Final Day

We made our way to the old city in Jerusalem this morning for worship at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Pastor Carrie preached on the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish. Can we expect a miracle in Palestine? It seems like the only things multiplying here are settlements and checkpoints. We made our way to the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple. There are places for men and women to pray separately. (The women’s section is smaller.) Security was tight because it is a Jewish holiday mourning the loss of the first and second temples. After falafel for lunch we got in line to see the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa mosque. It is still not clear to us what we witnessed when entering the grounds. There were lots of riot police and a group of Muslims chanting “Allahu Aqbar.” There also appeared to be Jews attempting to get onto the grounds which is usually not permitted. We were hustled past the chaotic scene to the exit. We returned to the guesthouse on the mount of olives where we have been staying to hear an Israeli widow and a Palestinian mother each describe losing a loved one in this conflict. It is easy to see an enemy as less than human. Palestinians and Jews need to realize that they are neighbors and need each other to build a secure society for Israelis and a free society for Palestinians. After a final group meal and closing reflections we are all going our separate ways. What a wonderfully complex experience our time in Israel and Palestine has been!


The Right to Live Abundantly

Today was an intense and emotional day to say the least.

We started off by going to a thoughtful service in the Redeemer Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was a slice of home in a foreign and complicated place. Pastor Carrie led the sermon by connecting to her wide range of audience members with questions about loving thy neighbors and what is truely important. One of our own group members, Tim, accompaned the congregation with the piano throughout the entire service. Overall, it was a beautiful morning.

After church, we walked down to the Western Wall and got to stick some of our prayers into the cracks of the rock. It was facinating to see how others pray at holy sites such as this one. The wall was much smaller than I had imagined; there was a large area for the men to pray and the women’s area was about a fouth of the size of the men’s.

After the Western Wall, we stopped at this wonderful resturant in the Old City and had some of the best falafel anyone in the group had ever tasted! All the food on this trip has been delicious, but this was by far my favorite.

This is the part where the day got really intense. After lunch we walked around the Old City and went to a rooftop to lookout over all the building, which was really lovely, but then we made our way to the Dome of the Rock. We walked through multiple security points and found ourselves waiting in line to enter into the Temple Mount. Apparently this area is only open from 1:30 until 2:30 so we were running out of time since the line was so long. We finally reach the front of the line and they tell us we have two minutes left to look around. As we entered onto the Temple Mount and turned out heads, there they were. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns, masks, shields, gas masks….the list goes on. We had to walk through these soldiers and exit immediately. It was one of the most terrifying moments I have had, not even on this trip, but in life in general. I am still having a hard time processing everything and understanding exactly what happened, but it made me really sad to think that one of the most beautiful and monumental holy sites is being surrounded by violence. That thought also makes me sad because that is basically what is happening to the Israel/Palistiane area.

After the trauma at the Dome of the Rock, we had an awesome opportunity to speak with an Israeli and Palistianian woman about their experiences with the conflict. They both had experienced loss and pain, but also recognized that they were both human and that violence is never the answer.

It was a perfect way to end the trip. Lots of emotions and confusion, but that was kind of what this trip was all about- learning and recognizing that we are all human, and we all deserve the right to live abundantly.


A God of Resurrection, Healing, and Reconciliation

Relaxing day. Our plans were to tour the Augusta Victoria Hospital, the rest of the Lutheran World Federation grounds, eat lunch at the guest house and have a conversation about how to share our experience as we transition back into our “normal” lives. The late afternoon was set aside for free time and then order some pizza for dinner. This schedule, if you’ve been following along with our trip, was considerably less busy than our previous days and appeared to be less emotionally overwhelming.

It held true to these expectations, except for my time in the Garden of Gethsemane. For my free time, i joined a small group that was going to check out the holy sites just down the road at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. When we got to the garden, I was overwhelmed with the peacefulness of it. Most of the holy sites we had visited were filled with tour groups, huge chapels, and an overwhelming sense of a need to go with haste. This site was different, there was no pushing to get to the front, no loud speeches on the history and importance of the location, no entrance fee, just an atomosphere of sacredness.

