Monday, 31 March 2014 08:10

Lancaster Theological Seminary Group

Greetings! We are writing to you from Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank where we successfully arrived this afternoon. Our journey began together Saturday morning at Lancaster Theological Seminary. We first travelled to Newark International Airport, for our ten hour direct flight to Tel Aviv, with close to a four-hour delay we ended up in the plane for almost 12 hours. Needless to say when we arrived in Tel Aviv we were more than ready to leave the plane and walk. After a successful custom entry process we met our Guide and proceeded to Bethlehem to the Holy Family Hotel.  Once we settled into our rooms it was a temptation to lay down and rest after almost 30 hrs travel time, but the group managed to keep the scheduled meeting for a late lunch and a short orientation. We then got on the stop for our first visit to the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center (Wi’am means Agape in Arabic).

 As we arrived we were taken to the roof top of the building to view the city at sunset and see the impact of the Israeli Separation Wall on Bethlehem, including the nearby Aida Refugee Camps and its lovely Mosque tower. We then settled in the conference room and had a heart-moving presentation from the Christian Palestinian director of the Wi’am that practices nonviolence and restorative justice. It felt as if we were in the presence of a prophet. He reminded us of the courage we had to travel to the Middle East at this time, to come and see the truth for ourselves. After a Q&A our hosts extended the table with a delicious Palestinian rice and meat meal we all shared. And yes we did our first shopping at their small craft shoppe to support the centers work which was not hard to do. We concluded our day with a short debriefing mostly praying and checking up on where we would before we returned to the hotel and rest for the next day. Least to say we all would more than ready to settle down and allowed our pilgrimage body and souls to rest in our first night sleep in the land of many realities. All are well and thanks for your ongoing prayers.

 6 January 2014

Dear Friends,

 After a restful night sleep, we awoke on this Orthodox Christmas Eve! Some of us awoke to the sounds of prayers from the nearby mosque and others heard the church bells ringing as preparation for the Christmas Eve celebrations took place. After breakfast and a period of devotion at the Holy Family Hotel, we departed for a short (but hilly!) walk to Manger Square. Manger Square is the home of the Church of the Nativity and the central point for today’s Christmas Eve celebration. We entered the Church of the Nativity, marveling at the church that is said to be built on the very spot where Jesus was born! From there, we entered St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church which is connected to the Church of the Nativity, and explored the caves below. As we entered, facing an altar dedicated to St. Joseph, we were informed that directly on the other side of the wall behind the altar was where Jesus is said to have been born! What a moving place to be!

 After exploring the churches, we had some free time to roam Manger Square and the experience celebrations that were taking place. Several of us decided to attend Mass at St. Catherine of Alexandria Church as they celebrated Epiphany. Soon thereafter, we gathered for lunch and had falafels (arguably the best in the world!) and enjoyed the parade of marching bands as they entered Manger Square for the celebration.

 We then descended the hills of Bethlehem to board our bus which then took us to the small village of Al Walajah (which was a very hilly drive)! Upon arrival, we saw firsthand the predicament that the wall being built by Israel is causing for many Palestinians (such as farmers who now face great difficulty getting to their land…even homeowners now having limited access to their own homes)! We experienced the hospitality of the local community center as we continued our discussion of the issues facing the village (oh, and did I mention the hills we had to climb and descend?!?). From there, we once again boarded the bus, headed back to Bethlehem, and visited Bethlehem Bible College where we got a very informative lesson on the Palestinian Church and the history of the issues currently facing the Palestinian peoples.

 As the afternoon wore on, we boarded the bus once again and headed back to the Holy Family Hotel for one more presentation on the History of Palestine and the move for “popular” (often called non-violent) resistance by a professor from Bethlehem University. We ended the day with dinner at the hotel and debriefing. Some of us even decided to go back up the hill to the Church of the Nativity for the orthodox Christmas Eve Service!

 As a final thought, I think our terrain helps sum up the collective experiences of the day. The ups and downs of this hilly region mirror the ups and downs we experience as we enter and experience a different culture, a different mindset, and a different point of view.

 May you have a blessed Epiphany and a wonderful Orthodox Christmas Eve!

