Messianic Jewish believers and the Church of St. Peter

May 12th, 2011

By Larry and Jean Emery

This morning we again had an early start heading for Jaffa, a city on the Mediterranean coast where we met with Pastor David Lazarus of Immanuel House about Messianic Jewish believers.  We met on the rooftop of the building looking out over the Sea.  It was quite a lovely setting.  It was interesting to hear that in 1866, thinking that God was going to restore the land back to the Jewish people, Christians came from Main by boat with all of their belongings including their house in kit form.  He became a follower of Jesus 35 years ago which was a very radical thing.  Two Mennonite families came as missionaries teaching and baptizing him.  He then started this church with a small group of people who believed as he did.  It was very hard for the new believers as they were shunned by their families and friends; losing their jobs and their homes.  They have now grown in number to include 150 congregations.  Some of the wood houses still stand today.  David said that he is now seeing thousands of people come to see what they believe.  They also receive much media attention.  David is seeing a lot of interest by the young people to talk with Palestinian groups.  He says that he has one wish that the Western World would try to understand the Messianic believers.

After lunch we boarded the buses again to travel back to Jerusalem to visit the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.  This is where Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.  This was a very moving place.  Several scriptures were read as our guide explained the crucifixion story and the events leading up to it.  He also showed us points of interest including the Kidron Valley and the Potter’s Field.  We were amazed at how close all of these places were.  He then took us to the “pit” below the church where Jesus was imprisoned.  It was a very small stone walled room with no way out but through the ceiling.  Psalm 88 was read and then all the lights were put out leaving us totally in the dark.  This was a very moving experience.  We then had free time to reflect on what we had heard (an actual rooster crowing), seen, and experienced.

On our return back to the guesthouse some of us got off the bus to experience walking through the checkpoint that leads into Bethlehem.   This gave us a feel for what the local Palestinians go through on a daily basis.

This day certainly invoked strong feelings in all of us in many ways.


May 11th, 2011

By Liz Stoltzfus

Today began a bit earlier than days past. Once we were loaded onto the bus, it was off to Old City Jerusalem. This was our group’s first time going through a checkpoint to leave the city of Bethlehem. Since we are all American, this was not an issue for us. We were told, however, for a Palestinian this would have been much more difficult. Our first stop of the day was the Temple Mount. While many people believe this to be the site of the temple we have all read about in scripture (you know… where Jesus was ‘lost’ as a child to be found later teaching the Rabbis; or where Jesus went and turned over tables… you’ve all read the stories) our very opinionated (and highly knowledgeable of scripture) tour guide begged to differ. He explained to us that scripture says “not a stone will remain” and that stones have remained on the Temple Mount so the Temple must have been elsewhere. He left us to make our decisions on the topic for ourselves. Since we are not Muslim, we were not able to enter Dome of the Rock (which is located on the Temple Mount), but we were able to explore around it. It is a gorgeous picture. Blue, yellow, and white mosaic patterns on all of the external walls, a gold dome- pictures do not do it justice. While we were there, pictures were taken and conversations were had as we all enjoyed a beautiful morning with beautiful scenery in the Holy Land. Visiting this area was a different kind of a first for me, and probably for most others in our group as well, because we had to go through security to enter. It wasn’t going through the security that was new, it was the fact that Bibles were not permitted on the Muslims’ sacred ground. I don’t believe I’ve ever been anywhere where I was not allowed to take my Bible.

The next stop on our journey required going through security again, but this time, Bibles were allowed. After spending our time at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) we headed to an archaeological museum. I personally found this fascinating. This site allowed us to see a Herodian street, ruins of buildings, and to spend some time on the South Facing Steps. For most of our group, spending time on the steps held a high significance. These are the steps that would have been home to the money changers. These are the steps that Jesus would have walked many times. These are the steps where Jesus may have talked to many people. These are the same steps we got to spend time on today. We sat where Christ sat.

After going our own ways for lunch and some time to explore the Old City, we loaded the bus once again. This time we were on our way to Sabeel Theological Institute to hear a lecture on Liberation Theology in Israel, and how it relates to the oppression and other troubles going on in Israel between the Jews and Palestinians. In case this sounds boring to anyone reading this, it was actually a very interesting and educational lecture. Over all, I think today can be considered a great day!

Hope in Bethlehem

May 10th, 2011

By Carl and Becky Van Stavern

Greetings from Bethlehem. It has been another beautiful, but challenging day.

Today we visited the Bethlehem Bible College for a discussion of Christian Zionism with Dr. Alex Awad. The college was started as a local Christian school with a vision and only twenty dollars. They claim their greatest assets are the students and graduates who are trained to be pastors, Christian educators, counselors, teachers, and tour guides. They firmly believe that as long as they are Christ centered and faithful, the college will survive any pressures that exist.

Next, we visited the Hope Secondary School in Beit Jala where we were greeted by Principal Solomon Nour and his daughter. We visited with some of the children in their classrooms, were given a tour of the school, and visited their chicken houses. Reta Finger was offered a fresh egg right from the source but did not feel it would be secure on the bus ride back. Many of the children are from low-income families; in addition some of the students are orphans. The school was originally started by Mennonites and currently receives support from many sources including both the United Methodist and Lutheran Churches. They served us a delicious lunch.

