This January, during my winter break, I traveled with about thirty other college students from Massachusetts to Israel and Palestine for a 10-day Christian pilgrimage. The group was led by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Shaw, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Bishop Shaw, along with Rev. Bob Tobin and his wife Maurine, have been taking American groups to the Middle East to promote dialogue and peace activism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was part of Bishop Shaw’s first group of college students, after almost twenty years of this ministry.
We spent some time in Jerusalem and Galilee, but the majority of the trip was focused on spending time with Palestinians, Palestinian Christians in particular. We visited Hebron, Ramallah, Bir Zeit University, Jericho, and Bethlehem on day trips. I witnessed unbelievable squalor, went through Israeli checkpoints, and walked along the Wall. My most disturbing realization was not the injustice itself, but the fact that none in the Western world has any idea that this is happening.
Each of us spent four nights with a Palestinian host family in Beit Sahour, the town internationally known for the single largest peaceful resistance during the second intifada. My host father, Jerias, is an olive wood carver. His shop is on the first level of his home, and the second and third level are for his family and his son’s family. I was most impressed with how the community has pulled together; everyone is simply trying to live their lives by raising children, going to school, working, and visiting friends. There is an underlying tension of the obvious injustice of road blocks and house demolitions, but it is not until I triggered my host father with an innocent question that anger or fear is in his voice and I am shown the bullet holes embedded in the wall of their bedroom that came within inches of their son’s head. I will never forget the cheer and fullness of my family’s hospitality, and I hope that by spreading their story to anyone who will listen will somehow repay the kindness they showed me.
It is still hard for me to talk fully about my experiences, because I still have not had time to fully process what I have seen. But my life has changed. I approach this conflict, or any conflict, differently now, with a greater sense of objectivity and skepticism of the media. I read newspapers with new eyes. And I am now a witness to the truth. I have seen what so few from the Western world have. This fact bears, whether I like it or not, a degree of responsibility. It is my duty as a Christian, nay, a human being, to tell the stories of people who do not have a voice, people who have lost loved ones, their homes, their very identities, and the means or will to live. Wish me luck.