Pilgrimage is Felt in the Gut

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 Isabella Fagiani

As we journeyed through Israel Palestine, we put our feet in the places centuries of Christians placed theirs and those Christian tourism often overlooks. We stood in churches, learning they were built upon earlier churches to protect the stones underneath, which pilgrims were guilty of stealing. We stood on the land of the living stones of the Holy Land. We stood with the Palestinian people, who often are built around so the stones underneath them can be stolen.

Pilgrimage hit me in my gut over and over again as we navigated the complexities of overwhelmingly touristy biblical sites — a rock close to a rock where this event important to our faith might have happened. Pilgrimage hit me in the gut as we heard the stories of a variety of people who call the Holy Land “home.”

Moments of holy irreverence found on the steps into the cave in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site for Jesus’ birth. (Isabella Fagiani)

Pilgrimage hit me in my gut in the moments of holy irreverence: jokes made, laughter too loud for a holy site, strangers becoming friends, attempting to make sense of this place, learning as we walked that we were responsible for the stolen stones both ancient and current. Our laughter was an expression of this uncomfortable realization: stones stolen, water withheld, peoples’ lives continually upended. It was an effort to resist the despair that felt all too close. It was defiant joy found traveling with a cast of characters.

Pilgrimage hit me in the gut as we heard words that challenged what we had visibly seen. A Jewish Zionist tour guide, whose family immigrated from the United States and now lives in a Shiloh settlement, shared her perspective on the Israel-Palestine tensions, which did not include Palestinian displacement from their homes. The settler told us about building her house strategically with windows overlooking the setting of several biblical stories. She believed peace could come if those who visited stopped sharing pictures of barbed wire and saw the beauty of the region instead.

But we saw the barbed wire and it could not be ignored.

We saw the young soldiers with such large guns at bus stops, religious sites, and walking in the streets amongst us. We stood next to the mammoth wall and the two roads to separate the Palestinians from the settlers. We saw black cisterns alongside the white ones, visual evidence of how Arab Israeli and Palestinian homes store water for the days when they are restricted access. We saw all of these things.

A Palestinian lawyer and leader in the organization Military Court Watch shared her belief that soon Palestinian Christians will not remain in the Holy Land. Despite the millions of Christians visiting each year, even as I am free to visit, this land is unsustainable to house native Christians — as it has been since the beginning of Christianity.

I continue to feel pilgrimage in my gut as I have traveled home and process headlines. Pilgrimage has hit me in the gut with rage as a settlement in Golan Heights has been named “Trump Heights.” The name illustrates the closeness of our current U.S. President to the Prime Minister of Israel and the long, messy history of the United States’ involvement as uncritical supporters of this nation. We, too, are complicit in the stealing of the stones underneath the feet of those who have long lived in the Holy Land.

My most recent seminary class discussed “reasonable hope.” I realized I do not know what that means in the Holy Land. But, for myself and my country, my hope is we first recognize and repent of our complicity in these crimes. My hope extends to an idea of repentance that truly acts to turn towards God. A repentance in which we take the feeling in our guts and join the life-giving work being done in order to “do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our Lord”(Micah 6:8), just as all believers are invited to do.

Isabella Fagiani is entering her final year of study for an M. Div at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. She delights in kindness, conversation, and coffee. Originally from Niagara Falls, New York, she uses the word “y’all” as if she grew up in the south. If she is not reading or writing, you can find her figure skating, eating ice cream, or hanging out with her youth at The Brandermill Church where she serves as Director of Youth.

Pilgrimage is Shared Grief

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 Whitney Fauntleroy

It is amazing how often we forget to remember. A perfect example is how I forgot to remember to write this blog post until I got a text message from one of my fellow pilgrims. Our scriptures are constantly reminding us to remember, from commandments to the Sabbath to the women who come to anoint Jesus’ body and are told to remember how Jesus told them of his resurrection. That impulse to forget when we should remember is what brought me to the Holy Land Pilgrimage.

In a land so rich in the history of faith, I was struck by the amount of forgetting. For those of us who come to this land rich with the stories that shape us and mold us, sometimes there are so many sites to see that you can forget which one was which. In an era of instant photos and posts, what would it be like to remember this story and the suffering and oppression that is in the rocky soil we traverse? Pilgrimage is in remembering the shared grief and in the solidarity that binds us and them, wherever us and them may be.

