Israel-Palestine: the Jesus Trail and alternate narratives in the West Bank

Walking the Jesus Trail –  Lindsay Acker

I loved the Jesus Trail. It was really hard physically and at times I wanted nothing more than to fall over and stay down. When we sat down for lunch or at ruins, it was so hard to stand up. It was more physically draining than anything I’ve ever done. But the spiritual renewal was incredible.

First of all, I had no idea my body was capable of that. God truly does amazing things. He has created incredible beings and he gives us amazing strength we don’t know of. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as empowered as I did on the trail. Ever. God is great!

Second, I have a spiritual connection to the Galilee now. It’s not because Jesus walked there. It’s because I walked there.

This drew me closer to Jesus not because I felt his presence, but because I connected to the same land he connected to. We love the same hills. We walked the same-ish paths. We ate the same-ish things. And we took shelter in the same-ish places. I’m sure he was just as relieved to reach Cana at the end of his journey as I was that first day. I feel like my friend shared something they love with me, and we are closer for it.

Highlights of the Jesus Trail – members of the EMU team

  1. Visiting Nazareth Village and staying in Fauzi Azar Inn with all of its stone arches and beautiful painted ceilings.
  2. Reading the Beatitudes while sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes (we hiked to three possible sites where Jesus may have given his Beatitudes sermon)
  3. Visiting the Synagogue in Migdal, the town which is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene and the most verifiable location of a place where Jesus actually sat and talked about the Torah.
  4. Hiking to the Horns of Hattin (these may actually be the real Mt of Beatitudes)
  5. Staying overnight at the organic, vegan Yarok Oz Goat Farm. We spent a night there and it was peaceful and quiet and the food was amazing!!
  6. Hiking down the cliffs of Arbel, which resembled a movie set from Lord of the Rings
  7. Swimming in the Sea of Galilee 

Our Guide on the Trail –  Ethan Mathews

Besides the vast beauty of the area we hiked in, our guide also added to our experience on the Jesus Trail. He was a twenty-eight-year-old Israeli who had decided to take the path less traveled by not going to university after his military service. Instead, he decided to travel and become a tour guide, and in my eyes, a pretty good one.

When we first met our guide he told us that he was a secular Jew. I know, a secular Jew teaching us about where Jesus walked? He did an amazing job respecting Christianity regardless. Our guide was an interesting guy to hang out with and talk to as well, even when some of the conversations had to do with the conflict. After he was brought up to speed on our dual narrative trip, he was very open and honest about his point of view on this conflict. He was also willing to listen when an idea that he didn’t exactly agree with came up.


Sharing in Community Work in Bethlehem – members of the EMU team

Service is an important part of cross-cultural learning.  It is hard to truly see local culture while being a tourist on a big bus. Sometimes, our big white bus feels like an alien ship landing in little villages. While we have stopped at many places for short visits, there is something really nice about unpacking our bags and living in a place for a few weeks. While our group lived in Bethlehem, we lived with local families and spent time in community work placements.  The goal of this was to learn to see and experience “ordinary” life in Bethlehem and the adjacent towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. What does it feel like to be part of a local organization?  What do we learn when we are asked to help with local work? What do we learn from building relationships with local people that last more than a day?  This report gives a glimpse of the different types of activities individuals participated in during our time in the Bethlehem region.  It is based on excerpts of the student journals written during this time.

 Al Basma

Lydia Haggard describes working at Al Basma, a center for young adults with disabilities. “I worked on projects such as weaving rugs, coloring and learning numbers, working in the gardens, and making recycled paper. My most favorite activity was laying stones in the garden. It was creative as we made mosaic shapes and patterns with little stones. It was beautiful to see the students caring for plants by watering them and also being creative with the stones. They also showed their generosity to me by collecting small square stones form the bucket and handing them to me to us. It really showed the cultural norm to include everyone and practice giving. I loved the shared experience of everyone contributing and helping each other.  I got at least ten high-fives a day from students… Although I didn’t always feel like I was contributing much help because of being new to the routine and having a language barrier, I realize that my presence there was showing the students and teachers that there are people who care and support their work.”


