Yes, even with all that we see going on there, I, along with my good friend and mentor, the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, Dean of York, and a principal partner in Lightline Pilgrimages, made it to Jerusalem this past week. I left on January 7th from Miami. We began planning our trip about 6 weeks ago. In that time we had to reschedule my flight four times due to airline cancellations. My route was from Miami to Chicago, Chicago to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Munich, Munich to Tel Aviv. A 30 hour run around Europe! But, to my amazement and delight, and even with one 50 minute connection, it worked. I arrived in Tel Aviv only about 30 minutes late. As with many of the surprises we would have, the airport was the first, very few planes, all of them El Al, and many empty gates. We were on Lufthansa. When we arrived at the gate the captain came on and welcomed us to Tel Aviv and thanked us for "taking the “inaugural flight” as we resume today flying daily to Tel Aviv." I had no idea we were on the very first flight since the cancellations early on. For several months before January 8th, only El Al was continuing to fly into Tel Aviv.
Our next surprise was the ghost town that was the airport pilgrimage bus parking lot, usually a point of blessed chaos, and throngs of people, it was lonely, and desolate, a surreal vision at dusk.
We then took the ride to Jerusalem and checked into the American Colony in East Jerusalem. They reported only 12 rooms taken on this night, out of nearly 200. They did report that just a few weeks ago they were full, due to journalists, but that has now once again shifted south. On this night we learned that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was landing in town. He would be moving about closely for all the days we were there.
That evening, after a bit of cleaning up from the long journey, Dominic and I were blessed to have dinner with Archbishop Hosam Naoum, Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East. It was so good to see my beloved colleague and to hear first hand the experience, for him and for the diocese, of this war.
After supper, I was really ready to lay down and sleep. As so many of you well know the first night after travels here, I slept like a rock for about 5 hours, and then my eyes popped open, in the middle of the night, and there wasn’t much use in trying to sleep much more. Still, even with that, most of you know how refreshing it is to get that 5 hours! When I did pop up, one of the blessings was the morning prayer call from the minaret right outside my window. I always love that sound when I am here. I videoed it so you can hear it too.
The next morning, after a couple strong espressos, Dominic and I met with Ranya, one of the excellent guides we work with, and her husband Rami just to catch up and to assure them of our prayers for them both and our yearning to return as soon as possible with pilgrims. She is pregnant now with their second child. Keep them in your prayers.
I then moved on to St. George’s Cathedral as I was invited to join Archbishop Hosam, Chaplain Don Binder, and Interim Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, Wadie Farr on the annual ecumenical practice among the heads of churches to share Christmas greetings. This started at the Greek Patriarch, Blessed Theopholis, His Beatitude, who welcomed us all as we shared greetings. In Archbishop Hosam’s remarks to Theopholis and the gathered crowd he introduced me as Chair of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, as a friend, and as the “first pilgrim to return after the war.” This humble declaration was very warmly received by those gathered as they applauded to show their gratitude. His Beatitude, then asked me to speak, something I entirely did not expect! I hope my jet lagged, unplanned response, was a good one. I shared what a blessing it was to be in their presence and that I stood in for thousands who would be standing there if they could, and assured them of our continued and ongoing prayers for peace in the Land of the Holy One. It was an awesome, humbling, and blessed experience.
We moved from the Greek Patriarch, through the streets of the Old City, largely closed, but still, in certain corners, places open and striving to come back to some new normal. We moved next to the Coptic Church, where we were welcomed again, and then finally to the Syriacs for a similar greeting, and good discussion. Of course the war is front and center, but as so many speakers remarked, regardless of war, Christmas cannot be stopped, and ultimately, we, Christians, are a people of hope. I witnessed some audacious hope on this day and on this whole journey.
One of the blessings of being in this audience was finally getting to personally meet the Rev. Sally Azar, Evangelical Lutheran Church, who was ordained in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023, an event I did not get to attend but for which I happened to be in Jerusalem for with a group of pilgrims. Though we did not attend we were definitely celebrating this before and after. She is the first Palestinian woman ordained in the Holy Land.
On our walk through the old city, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where they are taking this opportunity to do some major renovations. Much of it is scaffolded, and taped off, but our four person entourage was able to walk right into the tomb, and to pray together there. We were able to reverence and pray at the Stone of Anointing too. In the course of the two days I would have the blessing of entering in twice more for prayer there. Again, a site to behold as usually there are thousands waiting for this chance.
