May 14.2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 15th, 2017

This morning we were given the chance to have a later start to our day. Breakfast, from 7:30 to 9:30am,  gave most of us a few more moments to rest. Life in Bethlehem has its regular morning sounds beginning with a 4 am  Muslim call to prayer, the rumbling of trucks, shopkeepers greeting one another in the market as they prepare for business and the resounding tones of ringing church bells.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church is an easy walk next door from the Abu Gubran Guesthouse  where we are staying. This is a congregation that has faced violence even within the very walls of this compound.  In April, 2002, Bethlehem was under siege by the Israeli army.  Armed Israeli soldiers entered the compound as Pastor Mitri Raheb and his family hid within the parsonage.  Walls to the compound were destroyed, doors damaged, windows shattered, computers vandalized.  Pastor Raheb came out of hiding and courageously confronted the soldiers.  (Read more of the story in Bethlehem Besieged by Mitri Raheb)

The majestic, powerful music from the pipe organ, the robust singing, the warm welcome and repeating The Lord’s Prayer together took on new significance as we worshipped with people who understand on a daily basis the meaning of suffering and bearing the cross.

The service was in Arabic but songs were transliterated so we could sing along with the congregation. As someone pointed out in our evening time of reflection, it was truly a gift to us to have Arabic translated into the English alphabet so that we could sing the words in Arabic with the congregation.

Following the worship service we were invited for fellowship and coffee in the Fellowship Hall. No matter where you go, talking, laughing and sharing coffee or tea seems to be a given. This place is no exception.

We were on our own for lunch and the afternoon. There was a planned afternoon shopping trip to The Bedouin Store owned by Majdi Ala Amro, a Palestinian Christian. Several of us took advantage of the opportunity to purchase gifts to take back home. Majdi has many items from ceramics, Hebron glass, leather, olive wood carvings, scarves and much more. Majdi faces many challenges as a Palestinian business owner. He told us the larger tour groups focus on the stores where guides and drivers receive commissions. They sometimes discourage tourists from venturing out to smaller shops by saying it’s too dangerous. There is road construction outside his shop that was started last year which is not yet completed. This reduces the traffic past his shop. Majdi’s hospitality was evident as he offered tea and closed his shop to provide a ride for some of the group to and from the Guesthouse.

I have really appreciated the evening prayer time to collectively reflect on all that happened in our day. Where did we see God today? What were the signs of injustice? Where did we experience hospitality? We all have different perspectives and insights to offer. As a group we have grown closer to each other through songs, prayers, dialogue and encouragement.

Each day here we have concluded the day with the evening meal.  For starters there is always a feast of humus, chopped salads and pita bread, followed by a scrumptious main course. The remainder of the day allows for time to prepare mentally, emotionally and physically for a full schedule the next day..

