Sunday, January 15, 2006


After a long drive from The Sea of Galilee we arrived in Jerusalem during the evening hours. We dropped off Lynn and Dick (our site coordinator and her husband) at their hotel and then walked on foot into the walled off Old City of Jerusalem where our hostel was. The cobblestone streets of the city were wet and reflected the bright headlights of the cars driving through. We followed the directions we had gotten from the people who run the hostel and found ourselves walking down medieval “streets” that were so narrow that a car would never be able to fit in them. As we walked I felt increasingly like I was walking back in time.

We arrived at the Citadel Hostel, a rustic hostel in a building built in the 1100’s. The front door was made of heavy steel and it creaked loudly when we opened it. The interior walls were made of rocks and they curved up and in to form the ceiling. Behind a cramped desk, an old, balding man asked our names through a thick accent, checked our reservations, and then directed us to our rooms. The four ladies went upstairs while he led us gents through a low opening just to the right of his desk. The room beyond was spacious with a low rock ceiling and was scattered with fifteen or twenty small, metal-framed beds each with bed covers and a pillow. We each found an empty bed. Mine was next to the bathroom.

Once we put our things away, four of us struck out to see the surrounding area. We wound our way back through the narrow streets to the main street and hung a right. The street was a series of broad steps that seemed to descend forever and ever. After about ten minutes and two turns, we accidentally found ourselves at the back entrance to the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall.

The Wailing Wall is all that remains of the original Jewish Temple that existed even before the time of Jesus, and Jews believe that God lived in the temple. The temple was destroyed long ago by the Babylonians, rebuilt and then destroyed again by the Romans after the time of Jesus. The Wailing Wall is a retaining wall that encloses the land upon which the temple stood. Since then the Muslims built structures on this land, where the temple once stood. This area is called the Temple Mount.

When we approached the wall it was at about 10PM. It was a black, inky night, but bright spotlights illuminated the white stone wall. There is a large courtyard where tourists can look out and view the Wall, but far to the left there is a long ramp that leads down to a lower courtyard just in front of the Wall where Orthodox Jews pray. From a distance the Jews, dressed all in black, look like small specks dotting the bottom edge of the gigantic wall. But when we got closer, we could see that they were bowing quickly, repeatedly, over and over, almost tapping the brims of their hats against the Wall. It is a form of prayer unlike anything I have ever seen. Some men stood out in the open in the lower courtyard, yelling, preaching at the top of their lungs while maintaining some sort of repetitive ritual movement. The lower courtyard was also divided by gender. Men were to worship on the left side of a low divider wall, while women had to remain on the right. We noticed that some men, and most women left the wall by slowly backing away, only turning around once they reached the top of the ramp. To show your backside to the wall was like showing your backside to God and is a great offense.

We asked a man nearby if it was okay for us to approach the wall. He said it was fine as long as we donned a paper yarmulke that we could find in a kiosk at the bottom of the ramp. We slowly descended the ramp and approached the kiosk. We each retrieved a small paper skullcap and placed them on top of our heads. Suddenly the Wall seemed monstrous, intimidating, imposing even. We each took our own approach. Jay and I eased our way up to the wall, trying to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible.

Finally we got to an open space at the wall where nobody was standing and I reached out and touched it. And then… it was just a wall. I didn’t glow, lightning didn’t bolt out and electrocute me, and thunder didn’t roll. And the more I thought about it, the more I got frustrated.

You see to Jews the Wall is a holy place, a part of the temple they want to rebuild. They believe that once the temple is rebuilt again the Messiah will come. But in order to do that, they would have to tear down the Muslim holy sites on top of the Wall on the Temple Mount.

It starts to put a little bit of perspective on why the Jews are walling off Palestine doesn’t it? I mean once the apartheid wall is complete, all they would have to do is expel all of the Muslims to Palestine and then start bulldozing. Maybe that’s just a wild theory, maybe it’s not. So I stood there thinking, “It’s just a wall. Why all the fuss?” This is why I have a hard time when people refer to the area of Israel and Palestine as the “Holy Land.” Is land really holy? Are our beliefs so incredibly attached to places and things that we are willing to kill and destroy over them? Or are the teachings of the religions more important? Isn’t it more important to get along with our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet in the ways our religions teach us than to argue over what lands and things are holy and who should be in charge of them?

That said, it has been an incredibly eye opening experience to visit these places. “That spot over there is where Jesus walked. That rock over there is where Jesus stood.” Sure these places and things help give a better perspective on my beliefs, but I don’t think I would be suffering if I hadn’t seen them. Most Christians have lived their entire lives without visiting the “Holy Land” and many have lived with strong faith in the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. I suppose all of this is easy for me to say being an American, where I normally live far removed from the “Holy Land.” I just can’t understand why people place land and things above the value of people. Perhaps I never will.

The next morning we went by the Wailing Wall again, but this time we passed by it and climbed a long wooden ramp to the Temple Mount. Jay got stopped at the Muslim security point where they told him he could not bring his Bible in, while Stephen got his through just fine. Jay left it at the checkpoint and we proceeded up the ramp to the top of the Wailing Wall. We were immediately met by two large structures. On the right was the Al Aqsa Mosque and on the left was the much more stunning Dome of the Rock, a mosque that was built over the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac to God (though Muslims believe God nearly sacrificed Ishmael). It was an incredible structure with a dull gold onion dome and tiled with a plethora of small colored tiles. We walked around the Dome of the Rock but when we walked up to the door, we were practically shooed away because we were not Muslim. That’s right, since we weren’t Muslims we were not allowed to enter a “holy place” for Christians, Jews, AND Muslims. I guess we should feel lucky though because when Teri had visited Jerusalem 18 months previously, only Muslim males were allowed into the Temple Mount area.

Next we took a walking tour around the fortress wall around the Old City. Jerusalem at one time fit neatly into the fortress walls, but has since grown and expanded outside the walls. The area that the wall encloses is one square kilometer so we didn’t walk around the entire thing. In fact we only walked about one sixth of the perimeter and it still took us a solid 20 minutes. The structure was an incredible example of the stereotypical castle with many slender windows through which archers could shoot arrows and portals where hot oil could be poured on invading armies. We saw many great views of places around the city, including our next destination, The Mount of Olives.

We began our climb up The Mount of Olives by going to the Garden of Gethsemane, which lies at the foot of the mount. Unfortunately it was closed so we decided to continue up the mountain to the next site intending to come back to the Garden later.

