By Jungja Jacqueline Hong
“I can’t believe you are here,” Canon Jeanne said, finding me standing in front of the bar at the St. George’s Guest House.
I arrived there, exhausted and unnerved. The other pilgrims were all in the introductory session when I walked through the lobby to my room. They already had strolled through the Damascus gate and Salah Eldin Street to familiarize themselves with the surroundings and lunched at the Alshoula restaurant. I had missed the first day of the pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage to the Holy City, Jerusalem, was a trip I had most anticipated of any trip. It was almost eight months from when I had first registered, and I had wondered throughout the waiting how it would all pan out. As the departure day came closer, I became anxious and frustrated by not knowing about the specifics of the trip until I received an e-mail a week before the trip. Relieved, I packed and shopped, especially a thermal water bottle for the hot August heat in Jerusalem.
Now it was Friday, two days before my departure. I arranged a taxi pick-up to the airport and entrusted the care of my plants to the landlord. I went to bed feeling good, having made all the arrangements. However, not long after I fell asleep, the smoke detector in the bedroom started to beep out of battery. It was most untimely; I stayed awake miserable, listening to the relentless beeps, and wondering if this was a foretaste of what was to come.
Nevertheless, Sunday came, and I was on my way to the airport. After checking in and going through Customs, I settled myself in the lounge. I thought; finally, I am on my way to the most anticipated trip of my life. However, the boarding got pushed back one hour, and even worse, two hours after the boarding, the plane still sat on the tarmac. Feeling dejected, I looked at various planes flying off the tarmac, but not the plane that would take me to my destination. Worries about making connections at Istanbul to Tel Aviv occupied my mind entirely. The flight arrangements made by the travel agent provided only one hour-window to make the connection.
Finally, the plane lifted off the tarmac three hours later, and at this point, there was nothing I could do than comfort myself with a positive thought that there might still be a chance of making the connection, now that the plane is up in the air flying toward Istanbul. There was no use rattling about something not yet known. I had to keep the hope. I leaned back, looking out the window. The packed rows of houses and apartment buildings extended to the water edges below.
When the plane touched the ground at Istanbul, I quickly moved to the front, determined to make the connection; an official pointed to the vast space in front of me and told me to go forward, refusing to answer any questions. I walked forward as the attendant suggested, dragging the carriage since I opted out, checking it in. There was no help in the newly built, enormous airport. Duty-free shops lined up all around, and only people visible were shopkeepers. Not surprisingly, my connecting departure gate was empty and closed. The nightmarish Friday night continued to enlarge itself like a small snowball, rolling down the snow-covered hill, or should I say it was the Murphy’s Law? I imagined the other pilgrims and the taxi driver, all at Ben Gurion Airport, waiting for me. I became almost panicky and desperate. I looked for Turkish Airlines, but all I saw were the shops. There was nothing I could do than keep walking, and that I did, dragging the cumbersome carriage. I began to sweat profusely and quickly became thirsty, near dehydration. I could not find any place to buy water from, among all those shops. My arms were numb from the heavy load that I was pulling, and I was exhausted. The temptation to sit down right there in the middle of the airport and give it all up was great, but my will to make the pilgrimage was greater, and I kept going.
Finally, I reached the Turkish Airlines counter, tucked in at the end of the airport. The clerk gave me another boarding pass to take off eight hours later. He directed me to the business class lounge for further assistance. Reaching the lounge was another feat, a mile of walk. I found three people at the desk. I approached them, sweaty, angry, and tired; they didn’t want to hear my complaints. At that point, I lost myself. I raised my voice to shout and scream, demanding help. Fortunately, another passenger who had missed the connection showed up. It seemed to compel them to respond. They booked another flight for four hours later, and made a call to Canon Jeanne at St. George Jerusalem to inform her of my delayed arrival. By this time, I felt that I had lived three years of my life in that ghastly airport, and I was cursing the booking agent. I was not in a good frame of mind for the pilgrimage.
When I finally appeared in the garden at the St. George’s Guesthouse, pilgrims were sitting around tables, waiting for dinner. The reception was tepid when I approached them and introduced myself. I thought if they only knew what I had gone through. Regardless, the first and foremost thing to do was to drink water. I was on the verge of dehydration parched as a desert elephant. I was getting a bottle of water at the bar when Canon Jeanne saw me and approached, keep repeating, “I can’t believe you’re here.” She gave me a big hug; however, I couldn’t help but wonder where she thought that I would be or should be, having paid fully for the pilgrimage, and after having gone through hell at Istanbul airport to get there. I was upset with everything at this point. I needed to rest and collect myself, but I had to move forward with the trip early next morning as expected. “Yallah”- “let’s go” in Arabic, was the command to move forward, and I did. The sound of “Yallah” still echoes in my mind as I write.
The next day began with the prayer at St. George’s Cathedral. We met the Anglican Archbishop Suheil Dawani and took a group photo in the courtyard. Immediately afterward, we headed toward the Judean Desert and the Herodium. We climbed up the steep stairs and down deep inside the hill and back up to look at the King Herod’s well from afar. In the evening, we listened to the lecture by Dr. Bernard Sabella on the Palestinian perspective of the current situation in Jerusalem. It became clear why both Palestinians and Israelis consider Jerusalem the center of the world. The city’s complexities and problems were the epitome of those of common humanity.
The next day, Wednesday, we walked the Cardo to the Constantinian entrance and the Church of the resurrection to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over Golgotha. Tourists clamored to get in. After some squabbles, I made to the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and touched the base of the site where the cross presumably had stood. Then the group visited the Upper Room at St Mark’s Church, which was ironically located in the basement level but very light and pleasant. I lit a candle there.
