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Pilgrimage as an Altar

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. Ian Clark

Altars take many forms. In the church where I grew up, as well as the church I currently serve, the altar is a simple wooden table. In some churches, they are more ornate, perhaps made of marble. I have seen the tailgate of a truck turned into an altar; during our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I saw a simple bench turned into one as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Whatever form they take, altars are rich in significance. They are tables around which we gather as Christian community; the place where we seek spiritual nourishment for the journey of faith. And they are the tables to which we bring our offerings; the place where we return to God a portion of what God has given to us.

(Greg Klimovitz)

In this, the altar seems like something of an allegory for the core of Christianity. In the altar there is a tension, for the altar is a place of both giving and receiving. In the altar we are reminded at once of the gifts we receive and the responsibilities we have. In some ways, the altar represents all that we do in worship and all that we strive for outside of worship.

If the altar is a place of sacred tension, so too was our experience of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

My soul was fed as I walked where my Lord walked. To breathe the same air and witness the same sunsets as Christ did, I found myself moved closer to my faith in a more intimate way. In gazing upon the same seas and mountains that Jesus looked upon, and in feeling the same dizzying heat that he felt, I found myself experiencing him anew. Scripture came alive and I began to better imagine the ministry of Christ.

And, yet, for all of the spiritual nourishment that was provided, I was also deeply reminded of what I owe in return. Looking upon cities divided by concrete walls, walking through refugee camps, and hearing the stories of families living in fear, I was reminded that God’s love made known in Christ carries with it a responsibility for the believer: Christians, nourished by God’s goodness, are to seek a world which better reflects God’s vision of wholeness and justice, mercy, and compassion.

And, so, I see my pilgrimage to the Holy Land as something of an altar. I went to be fed, and I was. I went for community, and I received it. I also experienced this altar’s sacrificial call: the call to give of myself for the building of God’s kingdom. The call to escape my own comfort so others might taste freedom and experience the fullness of God’s call on their life.

So, next time I stand behind an altar of wood or stone to offer the words, “this is my body, broken for you,” I dare say it will take on a new meaning for me. Christ’s body is, indeed, broken for me: broken so that I might be fed – and broken so that I might respond in a way that heals.


Ian Clark is a pastoral resident at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His ministry focuses on the care and development of young adults, as well as Christian education. He is a 2018 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and is an officer in the United States Navy’s Chaplain Candidate Program. He is married to Kaitlin, a critical care nurse, and together they enjoy hiking, camping, and cooking.

Pilgrimage is Seeing with New Eyes

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 Therese Taylor-Stinson

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Prou

This was my fifth attempt to visit “The Holy Land.” My aspiration was not big. I just wanted to be part of a group traveling there, visit biblical sites, and perhaps come back with new eyes for seeing.

Each of the first four attempts failed, even when I scheduled a Mediterranean cruise for my husband and me with two ports in Israel. The ship was diverted because of conflict in the region. I began to think this was a bucket list item I would not accomplish — until I saw the NEXT Church announcement.

Though a little weary of trying, I applied to go on the pilgrimage and requested a scholarship, and once accepted, I dutifully paid my installments as directed. It looked like I was finally going to Israel-Palestine, until about 2 weeks before our departure, when I became increasingly congested with asthma. I visited my pulmonologist, who gave me an emergency pack for the trip, and dutifully took my meds until flight time with a promise from pilgrimage leaders that they would help me through the challenges that the landscape and heat would bring. And they did beyond my expectations.

After a 4:00AM wakeup in DC, on May 19, to make a 10:00AM flight to New York, an unexpected coughing attack driving through Rock Creek Park to the airport threatened to turn me around to go back home. I made it to the airport, followed by an unexpectedly easy and fully accepted check-in for our 11-hour flight on El Al, only to hit the ground running in Tel Aviv at 5:00AM the next day, with a full day of pilgrimaging. As we rode to Bethlehem, the beauty of the city, the starkness of the desert, and the vastness of the land struck me immediately. It was a 48-hour, nonstop beginning!

A purpose of our pilgrimage was to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to compare it to systemic racism in the U.S. In Bethlehem, we met with Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, and founder and president of Dar al- Kalima University College of Arts and Culture. Dr. Raheb is the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date, and he was ready to give us a lesson on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(Therese Taylor-Stinson)

Dr. Raheb showed us the progression of the Israeli occupation — from a whole Palestine in 1946 to only a smattering of land today. He advised us of how the occupation is not only land-based, but also psychological; he showed us the extent of the occupation of land, resources, airspace, and the narrative. Israelis occupy water resources by giving residents colored water tanks. Israelis get white tanks with unlimited water access, and Palestinians get black tanks with access only three days a week. Israelis also control the narrative — “the Palestinians are violent.”

