As I’m sure many of you know (especially my Facebook friends who have put up with an obnoxious amount of picture posting), I just returned from the trip of a lifetime—a two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On January 15, thirty-two Luther seminary students, alumni, faculty, and significant others boarded a plane in Minneapolis and approximately 20 hours later groggily stumbled into the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv where our fabulous tour guide, Hussam, greeted us and ushered us to our tour bus. The following two weeks were filled with adventures all around Israel and the West Bank. We went on excursions in and around the Sea of Galilee and visited the ancient sites of Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima, Capernaum, and Megiddo. We stopped in Nazareth, Cana, Bethany, and Bethesda. We ventured into the desert to see Jericho, Qumran, and Masada. We floated in the Dead Sea, splashed in the Mediterranean, and remembered our baptisms in the Jordan River. We visited the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and retraced the steps of his final days before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. We ate copious amounts of pita, hummus, falafel, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We bought souvenirs made of the olive wood of Bethlehem, glass made in Hebron, and pottery painted in Jerusalem.
But perhaps most importantly we listened to people’s stories. We heard from Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlers, Lutheran pastors, Muslim leaders, and Jewish human rights activists. We caught a glimpse of what it is like to live under the heavy weight of occupation. We grew almost accustomed to seeing armed soldiers with machine guns on every corner. We grappled with the complexities of what it means for an oppressed people to become the oppressors and too often recognized ourselves among the oppressors as well. We visited the poorest areas of Palestine and tried to imagine living our entire lives inside the “open air prison” created by the dividing wall (constructed by the Israeli government), but just when we thought we knew who was right and who was wrong, we spent an afternoon at the Holocaust museum. We were confronted with our own privilege and were disturbed to see our own country’s oppressive systems reflected back to us, in ways even more obvious than before.
We felt the beauty of diversity and the dangerous tension in the Old City of Jerusalem in our visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We tried to understand what it means to have the identity and validity of entire groups of people so deeply intertwined with a particular piece of land—with the ancient stone and marble of the Old City of Jerusalem, with the lush, rolling hills of the Galilee, with the rocky desert surrounding the Dead Sea, with the countless groves of orange, lemon, and olive trees. We joined thousands of other pilgrims from around the world who travel to this very piece of land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to touch the sacred rocks, to visit the majestic cathedrals, and to try to understand the beauty and complexities of this holy, mysterious place. We saw the horror of what happens when religion gets intermixed with power and were crushed by the seeming impossibility of peace.
But just when the weight of it all seemed devastating, we would catch a glimmers of hope. The innocent giggles of Palestinian and Israeli children, the creation of prophetic art emerging in the midst of oppression, the resilience of the peace workers, the promise of the Gospel spoken to a church primarily composed of refugees, the goosebumps on our arms after singing hymns in a hodge-podge of languages with our brothers and sisters from around the world, in the remarkable hospitality we experienced nearly everywhere we went. The Holy Land is a deeply disturbing, incredibly beautiful place, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to go and experience it for myself. I have been changed in ways that I cannot yet fully articulate—but have no fear, there are plenty more blog posts to come. Stay tuned, and thanks for joining me as I try to make sense of this crazy journey. 🙂