Thoughts on the pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine

Nadine’s thoughts on her pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine

In the first week back – October 10, 2013

  •  A collage of impressions is my attempt to capture my feelings about the pilgrimage.  These continue to challenge my equilibrium.  As a person of faith, God is involved in all the details and I continue to wrestle with the clash of “tawdriness and transcendence” that some of the most treasured holy sights evoked.But I have learned again about an “allowing God” and it is no use asking questions like “how could He?”• There is a part of me that is patient with goodness and evil – “a part of  me that stands vigilant and patient in the tragic gap which almost every moment offers” (Richard Rohr)- that stands in awe not just at the Dome of the Rock but in crowded shrines, churches with promises of Jesus’ touch, and in the crowded Palestinian camps where lives are crushed by poverty and denial of possibility and in the Hebron market where Palestinian shoppers and merchants have long been abused by Israelis throwing garbage and debris into their midst in an effort to discourage their livelihood.

    • Access to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock guarded by Israeli soldiers and permission granted to only the few.  Security gates and soldiers granting limited access to the plaza and massive retaining wall believed to have supported the Second Temple – the Wailing Wall which is in fact a “thin place” inviting reflection and prayer.  Who is restricted from these places of prayer and why?   Who choses those who are allowed and those who are kept out of these holy spaces?

    • The Sea of Galilee – at times calm and then bouncing with white caps.  Was this the place of Jesus calming the waves?  At night Compline, singing in the church of the Sermon on the Mount.                                                              Sea of Galilee - MEJDI Tours

  • Sea of Galilee – MEJDI Tours
  • • Brave Palestinian NGO leaders who work to create healthier outcomes for the children, mothers, workers, displaced families who have waited for 60 years with a fading hope for restoration of human rights.• Jewish pacifists who step outside the actions of Israel to advocate for a “just peace” and human rights for all.  Palestinian prisoners and their families who wait in fear and dispair; those held in administrative detention, with no charges brought.  Israeli and Palestinian and expatriate volunteers protesting the building of barriers and re-building houses destroyed by Israeli tanks; visionary Palestinians and expatriate volunteers providing drama, dance, art and hope to current and next generation refugees.

    • The Palestinian family, with deeds of ownership dated from the Ottoman Empire for their 100 acres of farm land have created The Tent of the Nations.  Their hospitality to talk about and learn about peace – their efforts to protect their land and the environment with the planting of trees, low impact waste solutions, and solar panels on top of the only building allowed on the property under Israeli law.

    • The generosity and hospitality of our Palestinian hosts – food and lodging and conversation in Burqin and Jenin.

    • “Dual Narrative” pilgrimage – one young Jewish Israeli guide, and one senior Palestinian guide, risking their safety and a potential criminal record to pass the security checkpoints between disputed lands.  They travel with us to interpret “foreign” territory and conflict.

    “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:)



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.


Family Night in Palestine

Before Christmas, the St. Mark’s Middle East Working Group sells olive oil from the Canaan Fair Trade Company in Burqin on the West Bank.  Profits are sent back to Episcopal institutions, such as hospitals and children’s centers.  A number of us spent the night with some of the olive farmers and this account was posted by Mary DeNys on her travel blog.


It was getting late, so we drove to the Canaan Fair Trade center, where we were to meet our hosts for the evening.  While we waited, we were taken on a tour of their facility where they process oil from olives and almonds.  Finally the time came to go to our hosts for the evening.  Two of my friends, both named Karen, and me were staying with one family.  We climbed into the back seat of Emad’s pickup truck; other folks piled into the truck bed, and we were off.  He dropped off two groups at different houses, and then took me and the Karens to his house.  It was quite a cultural adventure.

There we were with a group of about half a dozen women, two men, and a varying population of children, none of whom spoke English.


Family Night in Palestine


One of our number had about a dozen words of Arabic. The Ancient Granny–who was probably my age–took my hand and spoke long and earnestly in Arabic.  One of her granddaughters tried to explain to her that I did not understand.  Upon which, Grandma took my hand and declaimed yet more earnestly, which completely cracked up the granddaughter.  Somehow, we managed to communicate our marital statuses and how many children we had of both genders.  They managed to tell us that our host was one of twelve offspring of Ancient Granny–six men and six women.  We figured out that at least one of the women with us was his sister and another was his wife.  But it was pretty confusing because most of the family lived within two blocks (at most) and different individuals wandered into the circle, accompanied by various children off and on all evening.  It was a gathering heavily skewed to women, most of whom were shouting at each other and laughing heartily.  It was a raucous and jolly group.  The men were very quiet.

