Jerusalem Companions

While pilgrims may be solitary individuals like me, I suspect that most pilgrims come in groups. On the one hand, individuals in such groups may travel with a constant complainer, may hear unpleasant gossip, or may seem to be sacrificing their interests to those of others. On the other hand, individuals in a group may form friendships which provide support and encouragement, may provide motivation on those “down” days, or may allow for the processing of inchoate experiences. As a “Scholar in Residence,” I was not formally part of the Tantur Easter Experience group; however, I shared Tantur and various excursions with the twenty-one members of that group. Thus, I came to consider them part of my extended family.

Aaron is a 28-year old Youth Coordinator of the Roman Catholic Diocese in southwest Australia. He works with young people who, as is true of youth workers around the globe, finds that the youth move on to other locations shortly after he forms deep friendships with them. Obviously valued by his Bishop, Aaron was asked if he wanted to go to the Holy Land with other Roman Catholics. “Since the trip was free, I quickly said yes.” Aaron added. Maybe due to his being a university theater major, Aaron has been the lovable prankster. One morning, he put a plastic scorpion in one room; on another morning, he put a rubber snake in front of another’s door. Besides the smiling prankster, Aaron has brought an exuberant enthusiasm. Like the rest of us, he had difficulty relating to visiting site after site because the sites eventually seem to blur together. While on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, Aaron had a moment of epiphany. He picked up a net that was lying on the side of the boat and threw it into the sea. A fisherman back in Australia, Aaron finally anchored himself. He found a connection between Israel and his home. He found an experience which reminded him that men fished in this lake 2000 years ago just as he could today.

Paul, also from Australia, has faced tragedy. Before moving to Australia, he lived in South Africa. His brother started a large-scale bakery producing some 15,000 loaves a day. While his brother and wife were driving to work at 5 AM one morning, they were murdered. Because nothing was stolen, Paul and the police suspected the murder was a message. “Whites don’t belong in South Africa.” Later, after he and his wife adopted his brother’s four children, his mother was visiting them. While she and another brother were in a car, individuals from the car behind them fired at them. This time, fortunately, both his mother and his other brother were only slightly wounded because the bullets were deflected by a headrest. Despite the tragedies, or maybe because of his tragedies, Paul has absorbed the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. Although soft spoken, Paul has been severely disturbed by the Palestinians plight. “It is just like South Africa with our apartheid. It is awful!” Rather than burying his South Africa experiences, Paul allowed them to resurface. As one who knows the pain of murder, of injustice, he knew what the Palestinians were enduring. He helped us understand the intense personal pain that comes from Israeli occupation and the various acts of anonymous affliction of pain.

Father Jan is a Belgium Roman Catholic priest whose responsibilities include developing interfaith activities for his diocese. He has been to the Holy Land as an interpreter for a Flemish group years ago. “I’ve come to continue my explorations of people and places” he declared. Jan is inquisitive, thoughtful, and receptive. “I don’t trust my memory at my age. I need to write things down” he declared as he scribbled down notes from various tours. In reflecting on the group pilgrimage, Jan said: “I wish the program was more diverse, we need more Protestants and at least one Eastern Orthodox.” Ever sensitive to individuals and people around him, the high points were two: the Holy Fire at Beit Jeil and the midnight Easter celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “It wasn’t simply the lighting of the Holy Fire that I’ll remember. It is the way this Christian village [ Beit Jala] celebrated its significance. The celebration was like a carnival. Everybody dressed in their finest; everybody singing; everybody sharing food. It was wonderful.” Likewise, he commented about the Midnight Easter Celebration., “I was able to be there at the sharing by hundreds of people of the center of our faith, the Resurrected Christ.” I asked Jan what he will take-away from this experience. Surprisingly, as it was not linked to the specific experiences he mentioned, Jan said: “The importance of breaking down walls; of recognizing what we share despite our differences.” Yet, in another way, I was not surprised because he and I have talked about the Palestinians humiliating experiences and the Israeli’s deep insecurity creating deep boundaries. Upon returning to Belgium, Jan will both continue to work in interfaith dialogue as well as introducing others to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, possibly leading a group to Tantur.

Sarah, in her early 40’s is the only Protestant, a British Methodist minister, in the group. Her husband died 20 years ago; her parents died within the last year. Because of experiencing Christmas on her own since she has no immediate family, Sarah realized that she wanted to spend the next major Christian holiday in a place “that I could think about my life and my future.” While she is the first to admit before the experience ended, “I haven’t sorted things out completely,” she has made definite progress. Not one to utter trivial, pious platitudes, she stated that before she arrived at Tantur “she wasn’t sure if God was in her life.” These words aren’t what one normally expects to hear from a minister! At the end of the trip, she could at least declare “I know that he is present now, I just done’ know how much he cares.” What has brought this realization? Despite being the only Protestant, she has thrown herself into forging friendships. She even had our Roman Catholic friends read and pray John Wesley’s beautiful “Covenant Prayer” one night. As she said, “I wanted to give that wonderful prayer to other Christians.”

Finally, there is Mary, a spry, older Genevan Roman Catholic widow with three daughters and one son. When we introduced ourselves to each other the first day, I said:” Oh wonderful, I’ll remember you Mary since my wife is Mary.” Later one afternoon we were walking together as we climbed probably a hundred stone steps at the Herodium, Herod’s first-century winter palace outside Bethlehem. She said “I’m so glad that I can be here. I had surgery on my foot last October and I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to continue with the trip.” A few days later, I off-handedly asked another Swiss woman how old Mary was: “She is 87.” Wow! She is an intelligent and accomplished woman. The daughter of a premier University of Chicago neurosurgeon, a successful teacher and administrator herself, Mary has lived a full life. Yet, here she was at 87 seeking new experiences.

Mary said: “It has been hard for me to make sense of everything. I’ve lived alone for 30 years and haven’t heard so much noise since I was a Mum with babies!” She continued: “I’m so glad that I have come though. Father Richard [her parish priest and group member] has said for eleven years ‘Some year we will go to the Holy Land.’ We finally did!” I asked her “What has it meant for you?” Her first words answering my question were not about the Holy Land’s significance for her, but were words about the Holy Land’s significance for Father Richard. “Father Richard is a very sick man with his brain tumor [Father Richard can’t see out of one eye and walks with a walking stick]. I am so grateful that he has been able to make it to Jerusalem.” She then continued, with that hopefull attitude irrespective of her age: “I’ll remember this trip for the rest of my life!”

A prankster who has made connections between events 2000 years ago and his own life, a sufferer of South African apartheid who has opened himself to feel a bond with Palestinians, a builder of interfaith bridges, a contributor to the church universal despite acknowledging deep questions about God, and an 87-year old widow thinking about a close friend’s joy in making this trip rather than her own aging life, these are my pilgrims. I have felt humbled to be with them through these days. It has been a privilege to share these experiences with them as our own journeys and pilgrimages are united together.

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