The meaning of pilgrimage

From Justi Schunior, St. Mark’s Associate Rector


This was my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My first, taken in 2010, was life changing. For me, pilgrimage is about incarnation and longing. As a Christian pilgrim, I longed to be physically in the places where Jesus was. As a person who had inhabited a real physical space, Jesus was someone I could imitate. I could be where he was; I could touch the places he had touched; I could become a little more like him by walking in his footsteps. The Church of the Resurrection, the Church of the Nativity, the Mount of Olives are all holy ground to me because they are part of the rich tapestry of faith. Even when we are not sure if the actual Jesus of Nazareth walked in a particular place at a particular time, we know that his followers did for centuries. They hallow the ground I walked on.

The St. Mark’s pilgrimage visited these holy places, of course. But we did more as well. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus and not noticing the pain of the people who dwell on the way is to not soak up the spirituality of the place. As we all know, there is pain, discord, and confusion in the land of our spiritual history.

For me, I needed to listen, truly listen, to the pain of the Jewish Holocaust narrative. I needed to meet a bishop who reminded us that there are still Christians in the Holy Land – Christians who provide perspective and balance to a tense situation. I needed to hear from a lawyer who passionately advocated for the rights of Palestinian prisoners and members of refugee camps who provided a future far brighter than the lights of suicide bombs. I needed to see young people committed to traumatized Palestinian parents and youths despite horrific shortages of resources. I needed all of these wonderful and terrifying experiences because I think following Jesus – really following Jesus is about expanding compassion. Comparing suffering never happens in his ministry. Suffering is suffering. And all kind of suffering happens in this Holy Land. It is ancient and contemporary; and it calls our attention. And yet I hope that the widening of our compassion expands to our own home as well – its ground no less holy. We also imprison a population, fail to care for and educate children, and ignore debilitating and painful history.

Pilgrimage should be life changing. It’s not just about travel and adjusting to foreign food and lodging. It is about changing the shape of our very being to accommodate new and uncomfortable truths. I look forward to discussing this pilgrimage with you all!




October 2nd – We go to the West Bank

In 2004, toward the end of the Second Intifada, I visited the West Bank for the first time.  This was my fourth visit since then and while it was good to see construction booming in Ramallah, Kalandia checkpoint remains a stark introduction to life in the West Bank and the harsh realities of Occupation.

 In planning the trip with MEJDI, Karen and I had suggestions for people and organizations we thought would be of interest to the St. Mark’s pilgrimage group.   After hearing Sahar Francis speak in the U.S., Karen knew we could learn a great deal from the dynamic Director of Addameer – – a Palestinian NGO that supports political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian prisons.

At the Tarwee’a coffee shop in Ramallah, Sahar briefed us on the very difficult situations of those prisoners.  Because they live in occupied territory, they are under the jurisdiction of Israeli military courts, not civil courts.   The result is that the legal safeguards that would otherwise be available to prisoners are not.  These range from how long they can be held without being charged – administrative detention – to who can visit them and how often.  Importantly, the offenses for which West Bank residents can be arrested include civic activities such as organizing protests and trying to influence public opinion! Later in our trip, some of us would have a personal encounter with the pain this causes when we met the family of a young man who has been held for over a year in administrative detention.

My spirits lifted when we visited Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) ( in Nablus.  I had met Suhad Jabi in Washington when she was part of a delegation organized by Telos (, a terrific organization doing outreach to U.S. evangelical Christians about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. IMG_1885

Situated below the Samaritan village of Mount Gerizim, TYO serves the children of Nablus and refugee camps nearby, many of them traumatized by the circumstances of their daily lives and the violence of the intifadas.  Staffed primarily with volunteers, both American and Palestinian, who gain valuable skills for their own future employment, TYO offers children classes in education and physical activity, art and music.IMG_1908

 For their mother’s, there are women’s empowerment classes.  TYO has the only co-educational classrooms for children in Nablus.  Suhad, the psychosocial program manager, touched on some of the serious issues they encounter in their work, including domestic and political violence for the women, anger management, and children deemed too difficult in school.  Importantly, TYO is constantly measuring impact and adjusting their programs to the needs of the community.  The enthusiasm of the staff and the laughter and joyful singing we heard as we left gave hope in a place where it often seems there is little.

Two vibrant organizations working in difficult places on difficult issues, two vibrant women committed to their work and a better future for the Palestinian people – inshallah.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Having grown up with the Nativity story, I find it difficult to deal with the present day reality of Bethlehem.  Saturday  we met our guide, Faraj, a deacon of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, at a spot called “Mt. Everest,” looking down into Bethlehem and its surroundings.  From there we could see much of the town itself, its houses old, new, and half-built, the separation wall snaking its way across the valley, the settlements, the road for settlers with the overhang to protect their cars from rock throwing.

We were invited into the Omar Mosque at Manger Square, where the mua’zzin, who calls the people to prayer five times daily, explained the rituals of the mosque.  We bent low as one must do to enter the Nativity Church.  Why is the door so low?  Is it a sign of piety or because the Ottomans didn’t want animals to enter?

We waited with others in the church, which is Greek Orthodox, heard the Franciscans chant as they began their daily walk through the Nativity Grotto, and after a long wait descended into that famous grotto.  This is part of the Bethlehem of today and the one we tourists know best.

