It is now finished — the 2023 Holy Land Pilgrimage. It will take months — if not years — to unpack everything we have seen, and stories we read, and to continue to celebrate the friendships formed. As a sit here on my layover and on the bumpy plane ride home, I am thinking so many thoughts. So I’ll put my fingers on the keyboard as I continue to decompress from a powerful trip.
Might as well start at the beginning.
Then a life event happened in 2019 and shortly thereafter Covid came to disrupt daily life in 2020. From work to school and church, all changed. Since churches were closed, I was looking around for online options. While searching YouTube, I came across Fr. Mike Schmitz and all his videos on a variety of topics. He also hosted an online Mass on Sunday and I would watch those in addition to my parish’s live stream.
As I started to watch him more, he spoke about his Bible in a Year program. This intrigued me greatly. I have attended private schools throughout my educational career. Being that they were Catholic a required religion class was part of the curriculum.
Over the years we would read some bible stories from various books. What was lacking with this approach? A comprehensive overview of the Bible, Jesus’ life, and the early church. How do all these books relate to one another?
You can’t read the Bible from cover to cover. All the books cover different time periods and are out of order. Jeff Calvins and Accession Press put together a bible timeline that groups up books in time periods so as you read them they are in order.
So that was it. I was going to take the bold move and start the Bible in Year program hosted by Fr. Mike Schmitz in 2022. The episodes are 20-30 minutes and I would do them first in the morning. I found them to be informative and before long, I was looking forward to the next day’s episode.
The Bible made sense. Fr. Mike’s approach finally made me interested in the stories and wanting to read more.
During a Lenton study group at our parish with Fr. Bill, he mentioned that he was planning to return for his fifth pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2023. I was intrigued. I wanted to see the areas where these stories happened and put everything I read into perspective.
After he finalized all the details and it was officially opened up, I decided to go. Of course, after I told my family about it later, they were worried that I would be going to Israel and the safety of that decision.
Let’s dive into that next.
Is It Safe?
I was concerned about this myself. You read about all the different clashes between the Israelites and Palestinians at home.
During a kick-off meeting, others asked this question and had concerns as well. Fr. Bill said it was no more dangerous than Downtown Portland and our guides would be watching the news daily and adjust the tour if it was needed.
I figured that he would know best. He has been there four times before and I would have to trust his experience.
Upon departure from JFK in New York, the security started. Before you boarded the plane you had to have your face scanned at the gate. Random (or maybe not random?) security screens were done on passengers and their belongings prior to boarding.
The flight was routine except for one thing. The Israelites have a rule that no passengers should be out of their seats when in their airspace. We were warned about this rule coming into effect while being served breakfast and crossed into Israeli airspace after the service. A few had to use the bathroom but were quickly told to go sit back down. That was my first clue that some things were going to be different.
After we landed in Tel Aviv, I didn’t know what to expect. Fr. Bill told us to answer all the questions and be polite if we were asked anything. We were ushered into the international arrival area of the Ben Gurion Airport airport and went to customs.
There was no booth to line up for instead there was an ATM-like kiosks lined up. You had to scan your passport and the camera would take your picture. The screen would show you other images that it gathered from somewhere (I was surprised at some of the images of me that flashed by) and then a green screen popped up granting me entry. A blue ticket printed and you could move on to gather your bags. If you got a red ticket, that required a meeting with a customs agent for additional interviews prior to entry. Luckily no one in our group required that additional screening.
First Impressions of Israel
It’s a modern bustling place. A lot of people live in Tel Aviv and it is a modern city filled with bright lights and the world’s top companies. Our tour guide says it is a very progressive city that doesn’t necessarily follow all the religious customs of the Sabbath and other holidays. Our first night was a little odd, to be honest. We had a red-eye flight from JFK to Tel Aviv that almost everyone slept on. We were woken up before landing and given breakfast. Before long we were on the ground and it was 5 pm. We were loaded onto the bus and driven to our hotel for dinner. Needless to say, I wasn’t tired and it took me days to adjust to the time zone change.
The next day we loaded up and we were on our way for 10 days of adventure in a new land.
All the food there was excellent. For whatever reason that wasn’t clear to me, fruit is hard to come by even though they grow a lot of bananas all around the valleys. I didn’t see one Starbucks anywhere in the country. Speaking to our guide, it turns out they were there for a short time but due to political reasons and fear they would take over the coffee market from their local traditional channels, they were forced out.
We traveled East to West; North to South and never saw any homeless in the small villages to Jerusalem. This was a topic of conversation within our group as to how this could be. Here we come from Portland which has a homeless emergency declaration issued by our Governor.
Turns out the family structure is different there. Unlike in our country, families stay together and live either in the same building or they all live in the same neighborhood.
Their homes have 2-4 floors. The parents live on the ground floor of the home and each son will either live on an upper floor or build a floor to live over the parents. The grandparents take care of the grandchildren as the parents go out and work.
Sons are expected to stay with their parents, while daughters are expected to move to their husband’s family home. Neighborhoods have all of the same extended family members living there. In fact, it is hard to find street names or even addresses. People simply know that a particular family lives in this area of the city and that’s how they direct visitors and even the mail. If a family member lived on the street, that would bring great shame to the whole family and they will take in that family member to help them rather than have them on the street.
Israel and Palestine
This is complicated. Seeing the conflict first-hand certainly changes your perspective on the issue. Driving through various checkpoints, seeing the wall, and experiencing the West Bank you have a strong sense of compassion for the Palestinians. As world leaders try to address this situation diplomatically, I pray that there will be a peaceful solution that will give each side the voice and respect they are looking for.
Religious Factions in Jerusalem
This city is complex. This is nothing new–It has a long history of being complex. Jerusalem is the center of three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim. There have been, and most likely continue to be, flare-ups over various issues in the past.
Walking through the old city and seeing the religious sites, I felt a sense of calm and respect. Religion is never an easy topic. Fervent beliefs are part of the territory. In the five or so days I was in the City, there was respect, tolerance, and calm. In a way, it showed that if it could happen here, there is hope it could happen elsewhere in the world.
After I came back, everyone has been asking how my trip has been: It was amazing. Would I do it again? Absolutely. There is no doubt that visiting the Holy Land gives you a new perspective on the teachings and stories of Jesus. It not only reaffirms events that happened 2,000 years ago, but it also gives the gospels context. Something you will never get any other way.
It has been said that Holy Land serves as the fifth gospel.
I couldn’t agree more.
If the opportunity presents itself to go and walk in the footsteps of Jesus, take it. Don’t think twice. You won’t regret it at all.