We climbed a very steep road that ran along the northern edge of a Jewish cemetery with some graves that are over a thousand years old. I can’t even convey to you how many graves there were in the cemetery. Headstones littered the mountainside. They were densely packed in, one beside another. All of them faced the site where the Jews one day hope to reconstruct the Temple. To our left was a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church with highly polished, golden onion domes. We continued trudging up the steep hill, taking a few breaks to catch our breath before we came to a level area just before the top. To our right we saw a sign that read, “Tomb of the Prophets, Haggai and Maleachi.” I found this particularly interesting because I have two friends who named their son Malachi a few years ago. We entered the tombs, which were deep underground. It ended up there were some 50 tombs along two interconnected, concentric, horseshoe shaped tunnels. They were all pretty much low holes in the stone walls. The remains were long gone.

We continued to the top of The Mount of Olives, which was just up a flight of steps at that point, to see a beautiful panoramic view of Jerusalem and the various churches on The Mount of Olives. We spent a few minutes admiring the view, taking a rest, and passing time until the Garden of Gethsemane opened. As we waited we saw a troop of Israeli soldiers admiring the view too. They were all eighteen year olds with large guns. Some of them even had grenade launchers built into their assault rifles. They too were touring the sites of The Mount of Olives. At one point they came to the exact place where we were admiring the view and surrounded us. At that point I decided I’d had enough of barrels of automatic weaponry near my head and I began to descend the same road we came up. We came to a church on the side of the mountain in a place called Dominus Flevit (The Lord Wept). It is a church built on the site where Jesus wept for Jerusalem. See Matthew 23:37-39. While I was sitting there taking pictures of some mosaics, an Israeli soldier wandered into the sanctuary, assault rifle and all. He had wandered away from the group and was by himself. I was just absolutely stunned that he would bring a weapon into a church. I just couldn’t bring myself to say something to him though. Sadly, that’s the exact effect they want. They don’t want anybody to question them.

I tried once again to get away from the soldiers with high-powered weapons by continuing down the mount to the Garden of Gethsemane, which was finally open. This is the place where one of my favorite parts of the Bible happened. Jesus, knowing that Judas had betrayed him, sought refuge with several of his disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing his fate, prayed to God asking for the “cup” to pass from him, but only if it was God’s will. This speaks volumes to me about the humanity of Christ. Christ was scared of dying just as any human would be. Jesus was God incarnate, but still struggled with this aspect of humanity. Eventually Jesus prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done,” accepting his fate, the will of God.

To actually be in this place, to see the place where Jesus repeatedly prayed to God just before his capture and crucifixion, was something I never thought I’d be able to do. And yet, there I was. However I was greatly disturbed. I feared that Israeli guards would come tromping into this peaceful place with their weapons, machines built for killing and destruction, to the place where Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” I obsessed over this thought. I stood there, leaning with my forearms on the iron fence, looking at the 2000 year old olive trees that Jesus himself might have sat under, periodically glancing over at the entrance, waiting for the Israeli troops to make their way through the door. I feel that I got a glimpse of how Jesus felt that night. I only wanted to find peace, but was anxious knowing that violence was literally just around the corner.

Thankfully the Israeli troops passed right by the doorway. One paused only briefly at the doorway, peeking in to see what was beyond the stone wall.

I am reminded of lyrics from one of my favorite songs by David LaMotte:

Yes, I'm scared and I'm angry
That we live in this occupied land
Where the Romans can kill us at random
But the Romans do not rule my hands
There are so many lives on the line here
This is not some philosopher's game
But if you draw your sword Peter
You may not raise that sword in my name

It’s an incredible song you can download from David Lamotte’s web site at:

Unfortunately a Muslim taxi driver took the brunt of the feelings boiling just under the surface of my calm exterior. He chose at just that moment to come through the Garden shouting, “Taxi! Taxi!” He was looking for a fare. He came up to me and I icily snapped, “This is not the place for that! Please leave!” I whipped my arm up and gestured to the door in the stone wall surrounding the Garden. At first he looked at me with a big grin on his face, but then he realized I was very serious. His eyes widened and his smile drooped. He silently turned away from me, going deeper into the Garden, away from the door. I milled about the Garden for a while, seeking the peace I had gone there for, but found only more tension within myself. After a time I strolled over to the entrance to The Church of All Nations where the taxi driver was waiting at the entrance. He came up to me and apologized for shouting, and added an excuse that someone had called him there for a ride. My first instinct was to think that he was just making up excuses, but I only looked at him sternly and only said, “Okay,” and then turned and walked into the church. I don’t know why I was so angry. After all, it was only a place… right? Isn’t it interesting how quickly a peaceful person can develop a strong affinity for a “holy place?”

I entered the church and tried to calm down. After a few minutes I saw the taxi driver standing in the back of the church and I angrily thought, “Oh, so I can’t enter your holy place, but you can enter mine?” I realized that my thoughts were getting out of hand so I took a few minutes to take some deep breaths and calm down. I looked around the church and up at the purple stain glass crosses. Then I looked toward the front of the church, up at the mosaic of Jesus sitting in the Garden, praying to God. And I realized things could be much worse. I looked down at the floor, just in front of the altar where I saw the stone where Jesus prayed. I said a prayer. I asked for peace. It didn’t come right away, but eventually I found it.

We left Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested and went along the path of the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross are a Roman Catholic tradition of fourteen events from the time Jesus was condemned to die to the time he was laid in the tomb. If you have seen the film “The Passion of the Christ,” you will notice that each of the stations are prominently shown. Teri was quick to point out that many of the stations are not even in the Bible and might be bogus. But we went along the path anyway. We started at the location where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to die, and then wound our way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem and by vendors trying to sell us souvenirs of our visit.

We saw station after station before coming to what looked like a dead end, but found a small passageway all the way to the right in the back wall of the alley. We walked through the opening and found ourselves in a courtyard in front of The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. We walked through a large gothic style doorway into a dark chamber. Our eyes took a few seconds to adjust before we climbed up a tightly curving, stone staircase to our right. The space above looked down on the entryway we had just come through. Against the back wall was a lavishly decorated (Greek Orthodox-style) alcove. Silver and gold glistened in the candlelight as the smell of incense wafted into my face. Under an altar was a polished marble slab with a hole it in. I crouched down and put my hand in the marble hole and felt the place where Jesus’ cross stood in the rocky ground. Over the altar was a silver cross with the image of Jesus crucified. Around the room were several mosaics showing scenes from Jesus’ crucifixion. One showed Mary looking down at Jesus’ body and Mary Magdalene kneeling and weeping beside him.

I have to say that I was a little disappointed. It was a complete contrast to The Sea of Galilee, which seemed so natural and helped me to better understand places where Jesus and his disciples preached and taught. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, while being one of the “holiest” of places in the Christian list of holy places, seemed cheapened by the decorations. The fancy artwork and lavish decorations only seemed to detract from what an important place it truly is.

