A few final words…

May 28th, 2009

Greetings, folks!

I opened our “Places, People, & Prayers 2009” blogs in a long distant past (well, May 1 to be precise!) with an account from Jerusalem on our first night in the Holy Land.  Time always seems to balloon when one travels far away from home and regular schedules.  And by my reckoning, we could easily have been gone months, rather than the 3 1/2 weeks that stretch from Thursday, April 30, to Saturday, May 23.  But our trip is now history, so far as the travel of it is concerned.  And now here I am once again, with “a few last words” about our concluding days of touring  . . . .

From Wednesday, May 20, through Friday noon, May 22, we made our home on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the YMCA just north of Tiberias.  Here we had stunning views morning by morning of the sunrise over the Sea.  (It’s enough to take your breath away.  But don’t trust me.  Go, see it for yourself!)  The peacefulness of this setting was profoundly nourishing to our spirits after the emotional challenges of our time in the West Bank in previous weeks.  Here we could sit just above the beach, facing the water, for our regular Evening Prayers.  And here we could eat our breakfasts and dinners in the open air with a stunning view of the Sea in front of us.  What a gift!Sunrise sea of galilee

Wednesday was (finally!) our day to see the sites associated with Jesus’ Galilean ministry.  We started our morning that day with a peaceful boatride across the Sea of Galilee from Nof Ginnosar (site of ancient Genessaret) to the boat landing at Capernaum (Jesus’ “hometown” during his Galilean ministry).  No wild storms or sinking boats on May 20, 2009!  Nor did anybody step out of the boat and walk on water!  We stopped in the middle of the water, though, to read the Markan story of Jesus calming the storm.  From there we traveled to Chorazin, with its ancient synagogue ruins and its “Seat of Moses” (see Mt. 23:2), and then on to the Mount of Beatitudes, a high bluff overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  After time for quiet reflection (and photography!) at the Church of the Beatitudes, some of us hiked down the hillside, still covered with the same “lilies of the field” that Jesus saw and enjoyed 2000 years ago.  You can’t build a church over an entire hillside!  And if you look the other direction from the banana plantation now covering half of the hillside, you can imagine things just fine!  Down below we visited the churches of the Primacy of Peter (see John 21) and of Tabgha (the church that commemorates the multiplication of the loaves and fishes).  At Capernaum we saw the gorgeous ruins of the ancient (2nd/3rd century) synagogue built on first-century foundation stones from the synagogue that Jesus would have known.  And we looked into the “house of St. Peter,” a site which stands a very good chance of being the “real item.”

Thursday was our trip to the “north.”  Days before we had traveled to the “south” (the Negev desert), to Beersheba, where it was all dry and brown and barren.  Now we traveled to the other end of the biblical “Land of Israel” (“from Dan to Beersheba”) to Tell Dan, at the headwaters of the Jordan River.  Here everything wasBeautiful river of Tell Dan. lush and green.  And here the water rushed furiously along its little stream on its way into the Jordan.  From Tell Dan we traveled on to Caesarea Philippi (known also as Banyas, for the temple built there to the god Pan), where Jesus questioned his disciples about his identity.  Here, on the site of a large complex of pagan temples built up against a huge cliff, we pondered the words of Jesus (“But who do you say that I am?”) and the confession of Peter (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”).

In the afternoon we hiked from Banyas to a beautiful waterfall before boarding our bus for a drive through the Golan Heights.  Here we caught a glimpse of Mt. Hermon, with its snow-covered peak, witnessed the ruins of a Syrian military camp from 1967, and looked across a great wide plain past a UN border camp into Syria itself.  And here we stopped to buy fresh cherries at a Druze village near to the Syrian border.  But our most significant stop of the day was at Yardenit on the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee, the “baptismal site” at the spot where the Sea of Galilee opens into the Jordan River.  Here we witnessed, joyfully, the baptism of Marilyn Gerlach and the immersion of Curtis Wheeler in remembrance of his baptismal vows.  This was truly a day for “living water”!Baptisms in the Jordan River

On Friday we closed out our time together with a morning of retreat–a time of worship, silence, journaling, shared reflections, and a Communion service by the Sea of Galilee.  After lunch at a nearby restaurant (St. Peter’s fish, complete with their smiling heads on the platter!), we headed south to Caesarea Maritima for a short stroll along the beach at the Mediterranean.  We had now gotten our toes (at very least) into the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and now the Mediterranean.  And from Caesarea we headed south and east to Abu Ghosh (one of three different “Emmaus” sites!) for our final night before our trip home.  Here we were housed at the Sisters of St. Joseph, a stunningly beautiful setting high on a hill.

