“The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world,” so begins historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography.
I love history. It was always my favorite subject in school.
As a person of faith, the opportunity to experience the history of Jerusalem takes on a deeper meaning.
While walking to a meeting in the Old City one day, my colleague Bob pointed to some ruins and said, “those are the pools of Bethesda, you know, where Jesus healed the paralyzed man.” (John 5:2-18) After our meeting, we walked out of Lions’ Gate and Bob told me to look straight ahead, “that’s the Mount of Olives.” We also walked along part of the Via Dolorosa, visited the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and drank water from Jacob’s Well (where Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water and offered her living water, John 4:5-42)
We also worshipped with the community at St. George’s Cathedral – in Arabic and English – and I was reminded again of the great gift our tradition of Common Prayer. Even though my Arabic is limited to just a few words, I could follow along with the liturgy and felt deeply connected to the worship. The Cathedral is a beautiful place and community that lives out Archbishop Suheil Dawani and Dean Hosam Naoum’s vision of being a space of welcome for all people.
The opportunity to combine history and faith and walk where Jesus walked was remarkable, mind boggling, and, at times, a bit overwhelming in the best possible way.
They’re important, our history, our traditions. They matter. They help guide us. They help center us. They can bring us back when we wander away. They can connect us to places we’ve never been and people we’ve never met. You don’t have to love history to feel it moving all around you and helping shape the present.
While I am immensely thankful to have had the opportunity to experience the historical places, what will stay with me the most from this brief time in Jerusalem are the people and the modern-day expressions of and commitment to faith that I witnessed and heard about.
Led by Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Diocese of Jerusalem stretches across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. It has 7,000 members in 27 parishes. While small numerically, the Diocese has a huge heart and the impact it has on its diverse community is astounding. There are 7 hospitals, clinics, and centers that provide everything from basic health care to specialized treatment of several kinds, including a full-service hospital in Gaza. Expert and compassionate care is provided to everyone regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or how much they can afford to pay.
The 20 educational institutions run by the Diocese offer K-12 education, vocational training, and educational opportunities for children with special needs. Again, all children are welcome regardless of their faith.
St. Luke’s was the first hospital built in northern Palestine. It dates back to 1900 and has a strong history of service. During our visit, we met with Dr. Walid Qirreh, the Director, and Salwa Khoury, the Public Relations Officer. They could not have been more gracious as they showed us around the hospital, introduced us to staff members, and shared the story of the ministry of St. Luke’s. I particularly appreciated that Dr. Walid and Salwa made sure to say hello to patients and their families as we were walking around. What struck me the most about St. Luke’s was the depth of dedication to and compassion and respect for the patients and their families that is the foundation for this ministry. It’s not just about physical care but a holistic care of the soul as well.
The day before we left to return home, we visited the Jerusalem Princess Basma Center, which specializes in caring for and empowering children with disabilities and supporting and educating their families. It offers an intensive child rehabilitation program that treats children from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. As part of this program, the mothers of all the children also receive psychosocial support, education, and training so they can continue the rehabilitation work at home. Physiotherapy is also offered for adults and the Center runs a vocational training program for adults with disabilities who work in a sheltered workshop and produce beautiful furniture, baskets, and tile boxes.
The Princess Basma Inclusive School has a student body of over 500 children, over 160 of whom are children with disabilities who receive additional support and therapy. Ibrahim Faltas, the General Director, walked us through the whole Center and introduced us to physiotherapists, teachers, administrators, and students. We saw classrooms that are fully accessible for all of the students who attend the school, visited the Autism Unit (including an fantastic multi-sensory room), and learned about the outreach programs in the West Bank and Gaza. As with St. Luke’s, the Princess Basma Center seeks to care for the whole person whoever they are, wherever they come from. In both places the sense of care, compassion, and dedication from the staff was palpable.
I’ve been back in the United States for just over two weeks now and there hasn’t been a day when some facet of my visit to Jerusalem hasn’t been on my mind. It is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful places I’ve ever been. I didn’t want to leave when it was time to go home and I can’t wait to go back. As I’ve tried to wrap my head around the whole experience and identify what exactly it is that spoke to me so strongly, I can’t really articulate a reason that would make sense to anyone else. Maybe that’s because it’s not really a reason but something deeper than that. However, I think a big part of it is this combination of the history and holiness of the place with the obvious dedication to peace, reconciliation, and community of the Diocese.
So, visit. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus and so many other faithful people who’ve gone before us. Walk alongside those who welcome everyone in the name of Christ today. Make a pilgrimage that honors the past but don’t miss the living and vibrant faith of the present. Visit the schools, hospitals, and churches of the Diocese of Jerusalem. Listen to the commitment to be a presence of reconciliation in a land of conflict and separation. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Remember that Jesus is more than someone we read about in the pages of our Bibles. Jesus is someone we have the opportunity to meet on a daily basis in Jerusalem and in our own communities.