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Pilgrimage is in the Leaving

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said to the Canadian pilgrim next to me as the doors to the tomb slammed shut. It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, just like the gospel story. I had ventured alone from my hotel in Jerusalem, through the Damascus gate, winded my way through the empty and narrow streets of Old City, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says the empty tomb of Jesus is located. The wait was too long the day before and I was looking for a different ending to my pilgrimage.

After taking the Eucharist in front of the open tomb, I was third in line when an ecumenical argument broke out between two priests responsible for their tradition’s worship on opposite sides of the sepulcher. Whatever the dispute, one priest presumed it was enough to shutdown visitation. My fellow traveler leaned over to me, “Did we just get barred from Jesus’ tomb?”

This marked the end of my Jerusalem journey. Despite the disappointment, I logged the homiletical illustration and kept walking.

The call to keep walking was a common theme for the week. Whether in Galilee or Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nablus, Shiloh or Joppa, our local Palestinian guide, Iyad, frequently whispered through our audio devices, “keep walking.” This was a short pilgrimage and our ambitious clip was designed to ensure adequate time with local partners like Daoud Nassar. After all, pilgrimage is about people as much as place.

VW Bus surrounded by olive trees and parked at Nassar Farm due to road restrictions for Palestinians. (Greg Klimovitz)

Daoud, a Palestinian Christian, lives on land his family has owned in the West Bank for well over 100 years. Also known as Tent of Nations, Israeli settlements are constructed all around them, suffocate the farm, and cut off the Nassar family from running water, electricity, and access to public roads. Yet Daoud Nassar and his family reject intimidation and keep walking. They peacefully resist through remaining, grounded on the mantra, “we refuse to be enemies.”

Daoud spoke with us about a Israeli military raid that burned down 250 of their olive trees, a major source of their livelihood. Tent of Nations shared their plight with partners, assured God would somehow hear their cries and concerns and resurrect something new. And God did, through a UK based Jewish community. Empathizing with their story, this community purchased new olive trees, organized a visit, and planted life alongside their Christian neighbors. I bought an olive tree that day, prayerful I would revisit this symbol of hope. “We believe in justice,” Daoud said before we left. “One day we will see the Son of Justice rise again.”

As likely noticed throughout this blog series, many of us wanted to linger longer in the caves and among the olive trees of Nassar Farm. We had spent two days in Bethlehem, where a thirty-foot wall lined with barbed wire, video surveillance, and snipers snakes throughout the region. This wall imposes separation, perpetuates fear, and sustains modern apartheid. At Nassar farm, however, we found an alternative narrative of hope through the prophetic witness of a new friend whose faith was grounded in the One who, amidst first-century occupation and oppression, also called this region home. Then we heard a familiar voice in our ears, “keep walking.”

So we did.

Sunset on the beach of Joppa (Greg Klimovitz)

We walked to Nablus and Hebron and alongside Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We walked with refugee children before we dipped our hands in the well where Jesus offered living waters to those written off as other. We even walked the beaches of Joppa, where Jonah was spit onto dry land and Peter reminded, “not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). There we were reminded of our call to keep walking towards Philadelphia and Charlotte, D.C. and Atlanta, San Diego and wherever we called home. Empowered by what we had seen and heard, keep walking to confront the dividing walls of hostility that snake through our own communities and threaten our own borders. Awakened by the courage of new siblings in the (inter)faith family, keep walking as advocates for neighbors oppressed by the ghettoization of our own neighborhoods. Stirred by the systemic restriction of resources through racial grids in one nation, keep walking with interfaith and ecumenical partners to dismantle the same practices in our own. And when the doors of tombs slam shut and resurrection hope appears burned to the ground, lean on the witness of Daoud and keep walking towards the Son of Justice, who will rise again. Keep walking, whispers God’s Spirit, because pilgrimage is as much in the leaving as in the initial going.

