TRAVELING TO THE HOLY LAND
Following in the Footsteps of Jesus
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me! (Isa 6:8, NRSV)
One who journeys without being changed is a nomad.
One who changes without going on a journey is a chameleon.
One who journeys and is transformed by that journey is a pilgrim.
– Mark Nepo
Even after two millennia, the Holy Land still beckons. The call to go and see is powerful; to stand and walk at the very sites of Jesus’ life and ministry can bring us ever closer to his teachings in new and unexpected ways.
EPF PIN offers resources to help discern that beckoning and then prepare for the journey of a lifetime. Over many years, we have seen visitors to the Holy Land transformed in their reading of the Gospels, in their understanding of the ways Jesus’ life and times informed his ministry, and in the strengthening of their own baptismal vows.
Today, all the places whose names we recognize and associate with Jesus are still there for you to visit and experience: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Bethany, Jericho. You can stand on the Mt of Olives and look upon ancient, golden Jerusalem, just as Jesus did; visit Jacob’s Well and drink from its waters; stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and on the banks of the River Jordan; or meditate in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But as inspiring as these experiences are, today’s Holy Land is so much more than the stones of ancient history. The most amazing thing about it is that so many of the same forces and conditions that formed Jesus’ ministry are present today. In these contemporary realities, the Holy Land offers us the chance to live the gospel anew. We are not only able to trace Jesus’ steps, but to witness his continuing presence in the lives of people there today.
We invite you to consider a particular kind of Holy Land visit, one that would look very familiar to Jesus himself, a true pilgrimage of transformation. We invite you to open your mind and heart and see all that is present in Palestine and Israel: the challenges and struggles, as well as the sublime.
The Holy Land Today
An important first step in planning to visit the Holy Land is realizing its contemporary realities. Like any travel destination, the Holy Land was not frozen in time. Its history, both ancient and modern, gave rise to the place it is today, the place we encounter when we visit. By combining our experiences of the ancient – the sites of Jesus’ life and ministry – with the modern, we enrich our understanding and achieve the transformation of true pilgrimage.
The region known as the Holy Land is now comprised of distinct political entities: the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the state of Israel. Geographically, the area is quite small, roughly the size of Massachusetts, and resembles a long narrow triangle. Its small size makes it easy for the visitor to get around and see all the traditional holy sites that most visitors want to see.
The recent history of this area has been eventful. The state of Israel was established in 1948 in the area known then as Mandate Palestine. Contrary to some commonly held beliefs, the land was not empty then. It was inhabited by indigenous people as it had been for centuries. They were mostly Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, living alongside a handful of indigenous Jewish people.
In the 1940s, things really began to change. Driven by the urge of Zionism and to escape the rise of fascism in Europe, Jewish immigration had increased in the decades between World War I and II. Zionists were seeking a state of their own, a “Jewish state”. As the urge became stronger, it became militant. Armed groups were formed and initiated armed conflict to establish the new state. The native Palestinians resisted but Zionism prevailed, the new state was declared, and hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians were displaced and became refugees.
Then, in 1967 the Six Day War resulted in Israeli military occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip that continues to the present day. And this is the reality that we encounter when we visit today: Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza under occupation have no rights and are subject to Israeli military control of all aspects of life. These circumstances are eerily reminiscent of the time of Jesus, when Roman occupation created the setting for Jesus’ ministry of justice, hospitality, tolerance, and mercy. This unfortunate contemporary situation gives today’s visitor the unique chance to experience the Holy Land much as Jesus knew it. It is an opportunity for a true pilgrimage.
The maps below illustrate the momentous changes that have occurred in control of the lands available for living to Israelis and Palestinians. The inequality is obvious; one can imagine the ways that life has changed for Palestinians. For people who follow Jesus, visiting the places and the people who have lived these changes opens the way to new understandings about justice, forgiveness, hospitality, and compassion. We urge you to Go and See!
