At the end of May through the beginning of June, I journeyed with many others from the Golden Isles as we made our way across the seas to the Holy Land.
I expected long, hot days of exploration and discovery in a strange land. I prepared for the arduous walking. I brought conservative attire for religious sites. I awaited the moments of euphoria I would feel when walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
What I didn’t expect — my beliefs challenged and my perspective on peacemaking deepened, which turned out to be the best blessing of them all.
The trip — officially called the Interfaith Journey to the Holy Lands: Relationship, Understanding, and Community Harmony by Mejdi Tours — was the culmination of years of planning from the Rev. Alan Dyer of Saint Simons Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Rachael Bregman of Temple Beth Tefilloh and the Rev. Tom Purdy of Christ Church Frederica. The religious leaders of these Golden Isles congregations knew they wanted to share an interfaith trip and landed on Mejdi Tours for the company’s social mission. Mejdi is unique because it addresses the complexities of the modern Israeli and Palestinian situation by having dual tour guides — one Israeli, one Palestinian — escort the group through different holy sites with different perspectives and narratives. It’s a tour of the Holy Land that bridges the past with the present.
What a gift it ended up being to hear from representatives from many cultures throughout our 10-day pilgrimage. We ate a kosher meal in the home of an Orthodox rabbi. Those wanting to take part in communion did so during an English-speaking Lutheran service on Sunday morning. We heard from a Palestinian Christian at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, which is working to improve the lives of those who suffer under occupation, violence, injustice and discrimination. We walked the streets of Nazareth, the only Arab town in Israel, during Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset. We even floated in the oily waters of the Dead Sea after having trekked across the clifftop of the Herodian fortress of Masada.
Heavier moments found their way into our hearts. We fell silent as we walked through the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Later, we listened quietly as two men — one Palestinian and one Israeli — spoke about how they have each lost a daughter to the violence between the two cultures, yet they have become best friends on a mission to chose love rather than hate. We met a Palestinian nurse who spoke about the equality she is granted inside the hospital but the oppression she has faced outside those walls.
Everywhere we went, we heard “It’s complicated” when describing the land and its past. The history of this land has been one conquest after another. Hearing a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, and English, we quickly discovered that any place within the city has two or three names — and two to three stories that contradict each other.
On the third day of the trip, I was asked by a friend how I felt so far. I replied that I felt devoid of any particular emotion. I hadn’t experienced the euphoria while visiting any of the sites. I prayed at the Western Wall, but it didn’t feel any different than when I pray here at home. We visited the three major Christian churches in the Holy Land: the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But a pure moment of religious connection hadn’t descended upon me. Why was I not finding Jesus in the land where he was born, raised and ministered?
As we walked back to our bus — passing the Stars & Bucks pop-up cafe, not to be confused with the Seattle-based coffee chain — I realized I was asking the trip for something it was never supposed to be. This pilgrimage wasn’t intended to package the Holy Land into a trinket-sized memory of hopping between Biblical holy sites. I had been treating the trip like a Christian bucket list, but God wanted something more for me.
Several people who spoke with us through our trip echoed each other when describing the Ancient Stones versus the Living Stones. The Ancient Stones are those religious sites — the churches, mosques, and synagogues in Jerusalem and the Galilee — that almost every Holy Land tour will travel to. The Living Stones are the people — the Christians, Jews, and Muslims — that are trying to live in the same area. So I began to look for Jesus in the Living Stones rather than the ancient ones.
One of the Living Stones that sticks out in my mind was the Nassar family, who run the Tent of Nations. The family are Palestinian Christians living on a farm that dates back in their family 103 years. Israel declared their land part of the state in 1991, although it is in the West Bank. But the family has not chosen to leave, nor have they turned to violence. They are challenging the state through the court system, and their case is now before the Israeli Supreme Court. It was uncomfortable to hear about legal cases and land seizures while we sat in a cave on the property (they have not been allowed to build, have electricity, or running water since 1991). But something profound stirred in our group when we heard an impassioned plea by the brother and sister about turning the other cheek. They won’t give in, but they won’t do harm either. They have a love that transcends the politics, and they show it to everyone — regardless of their religion — because that’s what Christ commands. There — in a cave with little air flow and bugs buzzing by our ears — I found Jesus. He wasn’t where I thought he would have been. He wasn’t in a gilded church, surrounded by mosaics and marble. But, he was there.
A few days later, I looked across the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. I heard the words of Matthew 5:9 being carved into my soul: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus spoke those words on this land, and more than 2,000 years later, I was hearing them anew.
So, if you ask me how my trip to the Holy Land was, I will likely respond, “It was amazing and heartbreaking and beautiful and challenging. Let’s go to lunch so I can share more about it.” Those 10 days made me confront areas in my life where I have been unkind, not turned my cheek, or judged someone. It is because of this trip that I don’t take my faith for granted, and when I pray now, I will look for Jesus in the people around me, not in an empty cave.
• To see a photo essay from Bethany Leggett’s trip, pick up a copy of the upcoming July/August edition of Golden Isles Magazine.