This feeling continued as I made my way into the chapel, or The Basilica of Jesus’ Agony. As I entered my eyes had difficulty adjusting to the dark but then the incredible beauty hit. The floors, walls, and ceilings were done in gorgeous mosaic, the windows were each a simple yet elegant stained glass cross, and the altar space was indescribable. The point that grabbed my attention and centered my toughts was the image of Jesus clinging to a rock as He prayed in agony to God. I’m not Jesus , so i can’t explain what he experienced in that place. But I was filled with comfort and reassurance as I sat and meditated on the fact that Jesus also experienced agony. Jesus sought out a place to be in agony, to sit and process/feel the emotions that He was experiencing. This fact comforted me as I sat with my heart broken open from this experience, in sadness and maybe even agony for the people i had met, for the stories I had heard. From the Palestinians, the Israelis, the tourists, the diplomats, the Muslims, the Jews, to the Christians, all of their stories layed heavy on my heart. In that moment I felt comforted in the knowledge that God is heartbroken over this also.

I can’t recall where I heard it, but i have learned that the definition of sin is anything that breaks apart the unity of humanity. I am unable to fully grasp the brokeness in these lands, but I hold firm to the belief that it is not something that pleases God. But rather peace, community, grace, compassion, and unity are characteristics of a healthy person, a strong humanity, and a pleased God. My prayer will continue to be that these values soon replace conflict and become defining features of the Holy Land and even the Middle East. It seems utterly and almost stupidly optimistic to be hopeful. But I believe in a God of resurrection, healing, and reconciliation and I know in my heart that conflict and hate are not a part of that and must be eradicated from our lives, here and back home. As we continue to work and pray for peace, I must remind myself that dwelling in agony is a necessary part of the process, that a heart that is broken is difficult to close and become hard, and that God is good, loving, and full of grace and peace.


Yad Vashem

The museum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial is a smooth concrete tunnel blasted through the the side of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Its profile is a triangle, a point of the Star of David sliced off and pulled into a three-dimensional prism 200 meters long. The effect inside is menacing, as 30 foot tall concrete slabs angle inward and loom over you, threatening to tip inward and crush you under unimaginable weight. There is no direct path from on end of the tunnel to the other; the prism is sliced again and again by deep channels in the floor, directing you out of the central hall into side rooms that contain the story of the Holocaust- or rather, as the museum urges you to consider, its six million stories.

There are several themes that run throughout the museum, but the power of memory, and the overwhelming need to remember these stories presents itself as soon as you enter, and encounter a channel cut in the floor, filled with books. The accompanying graphic panel tells of the rally held in the square outside the State Opera House in Berlin on May 10th, 1933, and the burning of 25,000 books by Jewish authors, and others considered “un-German.” There are few acts as symbolic as burning a book- it is not merely the destruction of a functional object, but an attack on an idea, a thought, a memory. The flaming volumes piled in the Bebelplatz represented an attempt to wipe out the collection of memories and ideas that have woven themselves together over thousands of years to form Jewish culture.

The rest of the museum tells a familiar tale that is no less horrifying in the retelling. It recounts the process of infusing the existing parochial racism that casts an oppressed minority as “problematic” with a streak of toxic nationalism, and then codifying the inevitable violence that resulted into an organized bureaucracy. It encourages us to consider how a highly educated and industrious nation can still be susceptible to the basest and cruelest of human impulses, and can use that education and industry to dehumanize, isolate, and eventually eliminate any group it deems unworthy. It also warns us of the tendency of otherwise good people and moral nations to look the other way, to close our eyes, ears, and hearts to suffering- the tendency to want to forget. Above all, that is what Yad Vashem wants us to understand- that we must remember the names of those who died, but we must also remember how it happened, so that it may never happen again.


Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea

On Friday, July 24th, we visited the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. We took the train to the museum and got a little lost trying to find it. The shuttle to the museum took a while and by the time we were on the shuttle to the museum, it seemed pointless to wait for the shuttle and that we could have just walked. Due to our wait, we were a little late to meet our guide. Thankfully, we had to check our bags so we didn’t have to carry them around the museum. At the museum, we had headphones to listen to a microphone that our guide was speaking into. It was convenient to have the headphones so we could walk away from the guide and he didn’t have to yell.

When entering the museum, we had to cross a long, wooden path to enter. They have a continually playing video projected on the wall of positive memories of Jews living before the Holocaust to start the tour. The building itself had such clever architecture to be a metaphor of the horrible experience of the horror that Jews suffered. The exhibits were rooms on either side of a middle walk way that required you to cross back and forth from either side of the building from little rooms to a big, open middle of the building space. Each exhibit followed the linear progression of Hitler winning the election to the beginning of concentration camps to the death camps to those who helped save Jews and finally with the names and pictures of people who died.

