I am beginning my second journey in the Middle East as I type this post. I was first here in June of 2013 with a group of young adults who were traveling from the Metro DC Synod of the ELCA. I was able to join them on their journey as an observer and what I saw, heard and felt, changed my life.
The Holy Land has long been a mythical place to me. I am a person of Christian faith and thinking about modern day cities like Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem conjures up images of Jesus and the disciples sharing the radical message that would become the basis of my faith. I am someone who values interfaith dialogue and relationships and the Holy Land always seemed like a utopic place; where those descendants of Abrahamic faith live together. Before coming in June, I was overwhelmed with the thought of walking where Jesus walked, seeing what Jesus saw and of meeting people who were descendants of the heroes and sheroes of my faith. This whimsical, and quite frankly, naive way of viewing my experience was fundamentally altered when I touched down in Israel, Palestine and Jerusalem.
So much can be said about the ongoing conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli people. In my experience, the conflict has been fueled by religious fervor that causes a sort of blindness among people of faith in other parts of the world. We become so focused on the “end times” and our interpretations of what will happen that we ignore current realities. I was very ignorant about the scope of the conflict before spending time on the ground and quite frankly, I could not have clearly articulated (or understood) what is happening in the region today. I’ll write more soon about what I have learned…
As I find myself back in the region six months after my first visit, I can’t help but think about this quote by Father Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Father Chacour describes himself as a Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli and has dedicated his life to promote reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis. He says, “Do you come to (the Holy Land) to see the shrines or do you want to learn about the living stones?”
This quote speaks volumes. When I imagined traveling to the Holy Land, I had thoughts of a sacred pilgrimage that visited sites that made the biblical texts come to life. I thought about Jesus and how I might feel standing at the foot of ruins that have stood the test of time. I don’t think I thought much about the people, let alone the conflict. I was mainly concerned about the shrines.
Here’s the thing – shrines are not living. Shrines capture a point in history, a story, a moment that holds one’s attention on what was. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but what I am finding, particularly in dealing with the conflict and meeting people in the region, is that focusing on the shrines makes us lose sight of what Jesus actually stood for. LIFE. ABUNDANT LIFE. “I came so that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”
Living stones have become my focus. Father Chacour refers to the people as living stones and I appreciate this language. Visiting this place is no longer about the place; it’s become about the people. The only way to focus on life is to focus on the living. For me, this means that I can no longer come to the Holy Land and just think about the past; I can’t separate the people who are living under oppression from the message of peace that I want to embody. I can’t romanticize the biblical history and my faith narrative and not deal with current day realities. I can’t say that I stand for peace and justice and turn a blind eye and deaf ear to those facing injustice. I have to focus on the living stones, on the people whose lives have forever been transformed. I have to engage the whole narrative – the realities of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.
My prayer is that I can continue to dig deep; that I can go beyond the surface of any story, situation or reality to truly connect to the heart of what’s happening. I want to be a person focused on people, which means that I have not choice but to accompany them. I have no choice but to walk hand-in-hand with members of my human family, carrying their burdens, listening to their stories and loving them fully.
So here’s my ask to each of you reading this. When I return, please don’t ask me about the shrines. Ask me about the stones, the living stones. Ask me about the people. Ask me about the occupation. Ask me about the human rights violations. Ask me about the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children. Ask me about those working for peace and reconciliation. And I can’t wait to share their stories with you.