And at 1:00 AM on Saturday, May 23, we boarded the bus for our trip to the airport . . . .

It has been a rich experience–and a stretching one as well–in all kinds of ways.  And now that we are home, we can begin to “unpack” all that wealth of experiences, both the happy ones and those that stretched us far beyond our comfort zones.  We give thanks to God for all that we have lived and learned in these past weeks.  And we give thanks to all of you for your prayers as we  traveled.

Blessings to all of you who have been following our travels!  Perhaps such a journey could be yours in future . . . .

Dorothy Jean (for the entire “Places, People, & Prayers 2009” group

May 19

May 19th, 2009

“…they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat…” Mark 6:53

Today we moored our boat (or bus if you prefer not to be so metaphorical!) along Lake Gennesaret…or the Sea of Tiberius…or as it is best known, the Sea of Galilee.

After stopping at an overlook with magnificent views of the seaside city of Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee we checked into the YMCA where we will be spending the coming three days. The winding paths hemmed in by tropical flora and swaying palms are a striking contrast to the dry, sparsely covered hillsides of Nazareth. The place where we find ourselves is a place of beauty and retreat.

This evening our group sat down to dinner on a veranda overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Our meal of Saint Peter’s fish and chips was a delightful — and delicious — reminder of the shift in location we have made. There is something refreshing about being at the water, something life-giving. It was around these waters where Jesus called disciples, healed the sick, walked on water, calmed a storm, fed a multitude, preached on a nearby hillside about beatitudes or blessings, salt and light, love for enemies, prayer and fasting, anger and judging (Read Matthew 5-7 again this evening — it will be good for you, I promise!) The place where we have moored ourselves for the coming three days is a place of miracles. It is truly holy.

Water — especially the seashore — has always been a special place to me. Most mornings I wake up in our home in the Shenandoah Valley — a full four hours drive from the ocean — and declare that, “Today would be a good day to be at the beach!” My morning proclamations have become somewhat of a joke in our family, but I really do mean them! The waters have become for me a place of “spiritual mountaintop” — a place where I am better able to be in tune with God’s presence. In the coming days we will sail on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, enjoy a lunch of fish and bread along the shore, explore a first century fishing boat, and listen closely for the voice of Jesus the Christ, who still calls ordinary people like you and me to leave their nets and follow him, for he will teach us to fish for people.

As evening falls on the Galilee the song that runs through my heart is a favorite of mine, “Lord, you have come to the lakeshore.”
“Lord, you have come to the lakeshore, looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones. You only asked me to follow humbly. O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, kindly smiling, have spoken my name. Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.”

You know, today is a great day to be at the beach!

–Salam and Shalom, Joel Ballew

May 16

May 16th, 2009

Our emotions are high and low.  We found ourselves leaving Bethlehem with heavy hearts.  It had become home.  I for one felt unease as we transitioned from our Palestinian friends to balance our exposure with the Jewish side of the situation here on the ground.  We visited with a conservative Rabbi that exposed us to Jewish spirituality.

Many of our group felt the flood of emotion as we visited the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum.  We were reminded of the need for balance and listening as we reflected upon the losses the Jewish people endured while the world stood by largely silent.   I for one was most awestruck as I entered the memorial to the children that died in the camps.  Names are read consistently as candles for each victim reflect around you in an otherwise dark room.  I was reminded of Eli Weasel’s book NIGHT as I heard the names of the children and their ages at death.  Weasel find’s himself asking “were is God”.  I find myself wondering were God and the world was then and likewise where God and the world is now when babies die at the checkpoint  because mothers are unable to get to medical care.

The evening saw us divided and sitting in smaller groups with Conservative Jewish families for the Shabbat meal.  We experienced the Jewish traditions and entered into very diverse conversations with our host families.  Some of these conversations were very pleasant and others left group members wanting to rebut.  In this situation we were the guest who had come to listen, observe and share not rebut.  As some will know there are folks on our trip that have a very difficult time not rebutting (including me).

