Heather’s Holy Land Trip

I had a wonderful study tour of the Holy Land, sponsored by Pacific School of Religion, and led by the Society for Biblical Studies, January 6-15, 2013.  I hope you share my delight in being at holy places and my passion for peace as you read along through the log.  This trip is a dream of a lifetime. Perhaps you will follow along day by day, and read some of the suggested Bible passages. May your “virtual journey” bring you closer to Jesus and the peoples of his land.

Shalom Aleichem (Hebrew: Peace be with you) and

Asalaam Aleikem (Arabic: Peace be with you), Heather


Jan. 6 Depart San Francisco for Chicago, Depart Chicago 9:30 pm for Amman, Jordan

Jan. 7 Arrive Amman 6:20 pm (It is 10 hours later than California.) Stay in Amman 2 nights

Jan. 8 Theme: East Meets West Orientation and Introduction, Field trip to Jerash. (Read Mark 7:31) Driving tour of Amman, Royal Institute for Interreligious Studies, meetings with Jordanian Christians

Jan. 9 Theme: Christian Origins in Jordan Field trip to Madaba, Mt. Nebo (Read Deuteronomy 34) transfer to King Hussein Bridge, Jericho (Read Joshua 5-7, Judges 1:27-36), Jordan Valley. Travel to Nazareth. Stay in Nazareth 2 nights.

Jan. 10 Theme: Jesus’ Ministry in Lower Galilee Field trip to Sepphoris, Nazareth, basilica of the Annunciation, Givat Haviva, House of Hope (Read Matthew 2:23, Luke 1:26-38, 4:16-30, 1 Kings 21, John 4:46-54)

Jan. 11 Theme: Jesus’ Ministry & Resurrection Around the Sea of Galilee Boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, field trip to Capernaum, Tabgha (Read John 21), Mt. of the Beatitudes (Read Luke 13:10-21, Matthew 5-7, 11:20-24, Mark 4-6, John 21) Travel to Bethlehem. Orientation to Jerusalem. Mt. of Olives, Stay in Bethlehem 4 nights.

Jan. 12 Theme: The Church & Peacemaking Field trip to Hebron, Tombs of the Patriarchs, Breaking the Silence, Bedouin Villages, Betselem (Human Rights Group)

Jan. 13 Theme: Bethlehem & its Environs at the Time of Jesus Old City walking tour, Church of the Nativity (Read Luke 2, Matthew 2). Field trip to Herodian, Palestinian refugee camp, Israeli settlement, Bat Shalom (We went to Efrat Settlement instead.)

Jan. 14 Theme: Jerusalem & its Environs at the Time of Jesus Old City walking tour, Western Wall, Temple Mount/Harem esh Sharif (if possible), Lithostratos, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Read Matthew 27-28, John 20)

Jan. 15 Depart Jerusalem 6:50 pm for Chicago. Change planes for San Francisco. (This flight was changed to departure out of Amman, Jordan.)

January 6, 2013

Today is Epiphany Sunday! What a wonderful day to be traveling to the Holy Land—a day when light shines from the Star of Bethlehem into all the world. Orthodox Christians call today Christmas, or we might call it the 12th day of Christmas. Many of you will be taking down your trees and preparing to go back to school or work. Leslie and I will fly to Chicago, then meet up with our group of 22 in Amman, Jordan. I have with me your prayers and well wishes. Weather can vary where we are going—We can expect 80° at the Dead Sea and 40° in Bethlehem. The forecast says it could snow in Jordan! So our bags are filled with layers! This pilgrimage will be a true epiphany! “An epiphany is not an experience that we can create from within, but one that we can only be open to and receive…. Epiphanies leave us totally out of control, and they always demand that we change” (Richard Rohr). Shalom Aleichem (Hebrew: Peace be with you) and Asalaam Aleikem (Arabic: Peace be with you), Heather This trip is a dream of a lifetime. I hope you will share my enthusiasm, follow along day by day, and read some of the suggested Bible passages. May your “virtual journey” bring you closer to Jesus and the peoples of his land.

Shalom Aleichem (Hebrew: Peace be with you) and

Asalaam Aleikem (Arabic: Peace be with you), Heather

January 7, 2013

Greetings from Amman, Jordan! We knew we were headed for the Middle East by flying on Royal Jordanian Airline with mostly Muslims speaking Arabic aboard. Our tour guide Rev. Peter Miano of the Society for Biblical Studies met our plane and took us by bus to the Larsa Hotel in the western (modern) part of Amman. Here is Peter on our bus telling us all about the adventure we are about to experience. And below is Leslie in our beautiful room.

Half of the population of Jordan lives in Amman. The country has been stressed by the arrival of refugees (Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians) displaced from their home countries. They’re glad to have tourists. The currency here is the Jordanian Dinar (from the Roman dinarius). It’s raining here–blessings from heaven in the Holy Land!

