Posted on

December 27-29 Journal

The first days.

Day one meant rising with Laurel at 2 am in order to arrive at the Victoria Airport by 4:30ish am. My flight to Toronto left at 6 am arriving about 4 hours later. The layover in Toronto meant traveling to another gate in the airport, waiting there for the flight only to be cleared out of the waiting area to undergo a security check led by (ironically?) a woman in a hijab… Then boarding the flight for our 11hourish journey to Tel Aviv. I sat beside a pleasant woman who informed me she was going to Israel to visit her son, who was studying there, and her mom, arriving at the same time. Movies and sleep won out, so it wasn’t until landing that I discovered her husband was a Rabbi in Toronto. It was interesting to explore feelings about what could be shared while protecting the integrity of the program.

Passing through security, other than the long line up of folk doing the same was care-free and un-exciting. The Customs person asked where I live, I said “Canada” He said “North?” I said, “Not really.” He looked confused, I realized it’s all north to them and said, “Yes, I guess, North”. He asked why I was coming, I said I was a Minister on Sabbatical, coming to learn. He asked if I was like Jimmy Swaggart. I grimaced, said perhaps…and voila, I had my visa and was on my way.

The luggage took a bit of time, but I retrieved it, found the shuttle to Jerusalem, took my seat and was surprised to find my plane seatmate seated next to me here, too. I watched the scenery until arrival.

The scenery is pretty much all four-lane highway through fairly arid country, except where irrigated. Dry hills are dotted with cement construction communities until the sprawl of the new city of Jerusalem begins to crowd the landscape. I’d heard earlier that much of the road infrastructure came from grants and gifts and noted the beginnings of some maintenance issues here and there. It is the ongoing budgets that are hardest to find and fulfill.

Arriving at the hotel Jerusalem (as per instructions) I began my search for the St. Thomas Guest Home. Up and down the streets I trundled my suitcase, carry on and back-pack. Fortunately, a local resident took pity on me, searched out the place himself, came and got me and guided me safely there. It turned out to be almost immediately behind the drop off location, accessed via an ally and indicated by an easily seen sign, if only one had looked up.

The Guest House is attached to and run by the St. Thomas Syriac Catholic Church. I was pleased to find my room was on the second floor (after hauling bags around) until discovering that meant the second floor above the main floor. Oh well, I wasn’t too out of breath. The room is clean and comfortable with attached showers and toilets feature a stern warning to put toilet paper in the waste bin. I suddenly understand the reasons behind the tap configuration in the shower.

I dropped off my bags and decided to deal with jet lag (we’re ten hours ahead of home) by trying to stay up as long as possible. Setting my Barcelona Hat on my recently trimmed head, in defense of the slow drizzle spattering pavement and people, I trekked the paving blocked walkways. The neighbourhood of the guest house is very Arabic in flavour, lots of shops spilling their ware onto the sidewalks, mingling with street vendors selling everything from toques to kebabs, to oranges and coffee. As in my last visit, people continue to park their cars on sidewalks whenever possible, although the speakers in the mosques calling folk to prayer seem to have improved immensely. I can make sense of the tones, the musical calls and the rich timbre of the voices beckoning believers to participate.

Stopping to order a Shawarma wrap (beef or chicken pounded into thin flat circles, stuck on a vertical barbeque spit rotating in front of electric heaters, shaved into a pan and then mixed with many garnishes, a sort of local Subway, with better flavours), I returned to fall asleep at 6 pm local time (about 4 am BC time) just hitting my 26th hour up. In spite of that, I woke up a few times, finally rising for breakfast (a variety of choices, from scrambled eggs to many kinds of preserved veggies, pickles, cheeses and luncheon meats, with pita and fruit salad, complemented by orange juice, water, and instant coffee) at 7 am and heading to the old walled city, a couple of blocks from where I’m staying.

My intention on entering the Old City of Jerusalem was to take some pics, see the sights and (mostly) walk through a developing chest cold while staying up until a reasonable hour. However, I was soon accompanied by a helpful guide who ‘just happened to be going my way’ (I thought he was a friendly chap on his way to work, such a charmer!). He knew everyone, lots of nods and hand slipping down the narrow corridors of shops and throngs of people as we headed to his store.