Submitted by Duane Yoder

May 13 ,2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 15th, 2017

As our tour leaders announced the itinerary this morning, I found myself filled with amazement and considering the question: in the steps of how many Biblical heroes, prophets, and pilgrims are we walking today?
We began our day driving from Jerusalem to Jericho, through the desert as I have not experienced it before ("wilderness " in the Bible), past where the Good Samaritan story might have taken place and where Elijah was taken up to heaven, to the Wadi Qilt, alternately called Qelt. Later we visited Temptation Mount, a possible site of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, saw the Jordan where he may have been baptized, and visited a “Zacchaeus Tree.” (Most of the trees we saw in the first part of our tour were olive trees which last for hundreds of years or more. Zacchaeus’s tree, of course, was a sycamore, a larger and more substantial tree, but one that typically lives at most 200 years. Enroute to and from the site, we also saw orchards of date palms.) And, finally, we visited Qumran, where Bedouin shepherds found ancient manuscripts in 1947 that provided a treasure chest for subsequent Old Testament scholarship.
As we rode through the desert, Tony, our tour guide, reminded us of the story of the conquest of Jericho in the book of Joshua and the curse placed upon the city in chapter 8. He also reviewed the story of Achan, who took advantage of his people’s victory to steal and hoard some of the conquered people’s treasure, thus bringing the wrath of God upon him and his people. Tony also brought the parable of the good Samaritan to new life as we imaged a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho (oh, through the desert, we realized) and falling among thieves.
Our first stop was the Wadi Qilt and the St. George monastery. I have read the word “wadi” in my Bible for years and looked for definitions of the term in footnotes and commentaries. I knew that they are valleys that are dry in dry seasons and burst forth with vegetation during rainy seasons. I was not prepared, however, for the vast expanse and depth of the wadi, nor for how hot and dry it is at this time of the year. It takes considerable imagination to see it come alive in the wet season. After a steep and winding climb down the very dry valley we made one more turn to find a breathtaking view of the monastery of St. George of Choziba, built into the side of the mountain.   The monastery was built by monks in the 4th century in tribute to at least two premises: that this is where Elijah was fed by ravens when he fled for his life for fear of Jezebel after God had killed “all the prophets of Baal;” and that here an angel appeared to the Virgin Mary’s father, St. Joachim, who was weeping because his wife, Anna, was unable to bear children, and the angel prophesied the Virgin Mary’s birth. Regarding Elijah’s experience, our tour guide, Tony, pointed out that the Hebrew word for ravens is a variant of the word for Arabs.
We were unable to enter the monastery, but we were inspired and challenged by the experience of climbing down and back up the rugged terrain, walking alongside pilgrims from around the world coming to this special place, and seeing the Bedouins with their donkey offering rides to the weary. On a personal note, although I could count on one hand the times I have worn sunglasses as an adult, I was very thankful for them as I began climbing back up the hill.  I needed to make several stops for water and to catch my breath on the way back to the top of the ravine, where our bus awaited us. And I was more than a little grateful for the company of my fellow sojourners who escorted me and, in one case, extended a hand to help me up after I had sat on a stone in the pathway for respite.
Tony framed our ride through the desert and our trek through the wadi in the context of Psalm 23, with particular reference to the words, “When I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil.” For me, the potential dangers in the wadi gave new meaning to the words of the familiar Psalm. We also found new meaning in the words of Isaiah 35 – “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom….”
From St. George’s we drove to Jericho, the moon city, on the way to the Mount of Temptation, stopping enroute at a shop selling glass products made in Hebron, and, in a time warp, standing under Zacchaeus’s sycamore tree. Tony reminded us that, like other cities throughout Palestine, Jericho was named after the divinities of the Philistines. We saw signs to cities named after the peoples conquered in the Old Testament story and, as has been increasingly the case on this tour, I found myself
revisiting my concept of the “Old Testament” salvation story – the Exodus – and what it says about the people driven out by “God’s chosen people.” How does that story impact what is happening in Israel/Palestine today? Driving through the checkpoint into Palestinian-controlled Area A, Tony told us the story of December 24, 1995, when Israel withdrew from Bethlehem, causing much rejoicing for the next two years, but distracting the people of Bethlehem from Christmas, a sacred
Approaching the place where the story of Zacchaeus is commemorated, we read Luke’s accounts of the healing of blind man Bartimaeus, followed by the Zacchaeus story. We heard again the story of the rich but short chief tax collector who climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better glimpse of Jesus and who, afterward, promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone he had defrauded four times the defrauded amount. As I heard the old story I wondered: What would it mean for us to respond to Jesus in our time and place, as citizens of the world’s richest and most powerful nation in the world, in a manner qualitatively similar to that of Zacchaeus?
What can I say of the Mount of Temptation? A bleak, dry, rocky, vegetation-free craggy mountain, not somewhere I would want to spend the night, let alone 40 days and 40 nights. In what I can only, in understatement, refer to as a touch of irony, we had lunch at a cafeteria called Temptation Restaurant (!) in a tourist’s shopping mall. The food, as always here, was excellent, but I could not help feel a bit guilty contributing to a bald commercialization of Jesus’ response to the tempter, “Thou shalt not live by bread alone.”
After lunch we headed to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, saw a video about the Qumran community, and looked from where we stood to Cave 4, where 400 scrolls and 30,000 fragments were found.  We also walked among the excavation sites and heard of current archeological research seeming to confirm that the scrolls were the product of the Essenes. Here a strict religious community stored their library of scrolls to hide them from the Romans as the Jewish revolt of 68 A.D. – and the subsequent defeat by the Romans – unfolded. All of the “Old Testament” scriptures have been found there, with the exception of the book of Esther, along with the books Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha. The scrolls are written in both Hebrew and Aramaic.
Our final destination today was the Dead Sea, at over 1500 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth. Most of us (not I) experienced what it is like to float in the briny water. One fellow-traveler told me that as he walked into the water it was as though a flotation device pushed itself up under him. Another described the water as similar to her well water, which someone had assessed as of particular soft quality. A person who put his feet in the water found the water a cool contrast to the hot, hot sand on the beach. I, standing on the beach, enjoyed the view of the turquoise sea, lined with terraces of sand and bulrushes, with the mountains of Jordan visible in the distance. While we enjoyed the beauty of the Sea, we were reminded that it is shrinking at an alarming rate, largely due to water being diverted from the Jordan River for irrigation. So, today, we walked in the footsteps of ancient heroes, prophets and pilgrims.
Returning to Bethlehem, however, I want to remind us of more contemporary heroes and prophets, heroes such as Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran church (among several other titles) whose creative energies he has invested into the lives of the people of Bethlehem and to helping people outside these walls understand what it is like to be Palestinian and Christian.
I want to note as well that today was election day in the municipalities of Palestine. The Lutheran center is a polling place, and we saw both voters and security folks bustling around the entrance as we left for our tour this morning. What does this election mean for the people of Bethlehem, I wonder? And how can the power of the electorate be expanded in ways that make for more justice and peace for the Palestinian people?
submitted by David Wenger

