jek and pbThe Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa is accompanying the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities, on an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Below are his thoughts, as he posted them each day. Click here to see his photos. Several stories about the trip have been posted by the Episcopal News Service.

JANUARY 25: Jerusalem

I posted my last entry before dinner last evening. We enjoyed an excellent meal with a Jewish rabbi and Muslim Judge. The latter is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. Both men are active leaders of The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Both reiterated something we had heard before. Interfaith dialogue is really difficult in a place where the extremes dominate the landscape. For me, the most important learning was the work of the Muslim Judge, who just published a book, Shariyah in Modern Times. He puts forth a liberal, modern, open view of Shariyah Law, and he and colleagues are trying to adapt this to their work in Shariyah Courts of the State of Israel. I had a strong sense that there is significant resistance to this new approach.

Today, Sunday, began with the Holy Eucharist at the Arabic language service at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral. Bishop Suheil Dawani celebrated, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached. The Cathedral used the “propers” for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, difficult Scriptures for an interfaith congregation (look them up!). One of the parts of the sermon that resonated with me dealt with significance of letting go of control in order to let God’s gifts be in play. I should probably say more accurately — challenged me.

We had an audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. By consensus, this Patriarch is the leading cleric in Jerusalem. Among the things he discussed was the importance of the Church being in touch with and witnessing to the Spiritual History of the region. He said we are not politicians and can’t hope to make the decisions they make. He suggested the Christian’s role is to influence decision-makers towards peace and justice. He suggested religious leaders are important because they are in touch with local people and their sufferings.

We went back to the St. George complex for lunch hosted by Bishop Suheil. I renewed friendship with Graham Smith, Dean of St. George’s College, Jerusalem.

The last event was another highlight of this pilgrimage. We drove south to a settlement area within the West Bank. There is a program in its infancy that is bringing together Israeli settlers and Palestinians. We heard the stirring testimonies of two Jewish men and one Palestinian Muslim. Their stories are too long to go into here. Suffice it to say that each journeyed from places they had been comfortable inhabiting through to significant personal conversion. Just to give a flavor, one of the Jewish men went from a place of anger to being an advocate for and bridge to peace and reconciliation. The Palestinian went from being from a very politically active family and prison to being a peace activist. In different ways, I heard — this is God’s land. The spoke of a new orientation — no longer talking about one group or the other owning the land; rather, both groups talking about belonging to the land (not mutually exclusive). I add these people to the list of courageous, committed, and hard working people for peace and reconciliation. I was inspired by them.

It’s hard to believe, it is time to start packing. We have a heavy schedule tomorrow, so I had better start thinking about sleep.

JANUARY 22–24: Jerusalem

Apologies for being out of touch for a few days. Unfortunately, I came down with a terrible cold in Ramallah, which put me out of commission for two evenings. I managed to persevere during the day, but had no energy for reflecting and writing.

Thursday, 22 January

We were met by the local Episcopal rector, whom I had met on a previous trip. It was good to get reacquainted. He took us to a meeting with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (note that it is the President of the PA who has the real power). I was surprised at how little apparent security there was. I just expect it to be ever-present everywhere. We were cordially received, and thanked for being an interfaith presence. It is clearer and clearer that interfaith dialogue is very difficult in this area because the more extreme and strident voices dominate. Candidly, diplomatic and political solutions seem distant because leaders do not trust one another, and perhaps more importantly, each side is playing to domestic politics. Of course, the people suffer. The current situation is a good example. In retaliation for the PA going to the International Court, the Israeli government has withheld tariffs/taxes it has collected but by treaty belong to the PA. If this lasts any length of time, this means many Palestinians will go without paychecks, including their security people, which would make everyone less secure.

Our next significant meeting was with the Chief Judge, who also received us warmly, and shared essentially the same points as the Prime Minister. The message to highlight is the stated commitment to non-violent methods of reaching the two-state solution.

Our bus took us to Jerusalem and the “security fence/separation barrier,” and a tour by retired Colonel Danny Tirza, Chief IDF architect of the barrier/fence. He rehearsed the history of horrific terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, which resulted in louder and louder calls “to do something.” Clearly, the fence/barrier has been pretty effective in stemming the violence, but it has been a significant cost to Israel’s standing among the nations, and in freedom and prosperity for Palestinians.