A local Palestinian carrying his pack on a donkey as their use of motor vehicles is limited on Israeli roads. (Greg Klimovitz)

We heard from two advocates who spoke of the treatment of young Palestinians who are held in detention centers. The descriptions were cringe-worthy. I saw my fellow pilgrims’ shoulders sink and faces contort at the systemic ways fear and violence plagues communities and the trauma was felt from mother to child over generations. During the portion of their talk reserved for questions and answers, there was a time to hold space for how similar the narrative of the treatment of Palestinians was to the plight of brown and blaock bodies on these shores and in these, as Frederick Douglas wrote, “yet to be United States.”

In Galatians, we are called to carry each other’s burdens and, in doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. We are called to remember that the grief brought upon our Palestinian kinfolk, our Jewish kinfolk, our Latinx and African American kinfolk, through historic and present systems of division, oppression, and othering is all our grief. Shared grief, empathy, honoring, and holding spaces for those who suffer is not specific to which side of the borders and checkpoints one resides in the Holy Land, but extends to places all over the world.

The beauty of the Gospel and pilgrimage being an experience of shared grief is we are not called to stay in the lament but to work towards a flourishing of humanity, in which mourning turns to dancing, and sack clothes and ashes are traded in for garments of gladness. The flourishing of humanity, the reversal of grief and suffering comes not only through fervently praying for dividing walls to be crushed, but also through stubbornly proclaiming to the oppressed, “I see you” and “I see myself in you.” This sort of flourishing demands that we tell the stories we heard in the Holy Land and do not shy away from telling stories even in spaces and places where it seems like ears have been closed and hearts have been hardened.

Rev. Whitney Fauntleroy serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. She has been involved in NEXT Church off and on since she was a seminary student.

Finding Hope in Conflict

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Andrew Plocher is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Andrew Plocher

Conflict is all around us. It seems even more present this Advent than in years past, and it fits well with the beauty of God’s light breaking into the world’s darkness. Conflict. Good versus evil, light versus dark, Advent hymns versus Christmas ones, fear versus love, spritz versus gingerbread cookies. Whether trivial or existential, there are conflicts all around us.

photo credit: love-candle via photopin (license)

photo credit: love-candle via photopin (license)

Learning to agree or disagree in love is not easy. Conflict has a bad rap in our culture and especially the church, where it brings up visions of parking lot conversations and membership in exodus. Yet conflict is not a bad thing. In fact, I believe it is regularly saving my ministry. I don’t know when I first learned to value conflict, but I think it parallels my learning to bake artisan breads. While conflict has the potential to be terribly destructive, it also has the potential to be generative. In baking bread, the leaven (e.g. yeast) is in conflict with the salt. If the leaven wins, the bread lacks texture and flavor. If the salt wins the bread fails to rise and is far too salty. The two have two work together to find a balance so that the perfect texture and flavor are met in the baking of the bread. Finding that balance is part science and part art. The same holds true to navigating the conflicts we face in our daily lives and our congregations.

As I face the seasonal conflicts in congregational life, I try to view them as generative. In every conflict there is the potential for creativity, for death and resurrection, for something new to arise. In the annual squabble over who will be baby Jesus there’s a chance to reframe a pageant, to explore how we value children in worship, and grow as a church family. In a conflict over politics, there’s an opportunity to explore how we communicate with one another, learn to listen, and navigate the intersection of personal values and public faith. None of that is easy, but every time I walk through conflict I do so knowing that there’s the potential for light and life. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with a congregation torn apart, an individual wrestling with how to lead through conflict, or navigating the challenges of my own family politics during the holiday season.

No matter what the conflict, there is hope. It’s in the beauty of Advent and the light coming into the world. It’s in the beauty of baking a perfect sourdough bread. It’s in the beauty of witnessing a community find healing or an individual find a path through a challenging time. It’s witnessing the wonder of agreeing and disagreeing in love. It sounds crazy, but conflict is saving my ministry, and I hope that it might, in some way, do the same for you.


Andrew PlocherAndrew’s workshop: Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love

Conflict has always been a part of religious communities. It is something every congregation, whether just beginning or centuries into its life, experiences. These disagreements can be forces for creation or destruction and navigating that balance is challenging. Come hear about strategies to disagree in love and to join in conversation about how conflict is changing and how we can, as a community of faith, creatively address it in our different contexts. Offered Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register now.

