If I were to say that going to the Holy Land changed my life, that would be an understatement...
Seven years ago as a 22-year-old living in my tiny American bubble, I heard about a trip going to the Holy land. Intrigued about the pilgrimage of where Jesus walked, I went to that meeting and heard stories of amazing adventures from the Middle East. I saw pictures of breathtaking views, camels, and fig trees and my heart skipped a beat. The excitement of this journey overtook me and nine months later, I found myself boarding a plane to the Holy Land with twelve other people.
The scenic hills and the desert roads leading to the birthplace of Jesus scroll in my mind as I think back to the first time I crossed the border. The stone buildings lined the streets as we approached the old city. In this moment a plethora of emotions flooded me; fear, excitement, anticipation for what was to come, and I was overwhelmed as I looked out my window and gazed at the passing world below. The hustle and bustle, the people, the shops, smelling the sweet aroma of freshly squeezed juices, passing numerous murals of street art and posters of faces gone too soon. I sat there taking it all in while the aromas shifted to what I now know to be falafel cooking in the streets. As I took everything in, it filled my heart with excitement for the coming weeks. Little did I know just how much this experience would change my life.
I spent two beautiful weeks beneath the olive trees, picking fresh olives with families and people that very quickly became my friends. We were all treated like family the second we stepped off the bus. They welcomed all of us with open arms and open hearts and each family took us in as their own. They taught us everything; the history of their land, the people, the trees. They taught us how to harvest and taught us the importance and significance of the olive and its many uses. We harvested olive after olive as they let us into their world and invited us on a journey that would change our perspectives forever. They told us heart-wrenching stories of injustice and filled our hearts with the hope and prayers of their families returning one day.
We spent sun up to sundown singing, dancing and harvesting together. We talked for hours as the mothers, aunts, and sisters prepared food that was passed on from generations before reaching our table. We all sat on the blanket beneath the trees and broke bread together. This table was reminiscent of what heaven would be like with people from all over the world laughing, learning, and loving from each other. We shared our hearts and built life long connections around that table. I met some of my best friends in the world around that table and I am forever grateful for it.
These weeks stole my heart with each conversation and every fumbled word as I tried to speak Arabic, and not to mention every strong cup of coffee..... So much coffee! My heart expanded with each story and each person I met. I never knew I could love one place and it's people so much. Year after year I found myself returning to "visit my family” in the Holy Land. Year after year I continued to build friendships and learn from the beautiful Palestinian people. I fell in love with the culture, the music, the hospitality. I learned to meet people with open arms, to cherish every moment no matter how small, and to live life with hope in the future no matter what life throws at you. I developed friendships that have seen me through my best and worst days even from 6,000 miles away.
As I sat in that informational meeting in the back room of my church no one could have told me the immense impact this trip and this program would have on my life. No one could have told me that I would return four more times. No one would have been able to convince me that my life would have meaning and purpose listening to and carrying the stories of the Palestinian people back to Ohio with me. That simply learning about this place and it's beautiful and loving people would bring me such great joy in life. The lessons I have learned from my family in Bethlehem are as numerous as grains of sand in the sea and I cherish each one in my heart forever.
I urge you with all my heart that if you have the opportunity to go, DO IT! I guarantee you will not regret it. And in fact, you will be forever changed by it. I know I was!