We are staying at the Gloria Hotel, which is right inside Jaffa Gate — fantastic location.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

Friday, 23 January

We began the day with a visit to Yad Vashem. What can I say? This was my sixth visit (the first in 1996 to the old museum). The story, of course, does not change. It never loses its power. Each guide has added some personal perspective from their families of origin. I think most of us shed tears at one point or another. It’s not just the lives lost, it’s also the contributions not made. I thought one of the important insights that emerged from this visit is the idea that one should not try to compare sufferings, or to try to determine who has suffered more or less. Suffering is suffering.

In the afternoon, we met with the Counsel General — the highest ranking U.S. diplomat who relates to the Palestinian Authority. I was impressed by his passion and concern. 2014 was a difficult year, to say the least. He believes the Israeli government is allowing more aid to get through, but major repairs like water and sanitation are moving very very slowly. I get the impression Hammas is starting to lose some of its grip, but the worry is that worse elements could fill the gaps. He was asked how he manages to stay positive. His answer was interesting. He visits with programs and projects working to bring young people of both sides together (one example, Kids for Peace).

We attended Kabbalat Shabbat at Kol Haneshema (my fourth time). This is a Reformed/Progressive/Liberal congregation. It has actively participated in the Israeli Peace Movement, for example. Every Kabbalat Shabbat service ends with a prayer for peace in Hebrew and in Arabic. We were introduced as an Interfaith group at announcement time (some things seem universal). This night, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and Dr. Syeed offered a Christian prayer and a Muslim prayer for peace. This was very well received, and congregants expressed appreciation for our presence and our mission.

Rabbi Levi and Paula Weiman-Kelman hosted us for Shabbat dinner at their home. This gave us an opportunity to share personal reflections on the journey to date. Rabbi Levi and Paula listened intently to our stories, and urged us to find ways to share them when we get back to the USA.

holy sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Saturday, 24 January

I knew that I was much better when I was able to participate in last evening’s activities. This morning, I was able to get up early and to walk over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There were no tour groups yet. There was mass being celebrated up on Calvary, and one in front of the sepulcher. So, I was able to eavesdrop, listening to the prayers and hymns wafting through that large space — very powerful, very moving, very holy. Sometimes God speaks to you through other peoples’ faith. It felt like that’s what was going on with me this morning. In it’s simplest form — “I’m here. I have not walked away. You are meeting some of the people and groups I am working through.”

I also managed to take over 100 pictures too.

Because this Interfaith Pilgrimage originated in a General Convention resolution (2012, B-019), the Episcopal portion of the group met briefly to reflect on the experience this summer. We did not come to any conclusions.

It being Shabbat, we could not do anything as a group, so we were free to do as we wished. I, of course, took my camera for another walk — an overview of the Western Wall (Kotel), Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif). I then purchased some tiles at Jerusalem Tile Co. near stations 4 and 5 of the Via Dolorosa. The owner recognized me, and I told him it would not be a visit to Jerusalem without a stop at his shop. I then wandered back to Holy Sepulcher to snap a few pictures in the main chapel, which was closed off during the early morning mass.


Along the Via Dolorosa

After a good shawarma lunch, I walked over to St. James Armenian Cathedral, but it was closed. I moved on the Upper Room and its rooftop view of the Mount of Olives and Kidron Valley. I made a brief stop at the Dormitian Abbey gift shop to purchase a small gift for each member of the group — an olive wood dove.

JANUARY 21: Galilee & Ramallah

The day started with a visit to the Church of the Multiplication in Tagbah in the Northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful church, featuring mosaics, including of the loaves and fishes – a symbol for St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish. The next stop was at the southern end of the Sea for brief view of the Jordan River. A long bus ride ensued, south of road roughly paralleling the Jordan River. We headed west at Jericho and then up to Ramallah.

Photo by the Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa

Photo by the Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa

We were surprised when we entered the restaurant for lunch. A large group of Episcopalians were there, including Bishop Kirk and Laura Smith, Megan Traquair, Timothy Dombek, Matt Marino and many more Arizonans. We knew they were in the region, but had no idea we would run into them.

photo by the Rev. Canon Timothy Dombek

photo by the Rev. Canon Timothy Dombek

Our featured speaker at a late lunch was the first woman to be a judge in a sharia court. Chief Sharia Judge Kholoud al-Faqih shared her persistent story of knocking on the door. Like all trail blazers she experienced a lot of rejection and humiliation. Thanks to her efforts, there are now three women in judicial positions. Sharia courts exist along civil and criminal courts. Palestinian Sharia courts deal with family issues like divorce, custody, domestic violence.