Earlier on this blog I wrote about Palestinian refugees.  So not surprisingly, for me, it was Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder of Alrowwad (, a cultural and theatre training center at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, who gave life to the Palestinian narrative.

Aida in Arabic means “the one who shall return.”  To enter the camp, you drive under an arch

Abdelfattah Abusrourwith a huge key overhead – the symbol of the refugees’ desire to return to the homes from which they were evicted during and after the 1948 war.  It is this “naqba” – catastrophe – that is essential to the Palestinian narrative.

Aida is one of 58 Palestinian refugee camps.  This one in the shadow of the security wall.  Two-thirds of the 6,000 inhabitants, living in just 10 acres, are under 18.  Abusrour wanted to build a place “where children could grow up and be proud.”  He did not want to walk in children’s funerals.  In our time with him, he did not refer to non-violent resistance, but instead to a “beautiful resistance” wherein young people through the arts can find peace within and so can make peace outside.  His program is impressive, very much so, but as long as the Occupation continues, as education is limited and opportunities are few for these young people, he will need all the help he can get.

As we walked to our bus, teenagers were throwing stones at the separation wall – a hopeless act against a concrete wall that is 25 feet high.   When we got to the bus, the Palestinian police had arrived.


A Trip To The Wall


We visited Bethlehem on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath (shabbat). On returning, I needed to visit an ATM. Unfortunately, the ATM nearest the St. George Guesthouse wouldn’t work for me.  Where might I find another?

A large upscale mall next to The Old City seemed likely to house an ATM and the mall was within walking distance of The Guesthouse.  But would the mall be open for the period between the end of Shabbat (about 6 pm) and the close of the business day?

Not to worry.  The mall was packed with Jewish shoppers and tourists.  Traffic on the surrounding streets was heavy and raucous.  Security seemed relaxed , with only a single guard and walk through metal detector at each entrance.

And yes, I found an operating ATM – one with a prominent “English” button.  Now, if only these ATMs did not spew out large denomination notes (200 sheqels, about $56) that bring a hard stare and the demand for something smaller from every shopkeeper that I’ve encountered!

– Henry

There’s Power in Rocks and Prayer

My world is very different from that of the Israelis and Palistinians, I have no frame of reference. Yes, I’ve crossed arms and marched, painted posters, written speeches, and outed injustices. In my heart, I strive to “do right” by my hero, U. S. Representative John Lewis. I’ve always believed when Representative Lewis joined the Freedom Riders and inevitably rose to the rank of Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), every day was spent forging a path for truth and justice; and maybe, just maybe, one day I too might light a fire that would serve as a beacon (or even just a wafting flicker) for those serving the just and the righteous.

For me that day has not come. Instead, here in the Holy Land, I’m learning that my future may never include me leading anyone and probably not even myself to the “promised land.” Perhaps my role is more subtle, less radical? Can it be that My contribution will be to share what I see, what I hear, what I know, and what I experience and use my voice to start or even continue our most difficult dialogues? While I might not be a “drum major for change,” I’m beginning to believe that I just may be a “connector” for hope.

Tonight, I share with you a few of the sights and sounds of protest and peace I’ve experienced. Will it call you to action, will you question what you know, what you’ve been told? I’d like to hear what your thoughts,because I’ve met some wonderful men and women with stories waiting to be shared. Pull up a chair…

A.  A group of Israeli Jews dancing around the Torah.  One might view this as a celebration.  Does your view change when you learn that it occurred at the corner of Via Dolorosa and Al-Wad Rd (the main access point to the Muslim Quarters). What do you see?

B.  A small group of Palestinian youths run erratically up and down a hill.  Did you notice they where throwing rocks the size of walnuts at a concrete wall?  Could there be more to this story than what we see?

C.  Graffiti is the modern expression of youthful angst? Or is it a universal call to action?

Zone A graffitiAida Settlement graffiti

D.  Yet in the midst of it all is the birth of great hope, the Church of the Nativity, a manger into which love was born.

.Church of the NativityPrayer in the Manger

Holy Site Leapfrog

Today was our whirlwind tour of Jerusalem’s Holy Sites… beginning our morning at the Mount of Olives, where we looked out across terraces of white stone tombs towards the walls of the Old City; The Dome of the Rock shimmering in the early sunlight. We moved on to Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Then to The Old City, walking the Via Dolorosa and running our hands along the polished stone where Jesus rests while Simon takes the cross. Winding through a spice-filled bazaar to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where we wandered through a series of dark chapels and caves, passing through to touch the rock at Golgotha. Breaking for lunch, we demolished several tables full of perfectly crisped falafel and creamy hummus. Up again and over to the Western Wall, where we passed through several security checkpoints to march directly up to the Dome of the Rock, it’s blue and green tiles sparkling in the sun. We moved down and around to the Wailing Wall, where you don’t understand why people are bracing their heads and hands against the wall until you get up to the stones, which draw you in with almost electric force and you have to hold on just to stay on your feet in a place where God is so viscerally present.
I could have spent days in each of these places: absorbing, praying, watching, feeling. The Spirit is so alive here; everyone is on fire. The Old City is labyrinthine and smells like incense, cumin and garbage. The Holy Sepulchre is dark and sad, but with tiny dripping candles lit in the blackest corners. The extremes of dark and light are present in every sense. I’m doing my best to “stay present in things I don’t understand,” as Justi says. In the midst of that, I’m grateful for the smooth, warm ancient stones to hold onto and to lean into. Amen.