“Are you okay? I just saw the news. Just checking on you.”
This was a message I received on October 7, the first time I knew anything about the war in Israel erupting around me.
I had been sitting on a bus with nearly thirty Christian pilgrims from two Washington churches, St. John’s Lafayette Square and my own parish Christ Church Georgetown.
We were teenagers, elderly with walking sticks, singles, marrieds, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, but we had formed a tight bond in the week we had been there.
This was not a jolly holiday we were on, but a pilgrimage-one that has been done by Christians for centuries. I was wondering if the sites I’d be seeing would overwhelm me with emotion. These were places, after all, I’d been hearing about since childhood. The tales from Sunday school and legends of Christmas carols were finally coming to life.
The previous days had been picture perfect.
We had idled by the Sea of Galilee with sunlight hitting the crystalline water at exactly the right angle creating an ethereal chill down my spine. This is what I had wanted-sign seeing more than site seeing.
We had renewed our baptism vows at the muddy River Jordan, and prayed at the Western Wall with hundreds of Jews keening around us.
Our guide was a Palestinian Christian who gave us contemporary context. I was unable to visit Rachel’s Tomb as it’s enclosed around a vast wall-cold and graffiti-lined-a stark reminder of discord in a place of hope for us Christians.
Earlier that morning in Bethlehem near Shepherd’s Field I encountered a young boy hawking his only possession-a baby goat. A few shekels to hold the goat for a selfie.
We saw many children like him. They shouldn’t be out bartering with tourists. They should be in school, most of us thought.
These were the sites I wasn’t expecting to see that made me question my faith. Why are people hungry and suffering on land that is supposed to be holy?
We were in Nazareth when Israel declared war. I was staying in a convent with a direct line of vision to the steeple of the church where Mary is said to have received the news she was to be the mother of God.
I went across the street and stood in front of a statue of her thinking of my own mother and the dread in her voice from our phone conversation minutes before.
Now the group faced a practical crisis-should we stay in Nazareth where it is relatively safe or return to Jerusalem and get on flights back home?
We decided to head back, and found Jerusalem to be steady and calm. Restaurants and streets were bustling as they had been a few days before.
A few friends and I walked through the Damascus Gate down to the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall. It was eerily quiet there, however, except for the Israeli flag flapping in the breeze. Just a week before the Wall had been flooded with worshippers for Sukkot, but on this day, I was one of only a handful seeking God behind a Herodian mass of ancient stone.
That evening danger became real when we heard air raid sirens. We rushed into a basement to commiserate and plan.
Did you hear that too? Is that what I think it was? The need for exodus became immediate, but we stuck to our plan to have dinner together and hear our speaker for the evening.
He was an Israeli man who had been invited to give us perspective on our visit from a Jewish perspective. It was brave of him to be there under the circumstances, but like most people in Jerusalem, life is going forward as usual.
He paused during his talk to take a call from his eighteen year old son in the Israeli Defense Force.
We listened patiently as he spoke in Hebrew for a few moments.
“He’s okay, “ the man said, putting down the phone. The look of relief on his face still haunts me.
This was Monday October 9. My flight was scheduled to leave on Wednesday October 11. My Christ Church friends pleaded with me to leave the next morning which would require getting a new flight out of Jordan and crossing the border and a number of tedious check points.
The next morning we boarded our tour bus and headed toward Jordan. I hugged our bus driver Omar goodbye feeling guilty leaving him and our tour guide behind.
I sat on my suitcase under a sweltering sun with hundreds of others desperate to escape a war zone.
Once in Jordan, we squatted in a rare patch of shade for two hours to get a cab to Amman, constantly giving each other reassuring smiles, pats on the back, or a few drinks from a water bottle.
The stalwart support we gave to each other and the community of faith we formed was more impactful that any of the religious ruins we saw that week.
Once the wheels lifted off the ground for my fourteen hour flight back to Washington, I was thinking-through the grogginess of my sleep deprivation, of the word pilgrim. I jotted it down and looked blankly at it.
I crossed it out and wrote “believer.”
Some come back from the Holy Land renewed in the beliefs, some come back questioning them. All come back changed. I certainly did.