 January 7, 2014


 Today was a very exciting, adventurous, overwhelming and emotionally challenging day. Our group started off with breakfast and morning devotion and then headed off to visit the Tomb of Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Old City of Hebron. We received an informative tour from our guide on the way there and then met with Walid of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee. We watched a brief presentation that showed the work this committee is doing to restore and revitalize the decimated communities of Hebron. We learned that the city had dropped from 10,000 people to 500 and has recently grown back to 6200. They have renovated over a 1000 homes and reopened a few of the 1800 shops that had closed, yet what we saw was heartbreaking to say the least: No cars for the people there, they walked, or rode donkeys. Groups of small children ages 7-17 pursued us relentlessly in their attempts to sell us their bracelets and other items. Empty streets where markets used to be and a check point to go through to get to the Ibrahimi Mosque that holds the tombs of the Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.

 Most of us were lifted by our visit to the tombs where we could see the burial place of the people we have studied and learned about and who represent the foundation of most of our faiths. We were excited by the history we were observing in a temple that has seen many conflicts and changed hands many times and now exist as both a Mosque and Synagogue. We had to go out of the Palestinian side and go around to the Israeli side to enter the Jewish Synagogue side where we could see the tombs of Jacob and Leah. Our Palestinian guides could not enter although we had just witnessed about 40 Israeli soldiers in training in the Mosque side. This theme of you can’t enter occurred at a check point on the main Shuhada Street where our guide was denied entrance and we were approved to go through. We decided not to leave our guide and then watched as Young men jogged by carrying AR-15 assault weapons. Yes, the struggle is real. We enjoyed tea and coffee and laughter at one of the shops, supported the local businesses, some of us road a donkey, some of us failed to ride the donkey, and we left in good spirits inspired by the hope of a people who are determined to love their city back to life.

 Next we travelled to the village of Al-Tuwani. We were lead through a mountainous terrain where the sounds of sheep and goats combined with the sounds of children playing in a village with no electricity or water and animals still housed in caves. Our guide Hafez showed us the land he was fighting to hold on to and the road where the children have to be escorted to school by Israeli soldiers in order to be protected from assault. Again his determination and insistence on Popular (Non-Violent) Resistance along with the few court victories they have gained inspired us all.

 We had lunch at a very hospitable restaurant in Hebron city and were visited by Issa of the Youth Against Settlements which strives for solidarity and Hebron human rights.

 We ended our trip at a synagogue in the Ephrat settlement where we heard from Ardie Geldman who gave an admirable and informative (although at times arrogant) defense of the Jewish state and Israeli position on the conflict, borders, Biblical history, and the Chicago White Sox. We left with some of us being offended, some of us stirred and most of us with more questions than when we came.  This lead to our best debriefing time thus far. We sang, we prayed, and we acknowledged that we our only in day 3 of this awesome journey and we have so much more to learn and do. The puzzle has many pieces and although it appeared too intimidating to even attempt, we have already begun placing pieces on the table and putting the frame together. We solicit your prayers as we strive to make the picture clear.

 January 8, 2014

 Faith, Hope and Love! These words resonated throughout the city of Bethlehem today and were present in every presentation we heard and every place we visited.

 We had the honor of meeting and speaking with Lubnah Shomali, organizer of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. She spoke of the countless ways in which Badil and other non-profit organizations have worked tirelessly to address and advocate on behalf of the millions of displaced Palestinian in and around Israel. With all of their obstacles, struggles and disappointments, the Palestinian people still have hope and believe that a return to their native land will occur one day.

 From there we visited the Aida Refugee Camp and heard about the daily adversities experienced by displaced refugees in the city of Bethlehem. In spite of the harsh slum like unsanitary living conditions, one could walk through the camp and read personal messages of hope and faith etched on concrete wall barriers. They were messages that echoed someone’s dreams for a brighter tomorrow.

 Finally, we spoke with Rif’at Qassis, coordinator of Kairos Palestine. Kairos Palestine is a document created by Palestinian Christians to the rest of the Christian world in which they challenge Christians globally to stand in solidarity with them and speak out against the injustices and oppression experienced by Palestinian Christians in Israel and Palestine.

 This was an uplifting and encouraging day! In the midst of what seems like a hopeless situation, we are reminded that Faith, Hope and Love remain more powerful than hatred!    


January 9 Reflection

This morning we were early to rise and said farewell to Bethlehem after four days of stay at The Holy Family Hotel.  We were all moved by the kindness and hospitality of the hotel staff.  The Palestinian people are very gracious. 