May 12, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 14th, 2017

Today was a day of Christian theology. In the morning, we went through the checkpoint as always and drove to Jaffa. Because the bus has Israeli license plates, we were able to use an Israeli highway that Palestinians are not allowed to drive on, which made our trip significantly faster and easier than it would have been otherwise.

We arrived in Jaffa and saw a few sights in the old city – like the house where Peter had the vision telling him not to call anything unclean and a church commemorating that – and walked along the port. Next, we went to Beit Immanuel, a Messianic Jewish congregation. Beit Immanuel was pretty different from any of the other churches we’ve visited, and seemed very similar to many American or European evangelical congregations, but with Israeli flags and other Hebrew symbols around. We had a picnic lunch in their courtyard.
Our next stop was brief, but also not something most tour groups get to do. As we wandered around the old city, we had seen another tour bus on what is called a “birthright tour” – a free trip to the State of Israel for any Jewish young person around the world, meant to encourage support for Israel. However, we got to be a part of less frequent and certainly much less encouraged return trip. One of the members of our group has a grandmother who grew up in Palestine before her family joined the 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, that came as a result of the creation of the State of Israel. Walking with him into his grandmother’s neighborhood, which no one in their family has seen for almost 70 years, was both hopeful because of this opportunity and a sobering reminder of how unequal things are between Palestinians and Israelis.
We spent the rest of the afternoon hearing from Palestinian Christian theologians. Our first stop was at Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in East Jerusalem. Sabeel means the way in Arabic, a reference to following Jesus, who is the Way. We heard from Cedar Duaybis, a woman in her 80s who experienced the Nakba as a child and has lived as a second-class citizen of Israel ever since. Her talk was one of the most meaningful things for me on this trip. She explained the ways that Christian theology has been used to marginalize and dismiss Palestinians and their rights. Sabeel works to create liberation theology which helps Palestinian Christians stay connected to their faith and use it to nonviolently work for justice.
After Sabeel, we had free time until prayers, and a few of us walked around Bethlehem (where we’re still staying). I continue to be surprised at how friendly everyone in Bethlehem is – it’s one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever been to. Our evening prayers were led by Mitri Raheb, the pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church and the head of the Diyar Consortium, an organization which runs cultural programs to make life under occupation more livable for Bethlehemites. Overall, it was a fascinating day, and I really enjoyed the conversations we’ve had.
submitted by Eliana

May 11, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 12th, 2017

Machine Guns and the Mount of Olives


“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Matthew 23:37, NRSV

We started the day by walking through Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem and to the Ecce Homo Church. Ecce homo, or “behold the man,” are the words used by Pontius Pilate when presenting Jesus–whipped, spat on, and crowned with thorns–to the hostile crowd. We exited the church onto the famous Via Dolorosa, the Way of Pain or the Way of the Cross, where tradition holds that Jesus carried the cross to his execution at the hands of empire. Appropriately, as a group carried a cross along the Via Dolorosa, three Israeli soldiers followed, their machine guns hanging from their bodies like gruesome stoles. Though the name of the empire may change, it always asserts its presence, attempting subjugation through fear of bloodshed.