Today, Saturday saw us making another transition.  We moved from Jerusalem toward the Gallilee.  In route we had a great experience with the community at Taybeh.  Here we were unexpectedly merged for a time with a group of pilgrims from Salisbury, Britain.  We listened to Father Abuna Ra’ed tell us about the only exclusively Christian village located in the state of Israel.  We share a moment of worship with out new found friends in the church there.  Those of you who are Mennonite or have had classes with Glendon Blosser will get a chuckle out of the fact that he was asked as a BISHOP in the Mennonite to give the prayer as His Excellence Glendon Blosser.  As we have chided him the remainder of the day he has accepted it with his usual grace and humility.

In Taybeh many of our group purchased the PEACE lamps that the community is becoming known for and dependent upon for incomes for many in the community.  After a short visit to the ruins of St. Georges Church we moved toward Nazareth. (Ask those you know on this trip about blood sacrifices).

The landscape became much greener with Agriculture as we transitioned into the Galilee.  We do not know exactly what our final Sunday of this trip will hold but we can be sure that it will be an adventure with Dorothy and Kevin leading the charge.

Grace and Peace,  Curtis Wheeler

May 13

May 13th, 2009

It seems our group has two types of days, both of which are long, difficult and trying. Those two types of days are either emotionally long and exhausting; or they are physically long and exhausting. Today was definitely a long, hard physical day. We began our journey today by wondering whether or not we were going to have to take a taxi to the bus outside of Bethlehem or if the bus going to be able to make it past the check point. What makes this day different from any other day in Bethlehem? The Pope has come to the city of Bethlehem today making it that more difficult to get around. Thankfully today was not the day we were touring Bethlehem, rather we have lefA first glimpse of the Negev Desert.t Bethlehem and are heading South. Another name for South is the Negev, and that was precisely our destination today, the deserts of the Negev. We traveled for about an hour or so south into the desert to begin our morning with a hike up Masada. It was at Masada in the late first century that the Jews held out in a stronghold against the Roman Empire. The Roman Army built a siege ramp to get up to where the Jews had been camped out, and to their surprise they found all of the Jews dead. At least some believe this. While learning about the history of this last hold out, we also learned that it was at Masada that they found a piece of Ezekiel scroll in the synagogue. The piece that they found included the earliest parchment of the vision of dry bones, Ezekiel 37.

We had now been officially beaten down by the hot sun, and for those who had sold their hats, were grateful for the shade of the bus. We continued our trek to a Bedouin site where we had a lunch and camel rides. Upon arrival they had drinks, dried fruits, and bread waiting for us. As we had our snack, the guides were preparing our camels for our 20 minute ride.

If you look at photos of the day you will see that we rode two on one camel and later we learned that one male camel can hold up to roughly 650 pounds, but they use the female camels for the tourists.

After our adventures of understanding what it means to ride on a camel, we were invited into the tents and taught a little bit of the Bedouin ways. We were told that a visitor may come to a Bedouin tent and they may not be asked for three days their purpose in coming to this site. Another fascinating detail about their customs is they will begin to show their hospitality as soon as the visitor arrives by freshly roasting coffee beans. Once roasted the male host will begin to grind the beans. While grinding he makes music with the grinder, in order that the other tents nearby know that this tent has visitors and to come and greet them. Then they will serve their guest three cups of coffee. The first cup is a cup of inviting them in, the second showing their protection. The third cup though, if you are not welcomed, will be filled full to the brim. This pretty much is like saying “Have your coffee and leave,” but also does so in a manner that saves the guest from being embarrassed by being kicked out. It lets the guest leave and not lose his/her dignity. After our basic instruction about Bedouin Life, they provided a large meal for all of us. Caravan of led camels.

The group has now lasted a hike in the hot sun and had been fed quite a bit of food. As we continued our journey to our next destination, I believe many of us slept, including me. I woke up as we pulled into Tell Beersheva, the most southern point of King David’s land. At Beersheva we had a moment of reflection to recollect the day’s events. Seeing the dry and barren land and thinking about what it means to have Living Water in the Barren Land. We reflected as Psalm 126 was read. We then walked along to a well, where our guide Tony spoke to us about the importance or the well. There are many cases throughout the Bible that a man would meet a female at the well. At the well a woman did not wear her scarves and so if a man was able to sneak up to the well, he may catch a glimpse of the beauty of the woman’s face. We read the stories of Genesis: 24 and 29, followed by talking about Moses meeting his first wife at a well in Exodus 2:15. After talking about the well, we walked through a cistern…the second cistern of the day. Afterwards we continued our journey back to Bethlehem.