Preparing For Your Travel As you consider both the ancient and modern histories of this remarkable place, how can you best experience the vital, living witness of Jesus’ presence, as well as enjoy those special historical sites? Several ways are summarized below. Additional information about travel companies and the resources mentioned here can be found in the Resources section of this page.
* Walk in Jesus’ Footsteps. Naturally, this is the very first thing that pilgrims want to do, to experience the Holy Land as close to the way it was for Jesus as is possible in the 21st century. With the similarities of today’s Holy Land to Jesus’ own time, it is important to trace the steps that he might have taken in the course of his ministry. Surely, we can imagine he was with people in need, people who were ill or suffering oppression of the day. You can retrace Jesus’ ministry by visiting a refugee camp, for example. Each camp has visitor centers where you are welcome to meet the residents and hear their stories. There are three camps in Bethlehem: Aida, Dheisheh, and Beit Jibrin. In the West Bank, learn what life is like under occupation and military control, just as it was for Jesus. Arrange a half-day tour in the ancient city of Hebron and learn about Jewish settlements. The Diocese of Jerusalem has churches and hospitals in Ramallah, Nablus, and Zebabdeh in the West Bank where you will be enthusiastically and graciously welcomed to learn about their work and ministries. Very comfortable accommodations are available in Ramallah and Nablus. Zebabdeh is an easy day trip from either city.
* Meet and Get To Know Palestinians. Strange to say but many visitors to the Holy Land never have the opportunity to meet and know the indigenous Palestinian people. Their presence is often overlooked by tour leaders who emphasize only the well-known sites and their histories and not the people of today. As a matter of fact, the Christians of today’s Holy Land are Palestinian and they are delighted to welcome modern pilgrims. In Jerusalem, be sure to shop, eat, and stroll along Salah a-Deen Street, Nablus Road and the neighborhoods of east Jerusalem where most Jerusalem Palestinians live. Visit the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City. Take the time to talk to people and listen to their histories and stories. Visit the West Bank where Bethlehem, Bethany, Jericho, Jacob’s Well and other holy sites are located. Stay a few extra days in Bethlehem to attend a church service and learn about the lives of modern Christians in the Holy Land.
* Visit the Institutions of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Diocese operates many churches, schools, health care facilities and guesthouses throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories. Visit the Diocese website (www.j-diocese.org) and arrange a visit to the Diocese offices or any of the institutions, you will be very welcome. Learn about the work they are doing and the challenges and rewards of working in a place of “conflict”.
* Learn About the Palestinian-Israeli Relationship. Too often, the narrative of American news media is biased toward one perspective. Take the time while you are there to learn more. Arrange for a visit or briefing with one of the many organizations that educate and advocate for justice, such as The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs located in Jerusalem very near St George’s Cathedral; the non-profit organization Grassroots Jerusalem; or The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, for example. A fuller list of interesting organizations and their contact information is provided in the Resources section of this page.
Is It Safe?
Many people miss the rich opportunities available in Holy Land travel out of concern about safety and security. News headlines too often depict a place of danger inhabited by violence-prone people. This is inaccurate and misleading and unfortunately deprives many of life-altering experiences.
The fact is that traveling in the region is remarkably safe. Tourism is a major industry of Israel and a major source of revenue. A record 4.5 million tourists visited in 2019, bringing $6.3 billion dollars to the economy. Israel is careful to ensure that this continues, so safety is a top priority.
What about going into the West Bank? It is perfectly legal for US visitors to enter the West Bank with their passport and Israeli tourist visa that is issued on your arrival in the country. Inexpensive public and private transportation is available from Jerusalem. In visits to the West Bank you may encounter checkpoints operated by Israeli security personnel. These encounters are perfectly safe and give the traveler a unique opportunity to witness and experience the way of life for Palestinians.
Members of EPF PIN cumulatively have made hundreds of visits to the Holy Land over the years, and some have even lived there for periods of time with no incidents of danger or injury. In fact, Jerusalem and even the West Bank are safer than many American cities.
EPF PIN urges you to experience the entire richness of Holy Land travel by not missing this vital and important part of it.
