We decided to continue the theme of last week’s blog post, “A Different Kind of Resource,” and bring you another inspirational mission offering from Joe Junod (Christ Church, Spotsylvania) and the Rev. Justin McIntosh (Leeds Church, Markham) who recently returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Read on to find out about their spiritual journey, and to learn about resources for making a similar trip.
Complex, compact and chaotic – these words describe our experiences in Israel after spending two weeks there this summer on pilgrimage. We joined 30 others for a splendid course, “The Palestine of Jesus,” hosted by St. George’s College, an Anglican institution in East Jerusalem. Our fellow pilgrims came from all over the English-speaking world, including Canada, England, Australia and the United States. Our group was a mixture of clergy and laity (including 14 from the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring), but that distinction had little significance while we were together. All of us, regardless of our order of ministry, were pilgrims in the Holy Land, seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
For 14 days, we spent 10-12 hours a day touring holy sites and Roman sites, led by our spiritual mentors: the dean of St. George’s College, the Rev. Graham Smith; the chaplain, John Stuart; and our local guide, Bishara Khoury.
As neophyte pilgrims, we struggled to keep up with the details (either factual or legend) of who built what when, who destroyed what when and who rebuilt what when. We had the same problem with the politics. As one guide told us, “In Israel, you cannot separate religion from history, nor history from politics, nor politics from religion.” We quickly discovered that the country is quite complex.
Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side by side – sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. While visiting the Temple Mount, we got a small taste of the religious conflict that often flares up in the Holy Land. On the mount sit two Muslim holy sites: the Dome of the Rock (off limits to Jews and Christians) and a mosque, Al-Aqsa. Although this area is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, Israeli guards routinely deny Jews access to the mount (especially if they show an inclination to pray) to avoid Muslim-Jewish conflict. During our visit to the Temple Mount, several Jews tried to make their way up to this holy site to pray, which prompted the Muslims gathered there to become agitated and shout, “God is greater” in Arabic. It was a tense situation.
The Church of the Resurrection, which houses the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, is in the custody of six different Christian groups – Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Roman Catholics and Syrians. Moreover, each day the church is unlocked and locked by a Muslim family, who hold the keys to the place.
Israelis and Palestinians struggle to coexist, let alone see the world from the other’s perspective. One afternoon, we visited both a Palestinian refugee camp and a Jewish settlement. At the refugee camp, where 12,000 Palestinians live, a 25-year-old spoke to us about the hardships he and his people endure because of the Israeli government, such as a chronic shortage of water, which is shipped in once a week. His anger was palpable, and he lamented the hopelessness prevalent among the refugees.
At the Jewish settlement, we spoke with a settler (originally from Chicago), who felt quite strongly that he and his fellow settlers were working to build positive relationships with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, he seemed to justify the many checkpoints and young Israeli guards with assault weapons when he told our group that if he wore his yarmulke and ritual fringes (signs of Jewishness) in a Palestinian controlled area, he doubted he would live 30 minutes. The political situation in the Holy Land is exceedingly complex, and the more one digs into it, the more perplexing it becomes.
On each of our 15 mornings, our chaplain, John Stuart of Melbourne, Australia, urged us to remember that “we are in the presence of God.” Indeed, we were. Indeed, we are. Indeed, we will always be.