I descended the spiral staircase and wound around to another part of the church that was domed. A small amount of sunlight shone through a window at the top. Underneath the dome I found Jesus’ tomb. The actual tomb, which was a cave, had been chipped away over the centuries by thousands of pilgrims seeking a memento of their journey to the Holy Land. In its place a large, marble, cube-shaped mausoleum had been built. It contained a part of the stone that sealed the tomb, and a slab where Jesus had been laid. All of it was decorated in the lavish Greek Orthodox style.

I continued to wander around the church, which was a large complex of nooks and crannies. I found some enormous mosaic floors, crosses carved into brickwork by crusaders, and the tomb of Helena, the mother of Constantine who scoured the Holy Land for Christian holy places.

The next day we took a public bus, yes a public bus in Jerusalem (don’t faint Mom and Dad), to Yad Veshem, the Israeli holocaust museum. I had been to the holocaust museum in Washington D.C. but it was several years ago. I am sad to say that my memory of the holocaust had faded somewhat, which is why it is important to have museums dedicated to the victims of Nazi rule. It is important to refresh our memories every now and then of what human beings are capable of doing to each other, to ensure that it will never happen again.

There were some interesting bits of information regarding the holocaust at Yad Vashem that I had never heard of or read before. I am sure that is because the museum is presenting information to a target audience that is different than that in the United States. This target audience is the victims of the holocaust itself, the Jewish people.

Some of the bits of information were hard to read. Some had to do with awful treatment of the Jewish people at the hands of Christians throughout the centuries. And I suppose I have always thought of Americans as being among the heroes of World War II, but Yad Vashem had a different take on that too. I am sure my thinking is a result of watching WWII movies where Americans are the good guys at the end, helping to end Nazi rule. I suppose that’s why it was hard to read the Jewish side of the story where Americans were concerned. For instance Yad Vashem cited instances when Americans had multiple opportunities to blow up the train tracks to Auschwitz, but didn’t. It wasn’t considered a high priority. There were other instances that I can’t remember now where America could have decreased or perhaps even ended the suffering of the Jewish people earlier. I was surprised that there wasn’t really anything positive about the involvement of Americans in the liberation of the Jewish people. One monitor played a filmed speech delivered by the leader of an eastern European country. He appealed to the nations of the West to intervene and end the tyranny of the Nazis. After the film played, a voiceover informed us that the appeal never even reached the people of the West because news agencies refused to play it. Cries for help went unanswered by those who had the power end the tragedy. Certain parts of the museum seemed to be about pointing fingers and placing blame, but again, the target audience was the Jewish people themselves, so I can understand that.

But here’s what I don’t understand: this museum that is supposed to remind us of how cruel human beings can be, and how we should never allow that kind of treatment of human beings, suddenly takes a very nationalistic turn at the end. Monitors played scenes of important looking people standing around declaring the creation of the state of Israel while children sang nationalistic songs. At the end of the museum there is a gigantic glass window that looks out over the countryside of Israel as if to say, “… and now this is our land.” In light of the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, and the imprisonment of Palestinians behind a wall, I found this to be very distasteful. Do the Israelis themselves not see the comparison of the walls of the ghettos to the wall being built around Bethlehem and Jericho now? They would say that the walls are to protect them from Palestinian terrorists, but I didn’t see any terrorists behind those walls. I saw thousands of people trying to go about their daily lives. Even if the walls are decreasing the actions of terrorists, does the end justify the means? The accusations of the Jewish people about the rest of the world ignoring their plight are being fulfilled again through the Palestinian people. Palestinians have called out to the rest of the world for help and they have received no response. Western nations feel guilty about their inaction during a time when they could have saved millions of Jewish lives, so guilty that they have turned a blind eye to the current actions of Israel. How long are we going to wait to intervene now? Are we just setting up another situation for us to feel guilty about in the future, another situation where we could have acted and saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives?

Each morning in Jerusalem I woke early in the morning before the others and went to either the Wailing Wall or The Church of the Holy Sepulcher by myself. Both places were within a five-minute walk from our hostel, and I figured I should go as much as possible while I had the chance. I used this time to observe the Jewish people and try to further understand the importance of the Wailing Wall, and try to find some sort of meaning for myself at The Church of the Holy Sepulcher despite all of the lavish decorations. I ended up making similar trips to one of these two sites in the evening too. One night I actually got kicked out of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher because I accidentally stayed past closing hours. Oops.

The next day, which was our last full day in Jerusalem, I returned from my morning “holy walk,” and we set out as a group to the Church of Mary’s Dormition. As I understand it, Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, never died. She just went to sleep and never woke up. While that sounds a little far-fetched to me, they decided to build a really nice church in commemoration of this. One particular aspect of the church that I liked was its overt focus on the women of the Bible. We found mosaics of Esther, Ruth, and Eve, to name a few. All too often the roles of women in the Bible are overlooked, so it was nice to see that someone had the presence of mind to honor them collectively in The Holy Land.

That afternoon we visited the “Upper Room” where Jesus and the disciples shared the last supper. We all kind of scoffed because there is no way that the building could have been the real location. The architecture was from a much later time period, and historically speaking, was waaaaaaay too large. Jerusalem was a cramped city and I can’t imagine that twelve plus guys who relied heavily on the hospitality of others would have dined in a room that was so large. We all agreed that it just wasn’t plausible. Teri said her guide from her previous trip said the authenticity of the location was dubious at best.

Next door to the Upper Room (how convenient) was the location of King David’s cave tomb. I once again had to don the obligatory paper yarmulke, except this time I had to give a donation to a shady man to get it, and then wandered off to the men’s section by myself since I was the lone man in our group that day. Over the tomb of David, the King of Jerusalem from a loooooooooong time ago, were two large silver canisters that contained the Torah, and a silver crown. This site seemed just one notch below the Upper Room on the “Made Up Tourist Sites” meter. Sorry Jerusalem. Next!

The ladies were intent on finding the Garden Tomb, the other site where Jesus was buried. ??? Apparently the Protestant Churches, in a move to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, found an alternate location for Jesus’ tomb. It is in a more natural setting outside the walls of the Old City, away from all of the Greek Orthodox glitz and theatrics. It sounds like a nice place. I’m sad to say I didn’t make it there. As we cluelessly wandered the streets looking for it, we came to an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood whose inhabitants have serious qualms with scantily clad tourists walking through the area. They had erected permanent signs proclaiming that people in their neighborhood should dress modestly. They even defined “modest dress” so there could be no confusion. Most of the rules are for women. They are not permitted to wear trousers or shirts with low necklines.

I suddenly felt very out of place and nobody seemed to be making any decisions about where to go next. At that point I decided to leave the group and strike out on my own. I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the Garden Tomb and I had decided to return to The Garden of Gethsemane at some point. I wanted to see if I could have more meaningful experience there before leaving Jerusalem. This seemed like a good time.

