PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 1

After a typical Middle Eastern breakfast of pita, cheese, vegetables, an egg and hummus, our group, a mixture laypeople and clergy from the New England Synod on a Companion Synod Pilgrimage to visit the places and people connected with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, went off for our first stop.

We arrived at the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the holiest places for three world religions. Not only does this area — also known as Temple Mount — house the site of the Temple, where the Ten Commandments and the Holy of Holies were located, and where the curtain was ripped in two during the Crucifixion, the mosque situated there is the third-most holy site in the Islamic world.

It is also one of the most contentious places in the struggle between the Palestinian State and Israel. Because this is a gathering place on days of prayer, sadly, this is also a place where tensions are high and it is prone to violence.

After being screened by Israeli guards once we entered, a Muslim guard told me to cover my bare arms. I didn’t have my jacket because it had a cross on it, and religious symbols of that type are banned there, but fortunately had a head scarf I wrapped around me.

As luck would have it, our tour guide’s cousin, Mohammed, was on guard duty that day, and he had been a key part of a recent incident at the Dome of the Rock.

In July, two Israeli guards were shot at an entrance, and so the Israeli police entered this area, which is normally forbidden for Jews — both because it is under administrative control of Jordan and because there are tombs there, which makes it an area that is ritually unclean.

The Israelis desperately want to take control of this area to limit Muslim autonomy, and after the shooting, they ransacked the whole area, saying they were looking for co-conspirators in the shooting. But a group of guards, including Mohammed, entered the area when the Israelis were there and refused to leave. Because of their tenacity but also their peaceful approach, the Israelis left after two weeks, and the tension abated. But the fire keg that lies all around this area seems ready to be lit.

We explored this magnificent site, although all buildings are closed to the general public, as well seeing the place where Jesus was tried by Pilate. Although that site is far beneath the surface of the ground now, it was powerful to see the space and walk the same grounds where Jesus walked, even as the tensions that existed between forces of power and religions haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years.

From there, we walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross where Jesus carried his cross. I always envisioned it as a straight shot, but it was up and down narrow streets, complete with twists and turns. Clearly the way of the cross is not an easy walk.

Along the way, we saw St. Anne’s Church, where the Virgin Mary was born, complete with its incredible acoustics. Our group sang The Doxology. The group after us sang the chorus of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an interesting choice for a group of Christians we discerned was from the Philippines. As I left, I heard a chorus of “Amazing Grace” that made me shudder at how many badly sung versions of that this space has had to endure.

Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, and the Tomb of the Resurrection were less than 100 feet apart.

I would be a liar if I didn’t say I was disappointed. It is controlled by six different churches, working peaceably together, but nonetheless, it felt like a market, and I related to how Jesus must have felt with the money changers, even though no one was selling anything. People were everywhere, with different levels of reverence, and taking selfies in front of the place where the cross stood.

After climbing up to Golgotha, I stood in front of the cross and apologized to Jesus. It didn’t feel reverent or holy. It felt like a tourist stop. That was hard.

We didn’t see the tomb, as the line was well over two hours long, but I did check out the “tomb next door” that Joseph of Arimathea would have used. They later explained that they had to build strong buildings around these holy sites because of the level of danger posed to the new church in protecting it. They needed a fortress — so it isn’t an open area. It is enclosed, and I felt entrapped. Not like I envisioned the place at all.

Thankfully, this was followed by lunch with the bishop of ELCJHL, who after 20 years of ministry, is retiring at the end of this year. He and almost all of the Christians in Palestine trace their heritage as Christians back to the time of Christ.

Palestinian Christians are lumped in with the Muslims as Arabs in the world of Israel. The bishop told the story of how his father wanted to see the house he was raised in, which was stolen when Israel became a nation in 1948, and the gruff woman answering the door refused him entrance saying, “I didn’t take it from you. The government took it from me.”

Imagine having lived in the same house for generations, on the same land for centuries, and one day it is just taken from you, and you are forced into a refugee camp. That is what happened to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. But both the woman at the house and the bishop’s father had their own realities. And for them, the story was true. That, I think, is one of the biggest problems we have in the world today: our own reality and our refusal to see another’s perspective.

The Lutheran Church has focused its ministry in the Holy Land on education and is known for its excellent schools. Lutherans educate Muslims as well as Christians and seek to be a place promote peace.

The bishop shared stories of their oppression. For example, a Lutheran pastor who lived in the West Bank married a woman who lived in Jerusalem. Because where they can live is limited, she would lose her Jerusalem identity if she moved to the West Bank, along with health care benefits and ability to move freely. Their child, who is 4 months old, can’t get a birth certificate because there is a dispute over whether the child should have the freedom and benefits that are refused to any Arab living in the West Bank. If the child doesn’t get this, he can’t get a passport, and he could remain essentially a prisoner in the West Bank, unable to ever leave.

I asked the bishop what he wanted me to tell people about Lutherans in Palestine. He said to say that they are a peaceful, moderating force and that there is no conflict between Arab Muslims and Christians in Palestine. They live in peace. The conflict is between Israel and Palestine over land and water. The Palestinians wish to share the land and Israel does not, so we need to advocate for the two-state solution.

It was moving to see a man of such humility who witnesses to a heritage that goes back further than any of ours and to think of the oppression they face in witness to the social gospel.

After lunch, many of us walked the 178 steps to the top of the bell tour at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, for which we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Jerusalem.

Our tour continued with a walk through the Old City, which included the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, ending at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, where Jews go to pray. It is the only part of the Second Temple where Jews can go to pray, since they are forbidden to go to the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is because as I said before it is not ritually unclean.

Divided between men and women, I went to the women’s side, wrote my note to leave there, touched it and prayed. I prayed for peace in a land where male and female soldiers sport AK 47’s with the ease that we carry backpacks and where the tension between warring sides is palpable. In our own nation, which is becoming increasingly tribal, it was a stark and powerful reminder of how important it is not to demonize those with whom you don’t agree.

The day ended with a gathering at the Stone House that is part of the Lutheran World Federation’s ministry in Jerusalem, as part of the Wednesday potlucks that happen weekly as a place of community and support for Lutheran expats in Jerusalem,

As I wind down, I reflect on Day 1 with a sense of exhaustion and amazement. I walked the way of the Cross, where Jesus walked, on stones he may have walked on, and I saw the Way of the Cross that is continually born by people living in a land that is seen as holy, but where the way of violence is too often the path that is followed. May God have mercy, and may I be an instrument of peace.

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