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.