Here’s what others say:
Rick Steves, one of the world’s best known travelers, made an extended visit to Israel and Palestine, traveling throughout the West Bank. He delighted in his experiences there and in fact has become an enthusiastic supporter of a Palestinian non-profit organization. (https://blog.ricksteves.com/blog/category/palestine/ )
Read of the many pilgrimages of The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, 8th Bishop of Olympia here (https://bishoprickel.wordpress.com/2020/01/25/holy-land-pilgrimage-2020-day-1-and-2/
“My advice is don’t go to Israel and be content with the conventional tours and perspectives that only give you the Israeli point of view. Decide for yourself and tour the Holy Land with an open mind. “ – Traveler with Green Olive Tours
“As I returned to the US and listened to friends and family stress about the “danger” of life in Israel, I had to hold back my chuckle. I never once felt endangered or scared. I was too busy soaking up the depth and width of God’s love for the world and for me. There was nothing to fear, nothing to fret, nothing to worry about. “ – Rev. Adam Trambley
There are few places in the world as illustrative as Palestine and Israel of the responsibility that tourists carry with them when they visit places where one group of people dominates over another. We can thoroughly enjoy ourselves and collect wonderful memories and experiences while also being aware of the context we are in, ensuring that our visit is ethical, responsible, and does no harm. Here are some things to notice as you travel:
* Notice at borders and checkpoints how particular groups of people are treated differently. Who is pulled aside? Who is allowed to pass freely?
* Notice where taxi drivers will go and where they will not go.
* In planning for your trip, the guidebooks recommended below will help you experience Palestinian life. Many tour operators, guides, and maps attempt to hide the Palestinian neighborhoods, services and venues of East Jerusalem; for example, tourist maps printed in Israel fail even to mark the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Using the resources below, make extra efforts to enjoy Palestinian hotels, restaurants, barber shops, gift and flower shops, etc. In the Old City of Jerusalem, be sure to stop at Palestinian shops and help support their livelihoods.
* Almost 80% of Palestinians in Jerusalem live below the poverty line. With awareness of the context, you can broaden your travel experiences while also demonstrating that Justice is Love in Action.
All of the resources below will help you experience the fullness of the Holy Land while respecting the difficult circumstances of Palestinian life.
The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem: www.j-diocese.org. email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Travel Companies and Organizers:
- St. George’s College
- Qumri Pilgrimages, LTD
- ATG-Alternative Tourism Group
- Green Olive Tours
- George’s International Tours
- Grassroots Jerusalem (Grassroots al-Quds)
- Good Shepherd Collective
Wujood (presence, existence) is an outstanding, comprehensive guidebook available from the Palestinian non-profit organization Grassroots Jerusalem. It is available here.
Palestine and Palestinians is the guidebook of ATG-Alternative Tourism Group.
Church Services in English and Arabic occur every Sunday at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.
English church services are also available at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem. (https://www.church-of-the-redeemer-jerusalem.info/) and at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem. (https://www.standrewsjerusalem.org/)
Church services in other diocesan parishes are in Arabic, but the priests and many parishioners speak excellent English and will be happy to help you.
Many organizations welcome visitors and provide printed information, tours, and/or group briefings. Including visits to these centers in your itinerary is a great way to better understand the history and context of the Holy Land in order to broaden and enrich your travel experience.
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem is a wonderful source of printed information and informative maps. Information briefings about their work can also be arranged. The offices are just a few steps away from St George’s Cathedral. (ochaopt.org)
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions
Grassroots al-Quds (Grassroots Jerusalem). Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. (https://www.grassrootsalquds.net/)
Refugee Camps in the Bethlehem area:
Shoruq, Dheisheh Refugee Camp (https://shoruq.org/en/Default.aspx
Al Rowwad Center, Aida Refugee Camp. (https://www.alrowwadusa.org/)
Lajee Center, Aida Refugee Camp. (www.lajee.org)
A comprehensive reading list is available at another location on the EPF PIN website here.