Last night over dinner I asked my son’s new girlfriend what was her favourite food? Falafel she replied. I blurted out my first thought. Brilliant, you can come to Palestine with us. The look on her face conveyed a hundred emotions. Fear, caution, intrigue, surprise, and some interest. Her response is not unusual. Mum goes a lot and has a great time, my son reassured her. And it's true, I do go loads, twelve times in the last three years and I do always have a great time.
I have had the absolute honour of leading several groups to the Holy Lands. Christian pilgrims, interfaith groups, students and women’s groups – mostly organised through the brilliant team at Holy Land Trust. Each visit is unique but everyone valuable, insightful, and transformative for participants and for me.
Holy Land Trust is so well connected throughout the region that even on a short visit you hear from incredible people with a range of perspectives. Their experience means that they know how to make itineraries that are tailor-made for different groups and no moment is wasted but care is taken to make sure visitors are not exhausted or overwhelmed. The team listens well to what is needed, is flexible during the visit when things change offering personalised support and contact throughout. But what makes a trip with Holy Land Trust really special is the web of friendship that weaves its way throughout any visit. All the team makes a huge effort to get to know people as individuals, visiting experts and projects is like visiting friends and informal socialising, eating together and even visiting local bars become an important part of the visit, when honest conversation takes place in a relaxed environment and minds are opened as relationships deepen and trust is built.
So many people have so many reasons why Palestine is not in their travel bucket list. People, like, my son’s girlfriend, think it is a dangerous, violent, and depressing place to visit. Images in the media, headlines in the papers, and political rhetoric do not describe the place I know and love. There are so so many reasons to visit. I have taken people interested in political, historical, and spiritual aspects of the region, (or a combination of these) and they found huge amounts to stimulate them intellectually. I have taken people who know very little and others who have visited many times and for both groups, there is always more to see, do, and learn. I have taken people who are teenagers and those who are retired and they have all come away energised, invigorated, and informed.
But none of this is the heart of a visit to the Holy Lands. The people who get the most from a visit, whether it is a month study tour like Iktashef (Summer Encounter), a week olive picking or a ten-day church pilgrimage, are people who visit with humility. Visiting Palestine is not a typical holiday, but each day is holy. Each day has potential for connection, for growth, and for transformation. The landscape, the beautiful climate, the sense of history, the pilgrimage sites all contribute to the sense of the sacred but what makes this land holy for me is the people. I return to Palestine whenever I can because I learn so much. I learn things that change my heart more than they change my mind. As a Christian, I am in awe of people who live the hardest line Jesus spoke – Love your enemies. As a human, I am in awe of people who never stop building relationships despite endless obstacles and setbacks. As someone engaged in dialogue, peacemaking, and reconciliation I am in awe of the painstaking work I see as Palestinians seek to build justice and break boundaries, to remain steadfast when there is little to bring hope.
I would urge anyone with an ounce of interest in the region to visit Palestine and I think traveling with Holy Land Trust offers unique insights, transformative experiences but most of all the chance to really encounter the people who live in this land. Come for pilgrim sites, come for political activism, come for the desert and the sea, come to eat falafel and other beautiful dishes – but come with an open mind, a humble heart, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of receptivity, curiosity, and generosity.
Jessica Foster - Amos Trust
Jessica is a tutor in Interfaith Engagement at the Queen's Foundation, a theological college in Birmingham and is an ordained Anglican deacon Jessica volunteers for Holy Land Trust a regular basis.