“What was the best part of your recent pilgrimage to Israel?” several people have asked me. I could say it was the opportunity to walk, for a second time, in the places Jesus walked or see some of the same sights as Jesus saw. I could say it was the gift of watching my fellow pilgrims experience some of these things for the first time. But the best part of my pilgrimage was a small moment that opened my eyes and my heart and made me laugh out loud.
Several of the major sites that we visited while we were in the Holy Land were the ancient ruins of places built by Herod the Great. Just so you know, Herod the Great – so named because he built a great many amazing structures in his day – wasn’t so concerned with handrails, and all of his construction projects weren’t governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. So, when you go to the Holy Land, be forewarned that as you walk uneven ancient paths and climb ancient steps, some of the going can be rough.
On our first full day in Israel, one member of our group took a tumble while walking down the stairs of the ancient theater at Caesarea Maritima. Thankfully, the scratch on her scalp looked far worse than it actually was and she was surrounded by caring and helpful people. One of the members of our group was a retired trauma nurse and was on the scene immediately, a doctor from another group of pilgrims ran down to make sure she was okay, and after I held a bloody bandage to her head for a few minutes, the paramedics came quickly to bandage her up. Things like this might happen when you are on a pilgrimage, but it’s all part of the pilgrimage. Our group rallied around our injured friend and made our way to Galilee.
That night, after arriving at our hotel, another member of our group took a tumble on an uneven surface and cut his lip. This injury was far more serious and involved a trip to the emergency room at a nearby Israeli hospital. Just in case you’re wondering, emergency rooms in Israel are just as crazy as emergency rooms in the United States. Before and after our injured friend was stitched up, we witnessed sick and injured people coming and going, a father who was yelling about the long wait for his son, and security guards being called to help “calm down” a patient who was in some kind of emotional distress. It was a long and crazy night. Thankfully, Jamal, a member of the hotel staff, was able to drive us, interpret for us, and move things along when it came to processing our patient and paperwork.
I say that Jamal was able to “interpret” for us, but he did not know very much English and we did not know much Hebrew or Arabic. Somehow, through sign language and reading each other’s faces, Jamal and I were eventually able to understand each other fairly well. Close to midnight, he and I were walking to the parking lot and we both let out a tired sigh at the same time – our lips making the sound that a tired horse makes. Even though we couldn’t understand one another’s words, we understood one another just the same. We both burst into laughter, clapped each other on the back, and gave thanks that we might not speak the same language, but we are more alike than we know.
This was the best part of my pilgrimage to Israel: feeling affection and kinship with someone who, under normal circumstances, would have been a stranger, a foreigner, “different,” by every stretch of the imagination. In reality, Jamal and I are brothers – created in God’s image, made to offer ourselves to others in service. And, even though I may never see him again, I give thanks for Jamal and his ministry of presence and help in a time of trouble. I give thanks for the humanity and grace we shared in a brief moment in a hospital parking lot in Galilee.
Thankfully, after our first full day in Israel, the remainder of our pilgrimage went off without a hitch. Our group of nineteen pilgrims from Columbia Seminary’s Certificate in Spiritual Formation Program explored the Holy Land together, worshiped and ate and laughed along the way, and were continually awed by the beauty, the history, the complexity, and the people of that place – people, who are not so different from you and me.
Everyone is longing for peace, everyone is longing for connection, everyone is longing for wholeness. One of the blessings of pilgrimage is that we are taken out of our somewhat predictable day-to-day lives and encounter the lives of other people who are all sharing the journey with us, if only for a little while. These encounters might seem out-of-the-ordinary on the surface, but deep down they are simply part of what it is to be human.
In a world divided by language, religion, culture, and race, we have so much more in common than we will ever know. Going on a pilgrimage helps to bring this home. Wherever you are on your pilgrimage, may you be blessed. . .
Grace and Peace,
The Reverend John Sawyer is a Co-Pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church, PC(USA), in Bedford, New Hampshire. He was honored to co-lead the Certificate in Spiritual Formation’s Holy Land Pilgrimage with Debra Weir in 2018.
The Spirituality Program at the Center for Lifelong Learning has a vibrant list of classes open to those working towards the Certificate in Spiritual Formation as well as those simply curious. Learn more about Spirituality Program courses here.