Eventually, Dana, our host’s niece dropped by.  She is studying English at the local university, and she was eager to practice.  That helped a bit, and her efforts emboldened her nine year old sister who spoke the best English of the group.

When we arrived, we had been served the largest, most delicious dates I have ever eaten along with tea.  But we saw no sign of dinner.  Then at some point, we realized that the women were discussing how they were going to feed us.  This did not make us feel secure!  We later learned that this kind of discussion is “part of the dance.”

Beqin dinner



  As you can see from the picture, we ate well!

One of the .  . . relatives? . . . neighbors? . . . friends? was Christian.  When they learned that we were Christian (How many times a day do you have to pray?), they urged us to go see the local church, the Church of the Ten Lepers, which wikipedia confirms is the third oldest church in the world. Faraj had wanted to take the group there in the afternoon, but there was no time. So we would go there.


But first we had to go to the soap factory!  The young Christian woman and her husband have a small factory where they make olive oil soap. So okay, to the soap factory we went.  Emad, silent as ever, loaded us all into the truck and drove us, It was quite interesting to see the vats of soap and the molds into which they poured it.  They gave each of us a bar of soap.  We were most grateful, and then we thought that since they had hosted us, it would be good to buy some soap.  This became complicated.  The couple insisted that we should take the other bars too as a gift.  We felt bad, because we were then depleting their inventory, and after all, they had only wanted to give us one apiece.  After much negotiation–“Take it as a treat for your children.”–we managed to leave a few shekels and move on to the church, which a neighborhood boy opened up for us.  It was really lovely.


“Leper Cave” at the Church of Ten Lepers


The nave is actually 18th century.  It is the “leper cave” that is so very old.

After we returned from the church, Dana begged us to come with her to her house (only two minutes!).  So we went and met her father–her mother and sisters had been in the group at the table.  He turned out to be a boys high school principal who spoke quite good English.  We chatted away, with him quoting Wordsworth to us, for some time.  But we were pretty wiped out and so bid our good-byes and headed back to Emad’s house.  The children had been put to bed in their parents’ room, so we got the kids’ room with beds covered with images of Spider Man and some Arab knock-off of Barbie.  I can’t say I slept well, but that’s me.  My roommates did fine despite a fine cast of goats and roosters.

From Almonds to Za’atar: A Food Pilgrimage

Beqin Family Dinner

Beqin Family Dinner

We didn’t come here for the food, but eating in Israel and Palestine has opened another window on our experience as pilgrims.

It starts with the markets.  Anyone who has ever been to a Middle Eastern souk will know what I mean.  Piles of every kind of fruit and vegetable, breads, spices, meat, you name it.  Huge cauliflowers.  Oranges that stay green even though they are perfectly ripe.  Pomegranates in every form: whole, seeded or pressed into ruby-red juice.  The baker with fragrant stacks of freshly-baked breads, from the familiar pita to ka’ek, the local bread of Jerusalem, like a giant elongated sesame bagel.  The spice shops full of richly scented earth-toned mysteries, starting with the ever-present za’atar–a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds and magic. The butcher with dressed whole lambs hanging in the window, fleecy tail and (in the case of male lambs) other distinguishing features still intact.  Barrels of pickles in day-glo colors.  And ample supplies for a culture with an obvious sweet tooth:  pastries dripping with honey, dozens of varieties of halvah and turkish delight, and every imaginable shape, color and flavor of gummy candy.