A poem written in the airport prior to leaving, which stayed with me on our pilgrimage and upon return:
Life is pilgrimage.
Travel well and never alone.
Venture to spaces where the divine and human collide
in a particular place.
Go with eyes wide open
where stories and parables
share the ground your feet now tread.
Pray en route
and listen to the voices of the other
those more oft passed by.
Ask questions
linger longer.
Expect to encounter the Holy
to return different than when you first set out
awakened
as you keep walking.


As the Associate Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Rev. Greg Klimovitz encourages church leaders in the development of collaborative and holistic ministry partnerships, exploration of intentional and creative mediums to tell related stories of faithful witness, stewardship of grant resources to fund and sustain new and existing initiatives, and design of contextualized expressions of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Greg is married and has four young children. Follow on Twitter @gklimovitz or gregklimovitz.blogspot.com

Pilgrimage is Not What I Expected

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Allison Wehrung

As a handful of our group walked through the streets of Bethlehem after dinner one night, the wash of street lights and glow of neon signs dimly lit our way, while the city came alive with Muslim neighbors breaking their Ramadan fast. Families did their shopping, car horns blared, and street vendors advertised their wares. Into my head wandered words I’ve heard probably every December of my life: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem, Palestine (Allison Wehrung)

I was struck by just how different these moments felt from deep and dreamless sleep. Not to mention that in the distance loomed the harsh concrete slabs of The Wall, snaking through the soft hills where Jesus was born. During our time in Bethlehem we visited the site said to be where the angels appeared to the shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth. As we stood at the entrance to a cave that would have protected the flocks from nighttime predators, closed-off boardwalks criss-crossed our view and Israeli settlements sprawled on the ridge lines.

A few days later we were walking again, this time through the Old City of Jerusalem. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, as we went inside, there wasn’t much option but to follow the slow, consistent flow of shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic winding through the dim interior of the complex. Nudged along by the people behind us, we followed a narrow staircase up, past the place where some say Jesus was crucified, back down to where Helena is said to have found the “true cross,” wound around and eventually emerged back into the main space that included the tomb where Jesus might have been buried and resurrected. The line to see the tomb’s interior wrapped around the room and was longer than our timeframe allowed. The building felt so complicated and crowded that I remember wondering how long it would take me to find my way out if I was separated from our group.

Pilgrimage is not what I expected. Anticipating our trip, I was amazed at the number of familiar biblical names on the itinerary. But honestly, the act of setting foot on many of the holy sites we visited just wasn’t as moving as I thought it would be. The ornate churches built around these places began to feel almost intrusive. The institutional regulation limiting access — sometimes literally dividing a building in half — seemed to grate against what I know of an arms-wide-open God. I had no doubt that these places were powerful, but, at the same time, I wondered if we humans were getting a little too close to putting God in a box.

Prayers and offerings left by pilgrims at the Wedding Church at Cana (Kafr Kanna, Israel). Notice the column laying horizontally, repurposed from Byzantine ruins to become part of a later wall. (Allison Wehrung)

And yet, for hundreds of years, pilgrims have found their way to these sacred places. Despite the dissonance I felt during some of our holy site stops, I was struck by remnants representing the people who had come before us. Many of the structures we saw are relatively modern, but are built on top of older sanctuaries that were built on top of still older ones, located where they are because before that they were synagogues or other sacred ground. Destroyed and rebuilt, again and again, each time using the rubble of what was as the foundation for what would come to be. Across time and tradition, God had met people there. Even in the midst of humanity’s brokenness, God continues to meet people there. I found myself particularly captivated by the small paper prayers folded into cracks and crevices — tangible signs left behind by believers who could have been desperate or joyful or anything in between.

I came to realize that, at least for me, the power in our visits to holy sites wasn’t about the buildings at all, beautiful as they are, or sometimes even about the ground beneath them. This part of our pilgrimage reminded me that, despite the particulars of how we each live out our faith, we are part of something far bigger than ourselves. Being a person is messy and Christianity definitely isn’t perfect either. But maybe the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” fit after all: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…”


Rev. Allison Wehrung lives in Oxford, MS where she is the Presbytery of St. Andrew’s Associate Executive Presbyter for Campus Ministry and the Campus Minister at UKirk Ole Miss. She is a maker and lover of recycled art, handwritten letters, coffee, and her favorite Southern vegetable (macaroni and cheese).

