May 2016 – Bethlehem, Palestine – This month, HCEF’s Living Stones Pilgrimage Program (LSP) welcomed a Franciscan pilgrimage group from Maryland, U.S.A. led by Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM. This is the 8th pilgrimage Fr. Jacek has led for HCEF. On this pilgrimage, the participants not only visited some of the holiest sites for Christians but also met and built meaningful relationships with the “Living Stones,” the Arab Christians of Palestine.
During their visit, the group toured many Biblically significant locations, including Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee, and visited holy sites such as the Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Mount Tabor, and the Church of the Multiplication.
Unlike most Holy Land pilgrimages, the group had opportunities to meet with local Christians at HCEF’s Birzeit Senior Citizen Center and the Aida refugee camp. Through these encounters, pilgrims were able to develop personal friendships and break bread with their Christian brothers and sisters. At the same time, they learned firsthand about the incredibly rich history of the Palestinian Christians. “I have a new awareness of the plight of Palestinian people and a concern for their wellbeing,” one pilgrim wrote.
The pilgrims visited the Bethlehem Museum where they learned about the history and heritage of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. This visit helped provide the broader historical context to the first-hand accounts they had heard earlier in the trip. After learning about Palestinian culture, the pilgrims were able to taste it at Al-Karmeh Restaurant.
The current political context has led to severe economic limitations for the Palestinians. This has caused many Palestinians to emigrate in search of better economic opportunities, which has led to a decrease of the indigenous Christian population. The mission of the Living Stones Pilgrimage program is to curb this trend by raising awareness about the situation of the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Holy Land. Through people-to-people interactions, they are able to strengthen the bond between Palestinian Christians and their Christian brothers and sisters around the world. By utilizing Palestinian Christian tour guides, hotels, and shopping at stores owned by Palestinian Christians, LSP is able to support the indigenous Christian population and sustain the economy.
The program’s mission-driven pilgrimages thus give pilgrims a unique Holy Land experience through interactions with the Arab Christian community, and also provide Palestinian Christians, who primarily rely on tourism, a means of improving their economic circumstances. This helps to ensure that the Holy Land will remain a place with a living Christian community for years to come. It is our hope that HCEF’s work through the Living Stones Pilgrimage program will only help to increase the frequency of mutually beneficial interactions between pilgrims and the Living Stones and that both groups will henceforth continue to reap great rewards.
Reflections by the pilgrims demonstrate the impact of their journey, both as a spiritual experience and as a way to understand, first-hand, the current situation in the land where Jesus walked.
“What I saw, my heart broke,” another pilgrim wrote. “It was hard for me to see Christians and all Palestinians continue to suffer like that.”
Some pilgrims commented that the trip inspired them to become more active advocates for peace and justice after they returned home.
“A great experience! A life changing experience! I’m not sure what my commitment will be, but I know that I will strengthen my commitment to work for peace and justice,” wrote another pilgrim.
The pilgrims also expressed their thanks to HCEF and their leader, Fr. Jacek, for organizing their trip and supporting them during their journey. “Thank you to Fr. Jacek and the HCEF staff – including those who cooked, served, and prepared nice meals,” wrote one. Another commented, “(Our guide) was outstanding. He presented facts knowledgeably, knew a great deal, and answered questions effectively. Great guide!”