BETHLEHEM — Today began with a visit to the one of the most revered mountaintops in the Holy Land and ended with dinner at a Palestinian home. It was a day of peace. A day of reflection. A day of possibility.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee, which is believed to be the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The church, built in the 1930’s, is surrounded by gardens with the smells and sounds of Paradise. Red, flowering blossoms, grand palms and chirping birds served as the ethereal backdrop to the sound of pilgrims reading Jesus’s words.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Pilgrims from Peru, Poland, Germany and Russia came to visit the site as well as listen to the recitation of the divine words from spiritual leaders. A Russian Orthodox priest gathered his followers to hear the sacred text recited by a priest dressed in a long black robe and silver cross.
Our classmate Devi Nampiaparampil read those words for our group, executing the reading with grace and warmth. And then onward we went to Jericho. The bus coasted down the mountains, and we bade farewell to the luscious greens of the north of the Galilee as we came across the dry desert area along the Jordanian-Israeli border. Jaw-dropping canyons with men riding on horses served as a landscape that one could legitimately liken to the land that time forgot.
We reached the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site on the Jordan River a short while later and walked past glaringly red signs that warned of the fenced-off land mined areas. A few meters later, away from the fences (and bombs), we reached the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The water was murky brown but it did not dissuade pilgrims from standing in line to have their heads dipped in the water. Some went in waist deep and emerged with smiles. A few students inched in as well, cameras and notebooks in hand.
“The biblical significance is that it’s about drowning your own life,” one British pastor said. “You’re putting your own life to death — the life that’s away from God, and then you’re rising out of the water to resurrection and to new life with Jesus.”
We then stopped for a quick lunch of falalfel and coffee and watched camels looking passively on as they were walked back and forth through the neighboring gas station. Our classmate Patty audaciously took a ride and said it was “magical.”
Our bus then took us through Jerusalem, tantalizingly close to the gleaming Old City. Our guide Ophir Yarden pointed out the Dome of the Rock and explained the distinctions between east and west Jerusalem. We will get a chance to visit Jerusalem on Thursday but for today our destination was Bethlehem. After we entered the city, past the Israeli checkpoint and through the concrete “security wall,” we saw a sign that read: “We welcome you on your journey as we welcomed the Prince of Peace — pray for the freedom of Palestine.” We joined the line of tourists entering into the Church of the Nativity that was built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. As we made our way into the grotto, we passed medieval art and the blindingly ornate iconography of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The beautiful stone walls transported viewers to the age of the Crusades. Images of horses, knights and deep repentant prayer raced through my mind. In the Christian church, a labyrinth of chapels and tombs were seen, as well as a tomb for the martyred Christians who were unable to practice their faith in peace.
We were then whisked away to meet Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, an NGO that aims to transform what Awad referred to as “linear thinking,” into a Palestinian consciousness of perspective. Although youth may justifiably resent Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Awad stressed that physical acts of disgust, such as a flag burning and stone throwing are not acceptable ways to exact change and progress, and referenced both Martin Luther King’s and Ghandi’s non-violent resistance.
“Non-violence is not just an opinion; it’s the only way to move forward,” Awad said.
The day ended with an intimate encounter with Palestinians over dinner in their homes. Over delicious home-cooked food, we understood in a new way the struggles they face on a daily basis, how they too want the best for their children and how much peace and opportunity would mean to them. Read more about our dinner experiences.
Lead photo: At the Church of the Nativity