Asalaam Aleikem, Heather


January 8, 2013

We received a friendly wake-up call at 6:30 am, breakfast of new tastes at the hotel, then off by bus to visit Jerash, 30 miles north of Amman and 40 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee. This ancient city (Gerasa) demonstrates Greco-Roman culture of the time of Jesus. Remember the “Gerasene demoniac” in the Bible?

He was probably from this city of temples and archways. And Jerash was one of the Decapolis cities that Paul visited. The pouring rain didn’t stop us from walking up to the Temple of Artemis and through the ancient forum and theatre. We learned how the people of Jesus’ time were deeply influenced by the Greeks and Romans—and their art, architecture, religion, and language.

Across a stone bridge, we had falafel in today’s Jerash. Then back in the old city of Amman, we heard the Islamic call to prayer and visited the outdoor marketplace. Walking with Leslie, the young men were very friendly and all invited us into their stalls to buy scarves, fabric, nuts, and cabbages!

This evening we met with a Palestinian Christian, Reem Najjar, whose family had to leave the West Bank after the 1967 war. Now living in Amman, she is the President of the YWCA of Jordan. She is not permitted to visit her relatives in the occupied territory where they own land in Beit Jala, close to Bethlehem. 3% of Jordanians are Christian—mostly Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican. Christians practice their faith freely, but are insecure about the status of Palestinians and whether there really has been an Arab spring. Very friendly people, but in difficult times.

Oh—remember the Ammonites and the Jabbok River in the Bible? I’m here. It’s hard to believe.

Asalaam Aleikem, Heather

January 9, 2013

Rule number one on our trip is “Be patient and flexible.” Rule number two is… rule number one.

Our bus driver arrived late due to stormy weather. When we finally left the hotel in Amman it was snowing—very rare for this area! Our road to Mt. Nebo was unsafe due to the snow, so we just heard about how Moses looked down into the Jordan Valley from the mountain. We then embarked on plan B to visit Masada, only to find the road blocked due to flooding, and so, guess what? Plan C. Lucky for me…

We spent the middle of the day at the Dead Sea, visiting Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. Double rainbows filled the sky as we walked among the ruins of the “coventanteers’ community” and spotted the caves in the hills overlooking the giant Sea of Salt (Old Testament name), where Bedouin shepherds found the precious scrolls of the Hebrew Bible. John the Baptist may have lived in this community of Essenes.

We had now crossed the border from Jordan into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israeli men in plain clothes met our bus with machine guns. We each showed our passport to 6 different officials and passed into “Israel.”

Lunch in Jericho showed us the poverty of the Palestinian territory in stark comtrast to the rest of Israel we experienced later in the day. Because of the storm, we took a long route, nearly to the Mediterranean, past Tel Aviv and Haifa, to reach Galilee from the west. At an Episcopal guesthouse in Nazareth we were greeted warmly and fed delicious salads, humus, pita bread, chicken, and roasted potatoes. Wonderful fresh oranges for dessert, while thunder rolled and the downpour continued.

Shalom Aleichem, Asalaam Aleikem, Heather

January 10, 2013

Four rich experiences today on our pilgrimage:

We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a Catholic church at the spot where Mary may have been visited by the angel telling her that she would bear a child. Upstairs a priest was conducting mass in English, and downstairs pilgrims filed past the altar honoring Mary, the Virgin Mother.

Also in the center of Nazareth, we had an appointment with Sister Stefania, an Italian nun, whose order, the Sisters of Nazareth, runs a school for children. After the church purchased the land in the late 19th century, the nuns discovered, under the property, remains from the Crusades (1000-1400), a chapel from the Byzantine era (300-1000), and a house and grave from the 1st century. We toured the excavation and heard the hypothesis that one ruin could have been the house of the Holy Family, where Jesus grew up. Lunch was falafel or shawarma (meat and salad in pita bread) in a friendly café run by Palestinians, the majority of the people here in Galilee, Israel.

Our next stop was Sepphoris, an ancient city of early Christianity and Judaism. From here the Romans ruled Galilee under Herod Antipas. A mansion with elaborate mosaic floors was discovered and renovated, indicating that there was a wealthy community just a few miles from Nazareth. The excavation also unearthed a synagogue from Jesus’ time and a center for devout Jews who compiled and wrote the Mishnah and Talmud, interpretations of the Law. Both Sepphoris and Nazareth are situated on hills overlooking the fertile Jezreel Valley in Galilee. The sun shone brightly today for spectacular views.

Kibbutz Mishmaiami was our last stop, one of the oldest kibbutz cooperatives in Israel, 91 years old. Lydia Greenberg came to Israel 45 years ago. Now at 67, she is one of the old timers who remember the passion of the early Zionists. We toured the community and learned about the 540 members, nearly all atheist Jews.