Upon our arrival back, we had our evening prayer and spoke about what Truth means to us and how is it that we come to Truth. On our journeys we have heard many stories and have found it difficult to sort through what is Truth and what looks like Truth, but in reality is not. After our prayers and worship, we have our last dinner here in Bethlehem’s Lutheran International Center.

After dinner we had one last meeting of the day. We met with Dr. Salim Munayer from Bethlehem University. During this time he told us how he got to where he is, but then spoke about the ministry he is providing among a broken nation. As we have experienced the desert today, he spoke to us about the transforming power of the desert in his ministry. He takes Palestinian and Israeli teens out to the desert for a five day camel trek. Through these journeys, he has seen confessions and reconciliation happening between the teens.

Tonight I would like to close with a Scripture that Dr. Salim used.

John 17: 20, 21 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word: that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (NKJV)

Joshua King

May 12

May 12th, 2009

For prayer time this evening each one of us wrote a prayer to share with the group. I was asked to share mine as it seemed to capture much of what we experienced today. We appreciate your prayers for us and ask that you would hold the people of this land in your prayers as well.


I don’t know how to begin to capture the experiences of today, experiences which may take a lifetime to come to terms with, if ever.

Riding out of Bethlehem this morning, the place we have called home, I realized how familiar it has become – the sights, the sounds, the smells. I began to wonder what it will be like to back in my quiet, comfortable home? How will I be able to share the story, the song, of these warm hearted, brown eyed people? Who will want to know about the uniqueness of these Palestinians? Yet, I remember that you are God, the Creator, and you will not forget your children. Help me, God, to hold them in my heart.

Soon I am sitting in a home not so different from mine. Lush, plush…manicured lawns, paved streets, clean…and yet I seethe with anger. “This land is my right”, says the man who lives in the settlement, demanding his rights and not seeming to give thought to how he has gotten where he is and who he has stepped on to get there. His words are smooth, there is no need to argue. Has he wondered how the Palestinians feel? Has he considered that while he has the freedom to come and go, the people we pass each morning on these streets have been stripped of their freedom? He says, “Sovereignty belongs to the Israelis!” God, where are you?

Then I realize that I too am guilty of overlooking the marginalized in my community. How easy it is to forget that I am sometimes no different from that Jewish man…I weep and seek forgiveness.

Finally, we arrive at At Tuwani, and I love it, I can breathe again. Rocky, dusty, and hospitality beyond description. I think this is a gift only you can give, God. Bowls of lentil soup, beans, bread, given and prepared not from abundance, but from the heart. God, I saw you in the eyes of the women as they watched us with joy eat the meal they so graciously prepared. Just as you give abundantly more than we can ask or imagine, this simple village on a hot, dry hillside, filled my weary, depleted heart. God, the air has been breathed into me at this place…there is so much to learn, to process, to live.

Then, Hebron. The boys begging on the streets for us to buy just one little trinket. How does a mother watch her sons beg, as the high and mighty sit above throwing rocks and dirty water them, chasing them away? I did not buy anything, yet I left a piece of my heart there.

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…all of us have become like one who is unclean, all of my righteous acts are like filthy rags…yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are clay, you are the potter, the work of your hand.” Is. 64

I come seeking forgiveness, praying for your love and mercy and compassion and grace to rain down on this place. May I never forget how I have seen you in the least of these.


Shalom, Dawn Monger

May 11

May 11th, 2009

On Saturday evening, our group met with Pastor Mitri Raheb of the Christmas Lutheran Church here in Bethlehem. Among the wealth of wisdom and information that he shared with us about this region was the insight that people living in this area are torn on a continuum of optimism and pessimism. One moment there seem to be signs of hope, looking toward a brighter future, and the next moment there is news of more struggle and conflict. Today, on a much smaller scale, of course, I feel like I experienced this tension.

