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Warmth & Hospitality, Division & Tension: A Trip to the Holy Land

August 31, 2015
"Over countless plates of hummus and tiny cups of cardamom-infused coffee, our group listened to the stories of Muslim shopkeepers in the West Bank, Arab Israeli Christians in Galilee, and Palestinian believers in Bethlehem."

Each year, one Regent student travels to the Holy Land courtesy of the Conway Holy Land Travel Bursary. The purpose of the bursary, generously endowed by Dr. John Conway, is to enable that student to engage in inter-religious dialogue and explore issues of peace and justice. Amy Anderson, who left a law practice in Saskatchewan to study Old Testament at Regent College, was thrilled to be this year’s recipient, and reflects on her experience.

On May 29, I boarded a flight for Tel Aviv, intent on exploring the region’s past and present. As a student of the Old Testament, I knew that a first-hand encounter with the geography and history of the Holy Land would bring more life, depth, and context to my reading of Scripture. I also hoped that my time there would give me a better understanding of the political, social, and religious tensions that mark the lives of those who make this part of the world their home.

My hopes were not disappointed. A one-month program operated by Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem provided a wonderful opportunity to engage with many facets of faith and life in the Holy Land. From beginning to end, I was overwhelmed by the famous warmth and welcome of Middle Eastern hospitality.

Over countless plates of hummus and tiny cups of cardamom-infused coffee, our group listened to the stories of Muslim shopkeepers in the West Bank, Arab Israeli Christians in Galilee, and Palestinian believers in Bethlehem. An Israeli soldier turned tour guide told us of his childhood in a kibbutz and served us sage tea on a rocky cliff overlooking an ancient monastery. A Jewish scholar guided us through the Holy Sepulchre, explaining the intricacies of Christian unity and disunity with remarkable insight and sensitivity. An Arab pastor showed us around the ancient city of Nablus, telling us of the joys and challenges that face its small Christian community. We broke the Ramadan fast with a family living in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, heard a former member of the PLO advocate for non-violence, and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum.

In the midst of all these experiences, I encountered first-hand the landscape immortalized in Scripture. Jerusalem, the Jordan River, the Judean wilderness, Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, and the Kidron Valley have always been near-mythical to me. To see and experience them in the flesh, to hike into Jericho and wade in the Sea of Galilee, was an incredible experience. The tangible reality of the ruins at Tell Dan and the caves at Qumran brought biblical history alive, and the sight and feel of the landscape gave me new insight into the symbolic world of the Bible. There is nothing like a midsummer hike through the Judean desert to bring home the image of thirsting for God in a dry and weary land. My reading of Scripture, particularly the Psalms, became fresher and more poignant as I was able to connect the text with the physical experience of life in the Holy Land.

My encounter with the daily experience of the current inhabitants of the land resulted in a different kind of poignancy. Although I have been interested in the region’s social and political conflict for many years, nothing had prepared me for an encounter with the real thing. It remains difficult for me to reconcile the consistently warm welcome we received, regardless of faith or ethnicity, with the constant state of division, hostility, and tension that marks so many of the relationships among the people of Israel and the West Bank. Political and social solutions that had seemed both fair and reasonable from a distance broke down as I encountered the cultural and political realities of the region. Although my time in the Holy Land was brief, it gave rise to questions, revelations, and experiences that will remain with me much, much longer. I am so thankful for the opportunity and know that it will continue to bear fruit in my personal, spiritual, and academic life for many years to come.

More about the Conway Bursary

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