Andrew Plocher is the new pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Gwinn, Michigan, and a minister member of National Capital Presbytery. He has a decade of experience working with conflicted congregations and non-profit organizations. He is also working on finishing his D.Min. in pastoral counseling at Louisville Seminary.

Narrative Theology in Practice: Decision-Making and Governance


By the Rev. Dean J. Seal

Rev. Bryan McLaren was on the Krista Tippett radio show, “On Being.” He said something that jumped out at me when talking about the young spiritual seekers that he was encountering: “We don’t need to come at them with another set of rules. We need to bring them our stories.” This is a methodology that would be very hard to swallow for a faith tradition (Presbyterianism) that was founded by a lawyer. The Teaching Elders are supposed to handle narrative, and the Ruling Elders are supposed to delineate finely woven interpretations thereof. So our General Assemblies can seem to boil down to hair-splitting. Taking a stand on divestment, ordination standards, same-sex marriage, and other issues can take 20 years to resolve… or 20 years to make a new schism. And when schism breaks out, it’s as if we aren’t even inhabiting the same stories anymore.

There are ample reasons to be deliberate, especially in relation to governance. But Robert’s Rules of Order can prevent timely participation in the fast moving world; maybe reason and logic aren’t our prime considerations. Things that are not logical are not necessarily illogical; they can be transrational. Spirituality and the spiritual life transcend logic; they are about an experience of the Holy Spirit. And that is beyond human verbal constract. When speaking of spiritual issues, and the present sufferings of large bodies of human beings, it needs to be encountered directly. We have proved we can parse a course of action until we are blue in the face. What if our goal were to listen to stories instead? Not very pragmatic, but hear me out.

This is to me an essential character of theological practice, the pursuit of narrative. What is more central to our faith tradition than storytelling? Jesus was a magnificent storyteller; his 35 parables are so entrenched in our culture that  it’s part of our language when we have no experience of its provenance. How many people use the phrase “good Samaritan” without realizing that the Samaritans were considered the bad guys? The stories and parables about Jesus round out his biography, so that we can understand him as a man, as a God-intoxicated human of divine inspiration, as a Son of God (wherever you are on the continuum of Christology). It is through his stories that we learn and come to know him, and why he is central to us; the rest is commentary. Like pictures in a stained glass window, the image of the story can be told beyond the specific words. Those stories are worth telling, and worth hearing.

But God did not stop speaking at the end of the New Testament. Each of us has a story to tell, stories of sacred people, spiritual events that shook our world, miracle stories of people who have done amazing things beyond our grasp because they were spirit-filled. Narrative theology is the telling of stories that carry meaning. It can be Moses telling God he was not good enough to lead The People out of Egypt, or it can be something more current.

I produced a play (Marietta) about a woman who forgave the kidnapper of her daughter, before she knew how her daughter was. A true story. And Marietta Jaeger came to tell us about it. She explained that her first reaction was that she wanted to kill the guy, like anyone would. But it didn’t take her long to understand that first, that makes her into him; and second, it makes her into his second victim. In order to recover a life, she had to renounce vengeance, resolve to leave anger behind, and forgive this person. Forgiveness does not grant absolution; it means she has resolved not to be consumed by hate. And Marietta reminds us: “Forgiveness is not for wimps.” It is not an act of weakness; it is an act of strength. And even then an act of strength that she couldn’t manage without God’s help every hour of every day. How many times should I forgive him? Seventy times seven hundred billion.

We can learn from organizations like The Forgiveness Project in London, telling stories about forgiveness and reconciliation that are jaw-dropping. From the website:

“Bassam Aramin became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in the ancient city of Hebron. At 17, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops, and spent seven years in prison. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon – not even when, two years later, his ten-year-old daughter Abir was gunned down and killed by an Israeli soldier.”

Who can bear to hear these stories? These miraculous, impossible  stories? Does it matter if Marietta is a Catholic and Bassam is a Muslim? No. What matters is that we hear these stories, that we give opportunities to hear these stories. There are several organizations of bereaved parents of children killed in the Occupation of Palestine. I would suggest finding a place in the next General Assembly where we either bring in speakers from both sides, or be in contact with them via video conferencing technology. We should listen to these stories with our hearts, informed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of doing all the talking, we can do a deeper, more eloquent job of listening. We can see what happens if we are moved by the Spirit to have ideas, to think and to act, not just instruct others on how they should act. We should be hearing stories, hearing congregants, listening for God’s still, quiet voice.