 After schlepping our luggage back to the bus we set off for the city of Jerusalem.  Our visit began by travelling up to the temple mount—believed to be the site of the first temple as well as the second temple built by King Herod.  The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, but a large portion of the foundation is still extant, and forms what is known as the “Waling wall.”  Many of us chose to walk up to the wall and touch it.  I confess I was initially hesitant to approach the wall myself, but felt led to do so.  I did not expect touching the wall to be a particularly meaningful experience for me; but I felt an incredible flood of the Holy Spirit come over me when I approached the wall.  I must profess that there is indeed something very special about this location.  It is considered to be an extremely holy site in the Jewish faith.  Many were seen kissing the wall and placing prayers on strips of paper into the cracks of the stones.   Religious Jews, however, are forbidden from entering the temple mount platform above the wall for the reason that it is unknown where the original “holy of holies” (the high point of the temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant) was located.  In ancient Jewish tradition all save for the high priests were forbidden from entering and stepping on this area. 

 Today a large, beautiful mosque known as the “Dome of the Rock” occupies the space of the temple of Israel.  Interestingly, this location is also extremely sacred to the Muslims.  Located in the great mosque is said to be the rock at which the prophet Mohammed made his night journey before returning home to the people.  Unfortunately only those who practice Islam are permitted to enter, so we could not see the inside of the mosque. 

 Following our visit to the Temple mount we travelled through East Jerusalem (the Arab inhabited section of the city) to visit the Sabeel Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology. The center is an incredible organization. As was shared with us, after the great Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when the first Israeli military occupation displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the Christian churches were unprepared to deal with the theological crisis created by the events that affected the Palestinian people.  When reading the story of the Exodus in Bible, not much attention is generally given to the texts in Joshua that speak of the mass ethnic cleansing that took place when the people of Israel inhabited their “promised land.”  As Christians who had historically studied and venerated the stories of the Exodus, it was a shocking reality to find themselves not in the place of being the “chosen inhabitants,” but rather those whom were attacked and displaced.  Many churches were initially unable to effectively deal with this theological crisis. 

 The mission of Sabeel (which in Arabic refers to a source of water along the journey) has been to develop a new form of Liberation theology that, through the gospel and life of Christ, is able to reconcile the people of Palestine with the tragic events of the past 66 years. 

 After our incredibly meaningful experience at Sabeel, we traveled to the Mount of Olives (overlooking the Temple) to retrace the final days of Jesus on Earth.  At the church of Dominus Flavit we witnessed the striking view of Jerusalem that Christ experienced when he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19).  We travelled down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent his final hours in prayer.  A magnificent chapel has been constructed adjacent to the garden.  In front of the altar is the supposed rock on which Jesus offered his final prayers to God.  The interior of the chapel is adorned with breathtaking mosaics and features twelve domes (representing the twelve countries that contributed money toward building the church). 

 We left the mount and traveled back to the city of Jerusalem to visit the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Rebuilt in the 11th century by the European crusaders, this church marks the spot of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. 

 To be able to retrace the steps of Jesus and walk amidst these holy locations has been an experience that is hard to put into words.  It is indescribably meaningful to be so physically close to Christ in this way.  How blessed we are to not only learn and experience a new culture, but also to have such meaningful religious experiences at the same time.  God is blessing us in abundant and incredible ways. 

 Friday, January 10th

 Today our journey continued with another challenging day. Many of us are in a place of pure exhaustion of the body, mind, and spirit.  Our morning began with a tour of Jerusalem with a member from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. This young Israeli Jewish woman brought an incredible amount of passion to the way she explained the painful inequality of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, specifically in regards to the ways in which the Israelis are attempting to make life for Palestinians so awful that that will eventually leave or in some cases even die. She is an activist who is working hard to change the ways in which Israel is harming the greater Jerusalem community with their persecution of the Palestinians. What really impacted this particular meeting was how she was able to speak from her own experience. She attested to the way that school children in Israel are taught an underlying message that Israel should never let the persecution of the Holocaust happen again, and that by the time Israeli children reach the ages of eighteen--and are automatically drafted to the army--they have been fully prepared to see Palestinians as the enemy. On this tour we saw more examples of physical walls separating not only Palestinians from Israelis but also Palestinians from Palestinians. We also witnessed the gross inequity between of Israeli settlements and Palestinian neighborhoods. For example, Israel controls the trash pick-up. However they will not pick up garbage in Palestinian neighborhoods. Therefore trash is EVERYWHERE, and there is considerable difference in infrastructure and property value. Finally, we saw a sight in which a Palestinian home had been demolished.