Andy King describes working at L’Arche Bethlehem, part of the L’arche international network of organizations offering therapeutic, social and economic assistance to people with disabilities by creating a space that cultivates self-expression, self-esteem, and participation in an accepting environment. The social objective focuses on the outside community to create communal responsibility and to better show the reality of the situation at hand. The economic objective works to give the students the opportunity to feel like valued members of the society by teaching them vocational skills and paying them for their work.  Andy writes “I was given the opportunity to work alongside students who were making wool nativity scenes, though it was difficult to communicate at times I laughed more that day than I have in a while, especially during the communal dance party that broke out over lunch. I witnessed one of the students playing with a bag of marbles that he was able to buy with his own money from working at L’Arche and how overjoyed he was. I gained a new respect for the importance and significance of L’Arche’s work after seeing that.”

 Arab Women’s League

Owen Mussleman noticed the smiles and friendly demeanor of every one of the disabled people he worked with at the Arab Women’s League.  “Despite life not giving them the easiest pitches, they still stepped into the batter’s box. They refused to let their day go badly. They were not angry, bitter, or wallowing in self-pity. All they wanted was to feel valued.”

 Beit Sahour Municipality

Some EMU students worked with the city government in Beit Sahour, the village adjacent to Bethlehem (Beit Lahem).  Lindsay Acker worked to edit the city government’s website and worked on newsletters, a project report and a project proposal. Lindsay says, “I learned a lot about Beit Sahour. I edited documents about their tourism industry and all of the recent development work. I edited about 100 pages.  There are a lot of religious sites in Beit Sahour, and they are trying to rejuvenate the old city, and they are proposing a project to empower women.”  On several occasions, Lindsay met the city mayor and even shared a taxi ride with him to the Bethlehem city center.

Adrienne Derstine and Alice Maldonado used their Spanish language skills to help translate a 30-page funding proposal written first in Arabic and then English into Spanish for a Spanish-speaking donor to fund a museum and artisan center. Adrienne writes, “I came away feeling like I had gained valuable experiences with the Palestinian culture … and happy to have offered my help. We exchanged emails and hope to hear if the funding comes through on the proposal.”


Greek Orthodox School

A group of EMU students volunteered in a school with 7th grade kids. Ella Reist writes, “[the teacher in the class asked us to] help the students write about time and date in the past and future.  Some kids really responded to the coaching and learned the meaning behind the words and how to apply them.”

Al-Rowwad School in Aida Refugee Camp

A group of EMU students volunteered at Al-Rowwad, an artistic center in the Aida Refugee Camp that organizes “play-based” programs that build self-esteem and life purpose.  Its logo is “beautiful resistance.” Andy King comments on his appreciation for the Al-Rowwad mission: “Their vision is to start by building a human. Teach kids to think and give them a sense of belonging. Give humanity to them, being the agent of change.  A little humanity would go a long way in this conflict.”  Ella Reist comments on the given instructions to paint a wall and how they all (the EMU students) learned to take it from there. “I came to see what needed to be done and could delegate tasks to others when it felt like it was my place to give some leadership.  This was affirming and felt like growth in my leadership skills.”

Rebecca Waje writes: “I was given a picture of a boy and they asked me to paint the boy on a huge wall!  I have never done a mural before.  I tried to get the drawing as close to the photo as I could. I sketched the drawing on the wall and then I started painting.  I had to call on fellow EMU student Kwaunte Stewart to help me because we were running out of time!  I told Kwaunte “lets just paint and hope for the best.” We started painting and a young student walked by and said, “I know him!” We felt then that we had done well.”

Kyle Good also helped with the mural.  “We painted a portrait of a young boy who had been killed by an Israeli sniper while he was playing by the gate. We also decorated the walls of the hallways. It felt weird painting what will effectively become a shrine which all the other children will walk past, being a reminder daily of the occupation and injustice.”

 Shepherds Field Nursery

Sara Byler writes, “I spent my time playing and participating in their games. It took some time for the kids to warm up to me.  When I started saying the few words I know in Arabic to them, they got excited! One boy liked to play “Store” so I used my vocabulary of “shekel” and “shukran” and “Shu?”  He loved it!  I learned that kids can be great teachers when learning a new language. I felt free to practice my very hesitant Arabic.  Even though my speaking produced many giggles from my little girls, they were a very understanding audience.”

Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans

Austin Sachs volunteered at the BFTO, an NGO working to promote fair trade in Palestine, specifically the Bethlehem region. They work with artisans ranging from olivewood to ceramics, disabled groups like the L’Arche community, and women’s associations doing embroidery.  Their goal is to give artisans the tools through training and international reach of BFTA to give them economic independence. Austin helped BFTA with their marketing and by editing their English language materials. Austin writes, “I felt as though I was helping their organization reach a wider audience and in turn helping their artisans. I also was able to learn a significant amount about Palestinian handicrafts. From the tradition of passing down handicrafts through families, the intimacy of ceramics and hand-blown glass to the culture behind embroidery, it is easy to see the growing pride in traditional Palestinian crafts.”

Siraj Centre

Ben Beidler worked at the Siraj Centre, a company focused on bringing tourists to see the nature and rural lifestyle of Palestine.  Ben says, “I did work utilizing social media and worked to engage their secretary in being responsible for regularly posting and creating an online following.”  Ben also went on a full moon hike with the Siraj Centre, including a hike through the desert to a Bedouin camp at 3 a.m. with the full moon.  The rest of the EMU group became acquainted with Siraj Centre later in our trip.  Siraj Centre organized a bicycle ride from Jenin to Sebastia for our group.  The route went through Palestinian villages and olive orchards where families were picking their olives.

Masar Ibrahim

Miranda Schirch Goldberg worked at Masar Ibrahim, an organization that promotes a series of trails, hiking and biking routes throughout Palestine that represent the footsteps of Abraham and his descendants.  Miranda states, “I worked for their communications team. They had many documents in Arabic about small Palestinian villages along the Abraham path and they would send them through an Arabic to English translator, and I would read through three or four of these each day and correct grammar, spelling, structure and formatting. I also read through interviews of tour guides for the trails, and I would compile the information into one summarized document about each guide. I was given my own desk in a communal office and I had use of a computer to do all of my editing work.”

One thing that struck all the student volunteers was the amount of Arab hospitality they received. In every placement, tea and coffee and snacks were shared with EMU students.  The community opened their lives to us. We are grateful for this privilege of learning. And we hope that at least some of the work we contributed proved useful to the community.  Andy King remarked that the volunteer placements demonstrated how welcoming Palestinians are to outsiders and also that a little hard work can go a long way in restoring emotional and physical health.


Listening to Different Narratives in the West Bank

– Lydia Chappell-Deckert

On one side of my notebook I have notes from our visit to “Youth Against Settlements” in Hebron.  On the other side of the notebook page, I have notes from our talk with the Jewish spokesperson in Hebron.  On one side rests a quote from a Youth Against Settlements spokesperson saying Israelis are “living on the suffering of others” and on the other side rests a quote from a Jewish spokesperson saying that there is no evidence to back the so-called “Suffering of the Arabs.” To quote the Jewish spokesperson further, “The primary aim of the Arabs is to finish the work that Hitler started… to throw us into the sea.”

This afternoon, Ella Reist and I were sitting at lunch with a woman volunteering from England. We talked to her and it became clear to us that she was very pro-Palestinian. I felt myself growing angry at the strength of her opinion.  She left no voice for the Israelis. In my opinion, that is just as damaging as blatantly ignoring the suffering of Palestinians. The refusal to humanize the other is innately destructive.

In our conversation about the Women Wage Peace event in which Israeli and Palestinian women walked together to the Dead Sea with representative Huda Abu Arquob, she stated that this conflict is one of “identity and narratives.” The push for one sole narrative to rise and conquer the captive audience of history books has and will continue to crush entire nations. Holding the extreme narratives of the settlers in Hebron alongside the stories from the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem or the streets of Ramallah is a seemingly impossible task.  There are times that I actually call it impossible.

Reflecting on this I think the understanding of extremism of opinion, as well as action, could be key. What makes groups of people become radical?  Trauma?  Hatred? Isolation? Fear?  All of the above?  I wish we could sit these groups down, as if talking to cranky preschoolers, and ask them what they need.

