It’s been a week since my return from the Middle East where I took part in a remarkable peace conference as well as spending four days living with a Palestinian Christian family to better understand their challenges.
People are always curious about what sightseeing I did on my various trips, and certainly the Holy Land is full of remarkable history at nearly every turn. Thousands upon thousands of years of history wash over you as you traverse this rather tiny plot of land where major religions have been spawned, wars have been waged, and kingdoms were built and torn down.
I walked along the walls surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City that were constructed by the Ottomans, gazed up at David’s Tower, entered Jaffa Gate, and wandered thru the maze of shops that make up much of the Christian Quarter. I climbed the Mount of Olives, saw the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, knelt in the Church of Gethsemane, took in the view of the Temple Mount, drove thru the Valley of Kidron, and even stared into the bowels of Gehenna (yes, THE Gehenna, the former Jerusalem city dump that was used as a metaphor for Hell). I was on the route that Jesus supposedly took on his triumphal entrance into the city on Palm Sunday. I peered into the Damascus Gate, spied Mt. Carmel where Elijah called down Jehovah’s fire upon the Prophets of Baal, saw Herod’s summer retreat built into the cone of a volcano, and visited the Mosque in Hebron that houses the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Rebecca.
While In Jericho, a photographed the sycamore tree that Zacheus climbed, and hiked over the many layers of excavation of the self-proclaimed “World’s Oldest City,” including the walls that came a-tumblin’ down. Above there was the Mount of Temptation where Satan offered Christ the whole world. Along the desolate Pat River gorge I looked down onto St. George’s Monastery that was ingeniously built into the sandstone cliffs, looking like a piece of Rivendell. On the shores of the Dead Sea I visited the Qumran Park where the infamous scrolls of ancient texts were discovered in the caves that pockmark those mountainsides.
Bethlehem, where I was stationed most of my visit, is certainly chock-full of every imaginable site that has to do Christ’s birth, not the least of which is Manger Square, and the fields where the shepherds were greeted by the heavenly host.
With nearly every one of these locales there is the seemingly requisite cathedral, synagogue, or mosque (sometimes all three), overrun with tour guides to help you better understand the historical narrative, and a never-ending cadre of souvenir shops filled with the specific bric-a-brac to help memorialize your sojourn there. Upon close inspection, the vast majority of said trinkets were manufactured in China, which tends to diminish the authenticity a tad. Hucksters besieged me in the Christian Quarter as I wound my way through the gauntlet of mercenary consumption (one store was appropriately named “Lord Kitsch”), and wondered if this was not much different than what Jesus fumed about when he threw the moneychangers out of the Temple.
Besides the rather questionable claims of exact locations of Christ stumbling with the cross on his shoulder or what-have-you, there are the ones that are just blatantly made up. For instance, when traversing past Bedouin encampments along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, we saw signs proclaiming “Site of the Good Samaritan.” Hmmmm…that was a parable. And yet it was a common destination for many of the Christian tours.
It got me to thinking that there was some serious shekels to be made if I could come up with my own apocryphal miracle marker. Then it struck me as we were walking the tight streets a block away from Christ’s birthplace that no one had determined exactly where Mary’s water must’ve broken on that special night. Why, with some pseudo archeology and liberal portions of hearsay, I could start declaring that this very spot (conveniently located on a low-rent storefront), is where that glorious gush took place. I could hew out a granite cistern of sorts and fill it with crimson liquid to clearly mark the consecrated puddle. In no time I could construct the Sepulcher of Most Holy Amniotic Plashet and be a quick add-on to the tours of tens of thousands of trusting souls who are bussed in each day to wander about the hallowed nativity grounds. You may think I wax too cynical, but I assure you it is not far from what has been purported as truth in many of these domains.
But before I could become too skeptical of the big tourism business, I would always be reminded of what was truly holy. It was hard to miss, since there were so many instances of it on display: lovely children populating the cityscapes and countryside. Whether watching Israeli kids all dressed up in whimsical costumes to celebrate Purim, or Palestinian girls wearing their pastel hijab headscarves at a bus stop, or Jewish kindergartners walking hand-in-hand across a busy street on their way to temple, Muslim and Christian Palestinian school children frolicking on a playground...I was struck by the fact that Abraham’s descendents were, indeed fruitful and did multiply. Those seeds now populate three of the largest religions on the planet. And it all started there.
The simple joys of these little ones kept me going when I was overwhelmed with the crass commercialism, or the sad tales of terrorism and injustice going on. While walking through the market in Hebron, I spotted some precocious five-year old Palestinian girls who became fascinated with my digital camera. As we visited a Muslim home on the West Bank, I was interacting with a ten-year old boy about silly phrases and moves by WWE Wrestling superstars. In Bethlehem I visited with a three- generation trio of a toddler, his dad, and the grandfather. Near Efrata I was surrounded by half a dozen elementary aged Muslims who were joyfully peppering me with questions in broken English and curious about everything American. Our taxi driver for several of the days, Abed, had the most adorable toddler daughter, named Rancon, who would sometimes ride in the cab with us. We were so excited for him as he had just become a father for a second time when his wife gave birth to a healthy young girl while we were there.
Abeer and Fadi, the mother and father of the Palestinian Lutheran family that we stayed with the final four days, had three amazing kids: the pretty Leena and Gina, and the handsome Hanna. They were doing there best to get along in the land of their forefathers (they come from a church tradition that goes back numerous generations). During our breakfasts and dinners together each day, we learned much about their daily lives, the education of their children and the pride of their extra-curricular school activities. They showed us photos of family milestones, and gave funny accounts of chapters of their familial histories. And we also asked about the hassles of working around a state of occupation.
For instance, Abeer’s sister was purposely given improper forms to fill out when she crossed the border into Lebanon to attend a business conference, and has not been allowed back in through any of the Israeli checkpoints since , forcing her to take up residence in Beirut. So, for seventeen years, Abeer has not been able to see her sister face-to-face. And Fadi’s brother, tired of taxation by the Israeli government without proper representation, was imprisoned for sixty days back in the early 90s. They seized his home, his furnishings, his store, and the goods of his medical supply business. Pretty steep penalties for just half a year of non-payment. He was finally allowed to go free, but none of his belongings or property was ever returned. We heard story after story like this from many of the Palestinians we met. Even Israeli citizens would shake their heads in shame recounting tales of their government’s overly harsh policies.
There is an overarching sense of weariness from the adults in that region. 95% of the Palestinians want a peaceful reconciliation, and even 70% of the Israelis agree. But when you look at the kids, whether teens or toddlers, they have hope in their eyes. Maybe it is the naïveté of youth. I’d rather look at it as a spark of the divine in their eyes. No one ever thought there would be peaceful resolutions between the British Empire and India during the 30s and 40s in their search for independence; nobody thought the Apartheid of South Africa would ever be solved without a massive conflict; the hatred in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants was considered too deep-seeded for coexistence; none of the experts saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe without bloodshed; nor did anyone think that Civil Rights would ever take hold in America led by a ragtag group of southern ministers…and yet in all these cases things changed due to non-violent reconciliation, often with the younger generations leading the way.
So, instead of giving much credence to the oft-dubious sites of supposed religious significance from eons gone by, it’s these young faces in Palestine and Israel that become the holy sights that get me excited about the future of this fascinating land. When I look back on this trip, and close my eyes to pray, they are the ones I see. May I keep that vision before me. May we all.
You can see some of these “Holy Sights” in my photo collection of the same name on my Facebook page.