This has been such a powerful week for me. On Sunday Olivia, Steve, Andre, Ben and I returned from our week of free travel in Egypt. We found our way back to Old City, Jerusalem and to the Ecce Homo Convent. Thus began our week.

We spent our free time on Sunday evening exploring the Old City and getting ourselves reacquainted with the area. (A week seems like a long time to be away!) Monday began our program for the week. We started with Hebrew class. Woo! That was amazing! By the end of the few hours we learned how to introduce ourselves and say common phrases like “thank you” along with some of the alphabet. It was wonderful to go out that afternoon and be able to say some of these things to the people. It kind of felt like we were in Syria all over again practicing our Arabic. That afternoon some of us spent time shopping and getting to know some shopkeepers. We became really good friends with some of them and later in the week got invited to have dinner with their family by one of them. That was an experience! It was a true Muslim family dinner which I absolutely loved!

The rest of the week consisted of us hearing a lecture about the holocaust and Jewish tradition. The same day as the lecture we went in our own small groups to Yad Veshem, the holocaust museum. That was an incredibly moving experience for some and not so much for others as we learned when we debriefed about it that night. I thought it was moving personally. It was so hard to think about how something so horrible could actually happen. It seems like something that would be in the movies and not reality, but it was real and the stories were real in that museum. During the week we took a tour of the four quarters of the old city (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters). We stopped in each area and discussed them. I loved getting out and walking around even if the rain came down on us. We also heard from a Rabbi. That was such a fascinating lecture. He was such a peaceful person. I could feel it coming off of him. More Hebrew class followed near the end of the week. It actually made me want to learn more Hebrew when I get home.

Another really amazing thing that happened occurred when I was with Aly. We were walking back to Ecce Homo and stopped by the group of soldiers. We had really wanted to talk to one and now was our chance. We went up to one and had a good conversation with him. They had to leave to go to the Western wall, but invited us to walk with them. It was so cool! We had the chance to follow and observe what they do. Also near the end of the week we got to participate in a true Shabbat. It was fascinating! Before having a shabbat meal with the family of the man who lectured us and gave us a tour, we went to the western “wailing” wall. In this area there is generally praying at the wall and socializing and celebration in the other areas. There was dancing, singing, chanting and praying. To see everyone out and in such high spirits was wonderful. Some of us even went to the wall to pray. That was definitely another moving experience. I was praying at the western wall!!! Dinner was fantastic. There is a whole process of prayer and ritual to the meal that includes blessing of the wine and bread along with songs and prayers. Oh my goodness was that a blast! Those were the main things we did, but it is more of what I did on my own or in small groups that was moving.

Jamila and I got up early one morning to go to the Holy Sepulcher hoping we could get into the tomb of Jesus. We could not, but it was wonderful to get up early and try anyway. That didn’t stop me from trying again either. I am a Catholic and consider myself to be a born again Christian so being here means the world to me. We had a chance to do a few things. This included walking the Via Dolorosa (basically the Stations of the Cross) where tradition holds specific events happened as Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion. I walked the Via Dolorosa and it was so moving to me. Standing in these places such as the area where Jesus fell on his walk and reading the passage from the Bible changed everything for me. It took over an hour to walk this path and it was worth every second of it. Along those lines we also did what was called “Walking with Jesus in Jerusalem”. This was amazing to me! We went to three places: The Garden of Gethsemane, Peter of Gallicantu (where Peter denied Jesus three times) and the Garden tomb (the other assumed crucifixion and resurrection site). I felt God so much in all of those places and it was absolutely mind blowing to be standing in those places. My faith definitely soared higher than ever before. What an incredible opportunity I had to be there! In between doing the Via Dolorosa and the walk with Jesus I was able to meet with a priest in the convent who did confession with me for the first time in years. That was an amazing thing for me and something I wanted to do before I am rebaptized in the Sea of Galilee at the end of the Jesus trail. God just really came into my life last week.

One of the best things that happened with me occurred in the Holy Sepulcher. I had bought some anointing oil from a store on Saturday and was near the sepulcher so I figured I would run over there and try to get it blessed by a priest or someone there. I made it there and the next thing I knew I found myself in line waiting to go in the tomb of Jesus. I made it through the line and into the tomb in about an hour. It was unbelievable! I carried this little thing of oil through the tomb and back out in less than two seconds, but it was an amazing 2 seconds. After I left the tomb I found someone and asked if they would bless the oil and told them it was for my mother. The man took off and came back 5 minutes later telling me the priest would be down in a few minutes. About 5 minutes later a priest came down, took time to take me all the way to the chapel and blessed the oil. He even sat down to chat for a while. This is not a common thing for someone in the sepulcher to do so I knew God intervened in this. I felt so blessed to have this chance and when I return to the states I will have holy oil to bless my mom with. This week for me has been one week that I will never forget. To be in such a holy place and to experience the wonders of Jerusalem changed my life. I am blessed to have the opportunity to be here and I cannot wait to share further stories with others when I return. Until then.  Blessings and shalom!

-Mariah Elliot