Hello my faithful companions along the Way. Yesterday was not about visiting any holy sites or seeing any archeological or historical sites. Instead yesterday was about people and celebrating the glory of God in this Holy Land.
For our second full day on pilgrimage we traveled roughly 10 miles north from East Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank. Ramallah is currently the de facto administrative capital for the Palestinian National Authority. But before we even stepped foot in the city of Ramallah we first had to enter into the West Bank via a checkpoint. The Israeli government doesn’t really care who goes into the West Bank, but are much more concerned with who might be leaving the West Bank to travel into Israel. As part of the Israeli response to the rise of suicide bombers in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in the early 2000’s Israel has basically finished building a wall that completely separates the West Bank from Israel. Palestinians, and especially Palestinians from the West Bank do not posses the freedom to move freely through the checkpoints, but they must have a permit; and even then, Palestinians may still be made to wait hours upon hours, and even denied entry despite have the requisite paperwork. The Palestinians take buses to the checkpoint, then get off the bus and pass through a system of metals gates and shoots, that almost resemble what farmers use to herd cattle into pens. If they are lucky then they are permitted entry into Israel. It is a dehumanizing ordeal that takes hours, so for children who go to school in Jerusalem, their days often begin at four or five in the morning in order to get through the checkpoint for school that starts at 8:00am.
Since it was Sunday, and the Shabbat had ended, it was essentially the beginning of the work week and the traffic was intense. It took us over an hour to travel the 10 miles from Saint George’s to Ramallah; an hour to drive 10 miles. When we go to Bethlehem in a few days, we will experience it again; taking 45 minutes to travel the few miles that separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem, because we will have to go around the Wall and through another major checkpoint.
After finally making it into the city of Ramallah, our first stop was the tomb of Yasser Arafat. It is a beautifully bright complex that is bathed in light as it reflects off the white Jerusalem stone. The location of the mausoleum is on the sight of the Palestinian National Authority administrative headquarters were located. This location had been bombed by the Israeli government and Arafat survived in a single room. He spent the last few years of his life confined in this compound by the Israeli government. He had hoped to be buried in Jerusalem, but that request was denied by the government so he was buried in his compound with the hope of one day being buried in the Eternal City. The message on the tomb indicated that the final resting place of Arafat shall be in Jerusalem, if it comes under Palestinian control.
From there we continued walking through the center of Ramallah as the city slowly came alive for the day. While the Christians are preparing for their Sunday services, the rest of the city was waking up to the beginning of another work week. Coffee stands littered the streets, along with various vendors selling fresh baked breads. The shops were slowly opening, and the streets were bustling with this new day. We passed by the circle in the center of the city, which often serves as a place of protest by Palestinians, on our way to a special treat Iyad had planned for us. Before church Iyad wanted us to sample the local ice cream, especially because this kind of ice cream flavors was unique to this area. We each had a cone that contained about five different flavors crammed into one cone, and it was the best pre-church breakfast I have had in a long time. As the sun rose in the sky the temperature was rising, and a cool ice cream hit the spot.
We continued to walk down Main Street for a few more blocks when we suddenly stumbled upon our next stop, Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church. It is here that we would join the Arabic speaking congregation for Sunday Mass. We were warmly greeted by a sister whom Fr. David had met on his trip to holy Land two years ago, and whose cousin teaches Arabic in Lancaster, PA. Members of the congregation came trickling in, greeting us with warm smiles and even greeting us in English. As an Episcopal Church I imagine they get a few American pilgrimage groups coming through all year. The rector of the parish Fr. Fadi was making his way from another church in another village so he was running late, but when he arrived he asked if Fr. David and I would serve with him at the altar.
It was an amazing experience to participate in a worship service that was ion both Arabic and English. Fr. Fadi generous offered portions of the service to Fr. David and I, and I think the pilgrims were really moved by the experience, especially to see the traditions and rituals we all know so well-being used by other Christians. We truly are different branches connected to the one vine in Jesus Christ our Lord. The chasm that separates us in language, culture, and even an ocean slipped away for that one hour and in that moment we were one in the body of Christ; united in mind, body, and spirit. Fr. Fadi joked that all we needed was a few other groups and we could have celebrated Pentecost!
After the service we joined parishioners in the parish hall for coffee and conversations. It was an amazing experience; one that I will never forget and I hope we will get to visit this parish again the next time I am here. Meeting the people, hearing their stories, is all part of pilgrimage and it is now our responsibility to share what we saw and heard and experienced with the world.
After the service we boarded the coach and traveled a few miles north to the little village of Jifna where we had a feast for lunch. On the road we saw more signs for the refugee camps, which serve as a reminder to us that there are still so many people displaced from their homes. We made sure to pray for them during the Mass. We stopped at the restaurant Mazar and were treated to at least six different types of salads, three different meat kabobs, and lamb chops! I had six empty skewers in front of me and I was stuffed. It was excellent and again an example of the wonderful hospitality that we have experienced from the Palestinian people. The signs by the checkpoints warn that this area is dangerous, especially for Jews, but I experienced the opposite; a warm, welcoming people who offer the very best of themselves for their guests.
The bus ride back to Saint George’s was relatively quiet as we all found ourselves in a food coma! We were then treated to a wonderful lecture on Islam which capped off an excellent day.