A reflection by Geoff Hurd
Over the period of February 7 – 19, 2019 I was part of a group of 27 pilgrims, led by St. Paul’s Rector, Noah Evans, who ventured to the Holy Land.This brief review addresses some of what we experienced and answers the most common questions about the trip I have been asked since our return.
Certainly, I now have a better understanding of what it means to be a pilgrim.The experience includes seeing the places we have learned about in scripture and in addition we were exposed to the geography, culture, history, society, and politics of the area.In addition to visiting dozens of sites we had edifying lectures and regular worship.
Our Group: Most of the group were from St. Paul’s along with several people from other local churches and a few non-Pittsburgh relatives. While no one person knew everyone else at the start by the end we were all good friends.In the Holy Land we were joined by our guides Ranya and Iyad who shared duties and by our driver, Omar “The Magnificent”, a title richly deserved considering the narrow roads and harrowing traffic he had to deal with.
Travel: We flew from Pittsburgh to Toronto and then on to Tel Aviv. Announcement on the plane were given in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic.Once in Israel we traveled in a bus. From Tel Aviv we went directly to Jerusalem for the first three days, then north to Nazareth for three days and finally back to Jerusalem for the balance of our stay.
The Land: The area in and around Jerusalem is covered by Potomac Avenue steep hills covered with rocks and boulders, challenging one’s idea of what a “Promised Land” should be.We were there during the rainy season so there were some tuts of green vegetation and it was common to see sheep and goats grazing in the rural areas.To the East is the Judean wilderness, as foreboding and desolate a place as can be imagined.Further north the land is much flatter and arable and large tracts are under cultivation.In the extreme north, past the Golan Heights, there are mountains so high they are snow-capped.
The People:The area of the Holy Land is a cauldron of ethnicities and religions.We saw conservative Jews (black suits and large black hats), observant Muslims (women in ankle length modest dresses and head coverings), Orthodox clergy (long beards and long flowing robes), and Christians (mostly western attire).There were kids everywhere, on school days wearing backpacks and looking and behaving no differently than what you would observe in the South Hills.And there were thousands of other pilgrims from all parts of the world visiting along with us.
Places We Visited:The itinerary, developed by our guides, was extensive.In Jerusalem we experienced the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, the Shrine of the Book (where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed), the pools of Bethesda, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We ventured into the West Bank to see Herodium, one of eleven castles built by Herod the Great, the Shepherd’s Field, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Ramallah (sight of the tomb of Yasser Arafat), Jacobs Well.We went to the town of Taybeh, unique in that most of the inhabitants are Christian, and there we toured a fourth-century Church and Palestine’s only brewery. A particular treat was a visit to the Dead Sea, which due to its elevation well below sea level was warm enough, even in February, that several of us swam, or better, floated in it for a while.During our excursion to Nazareth we visited the Greek and Catholic Churches of the Annunciation, Caesarea Philippi, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. There were many others besides these.
Worship: An important part of the experience was formal worship which took place almost daily.We had Communion on a barren hill overlooking the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan.At the Jordan River we renewed our Baptismal Vows (and, yes, got doused with water). We had a celebration of the Eucharist amidst the remains of a Byzantine era Church in the place regarded to be Emmaus. The visit extended over two Sundays. In the Holy Land, predominantly inhabited by Jews and Muslims, Sunday is a regular working day. Regardless, we went to services the first week at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and the second week at St. Andrew’s in Ramallah. The liturgy was very similar to what’s familiar at St. Paul’s except for language.Some parts were in English, some in Arabic and some were both languages concurrently.The Priest at St. Andrew’s commented that this was a taste of what was experienced on the day of Pentecost.On our last full day, we left the guest house early in the morning and walked, read scripture, and prayed at the Stations of the Cross culminating at the Tomb of Jesus.
Food and Accommodations: In Jerusalem we stayed at the St. George Guest House affiliated with the Episcopal Cathedral.In Nazareth we resided with the Sisters of Nazareth, a French Order, at their Guest House.Both were nice, modern, pristinely clean and in convenient locations.Food was provided as part of our travel package and we ate communally.Breakfast and most dinners were taken at the Guest Houses.Lunches were “on the road” at restaurants or other Guest Houses.Omnipresent at meals was fresh pita, hummus, dates, olives, cheese, and fruit.Entrees were predominantly chicken, cooked in a variety of ways and we did have lamb and occasionally beef.People with special diet needs were accommodated.
Excursions:In addition to seeing places of religious and historic significance we had visits to a bakery to sample pastries, an ice cream shop and two gift shops.
Politics:Just as it was 2000 years ago, the Holy Land is a place of occupation and political strife. We did learn details on some modern-day issues. Following the 1967 Six Day War Israel annexed East Jerusalem and occupied the area on the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip in the East and the Golan Heights in the North.Residents of these areas are primarily Muslim though there is a distinct Christian minority. These people have an indeterminate status, they aren’t part of any country and depend on the permission of the Israeli government to travel.There have been uprisings, the last ending in 2005, and my sense is the area is currently in a state of nervous détente .Israel continues to build settlements, occupied by Jewish Israeli citizens which is provocative to the local residents.International efforts to resolve the situation have been frustratingly difficult and continue to this day.Our guides arranged a series of speakers to provide perspectives on the situation, one Muslim, one Christian and one Jewish.There are proposals for a one-state solution with the occupied areas being incorporated into Israel and the residents become Israeli citizens. Alternatively, a two-state solution provides that the occupied areas become an independent state of Palestine with a peace agreement with Israel (land for peace).Father Rahmoun, of Christ Episcopal Church in Nazareth, proposes that the citizens of the area need to have discourse, develop relationships, work cooperatively and eventually the issue will resolve itself.Love your neighbor.Love your enemy.
Security: Many people have asked me about my comfort level with the security we experienced.Simply put, I felt very safe.The guides were very familiar with the region.The worst hazard we were warned about was pickpockets. We regularly visited occupied areas passing through check-points and seeing signs warning Israeli citizens that the areas were dangerous and, for them, illegal to enter.In actuality, I felt just as comfortable there as when in Israel.The security in the City of Jerusalem was higher than elsewhere.There were groups of armed soldiers and police at stations and roaming the city.To access the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount you need to pass through metal detectors.Amidst this life and commerce continues and in no way was our experience diminished.
Reflection:Visiting the Holy Land was, for me, a tremendous experience.I made new friends, saw things I had heard about all my life and others that I had no idea existed. I can’t say I had a detailed concept of what we would experience but what I found and saw and learned far exceeded any expectation I had.The things that contributed to my experience were:The great work Noah Evans and Dave and Eileen Sharbaugh did setting things up.The times, and places, of worship were tremendous. The terrific work done by our guides, every day was interesting, and everything was well organized.Our hosts were gracious and the people who prepared our meals were talented. Finally, the comity (and, frequently, the comedy) of my fellow pilgrims who added immensely to the experience.I commend this experience to all who are able and willing.