Thankfully, we had the rest of the afternoon off.

JANUARY 20: Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Safed

We began with a conversation with U.S.A. ambassador Dan Shapiro. He talked to us about the Obama administration’s basic and ongoing commitment to the Two State solution. I noted that in speaking about a Palestinian State, he frequently used the word “deserve”, as in the free, democratic and secure State they “deserve”. Among the things he talked about was an appreciation for more moderate religious leaders standing for Peace. I think part of the message was “don’t be discouraged that negotiations have not yet born the fruit we all want”. He encouraged us to think of it as a building process.

U.S. Pilgrimage Group 01/19/2015

U.S. Pilgrimage Group 01/19/2015

Our second meeting was with Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and former President of Israel, at the Shimon Peres Peace House in Jaffa. He is 91, mentally sharp. Among the many things he discussed were:

  • Admiration for the Pope, and his understanding that the problems are essentially spiritual.
  • An absolute commitment to as much to face to face dialogue as possible.
  • Advocated dialogue grounded in joint study of the Abrahamic traditions’ sacred texts.
  • New World – governments no longer in control. Science and technology, as well as business are stronger. “Governments have budgets, but no money.”
  • Equality means respect for differences.
  • His work is to make everyone serve the many.
  • To lead is to help.
  • Nations should be defined by their cultures and spirit, not the size/power of their armies.
  • Politics is not about managing power, but about handling good will.
  • If you count your dreams and your achievements, and the dreams outnumber the achievements, then you are still young.
  • Never give up.

This was a special visit that entered into our conversations throughout the rest of the day.

We boarded the bus and took the coastal route to Caesarea, where we turned inland. We made a brief visit to the Church of the Annunciation, Orthodox. We had a leisurely lunch at a nice restaurant in Nazareth. Our next stop was in Safed (Tvat). We went into one Synagogue and walked by the artists’ shops.

JANUARY 19: Tel Aviv

I was wide awake at 5:00 am, so I got up and read a little. After breakfast at 6:00 am, I went for a walk south from the hotel to the Carmel Market. The produce, bread, and spice shops were opening. So, I shot some pictures. Ended the walk at the Mediterranean beach (about 2 blocks from the hotel). This left me a little time to take care of some emails and other business.

First on the official agenda was a talk by a member of the Knesset, which exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a lot of political rhetoric. Instead Ruth Calderon used a Talmudic tale to get us talking to each other. Among her points was how can we expect to get anything done unless we talk and listen to each other? Furthermore, she contends that in order to really deal with problems at hand, leaders and people need to study each other’s sacred texts together. I think we all warmed to her thought that humans need to be actors, but that at some point we have to get out of the way and (in my words) allow the slow work of God to happen. I was heartened to hear her welcome and encourage our inter-religious initiative.

Next we went to Tel Aviv University to listen to Professor Asher Susser (who sometimes teaches at the University of Arizona), Senior Fellow, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies. Some of my take-aways from his talk:

  • To understand what is happening in the Middle East today, one must understand that the state system, which began after WWI, is falling apart.
  • The “Arab Spring” was largely misunderstood in autocracy vs. democracy terms.
  • It was more about the struggle of forces of modernity vs. the struggle of the forces of tradition (understood in religious terms).
  • The failure of the nation states and of the promises of modernity channels people towards tradition. In this context, huge populations of youth have no future. The result is a sense of hopelessness and no apparent solutions. Nation states have no way to sustain their burgeoning populations.
  • He cited United Nations Arab Human Development reports showing three deficits: 1) political freedom; 2) lack of quality educational systems; and, 3) gender inequality.
  • This is where extremism is taking root.

Among the provocative things he said:

  • Israel should consider unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. He cited all the reasons why this idea is widely criticized and rejected. His contention is that with all the problems with withdrawal, it would allow Israel to preserve to its original purpose – a homeland for Jews to live and flourish. Secondly, he believes this move would give Israel international legitimacy. One reason he cited for this position is that a strong and secure Israel requires a strong and secure Palestinian State.

