"The risk is that the Holy Land is becoming a 'spiritual Disneyland.'"—Fouad Twal, Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem
Like millions of others throughout the centuries—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—I saw my trip to the Holy Land as a spiritual pilgrimage. Many who go hope that by visiting key sites and religious shrines of biblical events they will have a profound encounter with the God of their faith. Christians of all traditions line up for hours to kiss the spots where Jesus was born, died and buried. They pay to be baptized in the Jordan. They sing, pray, and walk in procession carrying crosses along the Via Dolorosa. Some experience a touch of the divine as they kneel in devotion in sacred space, tears rolling down their cheeks. Others wait in vain for their magical moment, deeply disappointed by the hollow plastic carrot they've chased halfway across the globe to this 'spiritual Disneyland.'
Thankfully, I was duly warned. Those in the know reminded me: the Jerusalem where Jesus once walked lies crushed and burned dozens of meters below today's city. The great walls and gates are medieval recreations with matching castle strongholds in Europe. The ornate altars usually commemorate the place where the church chose to remember great events, not necessarily the actual location where events occurred. "He is not here," the door to the garden tomb says, "He is risen."
But Christ is here, I was told. Here in the hearts of local believers we elbow past in ignorance to get to the next tourist trap. Christ is alive and present, still wandering the land. I saw Him, felt him, and was touched by Him in His living church, in their villages, and remarkably, especially at the checkpoints.
First, Christ is here in the shrinking Christian population that fears we care more about their temples of stone than the living stones of Christ's local Body. Christ is here in our brothers and sisters—in Jewish and Palestinian Christian churches—gasping for breath as they've dwindled under pressure to 1% of the populace. He is alive in the Jewish Christians (who often don't like being called 'Messianic Jews') and their Palestinian-Arab Christian counterparts (who definitely don't like being called Muslims!).
These believers—hospitable even in their poverty—commissioned us to be messengers for them to Western Christians, to be vocal about what we saw. First, they pled with us not to forget there is a Christian presence there. We are wrong to assume that Israel = Jews and Palestine = Muslims. Abuna Emmanuel ministers in a village church in Aboud that has worshiped Jesus continually since 332 AD. He wanted us to tell American Christians, "We are being choked out of this land, but Palestine and Israel needs us here. We are like salt: small but very, very tasty!" The region needs the presence of Christ there in body of believers to be His voice as prophets and peacemakers.
I asked Butra (Peter), a Palestinian English teacher, "What does it mean to be a Palestinian Christian?" He said,
"To be a Palestinian Christian is hardship. Where does our hope come from? God. But it is not easy. Our olive groves have been taken; our families are separated; thousands are in prisons and refugee camps. It is like hell to bear these burdens—and it is a miracle. Christ gives us the power to live life, to accept, and to adapt. We Christians could be a bridge between Muslims and Jews, but how can we when the Wall separates us? When the only Jews we meet are soldiers at the checkpoint? Now 50% of our village has emigrated because our youth have no hope of a job, a house, or a family. What will happen when all the living stones leave?"
As suggested by the conference title, I also looked for "Christ at the Checkpoint." I believe I saw the suffering Christ in those who line up hours before dawn to suffer the dehumanizing daily process of passing like cattle through military gates and turnstiles to get to their own shops, schools and hospitals. I believe I saw Him in the NGO's who come from afar to accompany children and farmers to and from their schools and fields for six months at a time. They march in solidarity past the abuse of aggressive settlers (three-quarters imported from America). I found Christ in the relief and advocacy worker who said, "We are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-justice, and pro-Jesus."
I also saw Him in Marwan and Mona, just two of the many Muslims who have chosen to serve Christian ministries as prophetic peacemakers. I found him in the refugee youth-worker who teaches children hope through media arts.
I met Christ in the First Baptist Church in Bethlehem that was shut down by the Palestinian Authority just yesterday. And I believe I met Him in the Israeli reservist who crosses lines to wade courageously into protests, resisting the violent draw of the situation, speaking with authority and respect, engaging dialogue, and de-escalating tension for another week.
Yes, I found Christ there—in fact, I saw Him everywhere I looked whenever the Spirit would open my eyes with grace. I pray this will be a permanent adjustment to my spiritual vision.