We returned to Manger square to visit the Mosque of Omar and had conversation with Mufti Atef Omar. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering the mosque. The women had to put scarves on their heads and all were properly dressed. Atef shared the basic principles of Muslim belief.

Our last stop was at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp where Palestinians have been living since 1948. We were given a brief tour of the refugee camp. It is an experience we will never forget. The children have such beautiful smiles. There are approximately 15,000 people living on 0.31 kilometers of land.

We were in places today that showed evidence of profound hope and places in which there was just a pinch of hope. Yet, there was still hope. For what we could see through that short tour may have seemed hopeless but with God all things are possible. As we close this blog, we hear the prayer bells in the distance.

Peace in Bethlehem?

May 9th, 2011

By Jared Stoltzfus

Greetings from Bethlehem. It has been another wonderful day in the Holy Land.

Today we spent our time visiting both Biblical and Ancient sites. We started our morning with a short walk to Manger Square, where we toured the Church of the Nativity and the Church of St. Catherine. There was a mass going on in the room where the manger is said to have been, so we where not actually able to see it, but we had a wonderful time learning some of the history of this very old church from our tour guide Tony.

After this we journeyed to Shepherd’s Field. This was not the one where all the tourist go but it was a wonderful place to visit. We gathered together in a cave and heard the Christmas story read. We then broke off for some time of reflection. It was a much needed time to sit and reflect after  the hustle and bustle of the last couple days. As I sat there thinking about the message of peace that the angel(s) brought I could not help but feel the tension that was around me. Yes, the moment was peaceful but I am in a land that has known very little peace. I had to look no further to know this than off in the distance, where an Israeli settlement stood atop a hill. Later in the evening we heard stories from the Pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church. He reflected about a terrible time just a few years ago in which threats of biological warfare loomed over this country. America was glad to send gas masks for Israeli citizens but not for Palestinians. He had a 10-month old daughter at the time.

This is the pain of the land that knows no peace. This is the pain of a people that have been oppressed for the last 60 years all in the name of what? I wish I could figure out what would make anyone think that this is what needs to be done, or that this is what God or Jesus would have wanted.

After our time of reflection we journeyed to a man made mountain, built by King Herod as a fortress. We had a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape and  could see the Dead Sea and the plains of Moab (Jordan). We continued along, via bus, to the Pools of Solomon, ancient water reservoirs that supplied water to Jerusalem (yes Bethlehem is higher than Jerusalem).

At this point our day of exploring was over. We returned to the guest house to rest. Later we gathered again for our  time of group reflection. That was  followed by another wonderful dinner.

As I end this e-mail the sounds of the call to prayer sound in the distance, and I wonder if the message of Christmas day, the message of peace, will ever come to be. Will this land know the promise of the angel?

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (ESV)

May 8

May 8th, 2011

By Robert Russo

Greetings from the West Bank. What a glorious day here in the Holy Land.

We awoke this morning to this blessed sun filled Sunday morning. We started the day gathering for a very special worship service at the Greek Melkite Church in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. Today the Greek Melkite Church, an Orthodox Church in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, was holding a Catholic ecumenical service in honor of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux being there for the day, thanks to the sponsorship of the Carmelite Order. Many local priests led by the Bishop led us in the congregation through The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in a magnificent display of wholehearted worship to the holiness of God with full worship of each aspect of the Trinity.  Many in our group were touched deeply by the high liturgy and worship to our LORD in this service. With beautiful iconography of Jesus all over every inch of the walls and ceiling, the incense, the singing, and the pageantry, was a spiritual feast for all the senses and truly touched our spirits. The two hours of liturgy was preceded by an hour of deep prayer in preparation for the service and culminated by a procession of the relics through the Christian section of the Old City. The whole service of worship stood out as both “ancient” and “holy.”

The afternoon was spent in free time where folks took time eating, drinking fine Turkish coffee (pretty much espresso), bargaining at markets, walking the wall of the Old City, visiting the Museum of Jerusalem or revisiting sites from the day before.

Yesterday I couldn’t help feel a sense of offense to the spirit inside me as I semi-rushed through these ancient churches and Biblical sites taking tons of photos, and not enough time of prayer. So today I revisited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I stood in line with many prayerful Eastern Orthodox and Catholic pilgrims to spend time in contemplative prayer while touching the stone and sitting next to the rock of Calvary and lying at the empty tomb of Jesus. It was truly awe striking for me to be there prayerfully reflecting upon what Jesus did there from His life, His death on the cross and His resurrection. From the looks on the faces of other pilgrims there, I know this feeling was shared by many. You would often find women and men sitting in a corner or standing by candles lost in prayer. Such a spirit of humility by Jesus Christ’s modern day disciples was deeply moving and beckoned me into reflecting on my own sense of humility in this world and before God.

