Posts

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).