One of the principle goals of HCEF is fostering solidarity between Western Christians and their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.
One of the principle goals of HCEF is fostering solidarity between Western Christians and their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. To this end, HCEF has kept open the road from the West into the Holy Land, even when the rest of the world thought it closed. Multiple pilgrimages have been organized and dozens of people from the West have come and shared in the experience – joys and pains – of those Christians who have stayed in the Holy Land since the time of Jesus. It has been and will continue to be one of the most effective ways for Christians from all around the world to demonstrate their commitment to a land and a people blessed by God. Unity and ecumenism are fundamental to the Christian community in the Holy Land. HCEF pilgrimages strengthen this unity and ecumenism and will continue to do so for as long as the pilgrims themselves chose to answer the call.
This past November, our Pilgrimage Coordinator, Gail Freeman, with Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM (our Christian Solidarity Coordinator) as Spiritual Leader, accompanied twenty pilgrims from Detroit, MI, to the Holy Land (Jordan, Palestine and Israel) to experience the unforgettable journey from the past to the present in the land that is the birthplace of Christianity. On their journey they met the .Living Stones,. the Christians who call the Holy Land home, to share in Christian fellowship and to offer support where it is most needed. Guiding the group on their pilgrimage was Ms. Rula Shubeita, a member of the Jerusalem Holy Land Christian Support Network (HCSN), and a professional Christian guide.
The first stop for the group was Jordan, the Gateway to the Holy Land. They visited with members of the Jordanian Christian community and toured the holy places there, including the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River and Mount Nebo. Next they crossed the border into Palestine, experiencing first hand the hurdles encountered by so many Palestinians entering and traveling through Palestine. The pilgrims went north, to Galilee and Nazareth, where they met with the Arab Christian community in Israel, prayed at the Grotto of the Annunciation, sailed on the Sea of Galilee, and visited the Mount of Beatitudes and Mount Tabor.
Traveling back south the pilgrims reached Bethlehem. While there, they were welcomed by the HCEF staff, Bethlehemites who implement many of HCEF's projects. The staff met the pilgrims at the Turath Center, where HCEF has an exhibition of some of the olive wood crafts handmade by local Christians. The Turath Center houses the HCEF Holy Land Gift Program, which supports those artisan families in Bethlehem area who depend on this craft to support their families. This program makes it possible for many of the area's craftsmen to send their work to those churches in the West that partner with HCEF to sponsor gift sales. With so few tourists and pilgrims coming to Bethlehem in recent years, the importance of opening up these foreign markets to the craftsmen cannot be overstated. For Christians in the West, purchasing Holy Land gifts is a way for them to have a tangible touchstone with the Holy Land while also supporting more than 800 families in the Bethlehem area. The center is housed in a traditional home that's 300 years old (with a 100 year-old second floor) the home was renovated to suit the needs of the gifts program. While at the Turath Center, the pilgrims watched a brief presentation about HCEF and its projects and programs and learned more about these initiatives talking with the staff. The visit to the Turath Center ended with traditional Arabic coffee and sweets.
Also while in Bethlehem, the pilgrims visited some of the rehabilitated houses sponsored by HCEF. The rehabilitation program has given hundreds of Christian families a chance for a new home and a new life. For many of these homes, the HCEF renovations rescue the buildings and families from deplorable conditions, offering them a more beautiful and habitable space. The pilgrims had the chance to meet with the families – the descendants of the very first Christians who have suffered the real trauma of the poor economic conditions now plaguing the Christian community. However, the joy these families took in their new homes was just as compelling as any despair. Said Mary Ann, one of the pilgrims, "It's really well rehabilitated. Good job, HCEF! This is really amazing work."
The time in Bethlehem continued with visits to the Milk Grotto, the Church of the Nativity, as well as Shepherd's Field in near by Beit Sahour. The day in Bethlehem was a long one, so an evening of relaxation and good cheer was planned at one of Beit Sahour's traditional restaurants. The evening included music played on the Oud, an Oriental stringed instrument, along with a multi-course dinner. The pilgrims shared laughter and song with the HCEF staff and other patrons of the restaurant long into the night – an evening that will be remembered.
The next morning, though shaken by news of bombings in Amman, the pilgrims gathered early in the morning to hear testimony from two members of the HCEF "Shabibeh"- Young Adult Group over breakfast. Shabibeh is one of HCEF's newest programs and serves as a means to mobilize young Christians from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to volunteer in HCEF initiatives. In addition, HCEF Shabibeh is also a recreational outlet for Christian youth. The young adults who met with the pilgrims talked of their experiences and reflected on life in the Holy Land and also expressed how thankful they were for visitors from the West. The pilgrims were anxious to spend more time with these young Christians, but the troubling realities of the Occupation prevented the young people from accompanying the pilgrims to their next stop – the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Among the many sites visited in Jerusalem, the pilgrims will always remember tracing the steps of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, visiting the Church of St. Anne and the Pools of Bethesda, as well as praying at the Western Wall and shopping in the Old City bazaars. An audience with His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, provided an opportunity for the pilgrims to hear about the challenges facing Christians today in the Holy Land. The next day on the Mount of Olives was a time to reflect and meditate in the Garden of Gethsemane, to walk the Palm Sunday route and to visit the many churches, including the beautiful Church of All Nations.
On Saturday, the pilgrims traveled to Ramallah and visited the Latin Church there. That evening they traveled a few miles further north to Birzeit and Jifna. Some of pilgrims spend the night with Christian families from Birzeit, an evening of fellowship and good food. The next morning, they celebrated Sunday Mass with the Christian community of Birzeit, remembering together the life of Fr. Anton Buzo, who contributed so much to Birzeit community during his life. After Mass lunch was prepared for the pilgrims at the Seniors Center in Birzeit, where HCEF staff again welcomed them. The pilgrims met with the Birzeit Christian elders who use the center and who delighted them with their stories. Many pilgrims left the center with crafts handmade by the elders as gifts for family and friends in America. One pilgrim promised a donation to get hearing aids for five of the center's patrons. Following lunch, the elders taught the pilgrims a few traditional dance steps before bidding them farewell. After lunch the pilgrims reluctantly left Birzeit to return to Jerusalem for a visit to Ein Karem and the Church of the Visitation. That night, the pilgrims rested in Jerusalem, preparing themselves for the next day's activities and the return to Jordan.
On their last day in Palestine the pilgrims traveled to Emmaus and Bethany, towns that have been severely isolated by the Separation Wall. The hardship the Wall has brought to these towns was on the minds of all as they crossed the River Jordan to return to Jordan. The pilgrims ended their journey that last day in the Holy Land either by visiting Petra or resting for their flight back home.
On the day of departure from Amman as the pilgrims said goodbye the Holy Land, it was evident that each traveler left with a wealth of experiences and an unmistakable bond with the Christians of the Holy Land. Both the pilgrims and the Living Stones they met will never forget their wonderful times together – how could the pilgrims ever forget such special people and such a special place!