In our otherwise Passion-centered day, we visited two churches that did not have specific Passion themes. The first was Saint Anne’s, a church currently owned by the French government and with the ruins of the Pools of Bethesda and a Byzantine church. In John 5:2-9, Jesus heals a paralytic man at Bethesda, telling him to stand up and walk. We walked into the church itself and, in the sanctuary, sang one of our tour guide’s favorite hymns: “Praise, I Will Praise You, Lord.” Singing with our group of eighteen really is a wonderful experience.

Our second non-Passion church, on the Mount of Olives, was Pater Noster; that is, Our Father. This church, with its beautiful grounds, had the Lord’s Prayer painted on the walls in nearly every language imaginable. All around us, the stones were crying out for God’s Kingdom to come, longing for the kingdom, power, and glory to be God’s now and forever, daring to challenge the authority of human empire with Divine Reign. More soldiers stood outside the church gates.

After a lunch on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Western Wall and Haram Al-Sharif, we continued our series of Passion churches with Dominus Flevit, “the Lord wept.” This is referring not to Jesus weeping over Lazarus, but to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-42, which is engraved on a wall of the sanctuary: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” Given the violence inherent in empire that we are seeing, albeit safely and from a relative distance due to our privilege, these were particularly meaningful words of Jesus. In reference to the Matthew verse quoted at the beginning of this blog post, Dominus Flevit also has a mosaic of Jesus as a mother hen, trying lovingly to gather in belligerent children who constantly choose the way of the sword rather than the Way of Truth and Life. Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison.

The Garden of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony beside it were reminders of a Jesus who, though he was and is God, emptied himself to the point of an agonizing execution on a cross rather than hurt another, even healing the ear of Malchus after Peter cut it off. There we remembered the disciples who, well-meaning as they were, could not stay awake with their scared friend when he needed them. Lord Jesus, may we see you in the least of these, in the oppressed, and may we learn to remain with you, to stand by you, to watch and pray with you even when the empire stands against you with an old rugged cross or with heavy machine guns.

We ended our day at the Garden Tomb, another site, in addition to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that some claim to be the place of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some believe that this is Golgotha, the place of the skull. It is said that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to his tomb in this garden after his death, and there is indeed a tomb in the beautifully-maintained garden. After walking into and back out of the tomb, our group gathered for communion, remembering our God there as everywhere and proclaiming that, even when empire uses its most powerful tools of death, life always wins.

Even in the throes of empire, may we maintain our vision of and longing for the New Jerusalem as proclaimed by John the Revelator:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:2-5a, NRSV

submitted by Danny

May 10, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 11th, 2017

May 10th: The Temple Mount

We had our earliest start today: leaving at 7:15am. We wanted to make sure we got through check points and security before the Temple Mount would close. After a slow roller coaster ride through the winding crowded streets of Bethlehem and the old city of Jerusalem, we got out of the bus and joined the large line to get through security before entering the temple mount. Fortunately, there were no serious problems going through security. As we entered the temple mount, the women had to have their arms and legs completely covered–an inconvenience on a hot day.

As soon as I stepped into this area so sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I felt overwhelmed by beauty and serenity. A vast courtyard of trees and walkways and ancient stones lay before us. Past the trees stood Al Aqsa Mosque–a dignified building topped by a metal dome, grey in color, tinged with green.

But to the left, up a series of steps and through pillared arches, stood the grandest building of all: the Dome of the Rock. It’s beauty is breathtaking. Octagon in shape, covered with blue tile or stone, inlaid with intricate and colorful geometric patterns and caligraphy, and capped by a bright gold dome, the Dome of the Rock is a building every person should see sometime in their lives.

For half an hour or more we wandered the vast platform area and courtyard (but we were not allowed to enter the two mosques). This was the site of the temple in the days of Jesus. Herod had built a huge platform the size of about 10 football fields, in the middle of which stood a magnificent temple to the God of Israel. That temple is now long gone. Nothing remains of it. But the vast platform/courtyard is still here, now populated with many steps, arches, pillars, domes, the two mosques, beautiful trees, and magnificent views of the Mount of Olives. This place should be considered one of the seven wonders of the world. It is one of the most profound visually aesthetic experiences of my life.

