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Pilgrimage is in the Resistance

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 Julia Watkins

(Julia Watkins)

With the sun already beating down, we pilgrims stepped out of the climatized comfort of our tour bus and onto the sacred hundred-acre ground where the Nassar family has cultivated fruit trees for the past century. Known as the Tent of Nations, the land overlooks the walled-off city of Bethlehem, where Jesus was once born into occupied rule. The entryway is surrounded by stones painted in the languages of many nations, which proclaim a central message: “WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES.” There, Daoud Nassar welcomed and shepherded us into the shady shelter of one of the property’s many caves.

The caves are among the Nassars’ many creative responses to 28 years of state-issued threats to confiscate the land they have long called home. Perched on the only immediate hilltop yet unoccupied by Israeli settlers, Tent of Nations is prime real estate. If not for the family’s property deed and constant land cultivation, the Israeli state would have claimed their acreage for settlement expansion long ago. As it were, the state has resorted to repeated disruption and intimidation tactics. Government officials have eliminated access to water and electricity, issued demolition orders for structures existing above ground, razed orchards, and obstructed the main access road, all in an attempt to drive the Nassars from their land.

In response, the Nassars might have chosen to take revenge. They might have chosen to surrender to despair. They might have chosen to hate. Most recently, government officials went so far as to offer the Nassars a blank check for their property. They might very easily have chosen to leave.

The Nassar family might have chosen to become victims, but that it not what they did. Instead, they chose a path of creative, nonviolent resistance. They chose to navigate the court system, even at great personal expense. They chose to install solar panels, to collect rainwater, to make room in caves, and to partner with people across differences to fill their demolished fields with trees that will only bear fruit with patience and care.

If survival were the goal, the Nassars’ chosen responses would make little sense. With settlement boundaries creeping ever nearer to their property, it is hard to imagine the family will be able to remain there forever. Eventually, they — like so many of their neighbors — will be displaced.

Inside one of the caves on Tent of Nations property, multiple languages convey some of the core values: “justice, peace, and the conservation of creation.” (Julia Watkins)

But, the Nassars are not moving in the direction of survival. They are taking one step at a time toward bringing the entryway stones’ central message to life. They are refusing to be enemies, instead, choosing a path that dignifies their persecutors as well as their supporters around the world. The Nassars are moving in the direction of life to the full, even if it costs them everything they have.

As pilgrims on our journey toward wholeness, it is tempting to measure our progress by how far we think we have come. We might look to facts and figures to assure us we are on the right path, and to a certain extent, those numbers matter. When we look to the future of the church, it matters that there are people in the pews. It matters that we meet our stewardship goals. Even more, it matters that everyone has equal access to housing, food, healthcare, education, and beauty. Still, if we place our hope in outcomes alone, we will be bound for bitterness and despair. At the end of the day, there will always be more work to do. On the path to justice, we will not find our hope in the outcomes but in the resistance. When together we resist a narrative that ends in death, we — like the Nassar family — join our Risen Lord in life beyond measure.


Originally from Atlanta, Julia Watkins is delighted to have recently returned to the South, where she currently serves as Pastoral Resident for Mission & Outreach at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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.

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.

Pilgrimage is Telling Our Story

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 Ben Kane

Every group has one. They are best described by their actions: the last person on the bus, the one who lingers at each site, the person the leaders must monitor and make sure they get back on the bus. “That Person” best describes this person. I was “That Person” on the NEXT Church Holy Land pilgrimage.

It started before I left Tarboro, when I decided to take a nice camera to capture the trip. Good pictures require time and effort so during the pilgrimage I developed a particular route to get the best pictures. Quickly move to an outside wall, take a wide, circuitous route to scan the entire church and determine where to visit. We only had so much time in each church, requiring us to make decisions. Being in the Holy Land, though, made deciding what to visit immensely more complicated, resulting in my lingering longer at each site. This tactic led me to achieve my title of “That Person” at the Church of All Nations.

Church of All Nations (Ben Kane)

Once inside the church, I found the outside wall when a Catholic Mass in the chancel drew my attention. Everything else went quiet; every other sight ceased to exist. The priest and worshippers lifted their thumbs, touched their foreheads, then their lips, and then their hearts — their movements synced, seemingly guided by a common string. Witnessing this collective movement whisked me back to second grade at St. Bernard’s Academy. There I sat on the side, in the Protestant section of the school’s cathedral while the Catholic students stood in the center aisle practicing the liturgy to receive their First Communion the following Sunday. They would feel God’s presence in the Eucharist and the priest invited them to touch their forehead, lips, and heart. God is always with us, he told us, and we are called to acknowledge God’s presence. I have never been Catholic, but I have borrowed this simple prayer ever since; rarely do you see others praying it, though.

While in my spiritual trance I heard Iyad, our guide’s voice in my ear, “Where’s Ben?” “I’m right here, Iyad,” I said turning around, reminded the earpieces we wore were only one-way communication devices. I stood alone in a sea of tourists. God’s presence surrounded me, but my group did not. After five minutes of fruitless searching, Bob, one of our leaders, entered the garden area outside the church, found me, and like a petulant child, he escorted me back to the group. The group shook their heads, my wife giving me “the eye” and later telling me if I did not stay with the group she would make me wear one of those backpacks with a leash children wear at amusement parks.

On a busy street in Jerusalem I was officially crowned, “That Person.” I tried to explain what happened inside, but the honking buses, sweaty tourists, and a playfully annoyed group left me no time to explain myself; instead, I accepted my title, grabbed a water bottle, bowed to the group, and walked to my seat.

This blog series asks us to finish the sentence, “Pilgrimage is______.” Pilgrimage is telling our story. What we experienced begs to be told. We walked in the footsteps of Christ learning the realities of life for Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews today. We now know what a refugee camp smells like, how a settlement inflicts particular views and values upon its residents and those outside the walls; our experience forces us to watch the news and read the paper without scales on our eyes. Because of our experiences, we laughed, cried, lamented, celebrated, wondered, and worried. And now we are tasked with the call to reveal what made us laugh, cry, lament, celebrate, wonder, and worry. And our stories will do just that.

My story involves around what occurred in the Church of All Nations. I felt God’s presence and when I think about our experiences, when I look at the pictures we took, and when I answer the simple question, “How was your trip?” I cannot help but talk about all the times I felt God’s presence.

On our final night the group walked the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea in Joppa. Bound by a common experience we knew would soon end, we wanted to linger and hold on to this trip. Pictures were taken, promises to keep in touch were made (imagine the last day of junior high, K.I.T.!), and expectations realized. I told a friend in response to her question, “How was this trip for you?” that after feeling God’s presence among everything I had seen and learned, I have a story to tell.

I did not get to tell the group why I was late leaving the Church of All Nations. Instead, I became “That Guy” on the trip. I wore (and still wear) that title with pride, because given the political, theological, social, and historical complexities of the Holy Land, I firmly believe we needed to laugh occasionally. We also need to make sure “That Guy” was on the bus where my fellow travelers had so many other stories to share.


Ben Kane is the spouse of Lydia, dad of Margot and Phoebe, lover of reading, writing, and running (so he can eat what he wants). He pastors with the good people of Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro, NC, a town that’s been called the “Crossroads of Western Civilization.”