I told the group I was leaving, stopped by the hostel to drop some stuff off, and then walked clear across the Old City to the foot of the Mount of Olives. I don’t remember for sure, but I think I arrived at about 3PM and stayed until sunset. I walked in through the door in the stone wall and just stood and looked at the ancient olive trees. I reflected once more on what it must have been like the night Jesus was arrested, and then walked into The Church of All Nations. This time I felt much more at peace. And then I was surprised when a Roman Catholic mass just sort of happened around me.

I was sitting there praying when a tour group of Italians came in and sat down around me. I saw the priests, dressed in brightly colored, finely embroidered robes, scurrying around and giving instructions to the congregants and knew something interesting was about to happen. Just before the mass started and old Franciscan monk dressed in a brown robe with a rope sash walked up to me and said something in Italian. I responded by saying, “I’m sorry?” He replied in English, “We don’t cross our legs in church. It’s disrespectful.” I looked down and saw my left leg was propped up on my right. I immediately snapped it down as I apologized profusely. He smiled at me broadly and said, “It’s okay. I know things are more relaxed in America. I used to have a parish there.” I apologized once more and then he was gone. How he knew I was from America I will never know.

In a few minutes the head priest began chanting in Latin and the Italian tourists responded at various points, also in Latin. At various times they stood and spoke. I followed suit but remained silent since I didn’t know the words. They also made many ritualistic motions with their hands. They kissed their fingers and tapped their chests, and occasionally made the sign of the cross. The tourists’ priest must have made arrangements with the priests of the church beforehand, because the service included participation from the tourists. A couple of times one of the tourists stood and sang a beautiful song that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Teenagers stood and read the scripture in Italian. They probably read the passages about Jesus and the disciples in the Garden. The head priest delivered a sermon in Italian and then other priests joined him in serving communion. I thought it was interesting that the servers served themselves before the rest of the people. Perhaps this says something about the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. In every Protestant communion service I have attended, the clergy serves the people first, then themselves. I did not go forward and accept communion because I know Catholics are prohibited from serving Protestants, and I respected that.

The priest gave the benediction and then something really incredible happened. I just had this strong feeling that the Italian tourists were about to be lead through the Garden outside. As I mentioned before, the Garden is fenced off and people are not usually allowed in. The Italians began to file out of the sanctuary, so I stood and mingled with them, just in case. I exited the sanctuary, turned right, and much to my enjoyment, I saw the gate was opened and people were filing in. Sarah lucked out because she showed up just then. She too had left the group and was touring on her own. She saw me, walked up to me and asked, “So what are you learning about with this tour group?” I said, “Turn around and act like you are supposed to be here.” I explained to her that we had just finished a mass and now we were going into the Garden. She turned around and in no time we were inside the fence. I felt like it was a special treat to walk amongst the trees, which sat just off of a gravel path. We took pictures of ourselves with the trees, and I once again thought about that fateful night.

After a few minutes the priests called us out of the Garden. Sarah wanted to go in the church again, so I joined her and sat with her on the front pew only to find that another mass was starting. Since we were sitting on the front pew, we couldn’t see anybody to mimic as the Roman Catholics stood and sat down. We felt as though we were too obvious. Sarah felt uncomfortable being there and left. I left a few minutes later, having already had my fill of Roman Catholic mass for the day.

I took one last look at the Garden and then climbed The Mount of Olives to view the sunset. Once again I climbed the steep road, and fortunately, when I got to the top, there were no Israeli soldiers. I saw Sarah, but could tell she was lost in thought so I left her alone. I perched myself on top of a wall, leaned back, and looked out at Jerusalem. The buildings were already mostly in shadow, but I could still see the sun from my vantage point. Only the gold crown of the Dome of the Rock reflected a glint of the orange sunlight. I pulled out my camera and took one picture. Then I decided I was just going to enjoy the view and put it away. No clouds obscured the sun as it touched the horizon. It melted into a dome and then sank even further until there was only a small patch of bright orange shining between two distant buildings. And then it was gone.

Sarah and I sat for another ten minutes or so before joining up again. We walked down the mountain and talked about our incredible experiences up to that point. We met the others back at the hostel and had dinner with them. Several folks said they wanted to go to the Israeli Museum and I decided to go along too.

We got to the museum just before closing time because it was a longer walk than we expected, so we didn’t have much time once we arrived. The highlight of our visit was a special exhibition in a strangely shaped building. It was a circular structure (when viewed from above) that came out of the ground as if it were a dome, but at the peak it curved up again and then tapered to a nub. Inside we saw many, many pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in a cave along the Dead Sea. Collectively it is the oldest written version of the Old Testament. In the center of this domed structure was a cylinder about twenty feet in diameter sitting on end. It was about 10 feet tall and protruding out of the top was a giant handle. Around the circumference of the cylinder was a reproduction of the entire book of Isaiah from the Dead Sea scrolls. Suddenly the shape of the building took on some meaning. The cylinder and the handle was the top end of a scroll and the domed building was the top end of a Torah canister. That was some pretty clever building design. The scrolls themselves were amazing to behold. They were mostly written on parchment in Hebrew, although some were written in Aramaic, a now dead language that was still spoken during the time Jesus lived.
We woke early the next morning and took a nice coach bus back to Eliat, the Israeli town on the border with Egypt. We all expressed how we weren’t quite ready to go back to the Third World just yet. Perhaps we had just gotten too comfortable with the amenities of life in Israel. Perhaps it reminded us a little too much of home. We left the sweet smelling air of the Israeli border plaza and entered the Egyptian plaza that smelled like an ashtray. We caught a bus back to Cairo at a bus station that was surrounded by garbage. The bus was rickety and uncomfortable, but it got us to Cairo.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Sea of Galilee

From Bethlehem we traveled for several hours to the Sea of Galilee around which Jesus began his ministry. There were so many wonderful sites that came straight out of the Bible. It was just incredible to stand in places that Jesus likely stood, or at the very least, to have crossed paths with him at some point or another. As we toured the Galilee region, we visited many churches that were built on sites where Jesus preached and performed miracles. Many of the sites in Galilee, and Israel as a whole, are considered legitimate because Constantine sent his mother Helena to investigate Christian holy places. A leader of another religion had built shrines over many of the Christian holy places in the first century in an attempt to wipe them out. But by doing this he confirmed they were the legitimate sites where Biblical events had taken place. Then when Helena came along, she was able to find them easily and formally declared them Christian holy places. This is a common story at many sites throughout Israel.

On the way to Galilee the Israeli police stopped us. The officers had parked their car on the side of the road and were randomly stopping people. We were one of the unlucky ones that got stopped. An officer talked with the driver in Hebrew, walked around the van, opened the side door and took a look at all of us Americans in the back seats. All the while we were looking at the large assault rifle that was strapped over his shoulder and hung loosely at his hip. Big guns became a theme throughout our trip especially once we got to Jerusalem. Without saying another word he crossed the street to his patrol car where he had a conversation with the other officer.

