We have arrived! I cannot believe that we are finally in Jerusalem and that this journey is really beginning. On Friday, we flew from Chicago to Rome, had a bit of a boarding pass mishap, but made it onto the flight to Tel Aviv. After going through security and customs, retrieving our bags, and getting extended visas at the airport, Jeff and Julie, our country coordinators, met us with smiling faces and open arms. It was so wonderful to be reunited with them, since the last time we saw them was at the Discernment, Interview, and Placement weekend in April. We gathered up our stuff and went straight to the Mount of Olives, where we had dinner and played volleyball with staff and interns of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). It is still amazing to me that places like the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Bethlehem are real places. It has already been an amazing experience putting actual places to the things that have only been pages in the Bible to me. From the top of the Mount of Olives, we watched the sunset and heard the Muslim call to prayer, and if I didn’t realize it before, I knew then that I am in a very special place.
With the incredible guidance of Jeff and Julie, the six Jerusalem/West Bank (J/WB) volunteers have been doing some intense orientation, getting to know the city, public transportation, culture, and a few words in Arabic (“Anna Sarah” = “My name is Sarah”)! We start Arabic lessons on Tuesday and I am so excited to start learning the beautiful language. We have been going over the history of the area, which really is a challenge to parse out and understand. It is a very complicated history that involves so many people and the realities of life in the Holy Land have already started to make an impact on me.
Today, we started out the morning by attending the Lutheran church in Beit Sahour, which will be the home congregation for two of the YAGM’s. The entire service was in Arabic, but used nearly the same liturgy, so although I didn’t understand a bit of it, it was actually pretty easy to know where we were at in the service. During the sermon, Ghassan, a gentlemen from the congregation, translated the whole thing into English for us. It was so impressive and unbelievably helpful. What a gracious gift for our group to be able to understand the sermon and to receive such a warm welcome. After the service, there is a coffee/tea hour, which in all reality lasted about 15 minutes. In the receiving line after the service though, instead of just shaking the pastor’s hand, the line loops back around so that you end up greeting the entire congregation, which was actually really neat. We were introduced to the congregation and got to talk with quite a few of the members. We met Abdullah, who will be one of the people helping us with our Arabic lessons and found out that his granddaughter’s name is Sarah, as well! He gave me a huge hug and asked me where I got my eyes 🙂 The hospitality we have already been the recipients of has been astounding and I am very grateful.
This afternoon, we walked around the Bethlehem/Beit Sahour/Beit Jala area with Elias, a student at the Beit Sahour Lutheran school. He showed us around and told us what we should know about the Bethlehem area. At lunch, he shared his experience as a Palestinian youth and his hopes for the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Although he joked that he is the only hopeful Palestinian, it was remarkable to hear parts of his story and his desire for peace for all people living in the Holy Land.
Our conversation with Elias was made a reality later this afternoon when we stopped at the separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Although I have seen pictures of the wall, I was taken aback by the way I felt standing next to its high cement panels. The physical representation made by the wall of the divide that the people of this land experience everyday was both striking and heartbreaking. I don’t think that I quite have the words yet to express my feelings about the wall yet, but it is something that I will continue to experience during this year in the Holy Land.
Again, I still can’t quite believe that I am here and that I won’t be leaving for a year, but I am certainly grateful and feel immensely blessed to be a part of the J/WB YAGM community. I also promise that my next blog post won’t be so wordy, so thanks for hanging with me!