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The Pilgrim Pastor of Bethlehem

Heather with pilgrims at the River Jordan

Heather with pilgrims at the River Jordan

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

I stepped into Bethlehem for the first time in January 2005. It was the week of the first Palestinian elections since Yasser Arafat, but I had not anticipated that when I bought the tickets months earlier. My boyfriend wanted to come along, I think mostly to protect me. I enjoyed his company, so I obliged, even though I had no interest in being protected. We walked from our quarters at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, through an Israeli checkpoint, and into the “little town,” mostly unaware that it also happened to be the week of Orthodox Christmas.

Everywhere there were parades and celebrations. Colorful bunting hung from apartment windows. Palestinian youth dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes made my Presbyterian self feel right at home. “Happy Christmas!” they shouted to us as we passed by their celebrations – never mind that many of the shouters were Muslim. The colored political placards added to the sense of wonder, but the armored cars carrying UN officials seemed eerily out of place.

The most memorable part of that trip came when my boyfriend and I gave in to a persistent shopkeeper who beckoned us from the doorway of his lonely store. We had passed many persistent shopkeepers, but this one drew us in. We were surprised when he offered us tea but did not give us the hard sell on any authentic olive wood handicrafts. We were even more surprised when he invited us to come to his home for dinner on Sunday – the day of the Palestinian elections. With hardly a glance at my boyfriend, who had made me promise that we would avoid the West Bank on election day, I accepted the invitation.

The shopkeeper’s wife cooked makloubeh and he, with his vote-blackened thumb, told stories of war and peace. It was one of the most delicious and significant meals of my life. I set out as a tourist without any particular spiritual goals; but set free to wander in a strange land, to wonder at ancient relics and modern faith, and to encounter humanity in another, I was transformed into a pilgrim.

Sitting in my church office in South Carolina eight years later, my colleague and I chatted about our respective trips to the Holy Land. Did you go here? What did you think of that? He began recounting to me a story about a shopkeeper in Bethlehem. He and a couple of friends had broken off from the group and found themselves sharing tea with the cheery owner of a cramped store. Before long, he had invited them to come to his home for dinner. “Are you talking about Majdi?!” I interrupted. It turns out Majdi’s hospitality was not only effusive but legendary.

Together, we agreed that our congregation needed a chance to experience this extraordinary land and people. Fifteen months later, twenty-nine of us sat in a circle in Majdi’s living room while his wife and children offered us tea and cookies. We laughed together when he shared his stress at planning his son’s wedding – some things are the same everywhere! Much to my surprise, this second trip, which began as a sort of vacation, would become a vocation.

As I prepared to move from South Carolina to a small, urban congregation in Massachusetts, the possibility of a pilgrim vocation began to unfold. The congregation, like many small, urban congregations, could not afford the salary a pastor with nine years of experience might expect. Yet both the congregation and I sensed that God was calling us together. So I wrote a business plan, incorporated with the state, bought an insurance policy, and negotiated a “bi-vocational leave policy” with my new congregation. (My next article might be titled, “Things They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary.”)

The congregation met, discussed, and prayed about what it might mean to have a full-time pastor who is also a part-time tour guide. (I actually prefer the term “pilgrim guide,” but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily.) There may yet be kinks to work out, but together we hope the Spirit is using us to envision new models for the pastor-parish relationship.

An organized pilgrimage is a different experience than that of two young adults setting off on an adventure with no itinerary, no guidebook, a limited bank account, and a reliance on the wisdom of strangers with an occasional stroke of luck. Now, as a business owner with liability and people’s lives to worry about, I must be more mindful of things like trip logistics and security. In fact, budgets and itineraries turn out to be quite useful for helping travelers see all that they hope to see; after all, no trip to this land would be complete without praying at the Western Wall, dipping your toes in the River Jordan, or bobbing like a cork in the Dead Sea.

With planned tours, I cannot rely on serendipity to create encounters like the ones my colleague and I had with Majdi; still, I strive to create space for genuine spiritual encounters that are not hokey or “put on,” with room left for the Holy Spirit to show up. When the Spirit shows up, and she always does, what begins as a group of tourists is transformed into a band of pilgrims.

Israel and Palestine – or the Holy Land – is a land of paradox that has captured my heart. The religious sites have become commercialized but still strike a spiritual chord. The geography is harsh but life giving. The people are complex but extraordinarily hospitable. In that first visit over a decade ago, my faith was deepened, my sense of justice rekindled, and my relationship with my boyfriend renewed. (We are married now.)  The second time, my sense of vocation was expanded.

Now, with each trip I lead, I find myself renewed not only by the land itself but by watching tourists become pilgrims and discover new layers to their faith. I am exhilarated not only by the politics unfolding in the land, but by seeing travelers grow wide-eyed at the complexity, nuance, and humanity of what seems like an intractable conflict. The landscape does not take my breath away as much as seeing a traveler weep as she rinses off the dust of the wilderness with the water of the River Jordan. I not only celebrate with my friends Majdi, Motasem, Islam, and Sarah but with fellow travelers who discover that strangers from the little town of Bethlehem are their friends, too.

In these moments, I feel the sacred weight of being not only a pilgrim but also a pastor. When the airplane touches down in Boston and pastoral duties resume at their frenetic pace, I cling to these moments and pray that the pilgrim Spirit will sustain me, and all those who have traveled with me, in our homeland, too.