What an amazing time this continues to be...every day full of experiences and encounters, and packed full. First time with pretty good wifi so will try to hit the highlights, though it would fill pages.Am discovering this trip comes in three stages - anticipation, the experience, and then reflection...and I'm caught up in the experience part!
From Tel Aviv to Bethlehem, through checkpoint after checkpoint and walls topped with barbed wire, all to "protect" the illegal Israeli settlements which are built on Palestinian land, and ring the city. As our Christian Palestinian guide described "a belt around Bethlehem". Such contrasts - barbed wire around the beauty of Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto believed to be Jesus' birthplace. Romans built temples over Christian holy sites, which gave credence to this being the site of Jesus' birth. Shepherd's field with cave-like places people sheltered with their animals.
A day in Jerusalem visiting the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchure which the Palestinians call the Church of the Resurrection. Overwhelming crowds, the stone tradition says Jesus' body lay on in preparation for burial, the site of the crucifixion, all gilt and icons everywhere. Walk through the old city, winding market streets filled with stalls, bustling with women in hijab, orthodox Jews, tourists, Palestinian long dresses, and more tourists. Followed the Via Dolorosa, and then to Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. Of all the places we visited this day, Gethsemane really moved me- ancient olive trees were there in Jesus' time, the peace of the place overshadowed across the narrow valley by the Temple Mount hill and wall around Jerusalem. In the garden, Jesus had full view of what was to come.
More and more awareness of the apartheid situation the Palestinian people face. Those wanting to leave Bethlehem or other West Bank neighborhoods to go work in neighboring Jerusalem must have permits, and wait daily in long crowded lines to pass through checkpoints, their passage at the whim of the Israeli military. It can take an hour, or the better part of a day, and they are pressed together like cattle in a metal chute. How can you keep a job under these circumstances? Dehumanizing and demeaning, daily.
Two hour drive north the next day north to Ibillin to meet with retired Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour who spoke about "Living the Beatitudes in the Midst of Conflict." High on a hill sits a whole compound - church, school, community college, all built over the years by Father Elias. You'll hear more about what he shared, powerful and moving. He has a remarkable presence that the group felt when he entered the room, and his passion for peace was palpable. I'm bringing home a copy of his book "Faith Beyond Despair: Building Hope in the Holy Land." He was eight years old when the establishment of the state of Israel brought troops to his village, and his family were told to lock the house and leave with what they could carry. Land, home, possessions, all were lost. His village was destroyed. So much of Palestinian identity is tied to the land, which has been in families for generations, and this was taken from them. His life has been dedicated to seeking peace, and he begins with the children. At the school he founded, Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim children all learn together. More about him to come.
Next to Hebron, a Palestinian town completely under control of Israeli military, signs of abject poverty - children walking through streets with plastic buckets to collect soup from a food distribution center. Water is pumped from Palestinian land out to Israeli settlements, and then sold back to Palestinians at a higher price.
Little electricity or water, so Palestinian homes have cisterns on the roof to collect rain water. Again, illegal settlements ring the town. Again, checkpoints, and armed Israeli military everywhere. Settlements built in the center of town ON TOP of the market area, so Palestinian vendors had to put up nets over the narrow streets to keep out the garbage settlers throw down, along with waste water. Hard to believe - the Israelis in the central settlement are extreme Zionists. Our Palestinian guide, Rafat, has been very clear to separate the Israeli government from the Israeli people, many of whom are repelled by their government's actions. And repeatedly shares how Israelis and Palestinians lived together in relative peace until 1948.
Then to Aida Refugee Camp in Jerusalem... people have been in this camp for 70 years.
Needless to say this is proving to be a journey engaging heart, mind and soul. I will not read the Bible in the same way, again - but will be colored by a whole context I will continue to struggle to understand. A common refrain, spoken by shopkeepers and repeated by speakers both Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews, "We are human beings, created in the image of God. Our pain, our tears, our blood are the same. We are human beings."
Yours from the Holy Land, as the call to prayer echoes over Bethlehem...