On the way, he led me to a not too costly cell phone sim card (100 NIS = $37.73 CAD – for one month with 45 gigs and unlimited local calling renewable at 60 NIS a month). As his friend who ran the store tried three different options, investing large amounts of time and effort in the process, he regaled me with stories about the history and the architecture and the conflicts in the place. Eventually leading me here and there through the old City, telling tales of Hadrian’s rebuilding program, and the way the main streets crossing in the centre of the city still form its heart, almost two thousand years later.

When we arrived at the family rug and jewelry store he sat me down with a wee cup of strong Arabic coffee and showed me the bills of lading for all the carpets sold and shipped to North America and elsewhere for people, just like me. Disappointed in my lack of funding for such an enterprise, he took some solace in the fact that I did have $70.00 US in my pocket, seeking another home. Soon found in the cash register.

I’m not sure what he made on the cell phone sim card or even if the store was a family store in all but the broadest of senses, but he was well worth what I spent. I learned much I hadn’t known and gained an insight into the deft handling of random tourists that can make a living for the charming and determined guide. I should regret I had so little to pay him, but he did look fairly happy when I caught a glimpse of him a few minutes later, already nudging another tourist into the pathways of commerce. He was so very good at what he did that I had no idea I was being so carefully led, not until the next day, did I begin to put two and two together. I suppose it helped that two of his less skilled but far more insistent brethren tried the same thing a bit later on. Of course, I was ‘mined out’ by then, as they say.

I spent the rest of the day touring around the city, going to the Western Wall to offer a prayer, noting the addition of security gates at the entrance to the Plaza and the new building going on adjacent to it. Coming across an image of General Allenby with a synopsis of his historical meaning in the area, I paused to take a photo, wondering if this is the same Allenby that Allenby Road is named for at home. Thinking about the irony that Allenby Road at home is a main thoroughfare on the bit of land marked out as reserved to the use of local indigenous people…

Allenby led me to David’s Tower, an ancient citadel built by the Mamluks on the ruins of even more ancient fortifications. It was an interesting tour from many perspectives. The Citadel, now a museum with several interpretation centres gives a glimpse of past wars, in the catapulted stones (shaped to the purpose) lying at the foot of the wall at its deepest. Unveiling the Mamluks, a Genghis Khan looking people enslaved by Arabic Rulers who took over the rule of the land themselves and their supplantation by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, it gives Suleiman credit for restoring the city to some of her former glory. He also caused the public water supply system to be made.

Here too I read a quote about the incredible influence Judaism has had on the world, at least the Western World, as the prophets cried out for justice and called the powerful to account. I wondered what the prophets would think today. Taking pictures from its heights I caught a glimpse of a new wall winding its way across the land. I wondered if it would, in the long run, be any more successful than is predecessors.

On returning to the neighbourhood I tried what I hoped would be a lighter meal. A baguette wrapped around Schnitzel. Twenty minutes later the mortified manager/chef/owner presented me with a meal I could not finish, apologizing for the delay in serving. I returned to the Guest Home to lay down and catch some rest when the desk called. My roommate, Fiaz (pronounced Fee Ahz) was on his way up. As I’d no idea he was coming and had distributed my belongings as if he wasn’t, I had a bit of work to do to ready the place. In my rush I dropped my camera on the marble-tile floor, bending the focus ring and rendering it unusable. Still had the phone camera, but rats! Quelle idiot!

Fiaz is a pleasant, interesting resident of the UK, residing near Yorkshire in a village formerly known for textile production, now focused on making beds. He’s a former teacher, engaged in some NGO work while staying in teaching through supply (or sub) work. He has an interesting perspective on the world, on this place in particular (he’s been here before) and on the possibilities our work presents.

