By Leisa McDonald
I recently made my second visit to Israel and Palestine this spring. Given the tensions in the area and that I was in the Holy Land, I have been asked two primary questions now that I’ve returned: (1) Was I ever afraid? (2) What is it like to walk where Jesus walked?
The answer to the first question is an easy, “no.” While I was always aware of the military presence and we were in areas that are believed to be dangerous to Israelis, I never felt fear. It was actually somewhat heartbreaking to know that my U.S. passport allowed me more freedom to move about the country than the people who call this land home.
The second question is much harder to answer. It is difficult to put into words the locations walked, the people encountered, the stories told and the overall emotions experienced each day. My trip experience was full of what some refer to as thick and thin places. Thick places are locations/events in life where it is difficult to sense God’s presence. Thin places are moments where he feels very near.
There are several places in the Holy Land that are thin places for me. One is the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the beautiful and challenging Sermon on the Mount. Sitting on a hillside overlooking the Galilee and listening to someone read Jesus’ words in Matthew chapters 5 – 7 is powerful and moving. The Sea of Galilee, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden Tomb are other locations where it is very easy to close my eyes and imagine Jesus being by my side. These tangible locations make sense to many who’ve been to the region, but there were several other locations that are harder to explain my sense of God’s presence.
Land is sacred in this place and has been contested over and over. Currently in the area known as the West Bank, which is primarily home to Palestinians as part of the proposed two-state solution, there are many Israeli neighborhoods called “Settlements.” While the conflict itself is extremely complicated, a component of the issue involves these Israeli communities being built in Palestinian neighborhoods and on Palestinian designated land. These Israeli settlements have modern conveniences and plenty of access to water, while Palestinians often live in run down communities and are dependent upon water that is supplied intermittently. Given these circumstances, it is easier to understand why Palestinians and Israeli Settlers (as they are called) tend to see one another as enemies.
To my surprise, one of the thinnest moments I had in the Holy Land was in a roadside tent sharing a meal with a Palestinian man and an Israeli Settler. The two men, who live in different worlds and should be enemies, are friends that share a common goal of peace and reconciliation. They desire to help their neighbors see “the other” as people vs. enemies, as individuals vs. stereotypes. They are part of an organization called Roots that seeks to bring about understanding and peace among Israelis and Palestinians.
During our evening, there was a powerful moment when Ali, the Palestinian, shared his difficult story of loss, pain and ongoing hardship. Myron, an Israeli Settler, sat quietly with his eyes closed and head bowed as Ali spoke. Ali’s story was hard for me to hear and I imagine it was hard for Myron to hear. I was moved by Myron’s willingness to step out of his life of comfort to sit in a tent with “the enemy” and listen to the atrocities Ali had experienced at the hands of Myron’s people. Myron did not contest Ali’s words, challenge their validity, or attempt to defend his people or himself. He listened with quiet grace and allowed Ali’s story to be shared with the dignity and sanctity it deserved.
That night was a very thin place for me as I saw men reaching across boundaries and dividing lines and approaching one another with love. Interestingly, neither man is a Jesus follower, but they both demonstrated Jesus’ qualities of loving one another. Myron, the Jewish Israeli Settler, was living out the words of Jesus to defend the cause of the oppressed despite not being a follower. While neither man who shared this meal with our group claimed to know Jesus personally, the rest of us in attendance were fully aware of His presence that night as we got a glimpse of Kingdom living.
So no, I was not afraid, because the spaces where I encountered people living out Jesus’ call to peacemaking were thin places. It was in these holiest moments where I experienced the Jesus who champions “the other” and calls us to do the same.