Snow and long lines at security checkpoints greeted us as we started our 13-day Taste and See Israel course with Professors Sarah Schreiber and Amanda Benckhuysen, while some of us carried with us exhaustion and lingering flu symptoms. These were the realities juxtaposed against the incredible reality of visiting the Holy Land, where Abraham was given God’s promise of his blessings, where Moses led the children of Israel through the wilderness assured of God’s cloud and pillar presence, and where God Himself became one of us. So while we eagerly looked forward to a “real” taste of ancient biblical history: dipping in the Dead Sea, boat-riding on the Sea of Galilee, dirtying our hiking boots and gyms shoes, and savoring some good Mediterranean food, there was perhaps also an unconscious desire to taste and see hope in a land where God first put His footprint.
Layers and layers of stone and mortar evident the first few days at some of the historical sites, particularly in places like Masada and Beit She’an, were signs of the bitter reality of struggle and conquest among ancient civilizations. These ancient signs of conflict seemed to echo contemporary conflict between Israel and Palestine over occupation. Our visit to Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) in the West Bank gave us much educational fodder on the Israel/Palestine situation to chew on. The everyday realities of the Palestinians: having to avoid certain roads, traveling long distances to navigate around Israeli-controlled territory and being subjected to work curfews in Israel, also provoked some emotions. Dr. Munther Isaac, one of the BBC faculty members, seemed to echo the cries of the Christians there in his thesis title, “Where is Christ at the checkpoint?”
Conflicts over two sites considered sacred continued to remind us of humanity’s brokenness. The first, Temple Mount, is a most holy site for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and has long been a center of tension with each group protective of their sacred quarters. A second site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we found was a center of tension among Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches, which all claimed rights to worship there. A ladder remains leaning against the wall at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, untouched for some years, a visible sign of ongoing conflict. Land mines also remain some yards from the path to the Jordan River, not far from an abandoned church, where in years past believers remembered the baptism of our Lord.
So where, amidst such violence and suffering, could we see glimpses of hope? We saw hope in the people who continued to profess their faith in Jesus Christ and were baptized in the Jordan River despite the muddy water; in the tears and emotional stirrings in the hearts of fellow Calvin Seminary students who were perhaps reminded of their own baptism; in the convergence of people from all around the world to the Holy Land because of their deep love for Christ and a desire to walk where Jesus walked; and in the students and professors from Western Theological Seminary and Calvin Theological Seminary who all gathered at St. Anne’s Church and were enchanted by the echoes of their harmonized voices singing, “Amazing Grace” and “It is Well With My Soul.”
There was also hope seen in the diverse group of CTS students whom God brought together for the trip: some Korean, some Canadian, and some African-American and Latino; some Distance Learning students, and some Grand Rapidians: all just ordinary folks. We became like family, thanks to the wonderful leadership of Sarah and Amanda who, in a spirit of friendliness and knowledge like that of our experienced bus driver and tour guide, greeted us each morning with the Hebrew words, “Boker tov,” which means, ‘Good morning!”
The Tent of Nations, located in the West Bank, was the last site we visited, and it stood out like a beacon of hope. Palestinian Christians, Daher and his family – who own the Retreat Center – faced many challenges: no running water, no plant-generated electricity, and, because of Israeli government restrictions, no access to resources to develop their land, which the family has legally claimed for over 100 years. But Daher and his family remained optimistic. The cave-turned meeting room, where we gathered for a debrief, was flooded with David’s passionate speech. “Tell them our story,” he says. It’s a story of endurance and faith, of not knowing sometimes where help will come from. But it’s also a story of God’s help through many well-wishers and supporters from abroad who continue to provide for the needs of the Palestinian people.
Cara DeHaan, one of the Calvin Seminary students who went on the trip, wrote this blog: “On the day we visited Bethlehem Bible College, some of us ate lunch with Walter Brynjolfson, a student from Vancouver, Canada, enrolled in BBC’s brand-new MA in Peace Studies. Walter shared that he is financing his education and supporting the local [Palestinian] economy by transforming tear gas canisters thrown by the Israeli army into Christmas ornaments. He collects the canisters littering the streets of Bethlehem (and even the grounds of BBC), removes the ash, paints them, and finishes them off with ribbon. His “peace parcels” are sold locally and on etsy.com – an inspiring example of how swords can be beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4). Some of us left the Retreat Center thinking the world would be in good hands if there were more people like Walter and more people like Daher, who boldly declared, ”We refuse to be an enemy!” This is the kind of hope that is grounded nowhere else but faith in Jesus Christ!
We began the journey home exhausted and had to undergo more security checks. But we were returning with new eyes for reading the Old and New Testament, new knowledge, new friendships, and a deeper love for God and His people. What a trip!