More than one million Christian pilgrims visit the Holy Land each year. They follow the path that Jesus may have stumbled along as he made his way through Jerusalem to the site of his execution. They make a quick trip into Palestinian territory to view the Church of the Nativity and see the field where tradition says shepherds were guarding their flocks on that first Christmas Eve. Their air-conditioned coaches take them to many other pilgrim sites along the Sea of Galilee and on to Nazareth. Through these travels they come into close touch with much of the ancient history that is so important to our Christian faith.
However, their pilgrimages rarely take them on a visit to experience present history; to the apartheid wall being built to isolate the Palestinian people; to the ancient vineyards of the Palestinian farmers which often are chopped down by new settlers moving into the area who wish to occupy all the land; to the road blocks manned by Israeli soldiers preventing children from reaching their schools or women in labor from reaching the hospital; or to the churches of Palestinian Christians who feel alone and forgotten by the broader Christian community.
No visits are made to the Palestinian refugee camps which have existed since 1948 and house hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families in squalid and desperate conditions. It is estimated that in 1948 when the Israeli state was created, there were some 350,000 Palestinian Christians living on the land. They were a dynamic community and could trace their ancestry back to the early church of Acts. They represented about 20 percent of the population of Palestine at that time. As the State of Israel was formed, the world was told that Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land (emphasis added)." So as some 750,000 Palestinians, of which about 7 percent were Christian, were driven from their homes into refugee camps, the world remained silent.
Today only about 175,000 Christians remain in Israel and Palestine. Many are being driven away from the region by poverty and hopelessness. Those who remain in the region live in misery, confined to camps where schools are under-funded and overcrowded and where housing is ramshackled and sanitary conditions are appalling. ("The American Conservative", May 24, 2004, "Forgotten Christians - Not all Displaced Palestinians are Muslim.")
As the modern-day pilgrims ride in air-conditioned luxury through the wilderness or into the Sinai Desert, they rarely learn of this present-day history which creates so much suffering among their Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters. When they return home, few will share stories of this suffering, or of the roots of the conflict from the perspective of the Palestinian people. In reality, their pilgrimage has not truly been a pilgrimage at all.
While the word pilgrimage suggests a journey to a sacred place or a holy shrine, it also suggests a journey in search of a deeper truth. This journey leads people into the unexpected, allows them to meet the "other" and pushes them to look deep into their own lives to understand more fully how their lifestyles and perspectives impact on the lives of others. To avoid these personal challenges and to ignore the opportunity to learn deeper truths about present history is to play the role of tourist rather than pilgrim.
Having lived in Asia most of my life and also having had the opportunity to visit the Middle East on several occasions, I have been challenged and encouraged by friends here to become a pilgrim on a search for truth. They have asked me to set aside my prejudices as much as possible, to open up my ears to hear those things I might wish to leave unheard, to see the realities around me from the perspective of the oppressed and to have the courage to get angry and to cry at injustice, especially injustice fostered by my own country and my own lifestyle.
It has not been easy - it never is. But it remains an incredible journey of learning and growing. How much I would have missed in life if I had remained in the safe confines of an air-conditioned coach while traveling through communities of unrest, suffering, hopelessness and bitterness. If I had remained a tourist I would not have felt rage at seeing the 30-foot high wall blocking Palestinians from their fields, heard the bitter words of a mother in a refugee camp as she watched her children prevented from going to school, or shared tears with a family whose small dream home was about to be bulldozed because it was suddenly too close to a security road. I offer thanks to God for the experience of this pilgrimage, difficult as it has been, because it has helped me seek ways to contribute, in some small ways, to the urgent task of building God's community here on earth.
It is often tempting to travel as a tourist, seeing only the recommended "sacred spots" and passing by the harsh realities of our modern world, but I urge you to take the challenge of the pilgrimage and to allow yourself the possibility of deep transformation.
For myself, I do hope that one day people will say of me, "He was on a pilgrimage and never tired of the journey."