We enjoyed a late lunch with Rabbi David Rosen, who spoke to us about numerous and extensive inter-religious organizations, initiatives, and work. One of the difficulties is that religion has been politicized, and dominated in the media and politics by the extremes. David’s message was hopeful for me because there is energy and work trying to make a difference in bringing about peace and reconciliation. Again, he welcomed and encouraged our initiative. I am beginning to sense this Pilgrimage and the vision of an interfaith approach is timely, and has some potential to have some influence in the process.

Next we heard from Lior Frnkiensztajn and Ihab Khatib, representing The Shades Negotiating Program (a partnership with Harvard Program on Negotiation). The Core mission of this group is to identify people whom decision-makers in government and business turn to when developing policy. So, these are mostly young adults. Lior gave one example of an Israeli government official who was responsible for helping a decision-maker to develop certain kinds of policies in relationship to Palestinian Authority Territory. Until trained through this program, this individual had never met face to face with a Palestinian person. The program brings people together, teaches them skills and a common language, so they are better able to understand each other, work together, and give more deeply rooted advice. This program is in its infancy, but I think we all thought this is a novel and potentially powerful piece of the puzzle.

After some free time (read nap), we re-gathered to share very brief reflections on the day. Many framed comments in relationship to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and lessons learned in the long uphill struggle of the Civil Rights movement, and the central role of faith communities working together.

Our dinner speaker was really good. Elizabeth Koch-Ya’ari, Director of the Jordan River Project Coordinator for EcoPeace Middle East, spoke to us with such passion and energy that our tired group was actually energized. The main take-away for me was the potential for ecological work involving Israel, Palestine, and Jordan breaks down barriers and promotes cooperation among governments and local people. This organization has produced the one text book that is used in the schools of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Elizabeth was excited about the potential for the engagement of people of the three faiths to come together for the sake of projects like restoring the Jordan River, but also the deeper work to bring differing but neighboring communities together to deal with specific problems of mutual interest. A couple of us immediately started talking about a General Convention Resolution.

JANUARY 18: Tel Aviv

I have arrived in Tel Aviv. The flights were uneventful, though it took a long time to get from my house to the hotel. Tucson — LA — Philadelphia — Tel Aviv. On the way, I reread the brief biographies of the people making this journey together. I was very impressed by their credentials. We just had an informal group dinner, and I am even more impressed. I sense a deep spirit of caring, and of feeling like this could be something very special. As I have said to some at home, I am not sure what our impact can be on the situation on the ground, but I now know that each of us will be changed in some significant way by our sharing this mission together.

During the long flights, I read Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook’s excellent book, God Beyond the Borders: Interreligious Learning Among Faith Communities. I highly commend this book as a primer. Sheryl highlights our landscape of religious pluralism, and therefore the need for inter-religious learning (IRL) and dialogue. According to her, Inter-religious learning begins with stories and identifying shared values. IRL values cultural differences and religious pluralism in learners, their communities and in religious leaders and teacher. Furthermore, she stresses that religious literacy is integral to IRL, including knowledge and understanding of one’s own religious tradition as well as other religious traditions. The power of IRL, she claims, is transformation of individuals and communities. Among the chapters I most appreciated was the one on Compassionate Action as a way of IRL. Each of the chapters concludes with provocative questions for individuals and community reflections. My recommendation comes in part with Sheryl’s generous narrative about some of the IRL things St Philip’s has done. I should also note that Sheryl is leading St Philip’s Spring Retreat done in conjunction with Temple Emanu-El.

One of the Muslim members (U.S. citizen) of the group was detained at the airport for 9–10 hours. Members of the Presiding Bishop’s staff went to work with our Embassy. The Jewish and Muslim leaders in the group likewise went to into action. His flight arrived at about 9:30 a.m. and he was finally released in time to join us late at the restaurant for dinner. Part of the back story is that Israel is apparently on high alert because they discovered and arrested six people said to be aligned with ISIS. This is a powerful reminder of the layers of complexity and the depth of issues being dealt with every day here.

Time for some sleep!