From there we descended to the Wailing Wall: the holiest place in Judaism. The Wailing Wall is the western retaining wall of Herod’s huge temple complex and courtyard. It is not the wall of the temple itself, but of the outer wall that surrounded the whole temple mount. For Jews, this remnant of ancient wall symbolizes the many times the temple existed and was destroyed–by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., by the Romans in A.D. 70, and by the Romans again around A.D. 135. After this final destruction, Jews were not allowed to live in Jerusalem for a long time. The Wailing Wall represents the tragedies and losses of the Jewish people throughout time.

We moved from the Waling (western) Wall to the southern wall. Here archeologists have dug down to the very base of the wall, revealing its true massive height and beautifully crafted stones. Herod’s royal road going through the city next to the temple mount is there to see, as well as the remains of ancient shops lining the road. In the road is a tumble of massive stones–perhaps thrown down by the Romans during the destruction of the temple walls in A.D. 70.

As we moved along the southern stretch of the wall, we came across ancient ritual baths which ancient Jews (and Jesus) would have used for purification before offering sacrifice in the temple. Next to the baths are ancient steps going up to the original gates to the temple mount. One gate was a double gate, the other a triple gate. These gates were called the Huldah Gates after the prophetess Huldah who was supposedly buried nearby. Just a bit of the double gate is still visible, and at its bottom is the entry stone–a stone Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Paul almost certainly crossed. Several of us put our foot on this stone.

Leaving the low area at the bottom of the temple mount, we climbed numerous steps into the Jewish quarter of the old city and ate lunch in an area covered by arches built by the crusaders. From there we walked through the Jewsih quarter, noting scattered ancient ruins such as a portion of the wall of Jerusalem from the time of King Hezekiah, and the pillared market place from the Byzantine period.

We then walked beyond the medieval walls of Jerusalem to St. Peter in Gallicantu Church. Under the church are ancient dungeons and torture areas cut out of the rock which, according to 19th century archeologists and traditions going back to at least the 5th century, may be the place where Jesus was held (and tortured?) when he was put on trial by the high priest Caiaphas. Nearby are ruins believed by many to be the house of Caiaphas, as well as an ancient stairway that would have been used by Jesus on his way to and from Gethsemane. Our group rested here for over an hour, meditating and reflecting on Jesus’ final day before crucifixion.

In the later afternoon we re-boarded the bus and returned to Bethlehem. Several people in the group volunteered to go with Dorothy Jean to buy items for upcoming picnics. At 6pm we will, as usual, gather for singing, reflection, and prayer, followed by a wonderful meal provided by the International Center.

    -submitted by Ryan Ahlgrim

May 9, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 11th, 2017



Today was a busy day. After several days of “seeing the sights,” we spent this day meeting with people.


First, we went to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp to talk with Raji Odda. The Dheisheh Camp has been there since 1948, and Raji was born there. His mother, at age sixteen, had left their village 10 km away in fear of her life back in 1948. At that time, their village was in what would become Israel, and the camp was in Jordan. The villagers were first housed in tents, under the expectation that they would be returning home to their village soon. But after a couple of years of cold winters, the U.N. built homes for them—sort of. Each family got a 10’ x 10’ home, and one toilet was provided for every 200 refugees. There were a total of 53 camps, and the rest of Raji’s family ended up in other camps. They were not permitted to visit.


In 1967, Israel took the West Bank from Jordan and “inherited” 19 camps. The camps were and are funded by the U.N. Today at Dheisheh, there are more than 15,000 people living in a square kilometer (about a third of a square mile). They have 2 schools that handle 39 students at a time. Some 40% of the camp’s population is under 18 (about 6,000 children).


Raji told us that he left the camp and lived in the mountains so he could study for his university courses. He returned, but was arrested two days before his exams. He says he escaped, took the exams, and then turned himself back in. He was imprisoned for a year with no charges ever being filed.


We asked him whether residents of the camp were ever involved in violence against what Palestinians call “The Occupation” by Israel. He said no. They use social media and nonviolent protest. “We throw rocks,” he said. “Throwing rocks at a tank is a political action.”


One of the most disturbing things I heard was that civil organizations are not permitted in Palestine by Israel. This includes charitable and social service organizations. This prevents the residents of the camp from legally organizing ways to help each other. We would hear about this provision later from a Mufti (Muslim leader) who was arrested several times for doing charitable work.