Compare the distribution of resources and the Israeli occupation of the narrative with racism in America, where the distribution of wealth, land, and resources systematically favors white Americans. Where the narrative about African-Americans in the U.S., or the black countries on the African continent, or the neighboring migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. from Mexico, or the oppression of people of color anywhere on the planet, favors a white perspective. I recently learned of how the narrative of black people is controlled even in our sacred Christian texts. The Biblical narrative we receive is the Roman narrative, with a few disparaging mentions of black characters, such as Simon of Cyrene, carrying Jesus’ cross, and an Ethiopian eunuch chatting with Paul. No mention of the Ethiopian Empire of Axum or how the Ethiopian Christians might have played a significant role in evangelizing Africa, including West Africa, where scholar John Mbiti states that Christianity was evident as early as the third century.

We were advised not to react. So, I struggled for control as I heard an Israeli military officer very matter-of-factly speak of random raids of Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, tying and blindfolding the male inhabitants and taking them out to the desert. He said, “We don’t have to kill many of them. Their minds will do more harm than we can by killing them.” He described these tactical incidents, with no sense of remorse, until the Palestinian woman with him spoke of the trauma these raids impose on the Palestinian women and children. I saw him put his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, apparently trying to abate tears. How awful! Yet, how familiar to the police raids in areas of concentrated poverty in the U.S. This was horrifying, and my most challenging moment.

We also visited The Tent of Nations, where Palestinian Christian Dauod Nasser has papers for his land near an Israeli settlement. With certain self-determination, he maintains his rights and offers an olive branch of peace to the world that visits him. Dauod shows the same love, openness, and desire for peace to his oppressor that African Americans have shown to theirs for centuries. We visited a school where the self-determination of Palestinian women care for those held in a refugee encampment made of narrow ally ways, teaching them the basics for survival and feeding them. We also visited an encampment where the children live. Not wanting anything but a smile and greeting in return, they ran to us to say, “hello.” These are also the qualities I often see at home in the self-determination of black and brown people in the U.S., so now I know pilgrimage is having new eyes for seeing, and hoping, and continuing….


Therese Taylor-Stinson is a retired Federal Senior Program Analyst and former expert on Federal regulatory activity, where she also served as a lead mediator for Equal Employment Opportunity disputes across Government. She is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served as Moderator of National Capital Presbytery in 2016. A graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Therese is a spiritual director in private practice for well over a decade and a member of the Shalem Society for Contemplative Leadership. She was also commissioned associate faculty for Shalem’s Personal Spiritual Deepening Program. Therese is the founder and organizer of the Racial Awareness Festival held in Washington DC, supported by National Capital Presbytery. 

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 in the People

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 Lydia Kane

I do not know what my expectation was for the pilgrimage before we boarded the plane for Tel Aviv. I think I wanted to see holy sites and be open to letting God work in my life. I was seeking renewal. I realized in reading and preparing for the trip, I had been willfully ignorant about the situation with Israel and Palestine. Learning about the conflict made me realize the pilgrimage would not be as straightforward and inwardly focused as I had originally thought, but I was hoping to make the journey without setting too many expectations, without limiting myself by seeking a certain place, feeling, or experience.

I found each place we traveled to, both in Israel and Palestine, whether incredibly new or old, was a place where people felt connected to the land and in many places expressed that through various forms of art. From holy sites from 2,000-plus years ago to schools, farms, and settlements in the present, God has always sought us out where we are, in our bodies, embodied, so this makes sense that we humans would mark these experiences of the holy in our lives with art.

(Lydia Kane)

The art exhibit Limitless at The Walled Off Hotel gave me a window into the people of Palestine. Yes, it is a tourist attraction (misery tourism as one of our trip leaders called it). And yes, I was moved by the gallery as well as the exhibits without and within the hotel and think tourists should keep going there. If there is a giant symbol of a problem, like a border wall that separates two groups of people, should not a person take the opportunity to go touch it, to know it exists and to empathize with the people whose lives it affects daily? With the artist Banksy taking the creative lead, the wall outside the Walled Off Hotel has become a mural and recorder of this moment in history with images as well as stories from the people. This wall, which once was not a part of their holy land, has now become a part of them.