Our hosts prepared hot lentil soup, salads, pita bread, chicken, vegetables, rice, and dates for our dinner at St. Margaret’s Guesthouse. Another wonderful day.

Shalom Aleichem, Asalaam Aleikem, Heather

January 11, 2013

After breakfast of hard-boiled egg, cucumbers, tomatoes, humus, and pita bread, we drove from Nazareth by bus to Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee, about 30 minutes. Nothing is far here!

At the lake, we boarded an open boat just for our group of 22, with a boat driver who sang worship songs in English and Hebrew. Daniel lives on a Kibbutz by the lake and is a Jewish follower of Jesus. Hills surround the lake—which is very large—and the breeze blew across the water as we drifted to the middle and back, propelled by quiet motor. Our group sang “Lord, You have Come to the Lakeshore,” and we all had our private thoughts and prayers.

At the northern shore of the lake, we stopped at the Mt. of the Beatitudes shrine and Benedictine monastery. With bibles in hand, we found places to sit outside, and read the Sermon on the Mount. Moving…

We read the fish stories of Peter in John 21, and then toured the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy, which displays a rock where the disciples may have eaten the fish together with Jesus when he appeared to them after the resurrection. Whether or not you believe this was the actual spot, you cannot help but be drawn into the story at this beautiful lakeside setting, as you watch pilgrims from all around the world venerating such places. I went down to the shore and collected a small bottle of lake water as the church bells rang, 12:00 noon.

As we followed the road around the lake, we noticed round bays. Here Jesus may have spoken to the crowd sitting on the hillside as he stood in a boat. We stopped next at Capernaum, an ancient city of ruins, with a 4th-century synagogue. Jesus may have lived here after leaving Nazareth, based on the biblical text and archaeological findings.

Everyone who goes to Galilee eats St. Peter’s fish at a charming restaurant on the lake. You get a whole fish that fills your plate—no longer from the Sea of Galilee, but raised in a nearby fish farm.

The drive south through Galilee and the Jordan Valley was beautiful with bananas, oranges, lemons, and dates growing in groves everywhere. At the Jordan River we stopped to join many pilgrims, some being baptized in the river in white robes, others singing in their native language at the water’s edge, and many just taking in the moment. I’ m bringing home another bottle of water for our next baptisms at Lynnewood.

The political realities here are never far from consciousness. Our drive took us back into the West Bank, then into East Jerusalem (formerly Palestinian, now under Israeli control), then back into the West Bank to Bethlehem, just minutes from Jerusalem. It was early evening on the Sabbath, so we saw Orthodox Jews walking from the Old City to their neighborhood. (No driving after sundown.) This is a complicated place culturally, religiously, and politically. I’m learning a lot.

Shalom Aleichem, Asalaam Aleikem, Heather

January 12, 2013

This has been the most powerfully emotional day on this pilgrimage. We drove south from Bethlehem through the West Bank, into Israel proper, with Israeli guards with machine guns, their fingers on the trigger at each checkpoint. The landscape changed from several inches of snow on fertile soil to desert. In the Negev, we met with a Bedouin man by the name of Khalil al Amour, who invited us into his home in an “unrecognized Bedouin village.” Since 1967, the Israeli government has moved indigenous Bedouin people into one tenth of the land they had inhabited for generations. They have been forced to live in towns. Although these originally nomadic people are Israeli citizens, they have no running water, electricity, or health clinics. Khalil served us tea and coffee and talked about his people. It was an honor to meet him and hear his courage to lead his people and work for peace with justice.

We drove to Hebron in the West Bank to see the Ibrahimi Mosque with the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Rebekah. Because it was the Sabbath, we could not drive on a direct road through a Jewish settlement. We had instead a long drive and one-hour walk to get to the mosque before prayer time. We women dressed in scarves and were given capes if we did not have long coats. Israeli soldiers interrogated our leader as we entered the mosque. Walking on the road back to the bus, Jewish settlers stopped us demanding to know what we thought we were doing there. Apparently they had guessed we were liberal Jews coming to the holy sight to protest the building of settlements, taking over Palestinian land. When we said we were American Christians, they asked to see our passports. This encounter left us with a feeling of tension I will not forget.

On the way back, we visited a workshop to watch glassblowing and ceramic painting, and later met a carver of olive wood in Bethlehem. The delay in Hebron meant we missed an appointment to meet with people at a Palestinian refugee camp, so we hope to reschedule that for tomorrow. Today was a day we would never have experienced without a guide who speaks the language and has made personal contacts in the country. I feel so fortunate to be here and pray for reconciliation and peace each day.