Like so many things in this divided land, food can illustrate the lack of connection between cultures. For example, on our first evening together in Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide Farraj brought malbun, a delicious kind of fruit leather made with grapes, almonds and anise.  Although it is a very typical Palestinian treat, Yuval, our adventurous and well-traveled Israeli guide, had never seen or tasted it.
But we have also seen how food can be a source of identity and  empowerment.   For the farmers growing olives and almonds in Beqin in Northern Palestine, the Canaan Fair Trade cooperative provides a way to bring their products to a broader market, with tapenade and other spreads coming soon to a Whole Foods near you and olive oil available every year at St Mark’s advent sale (try some!).
And more than anything, we have benefitted from the fabled hospitality of this region, as people have generously welcomed us with food and drink and we have connected over a common table.  Our most memorable food experiences are bound up with other kinds of sharing:  of stories, of passions, of simple day-to-day family life.  Children bringing us cold drinks after their father led us up to his rooftop to see the settlements in the heart of the City of David.  Beers and hookah at the “bad kids” table under a Bedouin-inspired tent. Just-picked grapes and figs still warm from the sun, given a quick rinse from the rainwater cistern at the Tent of Nations.  The chef at St George’s Guest House unveiling muqlabeh, the “upside down” dish of rice, chicken, eggplant and other vegetables, with a flourish of banging pots.  Best of all, the unending feast provided by our host family in Beqin:  dates, coffee with cardamom, hummus, felafel, muqlabeh, fried potatoes, home-cured olives, melon seeds, sunflower seeds, tea with much less sugar than our hosts thought appropriate, and I’m sure there would have been more but we were just too tired.
As I said, we did not come here for the food.  But we will take away with us wonderful memories not just of the sights, but also the delicious smells and tastes of the Holy Land.
Karen W.

Jogging in Jerusalem

If one can cope with the city’s steep hills, jogging in inner Jerusalem can be easily accommodated.  Early morning, before the shops open,is probably the best time.  Although the sun has yet to rise, the streets are well lit and the sidewalks virtually empty.

I’ve found jogging to be an effective means for understanding not only the geography of a city’s center, but points of its history and culture as well.  This has been the case with Jerusalem.  Jogging outside the walls of the Old City, one of many of Jerusalem highpoints provided a striking vista of the Mount of Olives to the east  The route along the southern side of the Old City provides a view of a large archeological site with diggings that expose layers of Jerusalem’s history from Herod’s reign through that of the Romans, Byzantines and Umayyads.

A jog through West Jerusalem provided evidence of British rule (1918 -1947, known as the Mandate Period).  Along Hebron Road, I passed a now decommissioned hospital built by the British in the late 1920’s.  Reaching the King David Hotel, I noticed an exterior plaque commemorating a bombing of the southern portion of the hotel (the site of British administration) by the Irgun (Jewish underground) in late 1946.

West Jerusalem is also the site of Independence Park.  I was surprised to pass gravesites along the southern side of the park. Consulting one of our guides, I learned the gravesites are the remnants of a former Muslim cemetery, desecrated during the conflict that erupted (after the British departure).  The Jewish cemetery in east Jerusalem was also desecrated, evidence of the intense ethnic hostilities that have lingered for more than half a century.  In short, jogging can help highlight a city’s cultural splendors while occasionally revealing the ugly underside of its history.


IMAGINE all the people…

HebronImagine, if you can, that you live on Capitol Hill in Washington.  You and your family and neighbors are part of an established community of 25,000 people.  You are “the 25,000.”

Imagine that 500 people move into your neighborhood, “the 500,” because they believe God promised to them millennia ago the land on which you live.

Imagine that the U.S. and DC governments fully support “the 500” and implement a series of policies that restrict how you lead your daily lives, your mobility, your opportunity to work, to shop, to relax.

Imagine that, because of “the 500,” all of the stores and restaurants on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, from 2nd Street to 10th Street are closed, their doors welded closed so owners and employees cannot enter.

Imagine that in a 30 square block area along that same piece of Pennsylvania Avenue, you are prohibited from driving your car or walking on the streets, that if you live in that area you must make your way by scrambling across rooftops, relying on neighbors for exits to the street.

Imagine that in order to get to your job, to take your children to school, to shop, to worship, you must pass through military checkpoints that have no set rules or processes but rather are arbitrarily changed from day to day.

Imagine that you have lived through over 300 days of curfew, when you literally cannot leave the interior of your home, even to be in your garden, with only limited, arbitrary weekly opportunities to shop.

Imagine that when, in more relaxed time, you are able to go to the Eastern Market to shop, there are five story high apartment buildings on each side – and that the residents regularly throw trash, garbage, feces and bleach down on you.

Imagine that there is no protection for you from the police or the military, that there is little media coverage of the realities of your daily life, that the rest of the U.S. simply does not care about what is being done to you.

Imagine that “the 500” and the state that protects them and oppresses you have as their ultimate goal to drive you – all of you, the “25,000” – from your homes by making life so hard, so unpredictable, so humiliating, that you will give up and leave.

Imagine being brave enough to stay.

If you can imagine all of that, then you can imagine what it means to be a Palestinian (“the 25,000”) in the ancient city of Hebron in the occupied territories known as the West Bank.

This is my witness.  It is not in my imagination.  It is the reality that I learned about today.