It’s been uncharacteristically quiet around here for the past couple of weeks, and there’s a fabulous reason why: I’ve been in the Holy Land! Yes indeed, two weeks ago today my husband, 11-month-old daughter and I boarded a plane to Newark, and then to Tel Aviv, for a ten-day pilgrimage to the homeland of our Lord. Pretty incredible, right?
I’ve only just begun quietly and slowly processing through the experience so I don’t think I’m ready to share just yet about how I was impacted, beyond just to say that I WAS impacted, and very much so. I don’t think you’re ever really the same once you’ve sojourned to a new country filled with new people, but I would argue that the Holy Land adds another dimension entirely to the life-changing nature of international travel–because of the spiritual and historical significance of walking in Jesus’ footsteps and seeing for yourself.
So instead of jumping the gun and telling you all about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking and how my faith has grown–before I’m even sure of the answers to those questions–I’m going to talk about the very fact that we went at all. Funnily enough we’re no strangers to international travel in general–we’d visited Ethiopia three times and Rome once, prior to our recent jetting off to the birthplace of Jesus. But it’s funny because for all the travelling we’ve done it’s become apparent that Americans are particularly nervous about people going to the Middle East. As in, there is serious concern among the general populace about pilgrims making it back alive. And it strikes me as odd because statistically speaking, the Holy Land is actually the safest holy pilgrimage site in the world for various reasons, and it’s been my experience that people in other places are, well, just people.
Personally I think (and I’ve thought this for a long time) that we Americans are FAR too dependent on the media’s one-dimensional, narrative-driven, America-centric, agenda-ridden presentation of “news” and “world events”. Instead of going and investigating and experiencing, we stay at home to watch TV and ever so slowly begin to develop an us vs. them mentality–they are dangerous, they are at war, they are Muslim/Jewish/Orthodox/Catholic/Hindu/Buddhist. And maybe strangest of all? We assume that they hate us.
But do you want to know something? People are people. Short of the few individuals out there with a sociopathic desire to hurt others (and goodness knows we have as many, if not more, of those people within our own borders), women and men, regardless of culture, race or religion, generally want the same things. Peace. Economic stability. Opportunity for upward mobility. Education for their children. Freedom to practice their faith. Access to resources like clean water, fresh food, and basic medical care. Equality. All of the Things.
And that was one of the first thoughts I had on our pilgrimage (I know, not very spiritual or exciting but it is what it is), and it’s the same thing that’s struck me every single time we’ve travelled abroad. And that’s why when people would nervously ask why we were going to the Middle East, to an area in particular that has seen its share of bloodshed and landmines, where native Christians are fleeing in large numbers and where a huge wall presently stands to keep Other People out, I was still a little bit surprised. Because every country and every society has its walls, its problems, its wars, its dark alleyways. If we use that as the yardstick by which to judge a place and a people we will remain in our fearful, isolated bubble. Which may ultimately not be the biggest problem in the world but oh, how we’ll miss out. Not only on profound opportunities like visiting holy sites but also on a more accurate picture of the human condition.
Of course I’ll admit that when I first heard our church was planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I dismissed it out of hand. There was of course the issue of money, and the fact that I have a young baby. Kevin would have to take time off work and we’d need to enlist my dear parents to watch our other seven (!) kids for ten days. And on top of it all, there was the nagging fear that it is located squarely in the MIDDLE EAST, and is it really worth risking my life to travel to the MIDDLE EAST? But my dear husband (who tends to be a bit more balanced than me in many ways) was intrigued. He said if not now, then when. He said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. He said he wasn’t worried about the Middle East and that we should go and see where Jesus was born, walked on water, was crucified, and rose from the dead. And the more he talked, the more excited I became, and I decided not to let irrational fear keep me from doing something really amazing.
And for some people that comes naturally, but not for me because I’m not much of a risk taker, and if you don’t believe that, let’s flash back to late 2005/early 2006. All those years ago we were in the process of adopting our sons, and could either choose to travel to Ethiopia to bring them home, or stay put and have them escorted by someone. And the escort option was sounding better and better.
Our oldest child was only two years old at the time, and I was a white-knuckle flier that tried to avoid air travel at all costs. And on top of all THAT, the small East African nation was experiencing some major unrest due to contentious election results. So the thought of getting on a plane and being in the air for a bajillion hours, not to mention being away from my daughter for over a week in a place presently marked by political strife and occasional violence, sounded positively TERRIFYING.
We did it anyway.
Because I could not BEAR the thought of one day explaining to my little boys that Mommy let her illogical fears prevent her from visiting their birth country and culture. I could not live with the idea that I would not be able to answer simple questions like “How was the food?” or “What was my orphanage like?” But maybe most of all, I didn’t want my children to see their mother crippled by a fear that prevented her from doing otherwise incredibly meaningful things that she wanted to do.
And I never once regretted making that trip. It changed my life. Amidst the many soldiers with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders riding around in jeeps, and walking past the nighttime traffic stop where every single car was being searched by said soldiers, we experienced Ethiopia. The people, the history, the language, the beauty and pain of an ancient culture from which four of my children now hail. We’d return two more times after that, and every single visit was unique and beautiful and challenging in its own way.
On the first subsequent trip back, we braved a crazy road and Holy Week traffic to find and meet our sons’ birthmother.
On the second, we adopted our dear daughters.
All of this to say that I am beyond grateful to have put my fears aside yet again in order to visit the Holy Land, and I would wish that anyone even remotely interested would really, seriously consider going. The places you’ll see are beyond comprehension. The people you’ll meet are beautiful and are, most of all and regardless what side of the big wall they have to stay on, just people. Our tour guide for the trip was a Palestinian Christian with special privileges that allow him to cross into Israel. We had lunch in the home of a Christian couple that has to live in Palestine because while the husband is an Israeli citizen, his wife is a Palestinian. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall and ambled along among locals in the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem. And people actually kind of like us there because we’re contributing to an economy that is quite dependent upon tourism.
Things that are new or different can seem scary, but don’t let that hold you back. So long as the political climate is relatively peaceful, Christians need to keep visiting the Holy Land. Our roots and our story begin there! And if you have young children, don’t let that hold you back either. It may seem counter-intuitive to take a baby on a pilgrimage but alas, I am a mother. With a baby. So I brought her. My daughter was happy, safe, and will be one of the few people able to say that before she was a year old she sat in the very spot where Jesus was born, or dipped her toes in the Sea of Galilee. We’ve travelled internationally with all sorts of small kids and I assure you it is possible.
And if you have the chance to visit the Holy Land with a group? Do it! If you need to find a group to go with, I HIGHLY recommend Mater Dei Tours–Catholic or not, good grief, you will be so glad you used them. The experience was reverent, spiritual, and incredibly insightful. And I think it makes sense to see it through a Catholic lense because I’ll tell you a little secret: everything over there was, well, Catholic. The holy sites are all enshrined in Catholic churches and cared for by Franciscans. The Via Dolorosa is marked by the Stations of the Cross. The Holy Land in no way mirrors any sort of American Evangelical paradigm, and the various churches have Orthodox and Armenian presences, but no Desiring God or Saddleback. The Vatican owns various properties over there and I admit this kind of surprised me, but I suppose that’s merely my American bias coming into play. Because why WOULDN’T the historic Christian church have custody of the historic Christian places?
I hope to share more with you in the coming weeks and months, once I’ve thought through things a little more, but for now I’ll simply say I’m home, I’m so glad we went, and I hope if you can that someday you’ll go too.