I made my way back to the American Colony to have lunch with Dominic and the Rev. Richard Sewell, Dean of St. George’s College. Richard has become a great colleague and friend. It was very good to catch up with him. Dominic and I then took our own walk through the Old City, going once again to the Holy Sepulcher.
I then peeled off and walked back to meet Giovanni Anbar. Giovanni is the Director of the Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center in Ramallah. If you have not visited there, and you ever get a chance, you must. He is an amazing and inspiring leader and this school will warm your heart. You can find more here. My main point of being there was to hear of the struggle during this time and to, face to face, share our solidarity and hope and support for their ongoing work even in the face of it.
Giovanni shared that the journey for him each day, from his home in Jerusalem, on to Ramallah, as the crow flies, perhaps a little more than 13 miles, takes him roughly 4 hours each way, as their is only one checkpoint open, and of course, security is very high. While 8 hours a day just to commute does sound daunting, Giovanni was gentle and clear in saying if this is all is afflicted with in this war, especially when so many others are dying, injured, held hostage, etc, he can handle the wait. He also shared that incredible hope that is so much a part of his leadership and as difficult as it is, still prevalent among the Living Stones.
That evening we shared dinner with George, Tamer, and Habib Khoury, long time friends and partners in our Lightline Pilgrimage business. It was so good to see these friends, to listen to them and their struggles and trails and hopes during this time too.
Another attempt to sleep! It went about as well as those of you who have done this know! The next morning I got up so I could attend the 8 a.m. Holy Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral, were the Archbishop presided. After that, Dominic and I were able to meet with Ghassan, our other spectacular guide and friend to again assure him that he, his family, his work have not been forgotten.
After a quick coffee at American Colony, I was picked up by Muhammad, who took me to Princess Basma Hospital in East Jerusalem, so I could meet with our Director there, Violette Mubarak and some of her amazing staff. If I had not seen hope and joy much before this visit, I got it in droves here! I played and sang with a few of the over 400 children they teach each day, and I got to get a briefing on the war, on renovations and changes to the hospital, and to meet some of the patients caught in the middle in this war. I think it has been about two years since I have been present at Princess Basma, and I have to say I was totally stunned by all the good work, the cleanliness, the newness that has occurred since I last saw it. I saw a whole new computer lab, new classrooms, a beautiful new outdoor, covered playground. Violette and the staff here are rock stars! It was such an inspiration for this to be one of my last stops.
After being taken back to the American Colony, I called my favorite and only tattoo artist I use in Jerusalem, Razzouk. Many years ago I decided to always leave with one souvenir at the end of any travel to the Holy City, a tattoo. Wasim Razzouk and his family have been doing this since 1300. Every year I get the actual numbers of the year added to my arm. So, with just a few hours left before I had to go to the airport, I met Wasim’s son, Nizar, who has done several of my tattoos, at the shop so that I could get my “24” put on my arm. I have added a picture below.
After this very short visit I returned to Tel Aviv airport, we boarded our Lufthansa flight and flew back to Frankfurt, this time to spend one night at the airport, and then to get up early the next day and board a direct flight back to Miami. It was such a blessing to only have two legs compared to the four on the way out, but I would not change a thing. I will never regret the work it took to get there, and certainly never the chance to actually be here, to walk, and talk, and share with these Living Stones who need us, and the world, so much right now. The entire country is tense, the lack of trust hangs thickly in the air, the PTSD, is in everyone.
Our goal was to be in solidarity, to assure the people of this land that they have not been forgotten, and that we have every intention of coming back, and bringing pilgrims as soon as possible. We came also to say to them, face to face, we will continue our prayers, but even more our work, where we are, in every way we can, to help and aid peace for all in this land.
Until that time I hold up to you the work of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. I humbly ask you to consider giving to that work. You can do that here. For the many reading this who have already, thank you, from me, but even more from those who we were with there, who are very clear, that these gifts, these prayers, our presence, our desire to be present, are all profound and deep gifts to and for them during this challenging time.
Blessings to all,
The Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel is the VIII Bishop of Olympia, the Episcopal Church in Western Washington State. He has been the bishop here since September, 2007.