It was particularly interesting to hear Raji’s views about a solution to the conflict. He doubts a two-state solution is possible, and it doesn’t serve the refugees anyway. They still hope that they’ll be able to return to the land that they own in Israel. Raji told us that his family’s village was destroyed, except for the well, and the land remains vacant. They still hope for the implementation of United Nations Resolution 94, which gives them the right to return to their homes. “A Palestinian state will not give me my home back,” he said.


One of the most encouraging things we saw was a project called Sharuq, which teaches the children of the village to use social media effectively to tell their stories. The story of Palestinian refugees has not been told often or well enough, and allowing them to tell their own stories to the world is a hopeful sign.


Our next stop was Dar Al Khalima University, which serves Palestinian students, both Christian and Muslim. Primarily and art school, Khalima encourages cultural expression. They offer degrees in Art and Music, Culinary Arts, Graphic Design, Cultural & Sustainable Tourism, and Film. We met with energetic Dr. Nura Khoury, Vice President for Academic Affairs, who told us that students have been producing effective documentaries about conditions in Palestine. Some have won international awards.


In contrast with Raji’s refugee perspective, Nuha seemed more encouraging about a two-state solution citing a number of things that have improved since the Oslo Accords gave Palestinians some limited self-government. Her perspective appears to reflect those whose homes are in the West Bank, in contrast with those displaced from homes in Israel, giving us our first glimpse of the complexity of the issues here.


We ate lunch at the Hope School, founded in the early 1960s as a Mennonite school for children. It serves students who have not done well in public schools, particularly poorer children who have few other options. One of their fundraising projects is an egg business, with 1,500 laying hens. Apparently “Mennonite eggs” are famous in the area, and much desired for their quality.


In the afternoon, we met with the Mufti of the Omar Mosque adjacent to Manger Square. He is also a refugee, his family driven from their home a few kilometers away in 1948. He spoke to us about the basic principles of Islam, which are not that different from the basic principles of Christianity or Judaism. What divides us, it seems, are details.


The Mufti said he’d been arrested more than a dozen times, most often for doing charitable work. But, he said, when they arrest you, they won’t tell you what you’re charged with. Even his advocate (defense attorney) didn’t know what the charges were. Once he demanded to know why he was being detained. That demand extended his sentence by two months while they “investigated,” and he never did get an answer.


As I listened to these people tell their stories, I was amazed at the acceptance they showed. None of them seemed angry. They were not pleased with the challenges they face, but they seemed to be patiently working toward change. The picture plastered on the walls of the refugee camp of a young man killed by the Army in 2015 was a visible reminder that violence is never far away. Yet today, we met three people who are each, in their own way, taking a nonviolent approach to seeking change, and that is surely cause for hope.

submitted by D.J. Mitchell

May 8, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 9th, 2017

May 8, 2017

Today was a day of grottos – places where Jesus might have been born, places where St Jerome might have translated the Bible (at least I think it was St Jerome – there are a lot of saints in this part of the world!), places where Herod the Great stored water so that he could have a swimming pool in the desert. Ancient life here vacillated between the profound and the indulgent.

After several days of touring the holy sites of Christendom, I have come to view the region as a large picture frame, within which different denominations are jagged puzzle pieces that don’t always fit together neatly, but which all stay within the frame for the most part.  While visiting the Church of the Nativity, we were upstaged several times by a strolling group of dignitaries and body guards who were being ushered with much bowing and scraping throughout the church.  Turns out it was the Archbishop of Canterbury and his retinue.  At another point we were rushed out of the grotto where Jesus was born, since the grotto timetable called for a group of East Asian Christians to celebrate Mass. At every site we heard multiple languages, and witnessed a wide variety of worship styles, from total prostration to kissing of sacred stones to careful crossing of the head and chest. Somehow, it all works.  And as was pointed out in our worship circle tonight by one of my fellow travelers, it isn’t so much the identification of the authentic location of a biblical event, as it is an acknowledgment and appreciation of the fact that centuries of people have come before us to this very place, bringing their beliefs and faith with them.

A beautiful stained glass window in the soaring Church of the Nativity, made all the more dramatic for our having emerged from the crowded, hot, claustrophobic grotto.

The polyglot confession booth: a testament to the many talents that any priest hearing confessions in the Church of the Nativity has to have.

A beautiful stained glass window in the soaring Church of the Nativity, made all the more dramatic for our having emerged from the crowded, hot, claustrophobic grotto.

