Over the summer vacation, 22 local Catholics, including 15 schoolteachers from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati were given the opportunity to take part in an once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, trading in the familiar comforts of a Cincinnati summer for the vibrant culture and desert sands of the Holy Land.
Carla Agnello, Trey Aultman, Sharon Bohlen, Teresa Davis, David Hemminger, Nancy Hemminger, Judy Hoffman, Michelle Kohler, Chris Kreger, JoAnne Lacey, Maryann Leever, Robert Leever, Ann Marie Maly, Judy Maly, Mary Guilfoyle Martin, Jan McManus, Tim McManus, Cathleen O’Toole, Abby Petrozzi, Daniel Stringer, Christy Taylor, and Jane Welling, departed from the United States this June to discover and fully experience the birthplace of their faith.
The journey was in conjunction with HOPE (Holy Land Outreach Promoting Education) Voices, a local chapter of the Children’s Peace Program, which works to peacefully bridge the gap that divides schools in the United States and schools of the Middle East’s Latin Patriarchate. Recently, members have taken part in a twinning project that pairs local educators with Holy Land teachers, allowing each to share ideas and develop continuing connections between schools, despite the geographical and cultural divides.
As she neared the end of her first year of teaching theology at McNicholas High School, Ms. Teresa Davis felt that her prayers for adventure had been answered when she found out about HOPE’s upcoming pilgrimage. Though she had never before set foot on foreign soil, Davis was eager to visit the lands of the Christian history and learn from the teachers and students in Holy Land classrooms.
“I was very nervous, but excited,” Davis said of her first international voyage. “Though I was probably more nervous about meeting the students than I was about travelling!”
After a lengthy flight to the prosperous city of Dubai, the pilgrims were off to the history-rich kingdom of Jordan, where they would observe first-hand how children of very different religions have learned to get along in the classroom setting within what is thought to be one of the world’s most unstable regions.
With political and religious differences igniting violence throughout the Middle East, refugees have been flocking to more peaceful countries such as Jordan, creating a dynamic melting pot of different faiths and cultures.
According to The New York Times, the civil crisis in Syria, recently labeled “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” by the United Nations, has driven more than 3 million Syrians out of their homeland, at least 608,000 of whom have fled to Jordan. Though Jordan offers a peaceful alternative from the war-torn landscape of Syria, the country is struggling to find the funds and resources to support hundreds of thousands of starving refugees. Despite this, Jordan continues to welcome an ever-increasing number of Syrians into their land, a fact that made Davis realize the generosity and resilience of the country’s people.
And it was on the Jordanian summit of Mt. Nebo, where Moses is said to have been granted the first view of the Promised Land, that Davis says she had an epiphany of her own.
“I learned to have sympathy and empathy for the people of Jordan,” she said. “Financially, they’re broke, and yet they have still opened up to the refugees.”
For Fr. Rob Waller, the pastor of St. Andrew in Milford, the pilgrimage served as his fifteenth journey to the Holy Land, and his second accompanying archdiocesan teachers. With a special connection to the Catholic parish in Biet Jala, Bethlehem, he admits that it is the locals who keep him returning to the Holy Land, year after year.
“I am continually in awe and feel extremely blessed that I can feel as comfortable and at home in the little town of Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine as I am in the little town of Milford on the east side of Cincinnati.” Waller said. “As a parish priest, I have been gifted by God with people in Milford that love me and with people in Bethlehem that do the same.”
Accompanying Waller were three teachers from St. Andrew School, including Sharon Bohlen, who felt the call to pilgrimage with the hope of discovering the land and further exploring the twinning partnership with teachers in the Holy Land.
“We met many Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs who were filled with joy.” Bohlen said. “What is so wonderful about life in Palestine is how close-knit the families are. Kids in Palestine see their cousins every day – they live in the same buildings with their extended family, including grandparents. It is really quite beautiful. Family is everything. Relationships are what truly matters. Not stuff. The Catholic Palestinians personify the saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’ They really are Christian in the true sense of the word, which means ‘Christ bearers.’”
Recent events considered, the journey was well-timed. On June 12, as the HOPE pilgrims departed Palestine for Galilee, three Israeli teenagers were abducted and later killed by enemy militants, re-igniting tensions and launching the Israel-Gaza conflict back into global headlines. In the wake of rocket fire and fallen shells, the violence has since taken its toll. Though exact figures are still disputed, it is estimated that around 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the UN, have died as a result of recent Israeli operations.
During the pilgrims’ journey, however, Davis said that there were virtually no signs that conflict was on the horizon. At various holy sites in the Middle East, armed guards and military presence can be expected as measures to keep travelers and citizens out of harm’s way.
“We did not feel a tightening up in security,” Davis said. “Father Rob was a very experienced shepherd. It was very odd to see guns at the River Jordan, but Father Rob said to us, ‘be patient – we are pilgrims, not tourists.’”
St. Andrew teacher and HOPE pilgrim Sharon Bohlen agreed. “I never, never, never felt unsafe in Palestine or Israel.” she said. “In fact, the Catholic Palestinian family I stayed with left their door wide open at night.”
After renewing their baptismal vows and soaking in the sights and history of the Jordan River, it was on to the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, where the pilgrims were greeted with a busy schedule that led them to some of the most revered holy sites in the world. Here, they attended Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, carried crosses through the city streets, visited the Tomb of Lazarus, and prayed at the famed Western Wall, where Davis recalls one of her most memorable experiences – the sight of an elderly woman praying aloud.
“She was blowing kisses to the wall, repeating ‘I love you, I love you, Adoni. I blow kisses.’” Davis said. “And I realized that I want to be that woman years from now, in my eighties, still having that kind of love for God.”
In Nazareth, each pilgrim was given the opportunity to stay with a Nazarean host family, who helped them to more fully experience the culture and classrooms of the Holy Land. Each of the American educators was able to spend time within a Middle Eastern school, where they shared ideas and observed class dynamics, working alongside their Middle Eastern counterparts.
“Our local teachers are always enriched when their horizons are expanded, when they see that the world and the Church is bigger than the walls of their own classrooms and the grounds of their own campus,” Waller said. “Whenever they experience others to be the same as they are, they can help their students to discover that all humans who live and walk on the earth are brothers and sisters to the, all children of the same God.”
Following her time overseas, Bohlen looks back fondly upon the connections between her own local church and those of the Holy Land, seeing the common ground that is gained through faith.
“The universality of our precious Catholic Church really impressed me. The mass is the same, even in Arabic. Catholics around the world are on the ‘same page’ regarding our catechesis, our devotions, our prayers – our faith.” Bohlen said. “We differ in many ways: the food we eat, the way we dress, the music we listen to, etc. But our faith is the same. That is remarkable, and truly a sign that we are united in Christ. No human institution could create such universal understanding. Christ is truly the founder of the Church.”
Reflecting on her own time in the Holy Land, Davis reflected upon a message conveyed during Pope Francis’ recent trip to Palestine.
“If I go to Israel, I must take off my shoes. I must have their dirt on my feet. I must have their sand between my toes in order to understand,” she said. “And understanding is key.”