Wednesday we headed toward Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Although not that far from Jerusalem, travel made tougher as always by the separation wall and checkpoints. Our first stop was St. Andrew’s Church, but that turned out to be not where we needed to be. We headed over to the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School, a school for kindergarten to 12th grade. We met some of the delightful and so welcoming children and the impressive director of the school and the man that made all of our visit to Ramallah possible Mr. Iyad Rafidi
After our visit to the school we were most fortunate to have a meeting at Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters with Dr. Hanan Ashwari, one of the most widely known Palestinian activists and scholars. She is often on CNN and is the author of This Side of Peace which is her story of the peace process of which she has been an integral part. When we arrived at PLO headquarters we were graciously welcomed and shown to the conference room. We had to wait for Dr. Ashwari to show because she had a sudden visit by the British Ambassador to Jordan. She had a meeting after ours with the President. But she did arrive, and she spent more time with us than we had even hoped for. Before she arrived we met one of her aids, Rasha, who was raised in Miami, but being Palestinian had decided to come home. She shared with us and answered our questions before Dr. Ashwari’s arrival and that was a great blessing to our group.
Dr. Ashwari got her doctorate at the University of Virginia. She lives in Ramallah, it is her home. She talked of the peace process, women’s rights (as she is a huge advocate for women), and of the current struggles. We asked her to speak to some of the things we have been told by the settlers we met, from our media, and from our government. We asked about the notion that the occupation helps the Arabs and that a boycott by the US would only hurt them. She named that rhetoric designed to keep the status quo and then she said, “Please, hurt us this way!” WE asked her what the Palestinians were willing to do for peace. She kept saying that the Palestinians had already agreed to give up 78% of historical Palestine and yet it was not enough. It was an incredible visit.
Dr. Hanan Ashwari with Bishop Barry Beisner of Northern California and Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona. There is another bishop in there too!
We left that meeting and headed to another fine restaurant in Ramallah for lunch. To our amazement, the Presiding Bishop and her interfaith delegation came to the same place. So we had one big Episcopal reunion in Ramallah of all places. We were graciously introduced to her traveling companions, which included a Rabbi, an Imam, and the first Muslim woman judge. (I know, it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this is no joke)
After lunch, we left the Presiding Bishop and Ramallah and headed back to Jerusalem to the Israeli Museum which is a fabulous place. There is a large outdoor model of Jerusalem from Jesus’ time, and the Dead Seas Scrolls and many other archeological wonders, some great art as well. We stayed until it closed. That evening we heard a presentation by Katia Khoury, who is the wife of Habib, who owns the tour company that hosted us. She spoke of a profound ministry she has to a school in Gaza. Our group voted to give our offerings, taken at every Eucharist during our pilgrimage, to this ministry.
Thursday, we drove about 7 miles out of Jerusalem to Abu Gosh, biblical Emmaus, for our final Eucharist. I love this space, the acoustics, and especially the baptismal font in the crypt. We are always warmly welcomed here, but here, as in many places women clergy are not allowed to preside. In fact, still, in our Anglican churches in the country, we are not allowed to do so. When our Presiding Bishop is in Jerusalem, she can preach, but not preside. Of course, this is not as we wish it would be. After our service at Abu Gosh, the women of our group gathered around the altar. No one said they couldn’t pray there! And so they did!
After a bit of time to explore the beautiful grounds at Abu Gosh, we headed back to Jerusalem. Everyone was given about half a day free time until we would board the bus and head for Tel Aviv for our late night flight. In our free time we had shared some final time with the leaders of this group, and Habib, the tour group leader. Bishop Beisner and I planned our trip for seminarians next January, and then Marti and I met Dean Steve Thomason and his wife Kathy for a bit of time in the streets of the old city. We had lunch, and then strolled around the very confusing, but wildly interesting and fun streets of the Old City, looking for a crepe shop which I had encountered on my first trip some five years ago.
Looking for a crepe shop in Jerusalem? I thought about that, and what pilgrimage means. The crepes were good, but what I most remember was the man who made them. I was hoping to see him again. I remember running up to his door on my last day, toward the last hours of my stay. The door was locked, but he was still in there. He brushed me away with his hand and said, “closed, come back tomorrow.” I told him tomorrow I would be back in the US. He opened the door, and welcomed me in, and he made two the best crepes I have ever had.
This is a magical, mysterious, and tragic place. It is awe inspiring and tense. Some have said, as goes Jerusalem, goes the world. It is hard to be here and not get some sense of the truth of that. It seems to be the epicenter of much of the attention and strife in the world.
Most definitions of “pilgrim” revolve around this basic idea. A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. We call our visits a “pilgrimage” very intentionally.
One thing I have noticed, mostly in myself, is just how difficult it is to get out of the unintentional arrogance of our pampered Western existence. That difficulty often makes us work to mold the journey into what we want it to be, instead of what it is. Pilgrims have to learn to be gracious receivers, relying on the hospitality of others, and adapting to the culture of the place. Our usual lives make it quite easy to believe we can, and should, micromanage it into what we need it to be.
A pilgrimage is not a Middle East “Foodie” Tour, or designed to keep you happy and smiling every moment. It is not a luxury cruise where we sit in our climate controlled cabins and watch the wonders of the land and people we have come to see whisk by our windows from a safe distance. On our pilgrimage we might have a room that is too cold, or too hot, but we should hold that in perspective when just a hundred yards away Palestinians gather around open fires to make it through the night.
A pilgrimage is not just a window, it is even more a mirror. We have to get off the bus, walk into places we would not usually go, meet people we would not usually meet, eat food, sometimes over and over again, that we would not usually eat. We could stand to be, and could learn from, being less critical, and more gracious receivers, of the gifts, and the challenges, presented to us. It is not a vacation, it is a pilgrimage. If you get the blessings of going on a pilgrimage, go on it, as a pilgrim, not as a tourist. Open your hands, your mind, your heart, so that you might receive the gifts, and the challenges, that await you.
Alas, we never found the crepe shop, of course, or the man who runs it, but we did end up doing what, for some wild reason I have always ended my time in Jerusalem: walking the rampart walk, where you climb the walls of the city and walk around it. You can’t go all the way around now due to security, but there are two routes that are quite interesting. You walk it looking at plaques that read “the Jordanian Military post in 1948” and thinking about all the struggle these walls have seen.
On this beautifully sunny, and calm day it would be easy to forget that. Its struggles have not ended. It seems as a town that will always be in struggle. What I am always left with, is what makes the Holy Land “holy” is not the shrines, but instead the people. That is my experience, and it is what keeps drawing me back.
Until next year, in Jerusalem,
Jerusalem! May you have Peace
Your people long endure;
may all your citizens be safe,
your towers and streets secure.
For brothers, sisters, friends I pray
let peace return again;
O Lord our God, meet us in grace
In glory come to reign!
(Christopher Idle b. 1938, A hymn we sang from the Mt. Olives at the Church of Dominus Flevit)