We entered Bethlehem this evening, a much more economically poor area, but rich with culture and history. As I spent the evening with a small group, walking to the Church of the Nativity and through Manger Square anticipation grew for our time of learning and reflection here where our Lord Jesus was born of Mary.

Pray for us to hold the sacredness of the history here centered in us as we see what life is like today in what is yet again an occupied territory. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.

Signing off for the evening, wishing you all many blessings from Bethlehem, on behalf of us all here,


May 7

May 8th, 2011

By Adam Blagg & Todd Christensen

Greetings from Jerusalem!  Our journey today was one of many locations, most of which were placed within the Old City and each had moments that could fill the contents of this blog.  We will relate a brief glimpse of each location and a few reflections on selected places of interest.  It is fair to say that our day was full and rich on a variety of levels and whatever is included is simply a glimpse into we experienced.

Our day began with a visit to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church built in 1844 and a talk with Father Joseph.  The church was decorated with numerous icons and frescos that related various stories of the gospels, with a strong focus on the resurrection.  The church is in communion with the Roman Catholic church but many of their practices were of the Greek Orthodox church, including the Heavenly Gates, Angel Doors, Icons, use of the Divine Liturgy.  The church also includes all three initiation sacraments early in the life of a new Christian, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, another Greek Orthodox practice.

Our next stop took us to St. Mark’s Convent where we were greeted by our tour guide’s sister-in-law, Justina. She shared with us the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and also related personal experiences of the mystery surrounding the icon of the Virgin Mary.  This convent also held one of the two places possibly attributed to the Last Supper.

We then moved to one of the more popular stops in Jerusalem, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place of worship for six different churches.  It was interesting to observe a variety of different approaches to this holy site, from great veneration, high worship, quiet contemplation, and photo snapping hurriedness.

After lunch we moved to the Dormitian Church, a church built for the honoring of Mary and the Assumption.  This location had a fresco of Jesus, depicting him reaching down towards Mary who was lying in state on the floor below the fresco.  This is contrary to the normal artists rendition of Mary holding Jesus.  Numerous alcoves, each with some form of icon, sculpture or artwork depicting saints surrounded this area.  We also visited another location of the Upper Room, one that showed use by all three Abrahamic traditions at some point in its history.

We arrived at the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate for vespers but were met with disappointment as the gates were locked and the priest was preparing for their allotted time at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  We waited for a few moments to observe the procession and were greeted by the sight of the priest in full vestment led by two men carrying swords and pounding the ancient stones with wooden staves.  Others, dressed in brown albs followed, making their way with a solemn pace to their appointed destination.  What was truly unique for us observers was the accompaniment of three army escorts.  Watching a holy procession with an armed escort placed this moment in a context unfamiliar to us.

All told the day has provided some memorable opportunities for future reflection and has been a wonderful start to this trip. We look forward to what still awaits on this journey through the Holy Land.


Opening Blog – Posted from Jerusalem – Friday May 6, 2011

May 6th, 2011

By Steve Carpenter

We have all arrived safely in Jerusalem after more than 20 hours of travel. Thanks be to God (Al hmdulillah!)

The days and hours leading up to our departure from the Eastern Mennonite Seminary parking lot at noon on Thursday were frantic. Four of us graduated from EMS the weekend before. Some were frantically and diligently searching for passports and other precious items. I delivered three copies of Master’s thesis in to my advisor at 11:35 pm, just minutes before we left for Dulles.

When we arrived at the airport in D.C. we caught up with Sue and Monroe, two other members of our group. Robert flew out of NYC and met us in Frankfurt, Germany completing our party of 15 travelers and 2 experienced guides (Dorothy Jean and Kevin).

For many it was a sleepless night but we were particularly joyful when Dorothy Jean was able to clear customs at the notoriously diligent security desk in TelAvi despite having overstayed her visa while on sabbatical in Israel several months ago. Reflecting on the experienced Dorothy Jean said, “I feel like I saw God at work today. . . . It feels like my life was given back to me.”

From the airport we boarded a tour bus and visited Mount Scopus which has a spectacular view of Jerusalem. For many it was our first glimpse of the Holy City. Later that night at evening prayers we reflected on our experience of seeing Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus. It was a powerful moment, both the first glimpse and the time of reflection.

We chuckled that the sign on our tour bus said “Easter [sic] Mennonite Seminary Group. We thought the name change should be suggested to Michael King, the seminary dean.

We entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate and walked the narrow stone paved streets of the city to the guest house where we are staying for the first two nights. It has a beautiful rooftop courtyard where we are able to see the Dome of the Rock, and hear both the Muslim call to prayer and the joyous singing of a Jewish Youth group staying in the hotel beside ours.

At evening prayers, Kevin reminded us of the admonition, found in Psalm 122 verse 6a, to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Thank you for your prayers for us and for this unique, majestic, ancient and conflicted city.


Places, People and Prayers- Safe Arrival

May 6th, 2011

The Places, People and Prayers: Middle East Cross-cultural has safely arrive in Israel/Palestine and is now making their way to Jerusalem. Check back later for journals and photos of their adventures.