The main focus of our Monday, May 11th was to visit three different organizations, with connections to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who are working within the current situation here in Israel-Palestine to bring hope and make a difference in the lives of everyday persons.

The first stop was at the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) located in West Jerusalem. An Israeli young adult shared with us about the history of the conflict and tension in the region and then took us out to a viewpoint over Jerusalem. From there, we could see the difference in living conditions between the Israeli settlements (any Israeli housing area in the West Bank) and the Palestinian homes and communities. It was also apparent how the Israeli settlements are strategically being located to divide and separate Palestinian communities so that a shared capital in Jerusalem becomes less feasible. ICAHD works to advocate for Palestinians who are not able to apply for building permits and so their homes can be legally demolished by the Israeli government. Their illegal crime is simply living in their home and doing any building or repair work to it. Approximately 100 homes in East Jerusalem are destroyed each year.

Over lunch and early into the afternoon, we visited the Hope School in Bet Jalla. This is a secondary school started by Mennonites for students in 7th-12th grade. They have about 130 day students and, currently, just a handful of boarders. Many of their students come from low income families or broken homes. We were given a PowerPoint presentation about the school and several speakers shared some of the history and current work. The last several years, 100% of their literature and science students have passed the state exams required after graduation. Even though we had brought along simple picnic items for lunch, the school treated us to a delicious hot lunch! What a wonderful sign of hospitality!

Our last stop was at the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center back in Bethlehem. Here the director, Zoughbi Zoughibi, shared about the important work of this organization in working on conflict meditation on the local level. They also help to empower and give hope to children, youth, women, and men in the area through various clubs, summer camps, and job creation. We were particularly impressed by how they have intentionally contextualized their work within this Arab culture to ensure that people maintain their dignity and save face because honor and shame are such powerful forces here.

Riding from Wi’am back to the Abu Jubran guesthouse, I was feeling pretty hopeful about what we had seen today. Of course, we had heard stories and statistics about all that was going wrong, but we had seen the positive steps being taken to move forward. Group members echoed that sentiment in our evening prayer time as we celebrated the efforts of these organizations to work within the situation of tension and conflict to advocate for the basic needs and rights of all people – a home, education, and human dignity. Then it happened.

As Osmi, the bus driver, parked to let us off, I overheard our tour guide, Tony, share that we needed to make sure we got everything off the bus because we might not have the same bus or bus driver tomorrow. What was the reason? Osmi had just learned that his son had been arrested by the Israeli Police. I was quickly jerked back from the optimism of the day to the harsh, pessimistic realities of the present. Of course we know nothing about the circumstances of that arrest. It may be completely founded on evidence of true illegal activity. But, when 1 in 4 Palestinian men have served time in Israeli prisons, as we learned today, it does make you wonder what so many must have really done wrong to require imprisonment. You start to wonder if maybe the system of justice here isn’t very just, at least not for Palestinians. You worry that maybe, whether guilty or not, Osmi’s son may not be treated with the dignity that all people deserve.

If he’s not there, I’ll miss Osmi tomorrow. Every day of this trip we have greeted each other as I have boarded his bus and he has so kindly helped me learn my few Arabic phrases. I would say good morning, “sabah al kheir,” and he would reply with good morning, “sabah an noor.” Each evening we have exchanged thank you, “shukran,” and you’re welcome, “afwan.” Just this morning, I added hello, “marhaba” to the list. Even off the bus, Osmi has been so kind, even helping me to find a shopping basket in the store! I can’t imagine what receiving that phone call must have been like for him or how he is journeying through this evening. The prayers of our whole group are with him and his son and his family. Perhaps it will all be nothing – that’s my hopeful side coming out again! – and soon I will be able to try out, “Marhaba! Keef halak,” (hello, how are you), and then really listen.- Linetta Ballew

May 10

May 11th, 2009

Greetings from Bethlehem!  Only one week ago today, 18 traveling companions arrived in this historic city with many unknowns.  For me, those unknowns have provided opportunities to experience innumerable “firsts”.  I could spend the rest of this entry describing the many things I have encountered for the first time but, I’ve chosen instead, to reflect on the general tone of the week, at least as I have experienced it.

