do that, he has spent the last 17 years hitchhiking and riding his bike through 80 countries, photographing more than 1,000 sacred temples, buildings and altars.
His parents were diplomats, which "sort of ruined me for staying in one place," Gray says. Plus, there was the calling. "Don't laugh," Gray says, "but as a kid, I always saw myself as the latex glove of God....I want to put goodness out into the world."
He was less pious as a teenager, when he smoked a lot of hashish, had a cute French girlfriend and owned a motorcycle. He made extra cash guiding bohemians around Kashmir until his folks sent him to military school in Roswell, New Mexico. Then he returned to India and tried his hand at monkhood, but the monastic vows didn't take. That's one thing he has discovered about the clerics of every religion: They are notorious for hopping the fence to visit the women in town. Secluded congregations of men, he says, just resort to homosexuality. "Monastic traditions [such as poverty or celibacy] work great if you're an old man, but it's just not realistic for a 25-year-old," Gray says.
But living frugally was something he could manage. His mission came to him in a vision. Apparently he heard a voice during meditation that told him to follow the ancient pilgrimages, starting in Japan. "Plus," Gray admits, "the Indiana Jones movies were big at the time."
Since then, Gray has been photographing religious places and distributing the pictures on his Web site for free, supported only by charity and the admission he charges to his occasional slide shows. He opens his shows with a demonstration of movements he has picked up from a hodgepodge of practices from around the world. You might see him do yoga, tai chi or even juggling (yes, with bowling pins). Be forewarned: When the slides start, Gray can talk your ear off. "I want to keep it down to around two and a half hours," says Gray, who has been known to spin myths, stories and his own eclectic theology for almost twice that amount of time. But, he says, people always stay rooted in their seats until he's finished.
"I'm no religion, and all religions," Gray says. "I like the contemplation of Hinduism, the devotion of Christianity, the scholarliness of Judaism." But if pressed to label himself, he's an "enlightened pagan with an Eastern orientation."
Gray has found there's power in all religious places, which, he points out, get more visitors than any other tourist spots. People seem to have extraordinary spiritual experiences at them, which he calls an evolution of consciousness. Regardless, they should also make for one heck of a slide show.