the holy land thus far.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Although it feels like just yesterday we were saying our teary good-byes outside of Yeditepe University, we've been traveling all over the Middle East and have recently arrived here, in the holy land, our final destination until we fly home.

Israel has been stunning so far. 

After managing a somewhat easy border crossing from Jordan, we settled into our new home - the Tantur Institute for Ecumenical Studies, for 6 days right outside of Bethlehem where dived headfirst into learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The past week has been full. Extremely full - of everything that Israel and Palestine has to offer, and has been quite overwhelming to say the least. We've jumped right into one of the largest and most intimidating international conflicts, seen what the news has showed us with our own eyes - and I know I'm not the only student standing here wide-eyed and a little worn out.

Our time in Israel has proved to be an amazing learning opportunity so far. We've been in around the city, visiting various Palestinian NGOs, seeing settlements and refugee camps, meeting palestinian Christians in Beit Sahour, and seeing life through their eyes. Tomorrow we travel to the Galilee and then into the old city of Jerusalem for 10 days where we will get the opportunity to learn about the Israeli side. A balance, as to remind us that there are far more than two sides to this conflict and that we need to see that, understand that, grasp that, and learn what both sides have to offer.

Perhaps the most memorable part of our time here has been the end of Holy Week - culminating in Easter celebrations with orthodox Christians. Early Friday morning, our team jumped on bus number 24 and drove to the Old City of Jerusalem, to go check out the theological melting pot of Jews, Muslims and Christians. For it was the last day of Passover (for the Jews), Good Friday (for the Christians) and also Friday prayer (for the Muslims) and we got to experience a little of all of that. 

We visited the Wailing Wall and watched Jews (from Israel, as well as pilgrams) perform their prayers at one of their sacred religious sites. It was incredible - I don't have words for it, and unfortunately no pictures either, since it was a special religious holiday and photography was not allowed. Afterwards we wandered through the passageways of the Old City (something similar to the grand bazaar...making me miss Turkey already...) and found our way to where the Good Friday procession was moving along the Via Dolorosa.

This is the same road that Jesus walked with his cross on a Good Friday some thousands of years ago, so every year on Good Friday (protestant and orthodox), Christians carry crosses of their own and walk down the same path to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church stands in the spot where Jesus was buried, the spot of his presumed tomb - making it extremely sacred.  IDF officers lined the streets, blocking spectators from falling in line with the procession, but we somehow found the one street they weren't on, and got to join in the procession all the way to the church. What an amazing experience!

After a somewhat traumatic experience of getting shoved through the church by Israeli police officers, almost trampling over the frail women in front of me because the Israeli officer behind me was pushing me forward, we emerged out of the church overwhelmed and somewhat in awe of what we saw. Something beautiful, religious, and sacred...plagued with something rude, unnecessary and downright disrespectful. 

I'm sorry, but if I was feeling anything spiritual or moving at that moment, it was completely wiped out by the palms of an IDF officer on my back, shoving me forward into a mass of people simply wanting a moment to appreciate the sacred spot they are in. Israel never quite lets you forget where you are.

Afterwards, we stopped off at a place for lunch, where we chowed down on some good 'ol American pizza and mint lemonade - Jerusalem's staple, before heading out for Damascus Gate where we meet up with the rest of our group and made our way out to the Mt. of Olives with our new tour guide.

We spent the rest of the afternoon climbing the Mt. of Olives, getting a spectacular view of the walls of the old city and the Dome of the Rock, as well as the many tombs that line the hills of the mountain. We stopped off in the Garden of Gethsemane, where I took a moment to pray the same prayer my savior Jesus Christ did, asking that my heavenly Father do his will in my life, and not mine. It was probably one of the more moving parts of the day, and something I won't forget any time soon.

Easter celebrations took place Saturday, since Sunday is the sabbath. We drove out to Beit Sahour Saturday afternoon, which is a community outside Bethlehem composed of Palestinian Christians. This was my favorite part of the Holy Land so far. The entire community (quite small) was out on the streets, as girl scouts and boy scouts paraded through the streets as the town waited for the holy fire from Jerusalem to come into town. Earlier that day, the patriarche of the orthodox church went into the structure over Jesus' tomb, awaited God to send the holy fire down, and then distributed it to the rest of the orthodox churches. So this was much bigger of a deal than all of us thought...

As the fire arrived, and the cameras flashed, the entire spectating crowd then joined behind and continued the procession down to the town's Greek orthodox church, which we got to join in as well! We walked down pretty close to the church, and the excitement grew as the crowd of people did as well. Perhaps one of the best moments was watching Muslim families on rooftops, showering the Christian community with candy. If only all religious communities could appreciate each other the way I saw Beit Sahour did.

A small group of us, in lieu of an Easter Sunday service, attended a midnight Easter mass at a local monastery. It was really awesome, all of us lighting candles and at exactly midnight, watching fireworks go off from the roof of the church as the bells announced that the Messiah had risen. It was incredibly moving, and so interesting to partake in. What made it even more moving, was that the majority of those in attendance were Arab-Israelis, an "ultra-minority" in the region. These are Arabs who live in Israel and are Christians. A little bit of everything, but a wonderful service I won't be forgetting anytime soon.

Easter 2012 has been amazing, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tomorrow our team sets off to the Galilee for a day trip, and then we will be right in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem for 10 days before we come back to Tantur for the final 3 days of this trip - a time of processing and preparation for re-entry back to the United Sates.

The countdown rests at 16 days, and I'm not sure what to think about any of it. I am going to home so incredibly soon, and I'm unsure of what awaits me, but I trust that the Lord has done his work here with me, and that work will only continue as I make my way back to America.

He is risen, friends.
He is risen indeed.

Respectfully submitted,