We have been blessed to visit many historical sites that reach back to the days of Jesus.  It has been exciting to see these places of Jesus’ time, even when they are covered with monuments marking the actual sites. Yet my strongest sense of connection has been when we’ve been able to experience the authenticity of a 1st century tomb, or the steps of the Southern wall of the temple in Jerusalem.  I think my deepest connection happened while walking the steps where Jesus may have walked, that lead up to the palace of Caiaphas, on the night Peter denied Jesus just before hearing the cock crow.  We spent significant time on, and around the steps reflecting on those last hours of Jesus’ mortal life.  While I was sitting on those very steps, looking down on Jerusalem, I heard a cock crow!  And then, it was almost as if I was “there” that night…looking into the loving eyes of Jesus, and I could hear him say, “I do this for you”…tears welled up as I embraced such an amazing love that would reach across the centuries and unconditionally forgive…even me.  I am reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples, and to us to, “do this in remembrance of me”.

Tension, despair, hopelessness…these words and themes seem to be what we’ve encountered when in conversation with those whose lives are torn apart by conflict in this holy place.  Most of the week, I have had a sense that hands are tied, unable to actually do anything to ease the pain.  My heart ached and my spirit questioned the senselessness of it all.  Then, last night, while meeting with the pastor of The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, Mitri Raheb, I felt a spirit of hope in a very real way.  His mission is threefold; to preach the Word of God; to be in this place personally encountering the people in the community; and to provide opportunities to experience the hope that we know in Jesus Christ!  I am energized by the passion of this man and the message of hope this church provides the citizens of Bethlehem!

A highlight of the week happened tonight during our Evening Prayers. After a time of reflection on our experiences of the week, the focus shifted.  You see, we have with us one whose life has been connected with the church in service as a leader, encourager, teacher, pastor, and overseer for 50 years!  Today marked the 50th year of the ordination of Glendon Blosser, in the Mennonite church.  Tonight we honored Glendon, and his service to the church.  Glendon was genuinely surprised and humbled by the well deserved recognition.  Thank you, Glendon, for your dedication and service to the work of the church!

Thank you for your prayers on behalf of us all.  We are truly blessed to have a network of family, friends, and community supporting us on this journey.  We look forward to reconnecting with each one of you!

In the name of Jesus Christ, our hope and our redeemer, Joe Furry

May 9

May 10th, 2009

A highlight today was soaking in the Dead Sea — truly an unusual experience. You can soak and you can float but you can’t go under completely (not that you would want to get that high intensity of salt water anywhere near your eyes or mouth!)

Soaking — it’s much of what I’ve been doing this first week in Palestine / Israel — soaking it all in. There are days when I have absorbed all that one can possibly soak up. But by the next morning, after a good nights sleep, there is room for more.

This morning as we left our guest house in Bethlehem I noticed what was around me and around the bus as we drove. We leave the guest house on foot. Everywhere we turn there is tan. The streets, sidewalks, and walls of the buildings all connect and all are solid tan stone. An occasional potted flower adds color to this otherwise monochromatic world. Monochromatic, that is, until the shopkeepers open up and a multitude of color spills out.

As we head to the bus around 8, the shopkeepers are opening the big green metal doors and dragging out the overflow onto the area in front of their shops. Each shop is approximately 12’ x 15’, crammed to overflowing with it’s own particular type of items — bread, cloth, fruits & vegetables, chickens turning on rotisseries. An occasional hardware store is tucked into the mix. Shop keepers live in small dwellings above their shops.

Each day, we know we’re on the right path as an older man, dressed in local garb, leads his plodding donkey up the street towards us. Ah yes, the streets. Somehow when I pictured the little town of Bethlehem, I didn’t picture it on the side of a steep hill. Our legs are finding new muscles as we trudge up and down the cobblestone streets and many steps in this city.

We’re grateful to climb onto the bus ahead. As we drive out of the downtown (which is really uptown) there are more houses and less shops. The closer we come to the edge of Bethlehem, the larger the houses, the bigger the walled manicured gardens filled with gorgeous roses and olive trees.

And then, the ugly wall rears up before us. Reminders of the occupation and separation of the peoples in this land. It reminds me of the photos I’ve seen of the wall surrounding the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto of Nazi Germany. And I wonder, how can a group that was so persecuted turn around and do the same thing to another group? Yet another question to hold in tension as I tour this complex land.