Our guide was informative and gave him narrative of his experience as a Polish Jew. He sang a lullaby for us and began to choke up and cry when telling us stories. Throughout our trip, we’ve mostly heard the stories of Palestinians so it was a different story to hear an Israelis side. For some, it was tough to hear and see. It seemed like a bit of a rationalizing and explanation for why Israelis think invading Palestine is ok. Many of us wanted to ask our guide questions about his opinion or story, but we didn’t.

In the afternoon, we went to Jericho-the oldest city- for lunch and the Dead Sea for swimming/floating. We were warned for safety to not put our heads under the water and to keep water out of our eyes and mouth. Many people had their feet sink into the mud. It was a fun time enjoying the water and one another’s presence.

The juxtaposition of the morning and the afternoon of this day was strange. The morning was sad and a chance to hear the other side. The afternoon was joy and laughter and water.


Walking Apartheid Avenue

As we walked down a street aptly named Apartheid Avenue, I craned my neck to look up at the 6 meter concrete wall crowned in razor wire. This is Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank of Palestine. The wall cuts through the city, running down what was once a vibrant commercial street. Now, it is mostly closed shops, rubble, and a place for the city’s trapped inhabitants to express their feelings of hope through spray paint on a concrete canvas. Their silent cries speak wonders about the capacity of the human spirit to resist:

“Take steps not sides”
“The sun exists for everyone. We are all human, and only love wins”
“We all bleed the same color”
” Nothing Lasts Forever ”
” Peace is Cheaper ”
“Make hummus, not Walls”

This last one makes me giggle. I can imagine my new Palestinian friend Elias painting this one, because he’s so proud of his culture’s cuisine, and he LOVES to eat.

Soon we take a turn into Aida Refugee Camp, and the mood dramatically changes. On the surface, it’s not too different. There are still houses here, and even a school, but they are much more run down, and crowded. These families have been here for two, three, even four generations since they fled their homes in 1948, carrying only a few items and the key to their homes around their neck, assuming they would return within a few days. They never returned, but their children and grandchildren still carry the keys as a symbol of hope and of the right to return home.

In the camp, the story on the wall changes. A list of names appears, the names of innocent children killed by Israeli soldiers within the last decade. There are hundreds. Paintings of men unjustly arrested and never released line the wall. And then, the most gut- wrenching scene of all. A guard tower along the wall had been burned. We are told that from there, the soldiers had been shooting tear gas at the refugee children while they walked to school. The children got fed up with this harassment and decided to light the tower on fire. Next to the tower is a mural depicting Palestinians resisting their forced ghettoized existence by throwing stones, a blindfolded man being arrested by Israeli soldiers, and words that say, “We can’t live, so we are waiting to die.” Yet this artist could not be completely despairing, or the act of creation through storytelling would seem pointless.

The words of a familiar song come to mind:

“We are pressed but not crushed
Persecuted, not abandoned
Struck down, but not destroyed.
We are blessed beyond the curse
For His promise will endure…. ”

A young woman in the camp tells us that everyone, including the young children, stay awake throughout most of the night, out in the streets. The explanation? “Bad things happen at night. That’s when we get raided by soldiers, and people usually die. So we have learned to stay awake. We have trained ourselves to not need sleep.”

In the struggle and resistance of these people, we find Immanuel, God with us. Jesus also suffered at the hands of an empire. He lived and died under a military occupation. Now, 2000 years after his birth, his hometown is laid siege. As I walk along the wall, there is one question scrawled on the concrete that haunts me:

“Jesus is knocking… Will you answer?”



We’d been walking along the wall that morning – the wall that divides Bethlehem. The messages we read in the colorful graffiti were startling, striking, stirring. The next item on the itinerary was a cooking class to be led by two Palestinian women at Aida Refugee Camp. We arrived hot, hungry and pensive.

As we walked into the small room that had been renovated into a simple kitchen, The two women greeted us with broad smiles. Introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. Then, “today, we will be teaching you to make maqluba.”

Maqluba translates to “upside-down” and is a traditional Palestinian dish. Meat, rice and fried vegetables are cooked in a pot, which is then flipped upside-down onto the serving platter. Given what I’d seen and heard while in the Holy Land, I couldn’t help but read a deeper meaning into the translation.