While we were waiting, I looked across the street at a road sign that pointed the way to Jericho. It was so funny to see signs pointing to places I’ve grown up hearing about in church and reading about in the Bible. Modern day Jericho is a Palestinian city that is experiencing the same thing as Bethlehem. Eventually the area will be completely walled off too. And surely the Israelis will attempt to grab even more land from the Palestinians there. We also found out that cars owned by Palestinians have white license plates with green trim, while cars owned by Israelis have yellow license plates. This makes it very easy for Israeli policemen to discriminate between Palestinians and Israelis, and quite honestly make life a lot more difficult for Palestinians.

The officer returned to our van and cited the driver because none of us were wearing any seat belts. We all looked at each other as if to say, “Oh yeah!” and then buckled up. We hadn’t seen a single seat belt in nearly four months since taxis in Egypt don’t have them, and we had simply gotten out of the habit of wearing them. The driver accepted the ticket and we were on our way again.

A couple of hours later we came to the first city at the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, which is mentioned in the bible. Apparently the Romans came here to experience the famous hot springs that are visibly steaming. We could even see them from the road. We stopped and ate lunch and then continued on to The Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10

When we reached the parking lot and got out of the car, there was a beautiful panoramic view looking down on the Sea of Galilee. We walked along a sidewalk to find an octagonal chapel built on the side of the hill just above the site where Jesus spoke. The chapel has eight sides, one for each of the beatitudes. We looked down at a green field that slopes up to the chapel and is the place where the crowds gathered to listen to the sermon.

Our next stop was the town of Taghba where we visited two sites. The first one was a church built over the rock where Jesus divided the fishes and the loaves to feed 5000 people. It was a beautiful church made primarily of stone, but had steel accents. It was a simple church, but that only added to the experience, especially after visiting many of the overdone Greek Orthodox sanctuaries. It was a breath of fresh air. We arrived just as a worship service was beginning so we weren’t able to see many of the famous details since the sanctuary had been roped off. From the back we could see the rock where Jesus performed the miracle, but we missed out on the incredible mosaics for which the church is well known.

The second stop in Taghba, and my favorite of the day, was a church called the Primacy of St. Peter. It is built at the site where Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples after his resurrection. As the story in the bible goes, Peter decided to go fishing and the others joined him. They did not catch anything all night, but in the morning Jesus was standing on the beach and shouted to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They didn’t recognize Jesus at first, but they followed his instructions anyway. Suddenly the nets were so full of fish they were unable to pull the net in. Peter, upon realizing it was Jesus who was standing on the shore, jumped into the water and swam to meet him. The others came back by boat, dragging the overloaded net behind them. Together they ate breakfast using of the fish they had just caught. Afterwards Jesus spoke to Peter asking whether he loved him three times. Each time Peter responded by saying, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus’ three responses were, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my Sheep,” and “Feed my sheep,” respectively. Although I never would have thought of it, Teri says this is Peter’s redemption for denying Christ three times just before his crucifixion.

The Primacy of St. Peter was built over the rock where Jesus stood when he called to the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. The church sits right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. The air smelled faintly of salt and fish. Sunbeams cast down through the partly cloudy sky onto the surface of the water. Small gray pieces of gravel crunched under our feet as we approached the edge of the sea. The water was low so caretakers had filled in the area with gravel so people could approach the shore. Along the long side of the church, right on the edge of the water was a large rock with steps hewn out of it leading up to the place where Jesus stood. A small sign laid on the ground that read, “This is a holyground.” The large rock continued inside the church, into the sanctuary where beautiful stain glass windows lit up the room with bright shades of red, green, orange and blue. A beautiful, but strange mosaic hung on the wall depicting a prone pope kissing the ground where Jesus and Peter stood. Just outside the church doors, there was a statue of Jesus and Peter standing where Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him. A plaque at their feet said, “Feed my sheep.”

I was awed to stand where Jesus stood, looking out over the water. I could imagine myself standing next to Jesus as he shouted, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” I wasn’t distracted by any over the top decorations. The church, in my opinion, gave proper respect to the event that happened there. The place provided a real sense of what it must have been like when those fishermen were just some guys making their way in life. When they rowed their boats out onto the water for their daily catch, before they became “fishers of men.” It was one of the few places where I could actually reflect on what I was seeing while I was standing there. It felt real.

Next we drove to Capernaum, the “hometown” of Jesus. At one point, Jesus went to preach at Nazareth and was rejected, so he moved to Capernaum. Capernaum is now an archeological site where monks have been excavating buried structures. The two main features are the ruins of and old Jewish synagogue and a Christian church, both built in the 4th century. Excavations were performed under the synagogue and it was determined that it was built on top of a 1st century synagogue, perhaps the one Jesus taught in.

Only a few meters away are the ruins of a 4th century church that were built on top of the site of Peter’s house of which a few walls still remain. It too is octagonal and was ruined and rebuilt several times making a series of low, concentric, octagonal rock walls. Both the synagogue and church were finally destroyed in the 7th century during the Persian invasion and were then abandoned. Erosion caused nearby hills to fill in the area for the next several hundred years until Franciscan monks began to excavate.

In the mid nineties a new church was built over the site of Peter’s house and the ruined churches. And by “over” I mean suspended over to where you can still see the ruins of the original churches. It is very modern and reminded us all of a large UFO that had landed on the ground. It didn’t seem to fit at all with the surroundings but was quite beautiful on the inside. The worship space had a glass floor in the very middle so we could look down on the ruined churches from above.

Of note are the ruins of homes from the same time period. They are spread all over the area, and in between the synagogue and the church. They are really just low rock walls that show where the boundaries and interior walls of the old homes were.

Our next stop was the River Jordan, the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The actual site along the river is not really known, in fact it is suspected that Jesus was baptized at a site that is now controlled by the Israeli military, but it really didn’t matter. I bought a small plastic bottle with the words “Water from the River Jordan” printed on the side and used it to collect a sample of the river.

We left the river and headed back to Jerusalem. I’ll finish off the rest my incredible adventure in my next journal. Stay tuned.

Today, January 7th, is Christmas for Christians in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. I imagine the Armenian and Greek Orthodox sanctuaries at The Church of the Nativity are filled to the brim with people, just like the Roman Catholic one was filled when we were there at “our” Christmastime. Just for kicks we are celebrating Christmas again at Dawson Hall by hosting a large dinner for several of our friends. It should prove to be a good time.

I hope all is going well with you. Take care and God bless.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Christmas in Bethlehem and Palestine

Well, our group has returned to Cairo from Israel and Palestine, and what a trip it was. From the Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity to Climbing the Mount of Olives, I have a lot of stories to share with you. I have so much to tell about the last week I am planning on writing three journal entries. The first will be about our time in Bethlehem and Palestine, the second will be about out day trip to Galilee, and the third will be about our time in Jerusalem.