We walked to the old town, met a friend of his who owns a shop there and is involved in work with an orphanage. Went for coffee at an Arabic restaurant and chatted about our histories, our hopes and thoughts about the months ahead.
After our return, I found a camera repair shop online and made plans to journey there the next day. Then tried to fall asleep while worrying that my oncoming cold would exacerbate my rumoured (to me) snoring…Spent a fitful night, in and out of sleep. Jet lagged and congested…sigh.

The next day I met Hannah, newly arrived from Sweden. She was interested in attending church at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. Their chapel service is led by an American Priest and conducted in English. We went together, finding the service interesting and enjoyable, even if they use a different tune for “Go Tell It on the Mountain”… we met some of the outgoing group there, along with other folks who are spending time in Bethlehem at a Lutheran outreach ministry. Good conversations and connections made.

From there we went to the Western Wall (Hannah hadn’t been there) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The crowds at the Western Wall were far greater than the day before. Lots of folk coming to pray, and there seemed to be a couple of Bar Mitzvah celebrations going on as well. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (housing both Golgotha – where Christ was crucified) and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, held quite a few pilgrims, although not as many as my last visit. Stopping to touch the Anointing stone where it is said Jesus’ body was laid out and anointed, worn smooth by centuries of hands rubbing it faithfully, we climbed to the foot of Golgotha.

Western Wall – photo by Keith Simmonds – CC 2019

The site of the cross is enveloped in an ornate church, with worshippers waiting for the opportunity to kneel under the altar and place a hand through a hole in the floor to touch the rock beneath the cross. Both Hannah and I took part, moving from there to the tomb where a long line of the faithful waited for the opportunity to enter in. We met a couple (George and Martha) who’d spoken with us at church a few hours before. They suggested returning at 6:30 as there was often no one else in the church. That seemed like a good idea and we were just about to leave when Hannah spotted a recurrent design on the wall of a small room used for candle and oil sales. The priest in charge, a youngish man named David, explained the image was of the most important churches in the Armenian church. He seemed a bit reluctant, but with some encouragement, explained that Armenia was the first country to accept Christ’s teachings. He had come from Armenia as a younger man. He suggested we return at 4 pm. He told us there would be a ceremony we could participate in and that part of that would involve entering the tomb.

On returning to St. Thomas for lunch we told the others and arranged to meet outside the church at 3:45. I went off to West Jerusalem to find the camera repair shop, meeting a pleasant man who’s a 7th generation Jerusalemite. Didn’t hurt that he liked the camera either. When I expressed regret that its uploading software didn’t work he pointed out its abilities as a camera, while acknowledging that trying to keep up in software was a losing prospect. Leaving things in his hands (if it’s more than 500NIS I won’t do anything without calling) I turned back towards the Old City, walking through wide streets laid out in ways reminiscent of Barcelona, with cafes and carts and people everywhere. Unlike the area of St. Thomas, these folks were (as far as I could tell) almost exclusively Jewish. Still pleasant, music-loving folk enjoying one another’s company, just in different ‘clothes’.

We met at the church as arranged, eight of us going in to meet David. He encouraged us to wait for the ceremony to begin and, by four-thirty, we found ourselves amongst a group of pilgrims following a procession of Armenian Priests, chanting and canting in ancient ritual very reminiscent of the Gregorians, moving around the church in what must have been the stations of the cross, to the tomb (where we entered, as promised) and outside of it where we were invited to kiss the bible in token I believe of Christ’s resurrection. His victory over death. His assurance that death has no power.

It was a compelling experience. The sounds of male voices, call and response, reverberating in the space, sent back from rock and marble to penetrate bodies, inhabit being and excite souls. Rituals dating back to the earliest moments of Christianity, proclaimed by a church trying still to find acknowledgment of genocide from those who carried it out over a century ago. Voices appropriate in time and space. Wandering out in altered states we returned to the Guest Home, shared dinner, compared feelings and found our way to sleep.

The next day, December 30th, all having arrived, we begin our training.

3 Replies to “Ecumenical Accompaniment in Palestine and Israel”

  1. Hi Keith
    I agree, your first post is a joy to read, no matter where you are those around you are fortunate to be in conversation with you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.