Editor’s note: This is part of a series featuring two participants of the Mosaic of Peace trip to Israel/Palestine, a Presbyterian Peacemaking conference running April 28-May 10. Read past entries here, here, here and here. The following reflects the thoughts and views of the participant and was only slightly edited for clarity. — Bethany Daily

May 5, 2014:

Today we toured the mosque/synagogue in Hebron (the Ibrahim Mosque), where tradition holds that Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah were buried. Half of the building is a mosque and the other half a synagogue. We toured the mosque. Women participants were encouraged to bring scarves to cover our heads. We donned our colorful scarves, took off our shoes and entered the cool, dimly lit and beautiful mosque. After a few moments, an attendant came running up to us with cloaks, roughly tossing them over our heads and shoulders. (I looked like a cross between a hobbit and Little Red Riding Hood.)

Hebron is an “occupied” city, and we could see the contrast in the new buildings constructed by the Jewish settlers and the older homes of the Palestinians as we drove past old, old vineyards, rocky hillsides and herds of sheep and goats accompanied by their shepherds.

This evening we heard from the leader of Breaking the Silence [a group of Israeli military veterans who “have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”]. He related some of his experience in the Israeli military. Three years of military service is required of every young adult Israeli. His experience in the military convinced him that the problems between Israelis and Palestinians will not be solved by current practices, describing the “best military option as the worst humanitarian and ethical choice.” He describes the Breaking the Silence organization as “holding up a mirror in our society” and “forcing a conversation.” He also pointed out that the armaments they use are provided by the United States and our tax dollars.

Perhaps the biggest impression of today was the young boys who surrounded us as we walked to and from the mosque. They were selling bracelets, two of which I bought — one for myself and one for my daughter. They begged us to buy the bracelets, almost frantic to sell their wares, even following on the bus, only to be chased off by the driver. My heart went out to them, and I wondered about their lives. How many bracelets would they need to sell in order to have food on their families’ tables tonight?

May 7, 2014

Sunday’s worship at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church was a very moving experience as the 100-plus Mosaic of Peace participants crowded in with the members. The pastor, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, who had previously addressed our group and whose book I read on the long plane trip to Tel Aviv, preached. Our mission co-worker, the Rev. Kate Taber, who just began her ministry here, was recognized and blessed as she begins her work. As we shared communion, our singing of Dona Nobis Pacem and Ubi Caritas reverberated throughout the beautiful sanctuary, reminding me of the power of gathering for worship. Though most of the service was in Arabic, translation was provided and all were welcomed. In other words, words were secondary.          

Through the last few days the glow of worship has sustained me. We are hearing from various groups that are working for peace. Nathan, Kate’s husband, described his work with The Carter Center. We visited a UN refugee camp, a crowded conglomeration of buildings that seemed to go on and on. Children played in the narrow walkways and shyly smiled at us, asked us our names and shared theirs. 11,000 refugees live in this one-square kilometer area. Most have been displaced from their ancestral lands by settlers: Jewish people, many of whom are from the U.S., and are paid by the Israeli government to live in these new housing developments. The developments of beautiful high-rise apartments are a stark contrast to the humble homes of most Palestinians and certainly the UN refugee camp, where tents were replaced by homes that were 3 meter by 3 meter per family and included no bathroom. My impression: no one should have to live this way.

Today we are leaving Bethlehem and traveling to Jericho and then Nazareth, our huge bus slowly maneuvering incredible hairpin curves. We are praying on our way! In Jericho we visited a YMCA kindergarten and interacted with teachers and students. Over lunch we heard a presentation about the work of the YMCA, which has worked among the Palestinian people for well over a century. Currently, they are creating opportunities for women to be educated and provide for their families.

After a brief visit to the Mount of Temptation, we waded in the Jordan River at the site tradition holds was where John preached and Jesus was baptized. The river runs through the desert. Signs warn against departure from designated paths, and our guides told us that the desert is full of landmines. The banks of the Jordan, which isn’t “deep and wide,” are lined with green reeds, and the water, no more than 15 feet from bank to bank, is murky and brown. Evidently, one can purchase an oversized T-shirt with a graphic print of Jesus being baptized. Most of us took off our shoes and joined the crowd of others wading in the water.

Though I came to this conference aware that no one really knows exactly where Jesus walked or where he was baptized and faced temptation, I guess I had expected more thoughtful exploitation of the sites where tradition holds he “walked” and experienced life-changing/world-changing events. Instead, these “holy” places are full of pushing, shoving pilgrims and are commercialized with shops and street vendors and men or children begging me to buy necklaces and bracelets and trinkets carved from olivewood. Because Mosaic of Peace is a conference, not a pilgrimage, I am less disappointed than I might otherwise be.

The best part of this travel experience comes from meeting the people who are trying make a better life, to press against occupation. The witness of those who are working for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine is inspiring. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  I am honored to be meeting so many of them!