I saw holy sites and walked where Jesus walked. I learned so much about people and places and history. And I left still thinking about the things that separate us from each other, and whether or not we choose to call them borders.
(For Part 1 of this blog, click here)
Our first stop was Jerusalem. I was with a tour group, and we were scheduled to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Dead Sea. Jerusalem was out first stop.
We walked through the streets, and the tour guide gave us a broad view of the historical and religious significance of the different sights that we were seeing. I thought about all the stories I had every read about Jerusalem, about the sermons, the songs. I was in “the Holy Land”, and it didn’t even seem real.
We saw the Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, and I felt connected to the city that was the site of so many important events in my faith’s history. When we approached the Temple Mount, the guide informed us that we were about to enter a holy site, a place with significance for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Women had to cover our knees and shoulders, so I was given a shawl to cover my knees.
One of the things that first caught my eye was the Western Wall. Women and men were separated by a partition, and I made my way to the women’s side of the wall. As I approached, I saw pieces of paper shoved into the wall’s cracks, and I watched as women of all ages stood with the holy book in their hands, touching the wall, reciting passages, singing, praying, and worshipping. The spectacle impacted me profoundly.
After we left the Temple Mount, we headed to the Via Dolorosa, and I stood for a moment just taking everything in. This was supposed to be the route that Jesus walked, carrying the cross on his way to be crucified. The Sandi Patty song played in my head.
There was a spot on one of the walls where there was a deep imprint. Our guide said that it was believed that Jesus had placed his hand here as he reached out to support himself on his way down the Via Dolorosa. Although I was sure that the story was more popular legend than anything, and although I am generally not a superstitious person, I rested my hand in the imprint for a moment before continuing on my way.
After the Via Dolorosa, we walked up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church built on the site where Jesus was buried.
From Jerusalem, we headed to Bethlehem, the city of David, the place where Jesus was born. It was a short ride, maybe 30 minutes. On the way, we passed a barrier that was attended by armed guards. “We are crossing into Palestinian territory,” the guide informed us. He continued, “This is not a border, though. Palestine is a part of Israel. We do not have borders between the two sides. We just have checkpoints, for security purposes.” I looked out the window at the armed guards and the long line of cars waiting on the Palestinian side of the “checkpoint”. I had a lot of experience with borders. Between San Diego and Tijuana, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Dajabón and Ounaminthe. This sure looked like a border to me.
We passed through the “checkpoint” and into the city of Bethlehem. We were greeted by signs that stated “Welcome to Palestine” and “Welcome to Bethlehem”. And a large mural of a white dove wearing a bulletproof vest had been painted onto the wall by the street artist Banksy.
We were joined by a local guide named Issa, the name for ‘Jesus’ in Arabic. He showed us to the Church of the Nativity, a church built over the site where Jesus was born. I had to cover my knees again because we were in another holy site, so I wrapped a towel around my waist.
While we were waiting to go inside the church, one of the guards stole the selfie stick out of my backpack pocket as an object lesson. He told me that I should never put anything of value in those outside pockets. I thanked him and took back my selfie stick. It had cost me like $2 in Brazil.
After the Church of the Nativity, Issa took us to a nearby buffet restaurant (I am kicking myself for not remembering the name). Everything was delicious, and I ate to my heart’s content.
After our meal, Issa joined us on the bus up until the checkpoint. He called it a border, just like I had thought. Issa said that Palestinians could not cross the border, even for work, without special permission. I wondered if both of our guides could be right. If the barrier with the armed guards could simultaneously be a border and not a border. I concluded that it would depend on who you asked. Maybe the barrier wasn’t a border for Israelis, because they could come and go as they pleased. And maybe the same barrier was a border for Palestinians, who felt its weight and could not cross it without permission.
We ended our tour at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at nearly 430 meters below sea level. It was blazing hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), and also so much more beautiful than I expected.
I covered myself in some of the Dead Sea mud and made a YouTube video to share the experience. I left the Dead Sea completely exhausted but also convinced that it had been a once in a lifetime experience.
Although I am still conflicted about the political situation in the Israeli and Palestinian territories, I am glad that I had the chance to visit and experience things for myself. I saw holy sites and walked where Jesus walked. I learned so much about people and places and history. And I left still thinking about the things that separate us from each other, and whether or not we choose to call them borders.