Pilgrimage is an Endless, Tameless Endeavor of Hearts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude

The NEXT Church ad grabbed my attention: “Holy Land: a pilgrimage together through the land where Jesus walked.” I had been to Israel before, as a Union Presbyterian Seminary student in 2014, and was compelled to re-visit. I needed to be present there again and to share the experience with my husband John, who had heard little about my time in Israel. He, like many Christians raised in the church, had harbored an interest in walking where Jesus walked, but children at home needed tending in 2014, and I learned of his disappointment only when I returned.

NEXT Church’s consideration of the political tensions, scheduled time with Rev. Mitri Raheb in Bethlehem, and a visit to Hebron on the itinerary all reinforced my determination that John and I would join this pilgrimage together. My previously closeted experience in Israel contrasted with reports from other acquaintances whose voices swelled with the joy of standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, of praying at Gethsemane. Typically, their only ventures into the West Bank were quick forays to the Church of the Nativity, undertaken hesitatingly by Jewish guides who spoke of Bethlehem as a dangerous place.

(Janna VanderWoude)

To truly see Bethlehem — or other parts of the West Bank, including a Jewish settlement — is indeed a dangerous undertaking for a follower of Jesus. The Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel wrote, “Faith is not clinging to a shrine but the endless, tameless pilgrimage of hearts.”1 An expansive and ever-growing system of Israeli-built walls, sectoring the West Bank and dividing its people while amplifying fear of those who are “other,” reinforces what Heschel writes in his essay, Faith. “The tumult of strife and envy, insidious selfishness, inflation of cruelty, is a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. Yet a force from beyond our conscience cries at our insolent haughtiness of humanity, reminding and admonishing that the wanton will fail in rebellion against the good. Those who listen to this voice open their lives to the sight of the unseen in the desert of indifference.”

Pilgrimage is listening to the voice that is often unheard, opening one’s life to the sight of the unseen — in a desert of what often appears as indifference. Western media communicates little about the realities of Palestine: astronomical unemployment, restricted road use, managed water and electrical limitations, night-time house raids in which boys are seized and held, overcrowded refugee camps, and manipulative land seizures. The place indeed seems a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. So perhaps I just needed to see that Mitri Raheb’s voice persists, that the confiscation of a Palestinian’s land at Tent of Nations is thwarted by volunteers from all over the world who come to plant trees, that children from a tenement-like refugee camp in Nablus can learn, laugh, sing and dance at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, supported internationally by advocates including Covenant Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.

There is a bold metal sculpture on my church office wall declaring, “Something wonderful is about to happen.” Pilgrimage is living in that expectation, believing that when you get off the thousandth bus, you will hear-see-feel-touch something that is otherwise unseen. Hopeful expectations are answered by crowds of people from every corner of the world, all clamoring to touch, as best they can, the Teacher’s garment. The mix of languages in swarming places like Church of the Holy Sepulchre must truly bring joy to God’s ears. Hebron, where Abraham, the common father of our oft-warring faiths, is buried, is by contrast eerily silent. Anxious but vibrant five years ago with merchants delighted to see Americans, it is now heavily patrolled and highly restricted — a ghost town served by two remaining souvenir vendors.

One of the objects I hurriedly purchased was a small, ceramic “Hebron” bell; again, the words of Heschel, “Audacious longing, calling, calling, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind — it is all a stalwart driving to the precious serving of Him who rings our hearts like a bell, wishing to enter our empty perishing life” (Faith). We who follow a living Jesus receive him as God’s entrance into our empty, perishing life. Just as he did in that little, dangerous town of Bethlehem, “The dear Christ enters in.”

1 “Faith.” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays. Ed. Susannah Heschel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.


Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude, LCSW, ministers alongside the congregation of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Reisterstown, Maryland, a transitioning suburban community outside of Baltimore where people from many nations, languages, races, and religious faiths are trying to learn to live joyfully together without walls. The Northminster campus also houses a Messianic Jewish congregation, a start-up summer camp, and Jesu Christo es el Señor Iglesia Evangelica. Together we celebrate a saving God who enters our empty, perishing life, opening us to the sight of the unseen.

Pilgrimage is Facing Fear

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Churchfrom May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebookand Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Frank Spencer

As I approached the checkpoint for the first time, I could feel my anxiety rising. The uniformed guard said, “Passport.” Not as a question, not as an invitation, but rather as a requirement for me to pass unharmed. It is hard to tamp down the fear as one approaches an armed representative of a government which is not one’s own, in a place where all the rules are not transparent nor equally enforced. As I moved beyond the checkpoint, I could feel my anxiety ebb. The moment of fear had given way to encounters with new acquaintances that would prove full of good will. I would pass through Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin five more times before the wall fell in 1989.

Photo: Greg Klimovitz

The wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem and surrounding areas looks strikingly like that earlier wall that had so terrified me. It is twenty-five feet of vertical concrete topped with razor wire. Every so often, a watchtower looms with armed guards protected from view, but not from seeing. On the Bethlehem side are intricate, amusing, and sometimes profane graffiti paintings. The west side of the Berlin Wall was likewise adorned.

The Israeli checkpoints have the same feel as their Cold War antecedents: young military guards with automatic weapons. As you approach, you hope they are busy or bored and not feeling aggressive or confrontational. The latter is always a risk as research shows that simply the presence of weapons significantly increases aggressive cognition, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior.[i]

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank also have checkpoints. They were not as I had pictured them. Somehow my mind had constructed an image of single story homes on small lots with communal agricultural space. Perhaps I had melded the idea of kibbutz and settlement. In contrast to that bucolic misrepresentation, they are extremely dense, urban populations up to 60,000 people with schools, businesses, and public spaces. They can function as suburbs with commuters driving to work in larger cities. Like Bethlehem, they have fortified perimeters made mostly of fencing with barbed wire. Any entry requires scrutiny at the military checkpoints. Unlike Bethlehem, they are not trying to keep the population in, but to keep a perceived threat out.

The common element on both sides of these barriers is fear.

In Jaffa, the seaside suburb of Tel Aviv, there exists a striking contrast to the West Bank. We American Christians strolled the promenade with a mass of humanity that clearly included Arab Muslims; Arab Christians; and Liberal, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. No one seemed threatened or fearful. A wedding reception was beginning in one of the local establishments. Couples strolled the beach in the fading light. There were no checkpoints to navigate, no fences to separate, and no weapons to brandish.
Israel/Palestine is a complicated place with profound geo-political implications. After having spent only a week meeting people and encountering many contrasting ideas and perspectives, I would not presume to offer any solution to the current political problem. But it is a political problem. Leaders on each side demonize the other and ascribe the worst intent, often inciting violence from their constituents.

What I can say is this, walls and fences guarded by armed soldiers have never created peace. At times, it may create the illusion of security for one side, but that security is a falsehood. Walls and fences cannot keep out resentment of those on the side of less power any more than they can keep in the fears of the ones supposedly protected. The narratives about the enemy on the other side of the barrier grow and are expanded with each generation that lives unnaturally divided.

Perhaps what Christianity has to offer to the peace process is this: we believe in a God whose reconciling action with humankind was to accept complete vulnerability and “move into the neighborhood.”[ii]

When people build relationships through personal engagement, hate and fear tend to dissipate. Our commonality as children of God is more profound than our superficial differences. Engaging the faces of our fear is perhaps the only way to face that fear.

[i] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1088868317725419
[ii]Eugene Peterson, The Message.


Rev. Frank Spencer is the President of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served as an elder and deacon and taught Sunday school to adults and children. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Montreat Conference Center and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. His home church is Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, where he was ordained by the Presbytery of Charlotte. You can learn more about Frank on the Board of Pensions website.