The telling and hearing of stories can be a healing thing, for both the speaker and the listener. It’s what Therapy is made of. And because there is Narrative Therapy in the telling of any story, we should indulge ourselves in the healing power of this practice, without a preconceived idea of decision-making. At least for a while. The committee work will always be there waiting.


Rev. Dean J. Seal (MATA, MDiv) has a Validated Ministry in Interfaith Dialogue through the performing arts. His 9-year-old non-profit, Spirit in the House, has produced over 100 plays, storytelling performances, film showings and panel discussions. It has produced a Public Television show on Marietta, and 24 YouTube Videos on Forgiveness, as part of the annual Forgiveness 360 Symposium. Seal has also served time in Show Biz, writing for and performing on A Prairie Home Companion; Comedy Central; MTV (La Bamba in Hebrew) and America’s Funniest Videos (La Bamba in Japanese). As Executive Producer of the MN Fringe Festival, he made it the largest non-juried performance festival in the US, which it still is today. His book, Church & Stage, about the use of theater in the congregation, is available on Amazon.

photo credit: Jill Clardy via photopin cc

The Witness of the NEXT Church in an Election Year… and Every Year

By Chris Chakoian

Exactly fifty years ago, Karl Barth said “Take your Bible, and your newspaper, and read both” (in Time, 4/20/1962). My guess is today he’d tell us to look our screens – including the presidential debates. But it’s gotten so ugly, it’s hard to watch. (Women in a binder, anybody?)  At the vice presidential debate, Martha Raddatz nailed it:

“I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, ‘the ads are so negative and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country.’ What would you say to that American hero about this campaign? And at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”

I don’t know about them, but I’m embarrassed. Worse, I know that I’m contributing to the vitriol. Yuck.

I’m not naïve. Conflict is part of life. We have different, sometimes mutually exclusive goals, priorities, values. But how do we handle conflict? For me, the answer is (often), badly. I know we’re hardwired to fight, to flee, or to freeze. But we’re also “made in the image and likeness of God” – and with a frontal cortex, we have the capacity to overrule our first reactions.

What would happen if we took Jesus seriously when he tells us to talk to our opponent directly instead of gossiping or slandering … to bring in a couple of others as referees if we need to … or, at worst, to treat the other person “as a Gentile or a tax collector”? If we think for a nanosecond about how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, maybe we can aspire to treat our opponents in the same way: not as stupid, unworthy, or lost causes, but as children of God deserving of grace, as ones who don’t yet understand, but who may yet grasp the power of God’s love, who are invited to come into the family of grace.

Last Thursday I heard Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps, speak at Chicago Ideas Week. (Eboo is Muslim, btw.) He talked about what we learn when we listen to each other. How Martin Luther King, Jr. learned his greatest lesson not from a Christian but from Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. Then Eboo talked about a young woman in the Interfaith Youth Corp – Balpreet Kaur.

balpreetOn September 22, someone unknown to Balpreet took this picture of her in line at the OSU bookstore and posted it on Reddit in the “funny” section.

The caption read, “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” Soon a torrent of posts flowed in:  –”Beards on women are now in!!! yes!!!” “So is this a transgendered Sikh? Explains why they haven’t shaved and the Turban. One of those things has got to go.” One person said, “It’s Pat,” the SNL mystery man-woman.

This is how Balpreet responded on Reddit:

“Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. …I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being …and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will.

“My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognized that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? No one is going to remember what I looked like. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating chance and progress for this world in any way I can.

“To me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello.”

Balpreet Kaur did what Jesus taught, maybe better than most Christians do. It gives me hope for the rest of us … even now.

christineChakoian_fullsizeThe Rev. Christine Chakoian has led the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois since 2005; on her arrival it became the largest church in the denomination headed by a woman pastor. She serves on the advisory board of the NEXT Church as well as the board of trustees of McCormick Theological Seminary and the Lebanese American University, a Presbyterian-affiliated college in Beirut. A frequent contributor to 30 Good Minutes, a national public television program, Ms. Chakoian is also a columnist for The Presbyterian Outlook and The Christian Century.