We began our trip at a bus station in Abbasaya, a neighborhood of Cairo. We loaded all our bags onto a bus and took an overnight trip to Taba, the Egyptian town on the border with Israel. We left at about 11PM. The bus was not heated and the door was broken so there was a frigid breeze wafting across all of our faces. Despite the brightly lit “No Smoking” sign, the bus driver himself lit up cigarette after cigarette and we all had to endure them. Most of us barely got any sleep. The bus did have a television and the bus driver played a tape of an Egyptian movie. I fell asleep during the middle of it and woke to see a B-grade American movie about shark attacks. It was an odd choice for people who are trying to sleep through the night. There’s nothing like hearing screams and seeing blood splatters while trying to get a night’s rest.

At around six in the morning the bus driver kindly dropped us off at the border instead of the bus station, which is a full kilometer away. We drearily shuffled along like zombies to the Egyptian border guards, showed our passports, paid two Egyptian Pounds each to leave the country, and then entered the exit plaza. The exit plaza, like many buildings in Egypt was grungy, and smelled like an ashtray. Several of the guards were smoking and there was no air circulation system. Fluorescent light assaulted our eyes from all directions. We put our bags through x-ray machines and walked through metal detectors. Then we waited for about an hour for the border crossing personnel to show up. There was a lot of confusion because, like any official Egyptian process, nobody knew what was going on… including the border officials. You’d think that by doing this day after day that they would have formed some kind of pattern, but no. A guard came up to our group, collected half of our passports (Why didn’t he get them all? Who knows.) and returned half an hour later with them stamped with departure stamps. Then he told the rest of us to follow him to the arrival side of the building to get our departure stamps. Confused yet? That took another half hour. Finally we were allowed to exit the building after flashing our departure stamps to yet another guard.

In between the departure building in Egypt and the arrival building in Israel is a several hundred-foot stretch of road in a narrow valley with guard towers and barbwire on either side. Craggy, barren mountains flank the road. We covered the distance in a few minutes and then entered the Israeli arrival building.

The building was a stark contrast to the building we had just left in Egypt. The air smelled sweet, nobody was smoking, and the light was soft and inviting. It felt like a food court at a mall in America, and sure enough there was indeed a snack stand across the room, just outside the inspection area.

A teenage, female security guard with a sullen face was waiting for us just behind a counter at the door. She asked us where we were coming from, where we were going, what we had been doing in Cairo, and various other questions before allowing us to pass along to the x-ray machines and metal detectors. The whole time she bore a face of suspicion.

My large backpack passed through the x-ray machine and then another young female guard searched it thoroughly. She used a wand with a small sheet of fabric on the end and swiped it across the handles, and in every zippered opening. When she finished, she fed the fabric into a machine, which probably searched for traces of bomb chemicals. If you fly often, you have probably seen this type of device at the airport. Apparently I checked out because she told me to continue with the process.

Then we waited in line at two kiosks. Two teenage, female security guards sat inside the kiosks and interviewed us one at a time, asking the same questions we had heard before. Where are you going? What are you doing there? Where did you come from? When they seemed satisfied they stamped our passports with Israeli entry stamps. Teri got held up for close to an hour because she had stamps from Syria and Lebanon in her passport from her trip through the Middle East over a year ago. They did more extensive background checks on her. They asked for home phone numbers, addresses and other specific information.

I knew before I went to Israel that all Israelis are required to perform some sort of military service at the age of eighteen. I still think I wasn’t prepared for how young these ladies were that were guarding the border. And they were all surely armed.

Eventually we were permitted to leave the arrival building, flash our passports to another teenage, female security guard, and then we were in Israel and the further contrasts to Egypt were mind-boggling. Taxi drivers with sleek, white Mercedes Benz’s outfitted with black leather were waiting just outside. This was quite a shock after riding in beat-up, twenty year old, nasty Fiats for four months. We were originally supposed to take a bus to Jerusalem, but Lynn, our new site-coordinator decided to hire a private van to take us to Jerusalem and then on to our hotel in Bethlehem. The taxi drivers took us to the nearest place we could hire one. Once we secured out private driver we drove north along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

We stopped at a rest station that claimed to be at the lowest point in the world, 394 meters below sea level. We resumed our drive and several hours later we arrived at a large concrete wall, about 20 feet tall. It was the infamous “apartheid wall” that has been making headlines for a long time now. It is the wall that the Israelis are building between themselves and the Palestinian Territories. Sadly they are building the wall quite a bit inside the internationally recognized border of Palestine, making it a very illegal land grab of Palestinian lands. There will be more on that later. Our driver showed his identification to the Israeli soldier at the guard post just outside the wall, got the “okay” to enter, and then we headed through. As we passed through the gate we entered Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian control.

I was quite surprised at how wonderful Palestine was. I expected Bethlehem to be a war ravaged place, but instead I found a very modernized city with clean streets (much cleaner than Cairo I can assure you), and friendly people just trying to go about their lives. Our driver dropped us off at our hotel, The Casa Nova. It is a nice hotel that is actually attached to The Church of the Nativity. The Roman Catholic Church runs the hotel. The rooms were austere, with just a bed, a window and a bathroom, but were very comfortable. The only decoration I remember was a small crucifix on the wall. They were exactly what a pilgrim needs, a place to rest without any distractions.

Jay, Stephen, Eric and I set off on foot once we dropped our bags off in our rooms. The weather was cold and the streets were wet from a recent rain. Light gray clouds obscured the sun and drizzled light rain on us as we walked. We were surprised at the vistas of rolling hills that the buildings of Bethlehem covered. The city stretched away into the distance as far as we could see. I have never seen a city that was built so densely on such a large number of close hills. We found a café and each had a cup of coffee. The Palestinians were extremely friendly. After a while we returned to the hotel and gathered with the rest to go to dinner.

That’s when Teri discovered that her purse was nowhere to be found. After an exhaustive search Teri realized she had left her purse in the van that brought us to Bethlehem. Unfortunately it contained her passport, credit cards, digital camera and all her cash. Fortunately Lynn had presence of mind to get the driver’s card before he left us so we did have a way to contact him. We called him and sure enough it was in his van. He said it was missing the cash and camera, but everything else was there. He claimed that he took a group of nine people from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border and that they must have stolen the cash and camera. He offered to bring the purse and its contents back to us that night for the low, low price of 150 dollars.

Lynn was meeting with our tour guide for the next day and they were wrapping up their discussion when all of this went down. Fortunately the guide, Nadil (NAH-dul) stuck around and spoke to the driver for us. He made the arrangements for the driver to come back, and once he got off the phone he contacted the police. He said the driver’s story wasn’t adding up and he suspected the driver had everything from the purse. The police arrived, made a report and told us to call again when the driver arrived.

