A Spiritual Pilgrimage
By Dr. Greg Jones
Recently, Camilla and I had the extraordinary pleasure of leading 21 members of our church family and four church friends on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine. It was not simply a tour, but a spiritual adventure in the very places where Jesus was born and baptized, where he healed the infirmed and told parables to those thirsty for a new word, where he called people to follow him and spoke truth to power, and where he was put to death and rose to new life.
We were privileged to lead an exceptional group of people who were open to adventure and flexible to changing conditions. Our pilgrims were caring and inquisitive, thoughtful and always looking out for one another.
Shortly after returning home, a friend asked me to name one memorable moment from the trip. I said, “Seriously? Just one?” If I said, “The Church of the Resurrection,” a member of our group could counter, “Not the Jordan River?’ If I said “the Garden of Gethsemane,” someone would say, “Not communion on the Mount of Beatitudes?” If I said, “Rami, the Jewish man who told how the death of his daughter propelled him into the holy work of peacemaking,” someone else might respond, “Not the dinner in the home of Aziz’s Palestinian family, and the story of his brother?” Feel free to ask any of our pilgrims about their ONE memorable moment. Good luck with that!
On our first morning, we piled into our bus for a short ride to the Mount of Olives. Less than a mile due east of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives provides a panoramic view of the high walls surrounding this historic area that is less than a square mile, yet home to some of the most important holy sites to the three Abrahamic faiths. For Jews, the Western Wall; for Christians, the Church of the Resurrection; and for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Old City is also home to 40,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews, plus hundreds of shops that line the streets.
Walking down to the base of the Mount of Olives, we found ourselves in Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus was betrayed following the Last Supper. We imagined Jesus taking Peter, James and John to this garden late at night to pray. He wanted his three closest followers to be near him and to stay awake while he wrestled with God about his life and death decision to confront the leaders in Jerusalem. Standing at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, it was easy to see how Jesus could have chosen to escape his enemies by walking up through the olive groves and over the hill to Bethany, the village where Mary and Martha, and their brother, Lazarus lived. As we thought about his three trusted disciples failing Jesus at his critical hour, we pondered the things that keep each of us personally from remaining faithful to Jesus.
One of the peak moments for many in our group was our time at – and for many of us, literally in – the Jordan River. Standing in these flowing waters where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, we had the extraordinary opportunity to baptize one of our pilgrims. Speaking not only for ourselves, but also for you, we promised to support our newest member, Iryna Bedrossian, in her journey of faith. Then, the rest of us reaffirmed our baptismal vows – some with a shell full of water, others with a full plunge into the waters.
You will be pleased to know that in true Presbyterian fashion, I stifled my impulse to giggle while leading the liturgy. It’s the first time I have led a service while a dozen small fish were nibbling on my toes!
Another compelling encounter involved walking the Stations of the Cross, culminating with a hands-on experience in the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For centuries, Christian pilgrims have sung, prayed and read Scripture as they walked the path that Jesus was forced to march to his crucifixion. The final stations are within the large rambling Church of the Resurrection, begun in the 300s and added to over the years, the church is built over Golgotha where Jesus hung on the cross and the site believed to be his tomb. After ascending steep steps that led to a small chapel, each of us knelt before an elaborate communion table under a large crucifix. We reached into the hole in the floor beneath the table that allowed us to touch the rock where Jesus was crucified. We also went to our knees and prayed on the marble slab believed to be the tomb where Jesus rose from the dead.
Our group visited numerous other sites that brought the pages of the Bible to life. We celebrated communion in Shepherd’s Field outside of Bethlehem, walked through a recreated village in Nazareth that illustrated how life might have been when Jesus grew up, sailed on the Sea of Galilee, toured the ruins of Jericho, the lowest and oldest city on earth, and saw the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden for nearly 2,000 years before being discovered in the 1940s.
In addition to focusing on personal spiritual experiences, we also saw how religious faith is lived today in a place of ongoing conflict. Shortly before our trip, Yehuda Glick, an American-Israeli extremist gave a speech in Jerusalem calling for Jews to reclaim the site where the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans. However, since the 7th Century, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque have stood there as the third holiest site in Islam. So, his words were tantamount to a declaration of war. As we approached the line to walk up to this area, we started hearing the pops of fireworks, then rubber coated bullets, tear gas and stun bombs two hundred yards away. We wound our way north through the streets of the Old City to the Pools of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s Church. We stepped into the small church built in the 12th century, and felt a sense of calm. Then, with bangs of guns and tear gas in the background, we sounded like a magnificent choir as we sang “O Day of Peace.”
Along with visiting the ancient biblical sites, we also heard from ordinary people who live in Israel and the West Bank today, who live their faith by opposing the occupation in non-violent ways and building bridges with the other side.
