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Pilgrimage is in the Leaving

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

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we did.

Sunset on the beach of Joppa (Greg Klimovitz)

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

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


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

Pilgrimage is Not What I Expected

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

by Rev. Allison Wehrung

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

Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem, Palestine (Allison Wehrung)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Pilgrimage is Dancing

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 Patchett

The children welcomed us with dancing.

Our band of pilgrims walked into Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus just before lunch. Nablus is a city in the West Bank, 30 miles north of Jerusalem, with a population of about 140,000 Arab Palestinian Muslims, Christians, Samaritans, and Jews. It is home to the traditional site of Jacob’s Well and in the shadow of Mount Gerazim, where Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well for a glass of cool water and a rousing theological debate.

Today, Nablus is also home to several refugee camps and a military occupation. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, many generational Palestinian families were forced out of their Nablus homes. Seven thousand of these Palestinian Muslims and Christians were herded into tents forming a camp called Balata. With nowhere else to go, families stayed, people built cinderblock structures, and over the past seventy years, Balata became a permanent home to more than 27,000. Most of today’s residents of Balata were born, have given birth, and know they will face death in the same 1/10th of a square mile.

(Greg Klimovitz)

I have been to Balata twice. There is no air conditioning. Doors open into narrow alleyways where adults must turn sideways to pass. Dirty dish water splashes down overhead. Graffiti tells the story of a half century, several generations, of life on hold.

Balata is often placed on curfew by the Israeli Defense Force, which means no one can come in or out of the camp. Sometimes curfew lasts a few hours. Other times a few days. During one of the uprisings, 27,000 people were locked in one tenth of a square mile for a year.

Perhaps the most terrifying reality of living in Balata is that the Israeli Defense Force conducts weekly search and arrest operations in the middle of the night. Youth as young as 12 are frequently taken from their beds and into military police custody without notice to their parents of where, why, or how long they will be held.

Walking past concrete rooms, one can hear arguing and crying. Hopelessness, domestic violence, and suicide threaten every block.

And yet, the person whose footsteps I have followed each time through this camp is a woman named Suhad. She grew up in Nablus. When she was five years old, she saw her best friend shot and killed in the street by an Israeli Defense Force soldier. She has seen cousins killed, lost friends and uncles, and been hit in the head by the butt of an automatic assault weapon.

Suhad also went to graduate school in Europe. And she says it was there, for the first time, she saw free people, realized it was not normal to live the way she grew up, and learned she had basic human rights that had been violated.

Suhad earned degrees in psychology and counseling. Though she could have taken other opportunities, Suhad moved back to Nablus to be a family therapist and eventually joined a team that created Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. Her vision as TYO’s Center Director and Psychosocial Program Manager is to help every child in the Balata refugee camp have a safe, supportive place to soothe traumas, learn how to read and write, and begin to find — with their own voices — a way to claim their own basic human rights.

Ten years later, TYO serves more than 1,000 children and youth, in addition to their families. TYO provides two shifts of daily programming for pre-school and school-age kids that includes reading, writing, arts and crafts, dancing and exercise, therapeutic support, and two meals. TYO does all of this for $50 per child per year.

I have often thought that if I walked into the same program in my hometown, I would not have found it remarkable. Reading, singing, dancing, playing — it is normal and pedestrian in Concord, North Carolina or Marietta, Georgia. But in the midst of Balata Refugee Camp, it is all an act of faith, a bold reclamation of personhood, a joyous defiance of all that dehumanizes people in the midst of a 70-year warzone.

(Greg Klimovitz)

When we pilgrims walked into the gym at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, we did not know the song the children were singing. But when they saw us come in, they changed the music. The Cha-Cha Slide blared, and everybody clapped their hands. Together, we danced and laughed and remembered that though crying may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.

Pilgrimage is dancing. It is pausing along a long, hard hike to remember with heart and soul, mind and body, in the company of friends and strangers what the journey is about after all.

In the days since my pilgrimage through Palestine and Israel, I have paused often to be grateful for Suhad and hundreds of children who greeted us at TYO. Dancing with them renewed my vision and refueled my desire for a world in which children can grow up without fear, young women and men know their worth, and all can live with dignity and joy.

If you’d like to learn more about Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, you can find them at www.tomorrowsyouth.org and join me in supporting their work at https://tomorrowsyouth.org/donate.


Jessica Patchett is the Senior Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She enjoys helping people discover life-renewing connections with communities of faith. She finds joy in friendship, yoga and running, good poetry, and exploring new places. You can find her on Instagram – jessicareneepatchett – and Facebook – Jessica Renee Patchett.

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 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.