 Next, we met with a Rabbi from Rabbis for Human Rights. He also approached the conversation with a tremendous amount of passion and spoke about the Rabbis in his group who are committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He even attested to his experience of physically standing in front of bulldozers preparing to demolish Palestinian homes.

 Our day then took another incredibly challenging turn as we visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem Yad Vashem. This experience evoked questions such as what leads the oppressed to become the oppressor.

 Next, our group had some enjoyable free time! Many of us explored the city and shopped while others took some much needed time in solitude and reflection. Our day concluded with a meeting with many international workers serving in the Palestine/Israel area. This conflict became incredibly real when they told us a member of their group couldn’t make it because she was visiting a Palestinian Refugee Center (the same one we were at just a couple days ago!!) and Israeli soldiers stormed in and raided the refugee center with tear gas bombs. They spoke of their experiences and the ways in which their organizations are working hard to educate others about the realities of the Israel/Palestine situation while inspired by the people’s hope in the midst of conflict.

 We are grateful for those of you who continue to read these daily updates. We feel your support and prayers as we progress through this journey. We ask that you continue to hold our group in your prayers and especially for those who are in need of physical and spiritual healing. Blessings and Peace to all of you!

 Saturday January 11, 2014

 God is great and greatly to be praised!

 Today was by far one of the most transformative days we have had while in Palestine-Israel, both collectively and individually. After several days of meeting with various Palestinian and Israeli groups, today we had an opportunity for spiritual awakening through exploration of various biblical landmarks. As with other days, the group shared in breakfast followed by devotions. The first destination in our day was the Jordan River to visit Qasr al-Yahud, the baptismal site of Jesus. The river is located in the Jordan Valley and forms part of the border between Jordan and Palestine-Israel. While traveling to the Jordan River we passed the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. Originally a very small settlement established in 1976, today Ma’aleh Adumim is the largest Israeli settlement bloc in the Palestinian West Bank with a total population of over 35,000 people. During this journey we also passed various clusters of Bedouins, nomads that are currently living within the hills that lead from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Before reaching the Jordan Valley the group had an opportunity to take a ride on a camel. A total of 10 seminarians took advantage of this opportunity and allowed them to be recorded to prove it.

 When we reached the Jordan River, it was full of people from all races and nationalities, who like us wanted to take the opportunity to touch the water where Jesus himself was baptized. We collectively gathered around the water, and began singing in unison Wade in the Water. As we lifted our voices to God and placed our hands and our feet in the water, the spirit of the Lord began to pour out onto the group. As we sang, individuals from other groups began to pause and huddle around us to witness the powerful move of God. We can testify that we all stepped in the water, and it was cold, it chilled our bodies but not our soul.

 Next we traveled to Jericho to the Palace of Hisham. The ancient 8th century palace was destroyed by earthquake in 749. The palace was well known for Mosaic stones. From the Palace of Hisham we shared in a real mountain top experience at the Mount of Temptation. We were transported by cable car to the middle of the mountain where we shared a meal at the Jericho Cable Car Restaurant. From there we walked to the top of the Mount of Temptation where a Greek Orthodox Christian monastery is built into the side of the cliff. There we had an opportunity to touch the rock where they believe Jesus stood when being tempted. As we transitioned from the top of the mountain we paused for a collective moment of prayer, where we were once again gifted with the presence of the Lord. The final stop within our day was to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the deepest point in the Jordan Valley, and the lowest on earth, located 400 meters below sea level.  The heavy salt density of the water makes it impossible to swim in. However many members of the group were able to float and have a moment of spiritual relaxation.

 Today was a day full of spiritual empowerment and healing for individuals and the group. Throughout the day God has confirmed and reconfirmed the purpose of our Journey. To seal what the Lord had done in the spirit we concluded the evening with a corporate worship service of prayer and thanksgiving.

 12 January 2014

 Greetings from the second oldest city in the world, Nablus, where we witnessed stunning bus driving skills!  Our bus driver has impressed us all by negotiating ridiculous angled intersections and cobblestone streets.  This evening he did a “K” turn in the middle of a packed city intersection in order to back up 2 blocks to our hotel, sparing himself about 2 inches from parked cars on either side!  Because he had to pull back out so cars could exit, he received two rounds of applause before we retrieved our luggage.