Kris Felbeck


May 7, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 8th, 2017

By Phil Yoder

While D.J. Mitchell, Adam King, and I walked the ramparts, the walls encircling the Old City of Jerusalem, built by the Christian crusaders of antiquity, we noticed some graffiti. It was disputing a land claim on an informational sign: “Terra Santa does not belong to the Franciscans—it belongs to Israel! Psalm 105:6-11.” In a moment of serendipity, I realized that I had brought along a small Bible in my backpack; so I read the passage aloud for our group: “you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob. He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit’” (NIV). D.J. was quick to respond, “they must have forgotten the second part of the covenant!” i.e. that although God initiated the covenant with God’s chosen people, the people are also called to be faithful and just at the risk of exile and being cut off from Godself. Mind you, the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock/Western Wall. Even though each of the three Abrahamic and Sarah religions has ownership of one portion of the city, sharing the land seems to be a perennial conflict. Farther up the wall, in the Muslim quarter, Adam noticed an Israeli flag draped over a window, just blocks away from the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites of the Islamic religion. Why, we wondered aloud. Collectively, our suspicions were that here was yet another attempt at colonizing the land, over and against the ideal of co-existence. Who is my neighbor? An age-old question indeed. Granted, not all Jews are Zionists (we met one yesterday at Tantur; Rabbis for Human Rights), but a nation-state built upon terror will surely destroy itself. It’s obvious that our destinies are intertwined—but how will we ever transcend our animosities so that we may live together in peace? If hatred is like cancer, what is required for the healing of this land, a land of many peoples?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Being that it was Sunday, we went to a local church worship service. Even though the whole service was in a language I didn’t understand, the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church, I was emboldened by the incense shaking (I think it was frankincense) which as it went up towards the ceiling, about 100 feet or so, shown brightly in the morning sunlight—it reminded me of the prayers of the people, literally going up to the heavens. Some of the Eastern Orthodox Church traditions are more inclined towards the tactile, hence the incense; as a Christian protestant of the Mennonite variety, a denomination which doesn’t practice incense (as far as I know), I appreciated it. Afterwards, we were given free-time to explore the city of Jerusalem. To my surprise, Jewish soldiers like to take their day off in the holy city (or maybe it was for some other reason). Anyway, at one point there were probably 150 of them, in uniform, who made their way through the streets in a procession of sorts, armed with guns, rifles, and ammunition. Just a “friendly” reminder of who’s in charge.

Once we finished, we said our goodbyes to the Lutheran Guesthouse and headed for Bethlehem. As soon as we crossed the checkpoint it was like a different universe on the other side of the wall. But all I could focus on was how bad I needed to relieve myself of the water I had recently drank. When I asked our tour guide how far it would be, he said, “15 minutes,” I thought, easy, I can hold it that long. Then 15 minutes turned into 30, 30 turned into 45 and 45 turned into an hour. I’m considering it a miracle that I was able to hold my bladder at all! Deeply indebted, I really am, to Eliana Neufeld Basinger, Kris Felbeck, and Martha Yoder-Maust who engaged in a vigorous conversation on the bus about privilege/power, 2nd class citizenship, and Christian resistance; and unbeknownst to them, they effectively distracted me from my exploding bladder. While it’s only about 10 miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, city-traffic under imperial occupation is always a struggle.

During our evening prayers I sensed a lot of anger as we reflected on the day. I pray that God might intercede and help us channel these strong emotions in positive ways. I imagine we’ll have lots of opportunities in the coming days. We’re supposed to be staying at this Abu Gubran Guesthouse for the next week. I also pray that God might reveal Godself not only to our group, but also to the people of this troubled land. As Professor Dorothy-Jean Weaver said off-handedly enroute to Bethlehem, “one day there won’t be any checkpoints in this country.” Imagine!

May your kingdom come, O LORD.

God bless. And Keep on keepin’ on!

