Indeed we have arrived in Tel Aviv after quite an adventure that included lines, getting locked out of the coach, security screenings, and even a missing bag. I shouldn’t be surprised that we have experienced a few hiccups so far because this is all part of being on pilgrimage; encountering God in the unexpected. It is in moments like this that I repeat a chant I learned in my spiritual direction training.
Step into the flow
and then I let it go
I open my mind,
my heart, and my soul
I surrender, I surrender
oh, I surrender
I open my mind,
my heart, and my soul
Sometimes you just got to step into the flow and let it carry you!
When I last left you all I had spent almost six hours in the Newark Airport by myself; and when I say the Newark Airport, I was on “land-side” or before security. So there I was unable to check-in because El Al opens their booking and security four hours before departure, and I was stuck in a rather small area with only a paltry offering of dinning options. I posted up on a long counter with outlets and set up shop to kill 6 hours before the group arrived and then wait another four hours for the flight to leave. I spent most of the day in silent reflection which led to my last post.
Since then things got interesting quick. The other pilgrims from Saint James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA actually arrived on-time from their coach ride to Newark. But that did not come without incident, even with a timely arrival. While the group had stopped the driver had accidentally locked the keys in the coach with no other way in. So they got resourceful. The driver managed to open a back door, but there was a wall that only created a narrow space in which someone could crawl through to get the keys and unlock the coach. The driver, who was described to have a similar build as me, wasn’t going to fit through the narrow space so one of our parishioners, Candy Benoit, volunteered for the assignment. Into the coach she went, and then up and over the wall through the narrow space, and unlocked the coach. They were all able to get aboard and made good time traveling from Lancaster to Newark.
I met the group outside and it was wonderful to see everyone again. After the requisite hugs and greetings, we once again hurried up to wait. It was a joy to see them again and to be finally beginning the pilgrimage that we had been planning for the past year and a half. Because they had arrived early El Al still hadn’t opened up the initial security screening, so we waited…and waited. And we waited a little bit more when, as if out of nowhere, the El Al staff appeared and set up their special screening stations and the ticketing counter. I don’t know if anyone reading this was traveled via El Al, but they take security very seriously, so much so that they have special pre-boarding screenings that are not for the faint of heart. They utilize multiple tactics to discern who we are and our intentions for traveling to Israel. They are on the lookout for any suspicious people who would want to inflict chaos on their national airline.
As the pilgrimage leader I went first, and boy was I glad I did. My screening agent asked me many questions; where I was from, why am I traveling to Israel, how many times had i been to Israel, did I know everyone in our group, how long did I know everyone in the group, and did they all arrive together. I was asked each of these questions roughly three times and each time was slightly different, as if the screener did not hear me or pay attention to my answers. They were quick questions with simple answers. I was intentionally avoiding anything that made direct reference to Palestine, Palestinians, and the West Bank because that would only make it longer for me and everyone else. I believe he asked me the same questions in different ways to see if i gave consistent answers. But then they asked similar questions to each pilgrim as if to corroborate my answers, as well as corroborating what others said. I think they were looking for any slip ups or anomalies. While I had nothing to hide, I was still nervous. My heart was pounding because I felt as if they were searching for something that wasn’t there. But I made it through fine, and everyone else said what they needed to say and we all made it through.
From there we went through normal TSA security protocols and relaxed at an overpriced Irish Pub to wait for boarding. We made our way over to the gate to begin boarding and we had to wait again. The incoming flight was late, then there was more security screenings of the plane itself before boarding, and even heavily armed NY/NJ Port Authority Police were present with automatic weapons. Our documents were once again checked and finally, after an hour delay we boarded the plane. We took off at 10:30pm for our almost 11 hour flight to Tel Aviv. I know the extra security measures can produce anxiety and can feel a little intimidating, but it is worth it. El Al is the only commercial airline to equip its planes with missile defense systems, and is considered one of the world’s most secure airlines, thanks to its stringent security procedures, both on the ground and on board its aircraft. Although it has been the target of many attempted hijackings and terror attacks, only one El Al flight has ever been hijacked, but with no fatalities. So, yeah, I am glad we flew El Al.
The 11 hour flight was rather uneventful. I didn’t sleep a wink so I watched four straight movies that I hadn’t seen before, so that was cool. The food was pretty good, and my seat neighbors were actually engaging and genuinely inquisitive about who I was and why I was going to Israel. Want to talk about this being a small world, when I told the couple that I was and Episcopal priest, they told me how they were visiting a cemetery in Maryland and were looking up the Episcopal Church to learn more because they knew nothing about it.
We took off from American soil at around 10:30pm on a Thursday evening and landed in Tel Aviv at 3:30ish on a Friday afternoon. Needless to say, as i disembarked from the plane I was already tired, but looking forward to meeting up with our guide for the pilgrimage, Iyad Qumri, who is a Palestinian Arab Christian. We made our way to passport control and was met with a large room absolutely packed with people.
And then we waited some more. We spent almost two hours getting the group through passport control because the lines were so long and moving slowly, and on top of that different passport screeners randomly left their counter forcing different lines to merge or alternate people. Iyad called me four times wondering where we were and if he somehow lost us, but I assured him no, we were still in the airport waiting. I finally made it up to the front and once again went first to pave the way for the others. I was anticipating another screening interrogation, but was met with two simple questions and I was allowed to enter Israel. As we all gathered at the baggage claim, I was hopeful that we had finally made it through, but sure enough we encountered one more surprise. One of our parishioners could not find her bag. We found a bag that was exactly like hers in brand and color, and it even had the same flight tag, but if you looked closely at the tag the names didn’t match nor did the numbers. So we think someone else with the same bag grabbed her bag and left theirs. We went through the process of filing a claim with El Al and I am sure we will see the luggage soon, but it was not the way for her to start her pilgrimage. She has taken it well and others are supporting her, but again, on pilgrimages you just don’t know what you might encounter on the journey.
We met up with Iyad, boarded the coach, and made the roughly 45 minute ride up to Jerusalem, and I say “up” because Jerusalem sits at 2,800 feet above sea level. It was a familiar ride for me; seeing the walls separating the West Bank and Israel, seeing the settlements in Palestinian territories, and then the familiar neighborhoods around Saint George’s College in East Jerusalem. I will say more about the history and role of the College and Cathedral in later posts.
Iyad gave us some tantalizing information about what we were seeing and clearly the pilgrims wanted to know more, but his refrain was “I will tell you more when we visit that site.” We arrived at Saint George’s just in time for a classic Mediterranean dinner of vegetable salads, roasted chicken, and rice with cauliflower. It was delicious and the perfect way to end the day. We then gathered for introductions and a brief orientation about what to expect in the coming days.
All in all, it was a good few days of traveling with only a few minor hiccups and I think everyone is ready for tomorrow. So I will say goodnight my dear friends, and I will check back in with you all tomorrow.