 The day began at the Quaker Friends Meeting House in downtown Ramallah.  We were graced by Jean Zaru, presiding clerk and author of Occupied by Non-Violence, which we read in preparation for our travel.  Jean is the only woman in Palestine to head a church and has sat on several distinguished multi-faith panels.  She impressed the group with her commitment to compassion for all and for non-violent responses to the Israeli occupation.  We attended worship at the Friends Meetinghouse where a holy silence formed so each could attend to the voice of God speaking to them.  As the silence deepened the scripture, prayers and songs offered enhanced the experience.  One of us remarked: “It was beautiful to sit there and feel God move through the non-structured worship.” Another said: “Today I was reminded that in worship the Holy Spirit will have its own way.”

 On our way to Nablus we shared a meal with a most generous family in the Palestinian village of Taybeh, again testifying to the hospitality of the Palestinian people.  EVERYWHERE we’ve gone we have been offered tea and coffee and sometimes whole meals with such generous spirits.  One of us reflected: “As I shared the meal today with that family and my colleagues all in that house, I felt like it was Thanksgiving.”

 We deeply appreciate the testimony of the church in Palestine.  They have shown us great tenacity even while being segregated from family or kept from freely moving about the land by the Separation Barrier or Wall; living with unfair social divisions, and unequal political power; as well as the constant threat of arrest or home demolitions.  The Palestinian Christians have demonstrated steadfast faith in the face of tremendous strain.

 I am struck by how often they speak about hope for a solution to their oppression.  “To live is to resist” we have heard.  Palestinian Christians engage in popular resistance in many ways: children playing games is a form of resistance; laughing and dancing is another form of resistance.  They seem to look beyond the tactics used to keep them imprisoned in their homes and the refugee camps with a desire to liberate not only themselves their oppressors as well. This is truly Christian love and hospitality. 

 13 January 2014

 Today I felt like Mary in Luke 2:19 “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

 Today we were blessed with yet another day to wake up in the Palestinian city of Nablus (which means the “new city”) in the West Bank. It had rained last night, yet our spirits were high in the Lord as we blessed our breakfast individually and collectively as a cohesive group yearning to capture more of the land we are traveling. We took a brief tour of the Old City and market place of Nablus where we found the sounds, smells, foods, and merchandise of the community as they celebrated the feast of the birthday of the Prophet, Mohammad.  A tour of a Nablus soap factory provided yet another glance of the sense of pride and compassion the community displays in processing olive oil soap by hand. Olive trees are a household staple in this land. And olive oil soap is not manufactured but made by hand. As we watched the men meticulously stir, carry, pour and cut, I pondered in my heart that despite the struggle in this land, hope and love are evident in this place as they pour it into something that will aide in keeping our skin and hair smooth and moisturized.

 Powerful devotions today were held at the Church of the Well of Jacob.  One could not help but to identify with the Samaritan women at the well and hear Jesus say to her: “Give me a drink. If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” How often do we regress and not recognize the “Living Water” in our lives. How often do we not realize that Jesus doesn’t need us; we need Jesus. We are the needy ones. Living Water literally means running or spring water. As each one of us drank from the Well of Jacob I pondered in my heart the reality that Jesus fills us with grace and truth and grants us continual, untold and refreshing life through the Holy Spirit.

 Our next stop was Yafa Cultural Center in the Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus--a densely populated refugee camp of Palestinian Muslims with approximately 30,000 refugees. A place that started out temporary has become permanent for three and in some cases four generations. Solidarity is a presence that is felt when you enter the camp in spite of deteriorating social, economic, health and environmental conditions--desperate conditions are very evident. The Yafa Cultural Center is a much needed presence in this refugee camp to provide appropriate programs to the disadvantaged people of Palestinian society. Our guide in the camp Abdullah tells us that the Center aims to provide truth by connecting the people with their land and heritage and increasing their awareness and their national rights. They promote intellectual, cultural and educational growth, facilitating cooperation and communication between each other and others outside the camp; raise awareness about health and environmental issues focusing on drug use and other harmful practices; networking with other organizations which could assist in securing employment, and psychological services to assist in getting some of the frustration and stress to the forefront in one’s life so that it could be dealt with appropriately, just to name a few. All of these aims are geared to men, women, boys and girls. Many initiatives are inclusive of girls and boys facilitating harmony between the sexes. When I ponder how we can travel city to city seeing the disparity in communities--be it settlements, Palestinian refugee camps or Israeli neighborhoods--my heart yearns to know what I will do with this information?  How is this any different than the United States? I know God will reveal in God’s own time what I, what we will do with what we have been blessed to see, hear, feel, touch and smell in this another part of God’s creation.