JANUARY 15: Tucson

I am a few days away from going to the Holy Land for the sixth time. I am excited. I see this as an opportunity to deepen the relationship with a longtime friend, with the added benefit of making new friends. Each experience has been distinctive because I was in a different place in my journey and ministry, and due the dynamics of different pilgrimage groups. My first visit (1996) was a member of group from the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore. Reading the Gospels was never the same. There was something about being the environment that altered my perceptions, and made the stories feel more intimate. In 2010 and 2012, I led or co-lead interfaith pilgrimages with members of St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish and Temple Emanu-El, Tucson. In 2013, I took St George’s College’s (Jerusalem) course entitled “The Children of Abraham”. Last summer, I led group of St. Philippians. Our path crossed with the Rabbi and congregants from Temple Emanu-El on several planned occasions. The highlights of each of my five journeys have been different. I am struck how pilgrims will approach a particular site with great anticipation, only to be disappointed. Conversely, I am surprised by the intensity of the experience where and when there were low or no expectations.

Somewhere along the line, I read that St. Jerome called the Holy Land “the fifth Gospel” where, for those who come with faith, the stones would speak to them about God. This describes much of my experience in the Holy Land. I know very well that God is everywhere, but I have felt especially close to God at holy sites, or walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, or gazing down to the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of the Beatitudes.

This pilgrimage will be different. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is leading an interfaith pilgrimage requested in Resolution B-019 by the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  This long resolution is the most recent expression of the Episcopal Church’s position of Middle East matters.  For the full context, the complete text may be found here. Two related clauses, in particular, bear upon this pilgrimage:

  • Resolved, That the General Convention affirm the importance of interfaith dialogue in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both in the Holy Land itself and in other contexts around the world; and decry religious extremism and fundamentalism in all their forms and the violence that arises from their expression;
  • Resolved, That the Presiding Bishop develop an interfaith model pilgrimage composed equally of Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims in order to further encourage the travel of pilgrims and witnesses to the Holy Land in order to experience the multiple narratives of the diverse peoples who call the land their home.

I do not know what to expect. I anticipate a deep learning experience. Previous experiences of journeying with Jewish counterparts have been enriching.  Going to Jewish holy sites and worshipping with local Jewish congregations opened my eyes and heart in new ways. Encountering the holy in these ways has helped to ground my faith more deeply in God’s wisdom and love. I pray that my eyes and heart will be opened in yet more ways through my Muslim companions on this journey. In preparation, I have done a little reading about the Prophet and the historical development of Islamic faith. But, I know from experience that so much more can happen through living experiences, relationships and dialogue.

The success of every pilgrimage is partially dependent on the dynamics and chemistry of the group. I anticipate that a lot of my learning and spiritual growth will come from the discussions over meals, or walking from one place to another. I wonder how we will be with one another. I wonder how we will pray and worship together. I trust the process. I trust the Holy Spirit to move amongst and through us.

A large part of this pilgrimage is to witness to the possibilities of interfaith dialogue, and our shared desire and commitment to peace, justice and security for all. So, the ways we relate to one another will communicate significant subliminal messages to our hosts.

I have seen the draft itinerary. We will be going to interesting places, and meeting with a great variety of individuals and groups. I am eager to hear their stories and narratives. The cynic in me wonders how helpful it will be towards resolving the conflict for us to listen, and to be in dialogue with these individuals and groups.  Then, I remember past visits and several Palestinian Episcopalians asking to be remembered, and to have their stories shared so they are not lost in the shuffle between the dominant Jewish and Muslim narratives. I pray that our witness can open some hearts and minds to potential common ground for reconciliation and peace. We are not going to solve the big picture problems, but I hope we can be a little leaven for a more just, peaceful and secure future for all.

God of the guiding star, the bush that blazes, show us your way.
God of the stormy seas, the bread that nourishes, teach us your truth.
God of the still, small voice, the wind that blows where it chooses, fill us with life.
God of the elements, of our inward and outward journeys, set our feet on your road today.
May God bless us with a safe journey.
May the Angels and Saints travel with us.
May we live this day in justice and joy. AMEN.

2 thoughts on “Interfaith Trip to Holy Land January 2015: Notes from John Kitagawa

  1. Pingback: A Deputy’s Musings at GC78 | Good News from St. Philip's

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