(Lydia Kane)

Inside the small art gallery, just inside the border wall in Bethlehem, is a small collection from some of the most influential and well-known Palestinian artists, along with some newcomers. The collection is called Limitless after a piece by Mahdi Baraghithi, titled Had. I asked the woman working in the gallery to tell me about Had and she explained that all of the words on the bright blue canvas are variations with the same root of the word limit — to be limited, limitless, and so on.

Looking around, there was a painting by Nabil Anani titled Border with a woman sitting on her suitcase, as if posed, with the wall as the backdrop, cutting off and hiding the bottoms of the buildings it conceals behind it. Looking to the other side of the gallery there are two canvases with little boys doing jumps and tricks, like at a skatepark, but with the wall as their ramp. Mohammed Al Hawajri created another pair that looks like magical realism come alive. In one piece a man and woman float, the man holding on to the woman, above the wall, flying past the limit since they are not allowed to pass any other way. In the other piece a couple is on a rooftop near the wall and the man’s feet are firmly planted on the roof while the woman floats like a balloon on a string, the image suggesting that some force is drawing her toward the open air space over the wall. These Palestinian artists seem to say that if their bodies must live with limits, they at least have no boundaries imposed on their art.

Pilgrimage is in the people, past and present. Seeking the holy through the art of the Holy Land led me back to hope. I think hope is found in the relationships we make, the stories we carry with us from scripture that are our tradition of hope, and in creating new means of expressing hope, to which the artists of Palestine bear witness. This was my experience of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

As we progressed through holy sites and met amazing people doing amazing things for youth and children in Palestine, I thought about how much is needed in my own community. I do not want to ignore the need for reconciliation, education, and human rights in Palestine, but I left feeling a renewed calling to be awake to the human bodies within a mile of my own home that do not enjoy the same safety, education, and standards of living that I do. Hope is big enough for all of us and we know that God cares for every body.


Lydia Kane is a parent, spouse, and educator living in Tarboro, NC with her family. She has studied literature, theology, and special education and loves seeking out ways for those three fields to intersect.

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.”

Pilgrimage is Discovering Hope

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 Jessica Tate

Saint Jerome called the land “the fifth gospel.”

The main exhibit of Yad Vashem, the World Holocasut Remembrance Center, concludes with guests overlooking the Promised Land.

A family of Palestinian farmers fight in Israeli courts to hold onto the land that has been registered to their family for generations.

The land where ancients wandered in wilderness is vast and dry and harsh and rugged.

A Jewish settler in Shiloh tells us of the power of prayer in the land believed to be the site of the ancient tabernacle and Hannah’s prayer for a son.

A 26-foot wall divides the land in pursuit of security, separating people from each other, their land, and access to education, jobs, and medical treatment.

The land encroaches on the Dead Sea, as the water recedes at a rate of four feet a year due to change in climate.

From the Mount of Olives, one looks across the land to see the Old City of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, and the Garden of Gethsemane.

From the Mount of the Beatitudes, the land whispers the promise, “Blessed are those who are meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Photo by Ben Kane

We set out as 35 pilgrims to explore Israel/Palestine in a pilgrimage of learning, laughter, and tears. We encountered stories of promise, hope, and struggle in the Holy Land. We “walked where Jesus walked” to gain greater biblical insight for preaching and teaching. We learned from NGO leaders to gain insight into one of our world’s most vexing struggle for peace and justice. We met with Christian and Muslim leaders to explore future mission partnerships. We forged bonds of friendship that will offer support for years to come. We heard disparate perspectives so that we might make informed opinions regarding present realities in this land.

The NEXT Church blog this month will share practical and theological reflections from the participants on the pilgrimage. Through the posts you will catch glimpses of the itinerary of this trip, but this blog series is not a travelogue; rather, the posts are offerings, based on encounters or confrontations with God on the journey. We hope they will invite you also into the journey, the learning, and the pilgrimage. The posture we invited pilgrims on this trip to take was one of a guest, entering the spaces and places to listen and to learn. We invite you into that posture in reading these reflections.

Over the course of the trip we saw images of great beauty — from olive groves and vineyards, to prayers at the Western Wall, to the quiet of the Garden Tomb. We saw images that haunt — from public buses searched at checkpoints, to images of horror from the Holocaust, to settlements commanding space on lush hilltops. What stays with me the most — what is inspiring me and giving me hope — are the snapshots of tenacious hope we saw in the people we met.