A guard with an automatic weapon meanders down the aisle of our bus quickly glancing at each of our passports. It is easy for us to pass through with our American passports.

As we leave Bethlehem, illegal Israeli settlements (large towns / small cities) sit on top of the surrounding hills. Looming reminders of the issue of land and land rights in this part of the world.

As we drive, Kevin Clark prays: “God, you placed us here to ask the questions and to respond with your love. Help us to hold our questions in your presence . . . “

This land and it’s people are getting into my skin just as the salt water penetrated this afternoon in the Dead Sea. But, unlike the nasty salt water, I’m not ready to wash it off. I have much more to absorb in this land of Jesus.

May the God of Peace walk with each of us as we journey. -Dawn Ranck

May 8

May 8th, 2009

As I sit here in the comfort of the computer lab, the sound of Greek traditional music floats through the air of the Dar Annadwa Center (Dar Annadwa meaning; House of World Wide Encounter) It is Friday evening after a long but satisfying day. This most certainly has been another day of listening to story and observing the complexity of the issues that make up the daily reality of Israel/Palestine – contrasting claims and desires.

Our journey began this morning with a ride to Jaffa where we were engaged by David Lazarus, pastor of Beit Immanuel, a Messianic Jewish congregation that has it’s roots in a Mennonite witness in Israel. His word for us was to recognize more fully the roots of the Christian experience. That there has been a struggle for identity (and locus of authority) across the centuries in understanding the fullness of God’s story of salvation. As Jewish believers in Jesus, the inclusion of historical Judaism and it’s expression as Jewish believers under girds the Christian witness in this land.

After a wonderful lunch in Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, we traveled back to Jerusalem. There we were engaged by The Rev. Niam Ateek of Sebeel Ecumenical Liberation Theological Center, an ecumenical group dedicated to bringing local and international attention to the situation of the Palestinian community and advocate for a just peace. To paraphrase Rev. Ateeks, the intent of Sabeel is to serve the Christian community by working together, encouraging Christians to stay in their tradition, and to work toward understanding, respect and acceptance of each other. This most certainly includes the relationship to all persons living in this land, Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Between the two conversations, much thought, many questions and prayerful reflection remains.

Evening prayers, lead by Joel, brought together the days journey well…Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)!
– on the journey, Kevin Clark

May 7

May 7th, 2009

Shalom from Bethlehem!

The past two days have been full for those of us traveling here in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It is a land, and an experience, of many contrasts. We leave from Bethlehem each morning with our trusty bus driver winding and beeping his way through traffic, sometimes sitting for five minutes or more because someone decided to park their car in the middle of the street and we have to wait for the driver to return to move it. But that is the relaxing part. The tension increases as we approach the “wall”, the checkpoint to leave the city of Bethlehem. Yesterday as we waited in line we were told to have our passports handy and it’s a good thing we had them as two Israeli soldiers boarded the bus, their semi-automatic rifles in hand. They looked carefully at each passport and in each seat before exiting the bus. Today we only had to lift our passports in the air for the soldier to see. Yet, unlike most Palestinians, we have the freedom to come and go.

I’m struck by the contrasts I have encountered. Freedom/oppression; love/humiliation; old/new. As we leave Bethlehem, go to Jerusalem, and return to Bethlehem each night we move between two worlds. We have heard stories from people who do not have permission to leave here and we have also witnessed great devotion in those who worship in faiths different from ours in Jerusalem. Yesterday we walked from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, to the garden tomb. Today we entered Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock, visited the Western Wall, where there were numerous bar-mitzvah’s occurring, and left through the Dung Gate. Our afternoon was spent at St. Peter Gallicantu which is where Peter denied Jesus. As we sat in silence reflecting on Jesus’ journey down this very path, we first heard the bells of the church toll followed a few minutes later by the Muslim call to prayer.

Returning to Bethlehem felt like coming home. The streets and vendors are becoming familiar. We know where we like to go for coffee, falafal, fruit, etc. We rest a bit and then gather for evening prayers, a time of sharing and debriefing from the events of the day. Tonight someone shared that as she walked the path Jesus walked following Peter’s denial, she slipped on the rocks but didn’t fall. She felt assurance that God would not let her fall from his grace. Others continue to look for God, in the people, the places, and prayers of this place so many know as the Holy Land.

Grace & peace- Dawn Monger