I’ll not list all the paradoxes and parallels, the “small crimes” or blatant injustices, from the stories we’d heard. I will give this one example: Islam, one of the women teaching us how to prepare the meal, was born in Aida Refugee Camp. Her 6 year old daughter, Sidra, was born there, too. Islam talked of raids in the middle of the night, of only having access to water every twenty or so days. Plenty of reasons to lament her situation. Yet she smiled and laughed with us all through our meal. She was a gracious host and patient teacher. She was hopeful that what she was doing by teaching this class and telling her story could make a difference.

Though I tried not to have too many preconceived notions about what this trip to the Holy Land would be like, it’s impossible to arrive here as a completely blank slate. My experiences as a woman, a Lutheran, as a citizen of the United States informed what I thought I would see and hear and feel. But I must admit, my experience here has been quite upside-down.


Information overload in the Holy Land

I personally had a day of discovery for myself; I realized that during our tour and presentation today with UNOCHA, a lot of information available about the Palestinians, and the Israeli settlements contained negative statistics and data. For me, this information was just “pouring salt into an open wound.”

I came away with the hope despite the salt. I think something stood out to me during this day, and during our trip; I noticed the cultural differences between my culture and the Palestinian people that we met. Perhaps this is Israel as a whole, but during our meals a dessert that Is served at almost every meal is watermelon. This unique and impressionable tradition has become an expectation of our group during every meal we eat.

Recently, a member of our group told us about how salt and watermelon combined together make a very tasty treat… And I complete agree!

Although the day carried a lot of bitter salt, I learned today, and on this trip that bitter can be better when you take it with a slice of Watermelon.


Holy Saturday

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers: go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. —Matthew 27:62-66

​These are the only words the Gospels give us about Holy Saturday, that day in-between Jesus’ death and his Resurrection. There is no description about the disciples and their experience in-between grief and surprise. There is no sign that they believed what Jesus said, and truly believed that something greater was to come. They spend the day in hiding. In fact, the writer of Matthew seems to think that the imperial powers of the world put more weight on Jesus’ prophecies than his own disciples. It is the political and religious powers that spend this in-between day in frantic, fear-driven anxiety about what may happen the next day, and do all they can to prevent it from happening. So they post soldiers, figures of war and violence, outside of the tomb of the Prince of Peace.

​My time so far in Israel and Palestine feels a little bit like Holy Saturday. I have seen the death and destruction of God’s people. I have seen the Wall that seeks to cut off and separate, scattering would-be voices of hope into hiding. I have seen soldiers posted at the door, put there by forces who do not want the Good News of new life to get out.

​Holy Saturday can be a difficult and hopeless place to be. I certainly look at the current political situation in the land where Jesus walked and cannot fathom how it will get better. I do not know how God’s vision for a world reconciled will come to fruition. I feel the grief and anger I imagine the disciples must have felt, and I feel a little let down that God’s vision is not coming together in the ways and times I think it should.

​Yet, in my time here I have also seen the empty tomb. I know that the soldiers placed there 2,000 years ago were not able to stop the Risen One. I have seen Christ’s church as it proclaims the reality of Risen Life, even if that reality is not yet tangible to our human senses. So I put my faith that the soldiers here will not stop the Good News. I put my hope in a God who brings us out of hiding and separation, who rolls away stones and breaks down walls. And I remember that those witnesses of the Resurrection did not keep quiet for long, and I cannot keep quiet now.

Erin Armstrong

M.Div. Class of 2016

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

Politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner

“People eat politics for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. There is too much religion and not enough faith. We need culture. ”

Today we had a chance to meet with some incredible Lutheran Palestinians in Bethlehem. First was Mitri Raheb who is an influential/activist/awesome pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church. He explained some of the efforts that he has done in creating educational programs in the community for both youth and adults that focus on building culture. He and his students have hosted several regional and international events that feature the arts and humanities coming together, and this is all part of a greater project to have people more invested in and studying Palestinian culture. I have identified with this because of my Indian background. There is such a huge focus on academics rather than a balance of culture and academics. I’m not concerned about Indian culture sinking away anytime soon, and I support the community initiatives that a few organizations have implemented in order to retain and spread Palestinian culture.

Later in the day, we met with two local Palestinian young adults named Elias and Salam who were able to share more about their life in a city outside of Bethlehem. It was so fun to talk with them about what they do as activists in their own community. We also talked about things like Instagram, love for maqluba and Bollywood films, and appreciation for those who can identify good falafel. These young adults are so educated about the world. I think they represent and example of the hope and the future for the Palestinian people and their culture. I am so thankful to be connected with them, and I can’t wait to hear about the great things they will do in the world!