 When we arrived at the Stella Maris Church on Mount Carmel in Haifa, I was emotionally exhausted trying to make sense of such a beautiful country with so many ugly situations. As I sat in the sanctuary my prayers immediately embraced Abdullah’s hope for his people to live in a better situation and have peace. My prayer continued with something someone else said during our trip here that went something like this, “that the weak be empowered and the powerful come to their senses.” I then went and lit a candle for “all.” I continue to ponder all of this in my heart, as I say to God, “Speak Lord, your servant(s) are listening.” Won’t each of you join me in waiting for the Lord’s directions?

14 January 2014

Today put us in the midst of Christ’s ministry.  We began at our hotel in Nazareth, drove through Cana, and then down towards Lake Tiberius (also known as the Sea of Galilee), where we visited three churches built near three sacred rocks.  The first of which was the on the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking Lake Tiberius.  It was a peaceful stop, and beautiful, but we found ourselves torn between the tranquility of the site—and the commercial feel of it—and the outgoing human catastrophe never all that far away.

 The next rock was at the site of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, not more than a few hundred meters away.  Then we were off to the place known as the Primacy of St. Peter, where Jesus called the disciples in from fishing, and asked Peter three times “Do you love me?”  Here, we sang in the chapel, slowly at first, and maybe with a little reluctance, but we began to sing faster, and the singing became richer, and we were accompanied not only by other pilgrims, but also by a bird which flew around the rafters of the chapel faster and faster as the experience become an ecumenical worship—and while it wasn’t a dove, there was something like the Spirit about it.

 And I would say that it was at that place, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where so many of us felt like we were affirming our call, that we became more of a single entity than we had ever been before, functioning and worshipping like a parts of a whole, and not just individuals anymore.

 We went on to Capernaum, and saw the excavated remains of that town where Jesus spent so much time; saw the house of Peter, and the foundation of a synagogue where they had worshipped.

 Lunch was at a casual road-side restaurant, where we all had shewarma for the first time on this trip.  It was a hit.  After lunch, we took a boat ride out into Lake Tiberius, where we sang and danced (with the help of the first mate).  We found our energy again, out there on the water. 

 Coming back into Nazareth, we made our last stop of the day at the Church of Annunciation, only a few blocks from our hotel.  This is the site where, according to tradition, Mary learned that she would bear a son and name him Jesus.  The church’s beautiful and unique architecture encompasses the house of Mary, and an enormous sanctuary above it—the largest basilica in the Middle East.  In that quiet space, while the father was performing an English Mass, we sat listening.  It was during the Passing of the Peace that we were interrupted by the roar of two Israeli fighter jets flying over Nazareth.  And with that, we were brought back to earth; reminded of the reality of the Holy Land, and the reality that has always been the Holy Land; reminded of the context of Christ’s ministry, and of ours.

 15-16 January 2014

 We woke up Wednesday morning to a bright and shining day in Nazareth, our last night in the Galilee before we journeyed back South toward Bethlehem. Along the way we travelled through Haifa, taking a look once again at the spectacular coast line shore of the Mediterranean Sea.  We had an insightful presentation by the director of Baladna—a Palestinian Israeli organization that works with Arab youth in Israel. Many of our students were able to exchange ideas on how to work with youth that are marginalized in a racist society. With a strong message of equality this association develops curriculum for both male and female Arab youth to value their culture and their identity.

 Another breath taking shore line view was experienced as we toured the old city of what was once the strong commercial port city of Caesarea.  Ordered to be built by Herod the Great in the first century BC, another of his dream palaces come true, it was later destroyed by many invaders through the centuries. We were reminded once again how places of worship change from being a synagogue, to a byzantine church and later to a mosque. Wherever there has been a political overthrow there has been a religious imposition of the same manifestation of power over.

 As we drove closer to Bethlehem in following our itinerary we stopped at the so called Canada Park, named after Canadians donors.  We meet with a staff person from the Israeli Zochrot organization. This nice park located outside the Jerusalem borders was once the location of several Palestinian villages.  We followed our speaker into the woods surrounded by nice evergreen trees and olive trees once planted by the Palestinian inhabitants of that place.  Zochrot means WE WILL REMEMBER in Hebrew, and works to educate Israeli Jewish society about what happened to Palestinian society during the War of 1948. Our speaker showed us where the store of the village of Imwas was located and the rubble of demolished homes of the Palestinian villagers. We walked in their cemetery, learned about the center of the life of that small village before the Israeli military demanded all of the residents to leave their homes and walked toward Ramallah. We saw photos taken when people took what they were able to carry and started walking many kilometers. Some remembered they were promised by the soldiers that it will only be for a short time and then they can return. The returned never happened and after three decades it was converted into a green area and became a public park. We saw the rubble of a cement home torn down in the woods.  That afternoon a walk through the park became yet another lesson; of what we can see and what can not been seen.