In the mean time we went to dinner at Niveen’s house. Niveen is a Palestinian and recent graduate from Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. She knew that the Young Adult Volunteers were visiting Bethlehem, and invited us over to her family’s house for dinner. She said it had become a sort of tradition to invite the YAV’s over for a meal. Niveen lives with her mother and sister in a small, but cozy home. They served us an incredible meal of chicken, brown rice, and various traditional Palestinian dishes. They truly lavished us with incredible Middle Eastern hospitality. After dinner, we sat in the living room and chatted. Niveen explained to us that she had arranged for us to visit a nearby Palestinian refugee camp on Christmas Day. I have never quite understood the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis (and still don’t to be honest), so I was interested to learn more and looked forward to the tour of the camp.

Later we said our goodbyes, returned to the hotel, and renewed our struggle to get Teri’s purse back. The driver was due to return to the hotel at 11:30PM and he arrived just about on time. The driver called the front desk to let us know he was on his way up, and since the hotel manager knew what was going on he immediately called the Palestinian police to let them know the driver had returned. Shortly after the driver came through the front door the Palestinian police arrived and began asking the driver questions. While that was going on I got my flashlight and decided I would take a little look in the guy’s van. I was hoping against hope that he had just left Teri’s stolen camera on the dashboard or on a seat. Sadly I looked through all the windows and did not find any incriminating evidence. I returned to the lobby to find the driver looking very awkward and unhappy to have been surprised with a visit from the police. The police interviewed him to get his side of the story, but told us later that they didn’t believe him, that there were holes in his story. For instance he could not describe even one person from the group of nine people that he supposedly took from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border. He didn’t even try.

The police dragged him off to the police station. They probably enjoyed being able to bully around an Israeli citizen, but in the long run they had no authority over him, and could not arrest him. All the while Dick, Lynn’s husband wanted to do the honorable thing and actually pay the guy for his trouble of actually bringing back the purse and its remaining contents, since that is what was agreed upon. The police said they didn’t know why he wanted to do that, but if he was going to do it, he shouldn’t give him any more than $35. Dick, Teri and I walked with the policemen to the police station and confronted the man. He was very unhappy. Dick ended up giving the guy about $70. This was incredibly generous since the police told us we should not have paid more than $150 for the drive from the border to Bethlehem. Lynn had paid $400. The driver took off the moment he had the cash in hand. Teri, Dick and I tried to negotiate with the police to try and get a police report. We wanted it because we might have gotten some kind of insurance coverage, but the police were being difficult on this point. Eventually Teri became very frustrated and stormed out of the police office, effectively ending the argument. It was not a happy night for any of the people involved, but at least we got Teri’s passport and credit cards back. I just hoped that we could start fresh on the next day. I do have a greater appreciation for the words “Palestinian Authority” after having been in one of their police stations late at night.

The next morning we woke up and began our morning by walking next door to The Church of the Nativity, the church that is built on the site where Jesus was born. To enter the church, we had to stoop through a low doorway. Originally it was a large gothic arched entryway, but sometime through the centuries it was bricked up leaving only a small opening. The thought was that you should enter the church humbly by bowing. The low doorway makes sure that you do that. Upon stepping through the small door I found myself in a large, spacious sanctuary, built out of stone blocks and columns. Sunbeams were visible as they shown through high windows and glowed in the faint smoke of incense. In the middle of the sanctuary several wooden planks had been removed to expose mosaic tiles from the sixth century. The side walls, columns, and the floor were rather plain with no decorations or paintings, but the front wall is decked out in the finest Greek Orthodox decorations eyes can see. Intricately carved wood, paintings of Mary and Jesus, shiny oil lamps, enormous chandeliers, and all kinds of knick-knacks made out of silver, gold and jewels all mashed together to make one big visual mess. I found most of the places we went to that were run by the Greek Orthodox were the same way. It’s almost as if they were thinking, “If we add all of this outrageous stuff surely people will think this is a holy place.”

The sanctuary widened at the front end. Our tour guide led us far to the right and then down some stone steps into a small door. The small stone chamber inside was the traditional site of the stable where Jesus was born. On the right, in a low alcove with yet more lavish decorations, a silver starburst glistened on the floor indicating the exact place Jesus was born. Directly opposite the starburst and down a few steps was another low, stone alcove, the manger Jesus was laid in. In western Christianity we have always seen representations of the manger as being made out of wood. In Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth mangers were made out of stone.

When we exited the chamber and returned to the sanctuary, our guide told us that in years passed a line had stretched all the way from the manger, through the sanctuary and out the front door of the church. People used to wait for hours to see what we had just seen. He said that aggressive Israeli actions had scared away tourists from Palestine and this was evident in our immediate access to the manger. This was good for us as tourists, but bad for the tourism industry of Bethlehem, which was once the largest industry in the city.

From there we proceeded to the next sanctuary. The church is an amazing complex of sanctuaries and worship spaces, each one under the care of a different church. The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the Armenian Orthodox each have their own sanctuaries within the Church of the Nativity. The Roman Catholic sanctuary is the newest sanctuary, built in the late eighteen hundreds, and is where the Christmas Eve mass is broadcast from. The television crews were already setting up cameras and cranes in anticipation of the service.

Our tour guide took us back out into Manger Square where people were milling about, waiting for the eminent Christmas parade in which scout troops from all over Palestine march in to loud drum beats and the tunes of bagpipes. Our guide got permission for us to view the parade from a balcony where nobody else was allowed to go. We had a great vantage point to see the colorful uniforms and hear the celebratory Christmas carols played by marching bands. Young Arab men lined the street to see what all the commotion was about.

After the parade ended, our guide, Nadil led us to a public bus stop where we boarded a bus and rode to the site where three shepherds were visited by an angel and told to visit the baby Jesus. I don’t remember the name of the community where the field is, but Nadil told us a funny story about it. He said that the community is small and well known for its gossipy nature. He said the angel knew what it was doing by selecting shepherds from that community because the word of Jesus’ birth would certainly get around. We all got a nice laugh out of that. The site is on the side of a hill that looks down onto a field. It is just next to the rocky, barren Judean Desert. Tradition holds that the shepherds were sleeping in a cave when the angel visited them, and that cave has been converted into a worship space. On a nearby rise sat a chapel resembling a tent. An Italian architect who is famous for his designs all throughout the Holy Land designed it. Inside there were beautiful narrative paintings depicting scenes from the story of Jesus’ birth. The chapel had great acoustics so we all sang “Angels We Have Heard On High” and it sounded beautiful.

From there we returned to Manger Square to watch the Patriarch of Jerusalem enter The Church of the Nativity. It was a long wait with little payoff. I never even saw the patriarch.