Rami Elhanan, a 65 year-old graphic designer and a 7th generation Jerusalemite says of himself, “I am a Jew, an Israeli, but before everything else, I am a human being.” He is an active member of the Parents’ Circle comprised of 600 families of Jews, Christians and Muslims who have had a child killed by the other side. The death of his daughter by a suicide bomber nearly destroyed him. In the midst of overwhelming sorrow and intense rage, he reached the conclusion that he had two options. He could try to get even through endless violence or he could take the more difficult route of trying to understand what would drive someone to the point that he would blow himself up. It led him to the Parents’ Circle where he met Palestinians who had children who had been killed by Israelis. At the time, he was 47 years-old, and he said, “It was the first time in my life that I met Palestinians as human beings.” Today, he lives the core of Judaism – justice and mercy – by speaking to as many people as he can.
We heard from others who are committed to the difficult spiritual work of forgiveness, justice and peacemaking. Aziz is a Palestinian Muslim, whose older brother was arrested for throwing rocks, then tortured by Israeli police until he was released to a hospital where he died two weeks later. The death of his brother propelled Aziz on a journey that eventually led him to create a tour company with two Jews that provides dual narrative tours in the Middle East. We also heard from Lutheran pastor, Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian pastor in Bethlehem and Rabbi Daniel Roth, an American-Israeli Jew who lives in Jerusalem. Each talked about their efforts to overcome the conflict and work for a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace. Each spoke of the importance of getting common citizens together so that they can get to know each other. Once you go beyond stereotypes and become involved in other people’s lives, you no longer feel compelled to destroy them.
Toward the end of our trip, we sat down with the recently retired Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church whose ancestors were the first followers of Jesus. A remarkable man who has won three international peace prizes, Elias Chacour created a top ten school for kindergarten through 12th grade. The school has 3,000 Palestinian students – 60% Muslim and 40% Christian – and a faculty comprised of Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Sitting down with our group and sharing his thoughts, he reminded us that children are not born with adult mindsets. They are not born hating people unlike themselves.
Stating the obvious to drive his point home, Father Chacour said, “We are not created Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. God creates all of us as babies.” People are taught who is “Us” and who is “Them.” They are taught to hate.
This morning’s scripture, in which Jesus calls on us to reject “an eye for an eye” theology, and to love not only our friends but also our enemies, is rejected by many as hopelessly utopian. A lovely dream, we say, but of no practical use in the real world.
Father Chacour comes as close as Gandhi to living these words on a daily basis. The school he created teaches its children the sacred nature of each person, the rejection of violence, respect for other faiths, the importance of love and the holy work of building bridges of reconciliation.
It is no accident that this is the school we chose to be one of our partners in our Peace Drums Project. This project brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims in our local area so that we can build bridges in our own community, but also to lend our energy to peacemaking in one of the most troubled spots in the world. A number of you helped us purchase the first set of 25 steel drums for middle school students in Father Chacour’s school. University of Delaware Music Professor Harvey Price delivered the drums one year ago and launched their steel drum band. On our visit to the school, we were treated to a brief demonstration of their skills as the students played a couple of songs for us.
Three months ago, Harvey delivered an identical second set of drums to a top Jewish school in Haifa, 15 miles away. Those students are bused to Father Chacour’s school once a month, so that Jewish, Christian and Muslim children can get to know each other and can learn to make music together.
Steel drums are a neutral instrument. Created in Trinidad and designed to play “island music,” no culture in the Middle East can claim it as its own. Steel drum music is upbeat, loud and playful, and if there is anything in short supply in that part of the world, it is joy. And since Middle schoolers were not created to sit still, steel drums are perfect because the drums get them on their feet and beckon them to move with the rhythm.
Currently, the students are working toward an ambitious goal. They are scheduled to play as the warm-up band for the Haifa Symphony in March. If successful, it will stand as a bold testimony of Jews, Christians and Muslims working together for a common goal and, we hope, serve as a springboard for other concerts in a land too often focused on separating and dividing and demonizing. Currently, we are exploring possibilities for bringing all of the children to the states where they can play concerts in Wilmington, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York.
We have no illusions that the Peace Drums Project is the definitive answer to settlement building, confiscation of land and acts of terrorism. The ill-will between Israelis and Palestinians runs deep and the solution to their problems defies quick and easy fixes.
Yet, God does not let us off the hook from pursuing justice and peace because the problem is complex. To fail to do anything is to surrender and to let evil win the day.
Looking at the terrible problems that engulf our world, Burmese political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, “uses the analogy of a pressure cooker exploding in the kitchen. There is soup everywhere, all over the ceiling and walls. At such moments we may feel paralyzed. Where do we begin? How can this possibly be cleaned up? Suu Kyi’s advice is simple: ‘Just start somewhere. Don’t stand there despairing, do something.'”1
For followers of Jesus, inaction is not an option. Neither is retributive justice: an eye for an eye. Jesus calls us to the difficult and much more rewarding work of loving others. Loving not only those who love us, but even loving our enemies. This is our hard, holy calling.