I just returned from a trip to the Holy Land where I spent about 8 days with a group of clergy persons like myself, all from our same denomination, the United Church of Christ. We were treated to this experience by a group called "Fair Witness for the Middle East" so we could become more acquainted with the places and people who make the Holy Land their home. We went to places where tourist groups rarely visit--Ramallah, Nablus, for example---and to some that they visit with caution--Bethlehem, firmly entrenched in the West Bank--and to some where hordes of pilgrims and tourists clog the streets---Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias. In each place we had a mission....to learn and find out why it is that peace is so elusive for the residents of that land.
I told many people that I was going to Israel, and I did go there, but I also went to Palestine, the West Bank, a place that is next door to Israel but also separated from Israel by many rules and restrictions. To be honest, I really did not know what a Palestinian was, before going on this journey. I thought the word referred to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, at least that is what the news media had tried to teach me through the years. A Palestinian, I learned, is simply someone who lives in the country of Palestine, which at the present time is made up of residents of the West Bank, since those who live in the Gaza Strip are basically isolated from both Israelis and residents of the West Bank due to a heightened alert in the Gaza Strip.
Our group met many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, who share the land and have concerns about it. Some are very influential Palestinians. Some are everyday people who try to make a living and make a difference in Palestine. All had in common that they desire to get along with their Israeli neighbors and did not want to have fighting in their land. Some are working in banking and investments trying to build up a strong economic future for their land. Some are working for justice as they work for peace, trying to right the wrongs of the past and to be creative in their approach. Some have visions for a new future for their land and are making it a reality by creating cities out of nowhere for future generations to live in. All welcomed our band of American pastors with open arms and extended hospitality with food and drink and warm smiles.
Our group also met many Israelis, some also who are very influential in the military and defense department, protecting the citizens and visitors with strategic planning and implementation of goals that will allow all in the region to live in peace. We met people who had witnessed atrocities and lived to tell the story, even though they had lived through things that we could only vaguely imagine. We toured a hospital and saw the work of a team of health care workers who help little children of all ages and from all countries in the region, including Palestine, to receive heart surgeries at little cost to their families so that they may live normal lives. We toured the holy sites that Jews, Muslims, and Christians share, stopping to pray at the Western Wall and seeing pilgrims from around the world giving adoration and homage to the One God we all worship.
After 8 days of exploration and travel, we were exhausted and weary, but also hopeful for this land and its people. Even in the midst of the division that has gripped this land for so many years, there are signs of God speaking words of peace and reconciliation to and through God's people. Pilgrims from around the world greet one another with cheerful hearts and blessed shalom. People from Israel and Palestine respond to strangers who say hello with greetings and smiles in return. Influential persons in society seem eager to make this work once and for all, trying to put aside the wounds of the past and find solutions to the barriers that have divided them for so long.
We are thankful for people such as Sister Ruth Lautt, who care enough for God's children, regardless of the name they wear or the ideology they espouse that she will traverse the land many times, bringing strangers to meet people they most likely would never meet in their lives if it were not for her so that they can seek understanding of what may be even in the face of what has not worked in the past. When I think about her vision for the land we call Holy, I think of the words of the writer of First John--"Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. We we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will see him as he is." (I John 3:2)
God has children of all kinds in the world and sometime they live right beside each other. They may not speak the same language or worship at the same houses of worship but they all are children of God. They may not always see eye to eye on everything but they share a common heritage that unites them, a common ancestor that is part of their DNA. They are on a journey through life and what they will be has not yet been revealed to them or us. We do know this, that their God, whether they call God by the same name or a different one, will work with them and through them to make the vision of peace a reality. It may not happen in my lifetime or many of theirs, but someday peace in the Holy Land will happen. Until that time, we are not giving up but we are working for peace every day, both in their land and in ours.
Stay tuned for more stories from the Holy Land in days to come. Shalom to all.