We went to several nearby sites including the Milk Grotto. Supposedly Mary nursed Jesus there, and a drop of her milk hit the ground and turned the rock white. Unfortunately it is another ostentatious site run by the Greek Orthodox Church whose oil lamps have now coated the once-white rock with a disgusting black coating of crud. There were framed letters on the wall from men and women who were unable to have children, but later conceived after visiting the Milk Grotto. I regarded this site with more than a little skepticism.

In the evening we attended The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church for our first Christmas Eve service. It was cold and raining heavily as we walked to the church and once we got there, the sanctuary was already overflowing with cold, sopping wet congregants. High above the main aisle was a dome painted light blue with black Arabic written along the outer edge saying, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Jen and Teri managed to find two seats on a pew next to the main aisle, so I stood next to them with other people who were unable to find seats. The service was held variously in English, German and Arabic. The sermon was entirely in German, but we were able to get printed copies of it in English. My favorite part of the service was singing the Christmas carols. At that point language didn’t matter. We all knew the same carols, just with different words. It was a really neat experience to sing with people from all over the world, each singing in his or her own tongue. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.” As we sang “Silent Night,” the lights in the church were lowered and the ministers began lighting each of the congregants’ long, slender, white candles. Before long, the sanctuary was lit with nothing but candlelight, providing a very solemn, yet anticipatory end to the service. We shuffled out, bearing our candles into the world.

The church held a reception in its fellowship hall where Jay met a Palestinian man who was Roman Catholic, and owned his own hair salon. Jay jokingly said that the man should cut my hair since I was long overdue. Then the man said, “Well, we have a few hours before the midnight mass starts. Why don’t you come with me to my salon?” I immediately took him up on his offer. Jay looked stunned and amused that I seriously took him up on the offer but said he would go with me. Then Jen and Teri decided to come along too, out of sheer curiosity I am sure.

He led us a few blocks to his salon, which had four chairs and was colorfully painted. He told us he decorated the place himself with a theme of 18th century composers. It was cold and damp in the salon, but the man lit two gas heaters and the place was toasty warm in no time. Half an hour later he had completed my haircut, taking no direction from me. He insisted he was a professional and that whatever he did would be great. It didn’t bother me because I’m not picky about my hair. I just knew I needed a haircut. I settled up with him, thanked him, and then we rushed off to dinner.

After dinner our group joined the rest of the people from our hotel in the lobby, waiting for the moment that we could enter The Church of the Nativity. As I mentioned before, the hotel is attached to the church, and conveniently it has a back door into the church. Eventually we made our way through the door, and wound through a maze of hallways before coming once again to the Roman Catholic sanctuary. Again I was astounded by the amount of people that were present and awed by the thought of all the countries that were represented. The mass was held in Latin while the sermon was delivered in Arabic.

About halfway through the mass, there was a commotion at the door. There was a light amount of applause from the back of the sanctuary, and a few seconds later the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas walked purposefully down the center aisle to the front row and sat down… about twenty feet from where I was standing. A few minutes later the sea of people in which I was standing was infiltrated by several brawny secret service agents, complete with clear, coiled earpieces, and wrist microphones. They began scanning the faces of the crowd and examining the building for anything, or anyone that might harm the president.

Abbas is most certainly a Muslim, so you might ask why he was attending a Roman Catholic Christmas Eve mass. Well, you might say relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestine are unique. Since the Israelis are oppressing both groups, I suppose they have found a kind of common goal… to free Palestine. From my limited exposure to the situation, I found that Muslims and Christians get along quite well in Palestine. I am sure that Abbas simply wanted to show solidarity with the Christians of Palestine.

The service ended at about 1:30AM and we made our way back to the hotel. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and then I went straight to bed because I was exhausted.

On Christmas Morning I woke up and didn’t feel very well. I had been developing a sore throat during recent days. I think it was brought on from the cigarette smoking bus driver on the ride from Cairo to Taba. Then the damp cold weather of Palestine exacerbated it. I just didn’t feel like getting out in the rain again, so I passed on the morning service the others were going to back at the Lutheran Christmas Church. I rested up throughout the day and then decided I should go to the Palestinian refugee camp even though it was still raining. It was something I knew I just shouldn’t pass on.

We met Niveen and her friend in the lobby of our hotel and took a bus taxi to the camp. Again I was surprised to find that the area was in better shape than I thought it would be. Niveen’s friend is a resident of the camp and he showed us around. He showed us some amazing graffiti paintings commemorating people who had been killed by the Israelis over the years. One was of a twelve year old boy who was shot down for throwing rocks. Imagine that. Heavily armed Israeli Defense Forces gunned down a child throwing rocks. Doesn’t sound like the boy was much of a match does it?

Niveen’s friend took us to his home where he and eleven of his family members live. His father recounted to us his childhood memories of being kicked out of his home in 1948, the year Israel was created. He said he had only been back to his hometown a few times since then and the place is now nothing but farmland. He insisted that he didn’t care who was in charge of his country, whether it was Palestinians or Israelis, he just wanted his home back. To this day he maintains hope that he will one day return to his hometown.

Then Niveen took us to an organization that has gotten substantial funding from foreign countries to help educate Palestinian children and maintain the memory of what the Israelis did to their people. They also spread the word about the difficulties the Palestinian people face. The organization works mainly through the arts, through a dance troop. The leader of the organization started out with a small group of middle school and high school aged kids, taught them how to dance, and wrote a show that explains the story of Palestinian struggle through dance. They have since taken the show all over the world and attracted all kinds of attention. The program has grown in leaps and bounds because of it. He said they had just returned from a tour through the United States.

The tour of the refugee camp wrapped up our last full day in Bethlehem. We returned once more to the hotel and slept one more night in the Casa Nova.

We woke early the next morning and met our new tour guide who was to take us to the sites around the Sea of Galilee. We climbed into his van and hit one more site before leaving the wall around Bethlehem: the wall itself. The wall is made of 20-foot high concrete slabs. It has already accumulated a good bit of Palestinian protest graffiti, condemning Israel and calling out something that you would think more people would notice. Some clever person made an analogy of the apartheid wall to the walls of the Warsaw ghetto, the place where Jewish refugees lived during the Nazi era before they were dispersed to concentration camps. An interesting perspective don’t you think?

In my next journal entry I will continue with our day trip to the Sea of Galilee.

Several weeks ago I wrote about a man that I work with at The Synod of the Nile named Anise. He was hit by a car while crossing the street just outside the Synod office and has been in a coma ever since. I received sad news today that he passed away on Friday. Anise was a very nice man and the Synod folks will miss him dearly. I only knew him for a short time, and even with a language barrier I could tell that he was an important part of God’s work in that place. He will truly be missed.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you as always for your prayers.

Yours in Christ,