January 13, 2013

Today some of our group got up at 5:45 am to walk to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the 6:30 mass. We climbed up the hill of the old city and entered Manger Square, as sunrise lit the cobble-stoned path. All the buildings in the square in the early dawn were lit with Christmas lights. We attended a Catholic service in Latin and visited the cave under the church where Mary is said to have given birth and the magi paid homage. A Greek Orthodox liturgy was starting, and we were asked to leave (probably because some of our women were wearing pants). Later in the day we returned and observed an Orthodox funeral in session and toured the rest of the church.

We then drove into the Judean Dessert to view the ruins of Herod’s Fortress where he stayed in his summer palace at the time of Jesus’ birth. Some of the archaeological remains at the foot of the mountain date from the 3rd century, so Herod’s “grave” is doubtfully his. Many of the pilgrimage sights help us understand that there is some historical value and certainly spiritual value, even if the historicity cannot be proven.

One of several “Shepherds’ Fields” is located at a Franciscan Monastery in Bethlehem. Excavations show that Christians have venerated this field since Byzantine times (300-600 CE). 60% of the Bethlehem area is Muslim, 40% Christian. There are also Jews living in settlements in and around Bethlehem.

A scheduled visit to the United Nations Al Arov Refugee Camp was a real eye-opener. Just as we were arriving, young Palestinian boys had thrown rocks at 2 Israeli soldiers at the camp entrance. The soldiers shot tear gas at them, and then we were asked to leave. Our guide asked why, and our host from the camp questioned the soldiers’ right to deny our entrance to the camp. One of the soldiers spoke good English and insisted that he was just following orders. The Palestinian resident of the camp and the soldier engaged in heated dialogue, and finally we were allowed to enter. While inside the camp, we were served tea and given a chance to ask questions and buy embroidery made by a women’s co-op in the camp.

Our final stop of the day was at an Orthodox Jewish settlement. An Orthodox Jew, the director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, spoke to us, along with a Palestinian evangelical Christian pastor. They are in dialogue, and the settlers are helping Palestinian Christian children in service projects. We gained an understanding of the biblical roots of Zionism and the Jews’ strong defense of the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian lands.

Yesterday and today there were moments of tears and many prayers for peace in this troubled land. And also—there was the delight to be in Bethlehem, to worship with Christians here, and to sing Christmas carols! The Orthodox Christmas is just ending here—Merry Christmas!

Shalom Aleichem, Asalaam Aleikem, Heather

January 14, 2013

This is our last day in the West Bank, Israel, and Jordan, and a very full day. We left Bethlehem driving along the 600-mile wall, which Israelis have erected in Palestinian occupied territories.

This wall separates Palestinian towns from bypass roads that give Israelis access to travel in and out of settlements, which they are continuing to build illegally. There are already 26 settlements near Bethlehem; one has 58,000 residents. In 1967 the borders of Bethlehem shrunk, and in 2007 the wall went up. Just this week peaceful demonstrators were removed when they protested the demolition of dwellings to create yet another settlement in Jerusalem.

We got off the bus at the Old City of Jerusalem. What a thrill to be here! We entered the area of the Western Wall of the Temple

under high security, our backpacks x-rayed, and our guide questioned. Once at the Wailing Wall, I prayed on the women’s side and inserted your prayers into the cracks as I prayed. Mostly orthodox Jews were present, with men on the other side of a fence, chanting, praying and dancing at the Wall.

We walked to the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock

mosque stands majestically, no longer open to the public since 2000. We admired the hand-painted tiles on the sides, and the brilliant gold dome.

On a special stop through the ancient city, we descended underground to walk through huge cisterns built by King Herod before the birth of Christ to bring water through the city. Our walking tour of the city took us along the Via Dolorosa with the seven Stations of the Cross. Chapels adorn this path Jesus took to the cross, according to the biblical passion story. The road culminates at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an interesting amalgamation of worship spaces for Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Christians. Then from the east, beyond the Kidron Valley, we took in a spectacular view of Jerusalem, the old city, 3 cemeteries for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian believers, the Mount of Olives, and the Garden of Gethsemane.

On our way out of the city, we traveled along the Jerusalem-Jericho road that Jesus talked about when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, traversed the Judean dessert, and viewed a beautiful Greek monastery in the Wadi Qelt, a giant ravine with water flowing.

We have had every kind of weather this week: snow, hail, rain, cold, and now sunshine. The crossing from Israel into Jordan was easier than the reverse. Every time we crossed into or out of a territory, we thought about how the Palestinians have no freedom of movement in their own homeland. They are granted passes for travel, arbitrarily, and have permits only to live in certain places.

The rich historical and cultural context of the Holy Land leaves me in awe, yet the political realities and stories we have heard first-hand trouble me deeply. I am so grateful to have made this journey, and I thank my congregation for giving me this study leave.

Please pray for peace for the peoples of the Holy Land!

Shalom Aleichem! Asalaam Aleikem! Heather

January 15, 2013

Home again, safe and sound. It was an incredible journey.

Peace, Heather