We visited Tent of Nations at Daher’s Vineyard, a Palestinian farm, where the Nassar family is fighting (legally and non-violently) to keep their land, despite the Israeli settlement that is growing up around it. The family is engaged in an extensive and costly legal fight for their land, despite having documentation of ownership. They have endured increasing isolation — destruction of the road to their property, cut off of fresh water to the land, orders not to build on the property. The family’s response has been to learn sustainable farming practices, to convert to solar energy, to turn the caves on the property into proper living spaces. When the trees of the vineyard were destroyed in 2014 by the Israeli military, the Nassar family took grief and anger and channeled it into new life. They worked with Jews for Just Peace and friends from around the world to replant 5,000 trees on the land. And beyond that, the Nasser family opens the farm to teach non-violence to Palestinian children who live in the midst of trauma. They host a women’s empowerment project, teaching English and computer skills to support the local community.

There is a rock that marks the entrance to the Daher’s Vineyard. On it is a hand-painted inscription that reads, “We refuse to be enemies.”

And in the wind rustling through the trees I heard the promise, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC.

Building Bridges, Allowing for Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Don Meeks and Jeff Krehbiel are curating “Can We Talk?”, a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. Can we bridge the theological differences that divide us? Can we even talk about them? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Roy Howard

There are bridges that need to be repaired. Some are too worn out to depend on; yet everyday we do. They must be replaced sooner rather than later. Of course, I’m not only speaking about the infrastructure of our country’s highways, which we know is in dire need of repair. I am talking about the moral infrastructure of our common life in civil society. The relational fabric of our lives is in deep need to repair, restoration and rebuilding.

The damage of the election cycle is serious and deep. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and Hilary Clinton defeated, there will be a great need to construct new bridges and repair existing ones. The Church that is sustained by the crucified God whose reconciling love for all people was manifest in Jesus Christ can be a witness in these turbulent days, and not by speech alone. Bridge-building is necessary not only in this country but around the world, and it is certainly not the work of Christians alone. The work belongs to all people of faith and good will. One such group is Interfaith Partners for Peace, an organization to which I belong, that brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders as partners for peace in local communities and on behalf of Israelis and Palestinians.

roy-middle-east-groupEarlier this month, I traveled to Israel and Palestine with 23 other pastors and rabbis from across the country who are partners in their local communities. Never have I experienced as much hope for the possibilities of repairing relationships as I did on this trip. I cried frequently in response to what we heard. My partner was Rabbi Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El, with whom I’ve shared mutual ministry for years. The goal of our visit was to listen and learn from Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Christians and Muslims – as they share their multiple narratives that compete and collide. We especially were seeking examples of people who are building bridges that foster new narratives that allow for hope in the face of despair and paralysis.

It was an extraordinary experience that revealed stark despair, anger and fear countered in stunning ways by people of hope daring to take some risks. I must say, in all candor, no one we met in Israel or the West Bank is optimistic. Yet we met people who are hopeful in the face of the facts. This true hope that runs deeper than sentimental optimism is what gives them courage to do such bold things. It also challenges me to do the same across barriers that are much less daunting.

Here is one example.

Shaul Yudelman is a Jewish teacher and settler who experienced the fear and anger of his local communities as they bury their dead from suicide bombings. He has joined with his enemy, Ai Abu Awwad, a leading Palestinian activist and non-violent freedom fighter, to establish a center in the West Bank near a particularly violent checkpoint, where Palestinian and Israeli families share meals and their stories. They do programs attempting to build relationships with people who both belong to the land that is holy. Neither has abandoned their people’s narrative, but both are trying to build a new story; one of reconciliation between avowed enemies, of friendship and compassion.

I found it an astonishing example of God at work for good. As one Rabbi said, “Tonight I stood in front of a man who identified himself as a terrorist and I looked into his eyes and I acknowledged his humanity and he acknowledged mine and I wrapped my arms around him and I felt guilt. I will go back and preach that story and remind people that every human being is capable of redemption, becoming greater than what they are.”

They are under threat for doing such work. This is hope against all odds.

Jews call this work, tikkum olam, which means to repair the world. This kind of bridge building calls me to do the same.


roy_howard_04_webRoy Howard has served for 16 years as pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian in North Bethesda Maryland. During that time his congregation has traveled to Israel-West Bank with their partner Jewish congregation and participates in regular interfaith activities. His recent book, Walking in Love, describes his 543 mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.