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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. Read more