I am sitting in a store in Jericho, waiting for our group of a hundred pilgrims while they shop. After deciding to post some pictures of our Holy Land pilgrimage on Facebook, a message appears on my phone that I am in Palestinian territory rather than in Israel and therefore do not have service. It suddenly dawns on me that even though our bus moves freely around Israel, the country is still divided. Jericho, located in the disputed West Bank, has been under the administrative control of the Palestinian authority since 1994. I wonder. Will it ever be possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in peace in this land that is holy for all three world religions?
We are walking through the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrow” in the Old City of Jerusalem, and stop at each of the fourteen stations of the cross. In the Catholic tradition, these stations are a mini-pilgrimage commemorating Jesus’ last day on earth. It is a way for all Christians to experience the agony and suffering of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. I can’t keep back the tears, as I remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for me. I wonder. How is God calling me to share in the suffering of others and change the world?
I am at Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem. In the Children’s Memorial, which is carved out of an underground cavern, the names of the 1.5 million children who were murdered by the Nazis are read continuously as they shine like stars in the firmament. And in the Hall of Names, each one of the six million victims will be remembered for generations to come. I can’t stop the tears.
“Tomorrow we will be heading towards the Great Unknown in full awareness and at peace. If we are meant to live, all the better, and if not …” (Abrahamik’s letter from Plonsk Ghetto, Dec. 12, 1942)
“With particular joy I have learned from your notice that for 14 days now a train has been traveling every day to Treblinka (concentration camp) with 5,000 members of the Chosen People.” Karl Wolff, Chief of Staff to Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS (Aug. 13, 1941)
I am mesmerized by The Little Smuggler, a famous poem by the Polish poet Henryka Łazowertówna (1909–1942).[i] It tells the story of a little child in the Warsaw Ghetto who smuggles food over from the “Aryan Side” to feed his family and whose primary fear is that if he dies, his mother would lose her source of life. I wonder. How many children in our world are still at risk today because of war, oppression, and injustice? What is my responsibility?
I am walking through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the crucifixion. Since an 1852 mandate, the care of the church is shared by six different Christian denominations. Despite incidents of territorialism among the groups, the steep stairway climbing to the lavishly decorated shrine of Calvary unites pilgrims and takes my breath away. I wonder. Jesus, how can it be that you gave up your life for me and all humans who ever lived? I offer to you all that I am and all that I hope to become. May I reflect your grace and hope in everything I say and do.
We are at Caesarea Philippi in northern Galilee, at the headwaters of the Jordan River. It is the turning point in the gospels, where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” From then on, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. I wonder. Who is this Jesus for me? He is my Lord. He is my Savior. He is Love incarnate. He is the One who gives my life and meaning and purpose and calls me to make a difference in the world in his name.”
Our tour is divided into groups of four as we eat dinner in the homes of Palestinian families in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank. It is agonizing to hear how difficult life is for our Christian host family, living under occupation. In the fifty years since the Israeli seizure of the West Bank during the six-day war in 1967, not much has changed. A wall separates Palestinians from Israelis, and daily life is marked by a Separation Wall, checkpoints, guards, segregation, control, and Jewish settlements springing up on Palestinian land.
Palestinians are not allowed in most areas of Israel, and those who do work in Jerusalem spend hours a day waiting to go through checkpoints. The unemployment rate in the West Bank is astronomical, poverty is widespread, and the public schools are poor.
According to a January 16 New York Times article, the US government has decided to withhold more than half of the normal funding given to Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The U.S. will provide $60 million to the relief agency in 2018, which supports Palestinian schools and health clinics, but will withhold the other $65 million for “future consideration.”
Our dinner with Palestinian families is a highlight of our pilgrimage, as we sit at table with Christians and Muslim families, who are minorities and struggle with everyday living. It can take years to get a visa to travel outside the country, yet their faith is deep.
I wonder, how can we pray for and express solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters whose freedom is so restricted. In the same way, how is God calling us to stand with all those who are labeled and objectified, whether it be African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, LGBTQ persons, Arabs, refugees, immigrants, Mexicans, or …
The day before we ate dinner with our new Palestinian friends, Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, which voted to become a sanctuary church in 2017, announced that they are offering sanctuary to Ded Rranxburgaj, 48, a Coney Island restaurant cook who is scheduled to be deported to Albania on January 25. Rranxburgaj and his wife Flora came to the U.S. seventeen years ago, and he is the sole caregiver for his wife, who has MS. Ded said that he has no criminal record and has been working for years with immigration officials to get legal status.
In a January 16 press conference, Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel, senior pastor of Central UMC, said, “Central United has been at the forefront of fighting for justice for three centuries now… What better place to announce that we will be a sanctuary for this family… We have hope and a belief that justice will prevail… We serve a God that calls us to a higher law.”
The next day we finish our pilgrimage at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which some believe is an alternate site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I read from Luke 24, where the women who go to the tomb of Jesus are greeted by two men standing beside them in gleaming clothing and saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”
I wonder. How is God calling you and me to a resurrection faith that advocates for fullness of life for all people? How is God calling us to practice our faith by caring for the very least of God’s children? How is God calling us to share as well as embody the love of Jesus for all people in our world?
|The Little Smuggler
Through walls, through holes, through sentry points,
At noon, at night, in dawning hours,
Under my arm a burlap sack,
Yet everything must be suffered;
Through walls, though holes, through brickwork,
And if the hand of sudden fate
And only one grim thought,
|—Translated by Patricia Heberer,
from Children during the Holocaust