May 6, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 8th, 2017

A packed day, so I will only be able to give a few highlights.
Woke to bright sunlight and the cooing of doves. At the end of our hall is a balcony that has a view over rooftops and the golden Dome of the Rock. Compared to our leafy green spot in Indiana, the bright sun and the white stone make it look as if the roof had been taken off, leaving us right out under the sky. We walked through narrow stone streets with stone buildings on either side, passing through market districts with every imaginable souvenir spilling out of little shops.
At the Church of the Resurrection (more often known to Westerners as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), we heard a brief overview of its complicated history—wars, destructions, rebuildings, feuds between different Christian groups, etc. One tour member found the crowds inside “too people-y,” and we skipped the five-abreast line of people waiting to look into the tomb itself. Our guide commented that while Westerners feel content if they have a photo, Middle Easterners want to touch and kiss their sacred sites. We saw people kneeling to kiss the stone, leaning their foreheads on it, and wiping it with perfumed oils while they wept and prayed.
We visited two locations where traditions remember the Upper Room. In one, we heard a nun from Iraq tell stories of miracles she has observed in her seventeen years tending the site; in the other we heard three Pentecost stories from our guide. Next was the Church of the Dormition. Some sixteenth-century reformers found the tradition of the assumption of Mary to be non-biblical and rejected it, but Orthodox and Catholic Christians share the understanding that after Mary’s death she was taken up to heaven body and soul, and the mosaics here celebrate that event.
Between the celebrations, we saw a monument to those who died in the Armenian massacre a century ago. We heard about Syriac Christians (who still speak the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke) who suffered a massacre around the same time, and now are being scattered by the war in Syria.
Then it was time to go to West Jerusalem, where we looked at a scale model of Jerusalem in the first century. Our guide tried to point out where Jesus would have gone, especially from his trial to the cross, but I sometimes had a hard time seeing exactly what structure he was discussing. We only had time to briefly glance at some replicas of some Dead Sea Scrolls when the museum staff told us it was closing; that was disappointing.
We spent the evening at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, where we stood on the roof and looked over the separation wall that has walled off some of the Palestinians of Bethlehem from their ancestral lands and olive groves. We heard about how Rabbis for Human Rights are documenting the abuses and hoping to take their case to the World Court. After a delicious supper the rector, Father Russ McDougall, explained the many different Christian traditions that exist in Jerusalem.
Is your head spinning yet? Those were just the highlights!
—Martha Yoder Maust

May 4, 2017

Posted in Holy Land 2017
May 4th, 2017

A journey of 5000 miles starts with – communion. At least that was the experience of a part of our group who was traveling to Israel/Palestine. A group of 7 travelers gathered in the seminary parking lot in Harrisonburg, VA to break bread and share wine served by Les Horning before boarding a van to travel to Dulles Airport. Along the way we picked up another member of the group and, at Dulles, met 9 more who were traveling from other parts of the country. Our group was complete, minus one person. We would pick up Danny in Istanbul.

We left Dulles about 11:00 PM for our overnight flight of 10+ hours to Istanbul, Turkey. I won’t lie. A 10 hour overnight flight in economy class is somewhat miserable (definitely a first world complaint). But this particular flight was about as good as one could hope for. We were served 2 delicious meals at the beginning and end of the flight. Each person had access to an entertainment center where we could watch movies, view television, play games, listen to music, or watch the progress of the trip. We were given a “goodie bag” with slippers, a toothbrush, and other amenities. Most of us were seated near other members of the group, so we could begin getting acquainted.

We arrived in Istanbul about 4:00 PM (9:00 AM EST). With a 4 hour layover there we had plenty of time to find our gate, relax, walk, and eat Turkish Delight. It was there we also met the last member of our group. The flight to Tel Aviv was a short hop of 2 hours – or it was supposed to be. But there was a problem at the Tel Aviv airport, so we had to circle for an extra 20 -25 minutes. That put us at touchdown about 12:15 AM. Then we had to clear Israeli security. We were held up there for quite a while, or so it seemed to the jet lagged, weary group. Finally, we got on a beautiful bus which took us the next 40 minute ride to Jerusalem. Since we were so late getting into Jerusalem, the cart which was supposed to meet us and carry our luggage to our hotel had given up on us and left. So we trundled our suitcases up a series of narrow, winding steps, with the stronger members helping the weaker. By this time it was about 3:00 AM, so we still don’t know how upset the neighbors were when we pounded on two doors before finding the entrance to the guesthouse. We hope they have forgiven us. We tumbled into our welcome beds for a few hours of sleep. We found out the next morning that Kevin and Danny got in at 4:30, so they were even more sleep deprived. But we all arrived safe and basically sound, ever so grateful that we were ALL together.

By Joan Kulp