Right now, Palestinian needs are more clear to me. I see the message of Palestinian organizations that we visited in the West Bank as acts of insurmountable bravery. For example, Al-Rawwod or “Beautiful Resistance” working in Aida refugee camp to help youth develop goals and self-esteem and Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp are trying to give youth other ways of expressing their anger and frustration at the situation.  Someone said “Every act of existence is an act of resistance.”  These efforts are brave and are very clearly fighting to show their Palestinian existence. However, I also see what Sami Awad called a “surplus powerlessness” in the multitude of NGOS working in the Bethlehem area almost making peace work a type of competition.  Which NGO can do the “best” work?

On the other hand, I see clearly that the Israelis are hurting. I see them struggle to maintain an identity, a face, a voice. I see their intense fear – staring at me in the form of the gun resting on Hebron settler’s hip when he spoke to us.

Nationalism, and nationalistic movements are so powerful. I’m still working through what Nationalism specifically means and how it is woven through this mess. I know that it is important in some ways to many people and destructive in many other ways to many other people. One of our speakers said the following during our time in Bethlehem.  “Sorry, I don’t want to die for any country.  I want to live for the world.” This is the approach that I think would shift the conflict dramatically. The trick is making that personal shift and commitment. This becomes extra scary and difficult in a context that constantly labels the other as “terrorist.”  There must be a way to get past this.

Though our time in Bethlehem and our experience listening to an Israeli settler in Hebron, the youth in Aida refugee camp, the Gaza border tour to hear Maha Mehanna and Roni Kreider speak about their relationship in and outside the walls of Gaza, and a visit to the Bedouin village Um Al-Khair, I have settled into the solution of “narrative swapping.”  The question of “one state” vs “two state” or “one and a half state” solutions is overwhelming to me right now. I feel as though trauma healing must happen and must be pushed forward in a stronger way.  Changing border lines will not erase psychological damage on either side.

That said, we cannot heal the trauma of millions of human beings before acting on an unjust situation.  So, I guess, the talk of solutions and the order in which they happen can be never ending.  Perhaps that is why my brain latches onto healing through narratives, through stories.  It is an individual action that prompts mass action.  Peacebuilding used as a way to create revolutionary conversationalists is fantastic. It sounds radical, it is radical, and it is something that everyone can practice.


Highlights from a Week at Tent of Nations – members of the EMU team

  1. Climbing trees to pick olives
  2. Seeing the sun through the olive branches
  3. Having sage tea five times a day
  4. Sitting on a rock and admiring the view
  5. The puppies
  6. Shoveling manure and friendship
  7. Campfire nights
  8. Olive the jokes (“All of” – “olive”)
  9. Compost toilets
  10. Finally, some cold weather!
  11. Meditation
  12. Morning snack of hummus and baba ganoush
  13. Sunrises and sunsets
  14. Baseball with the volunteers
  15. Working outside
  16. Two glorious minutes of shower for the week
  17. Sitting in the greenhouse dirt and soaking up tomato smell
  18. Hearing the Muslim call to prayer start in the distance
  19. Being in the center of a hurricane of tension between the expanding settlements and threatened Palestinian villages surrounding Tent of Nations
  20. Late night conversations under the stars to find out it is only 9pm
  21. Making it through a week without a shower (okay, this wasn’t a highlight for anyone)
  22. Moving rocks to make a rock fence (okay no one said this either)

Rejected Blog Titles

(Note: the theme for several of these has to do with our Jesus trail hike, and the realization along the way that there are many places that claim some aspect of biblical history. Many times, it was the marketing of that location over time that associated it with the event and not necessarily much proof that the most famous location is the actual site)

  • Only a few more kilometers to hike.  We’re almost there.
  • How come the ones at the end get the shortest break?
  • Did you see the Mount of Beatitudes?  . . . Which one?
  • The Prophet Jonah was buried here.  Or maybe here.  Or maybe here.
  • Jesus sat on this rock
  • Hey kid, I’ll give you 50 shekels for that walking stick
ToN - We Refuse to be enemies