 Then we returned to Bethlehem, some more ready than others to meet our Palestinian host families.  We had the opportunity in our cross cultural experience to stay with Palestinian Christian families and get closer to their daily life.  As leaders we appreciated the openness of all of those that participated in this experience. It took courage and by the next day we all had many experiences to share with one another.

 We are all aware we had started the countdown of hours before we return to our home land and families. Yet we are reminded we still need to keep engaged with the experience.

 On Thursday morning, after we gathered back together, we made a brief visit to Solomon’s Pools and Urtas Village, just south of Bethlehem—a series of three large pools constructed thousands of years ago. Our first meeting of the day was at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), where we met the director Dr. Jad Isaac. Dr. Jad gave us an in-depth presentation of the current situation in Palestine-Israel, including a wealth of information regarding the various peace process and the key issues that persist in this conflict, including the issue of water, Jerusalem, refugees, the Separation Wall, and settlements. After our experiences these past two weeks, this presentation helpfully brought together several of the pieces we have been learning about during this trip, not least of which being the roles and responsibilities of the church in the United States.

 From ARIJ, we travelled to Beit Sahour, a town right near Bethlehem, to visit the Shepherds Fields. This is the place where many go to remember where the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus. We sat inside the cave where shepherd used to keep their sheep, heard the story from Luke chapter 2 and sang together. After spending time in the cave, we walked over to a local fair trade cooperative that sells many local handmade crafts of olive wood and mother of pearl as well as pottery and beautiful icons.

After a nice lunch of shawerma, we checked into our hotel on Manger Square in Bethlehem. Some of us spent some time in rest at the hotel, while other then travelled over to the Herodion—yet another palace built by Herod the Great, and believed by many to be his burial site. From a distance this large structure, built on top of a hill in the West Bank desert, looks like a volcano.

 We closed out the day with our evening debriefing conversation, beginning to reflect upon “what now?” After two weeks of travelling this land, listening to many voices, and seeing many sights, we asked each other “how are we to respond?”

 17 January 2014

And just like that, our time abroad is hours from ending.

 On this last full day, we traveled to Masada, the ruins of an ancient fort on top of a rock plateau in the Judean Desert. We had to take a cable car to get high enough to see the site! The spectacular palaces of Masada, developed by Herod the Great, were excavated by an Israeli archeologist in the 60s. Archeological evidence combined with the writings of Jewish Roman historian Josephus tell the story of the Romans and the Jewish rebels who lived and died there.

 We also visited Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. As we gazed at Cave 4, we tried to imagine the Bedouin shepherds who stumbled upon the old parchments and the scholars who later came to realize the significance of the writings on those parchments.

 During our closing group debriefing, we reflected on the themes that kept surfacing as we tried to make sense of what we saw, heard, and felt as we walked these lands and shared with people from Israeli and Palestinian communities. Here are some big questions we’re still wrestling with as we return to the States:

 Finding the Holy in ‘The Holy Land’ – What constitutes holy land? Who determines this? What myths or truths have shaped our imagination about this region? How can the same place be transcendent and oppressive simultaneously?

 Theology as Political and Politics as Theological – How does theology shape / justify politics? Can we / should we ever separate theology and politics?


Local and Global Ministry – How do we commit to action based upon our deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while staying aware of / responsive to the needs of our local congregations and communities? How do we do both local and global ministry, faithfully and effectively?

 At the end of our group meeting, we dedicated rocks from each site we visited to a one-word memory that we will hold as we leave this place. It was a wonderful opportunity to name the things that mean so much to us after 2 weeks in the Holy Land.

 As we danced and dined in fellowship with our new friends at a restaurant in Bethlehem on our final night, we gave thanks for God’s abiding love, protection and inspiration during our trip. We can’t wait to share our stories with you, our loved ones, when we return tomorrow.

Yalla! (Let’s go!)




Last modified on Thursday, 29 May 2014 07:29

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