On Thursday, we visited the Dome of the Rock, Church Of Saint Anne, and the Pool of Bethesda. The highlight of the day was the healing service at the Pool; some of us, at least two, experienced the healing of knee pain and back pain. Afterward, we visited the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre for disabled children on the Mount of Olives, which had some of the most current rehabilitation amenities. After lunch at St. Andrew’s Guest House, we visited the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, a wing of the museum where it displayed the Dead Sea Scrolls. I read inscriptions, but unfortunately, they didn’t make it to my hippocampus.
On Friday, we visited the Judean Desert, Jericho, and Nazareth. The day started at dawn with a silent reflection at Wadi Qelt and the Eucharist in the desert. The soft glow of the rising sun, bathed and comforted us, pilgrims. After breakfast in Jericho, we hiked up the Mount of Temptation, where the devil tempted Jesus. A cable car lifted us to the starting point of the climb. It was a hard climb under the harsh sun. It reminded me of another difficult climb at Petra in Jordan; steep and hazardous; sliding rocks; nearly vertical mountain hill, ten years ago. Though the climb to the Mount was not as challenging, it was difficult all the same, and the searing heat did not help. When we reached the summit, we found a small church. Many of us knelt at the altar and prayed. I don’t remember now what I prayed for, but I hope it was for forgiveness. I have much to forgive as much as to be forgiven. We viewed Tel Jericho on the way down the summit. We lunched in Nazareth and visited Mary’s Well, walked to the Church of the Annunciation, the traditional site of The Angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. By the end of the tour, I was happy to return to our new lodging, the beautiful Sisters of Nazareth Convent. It was a trying day. I rested, looking out the beautiful courtyard garden. Early the next morning, I relished hearing the church bell.
On Saturday, we left for the Jordan River for the renewal of our Baptismal Vows; Bishop sprinkled the holy water over us with olive branches dipped in the Jordan River, then we had Eucharist there on the Riverbank. The very same olive branches sit on my flower chest today, still appearing fresh and green with olives intact. Everyone collected water from the Jordan River to take home; I did it as well. However, it vanished. I suppose someone took it. In that case, I have one more person to forgive because it would have been nice to have the holy water at home to anoint myself.
After the Baptismal Vows, we went to the Mount of Beatitudes, where we listened to Bishop read the Sermon on the Mount. It was an effective reenactment. However, while descending the Mount, Bishop had a fall scraping his arm. As I write about it, another incident comes to my mind; one day, Canon Jeanne had left her cell phone in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the phone fell into the hands of an unsavory character who claimed to be a “Sultan,” asking $500 ransom. After several hours of negotiation, the phone was returned the next day for $30, thanks to the intervention of the great enabler, Canon Iyad Qumri. With all these unforeseen events taking place, I could not help but think about my trying ordeal at the Istanbul airport to come to Jerusalem and the untimely beeping of the smoke detector at night just before my trip. All in all, our pilgrimage was John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the twenty-First Century version of it.
Upon assurance that the Bishop’s injury was not serious, we went to Capernaum to visit the Ancient Synagogue next to Peter’s House near the bank of the Sea of Galilee. I sat on the bank, basking in the peaceful energy and cooling breeze of the sea. It was here, where Jesus began his ministry, where he had walked on water, and where he had cooked fish for his disciples after the resurrection.
On Sunday, we celebrated Eucharist at Christ Church in Nazareth in both English and Arabic. We also explored the Sisters of Nazareth’s, rarely seen or known, ancient underground living quarters. According to our guide Canon Iyad, there was a likely possibility that the birthplace of Jesus rested there among the ruins.
On Monday, we visited Burqin Church, where Jesus, on his way from Nazareth to Jerusalem, healed ten lepers quarantined in a cave. The church was exuding joyfulness and thankfulness. Various colorful icons and sacred relics filled every space of the church. The energy and spirit felt in this small, unassuming church were infectious and deeply moving. I lit a candle. We learned that the church was the fifth most important Holy Site in the world, yet not many people came to visit. Tour guides neglected to bring pilgrims to the church because it was in a remote corner and because it was a small church. It is sad because I am certain that the size of a church matters little to God, as shown in this Burqin church.
We departed Nablus to visit St. Photini, the Greek Orthodox Monastery. St Photini was the Samaritan woman at the well who Jesus asked for water. We drew water from Jacob’s Well and drank it. My stomach felt bubbly for some time. Then we departed for Taybeh. On the way, we stopped by at a bakery for tasty Kenafeh, regional cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup. We had lunch in Taybeh and visited the winery where I bought a spice, sumac, instead of wine. Now back at home, I enjoy hummus, sprinkled, and drizzled over with the sumac and olive oil. We returned to St. George’s guest house, which was just as beautiful as the Sisters of Nazareth. We enjoyed dinner at the terrace garden in the cooling breeze of the evening. Cats strolled and slunk through the sunflowers and tall plants.
On Tuesday, we visited Shepherd’s Field, the First Century Cave Home, and The Church of the Nativity. It is the oldest church in Christendom, located in Manger Square, constructed by Constantine the Great in 326 AD. We each lit a candle there. We stopped by at a shop in Bethlehem, where every item and artifacts had originated from the olive tree and olive oil. I bought various religious objects, including crosses, a ring, and an olive tree menorah for Ira to thank him for taking care of my plants.
On Wednesday, we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and touched the ancient olive trees in the garden, which could have witnessed Jesus, sweating blood in anticipation of the crucifixion. We meditated at the church, touching the stone slab where Jesus supposedly had prayed in anguish. I felt his sorrow there, and so did many other pilgrims.
The last day, Thursday, started around 5 AM. We walked silently to the old city to pray the Stations of the Cross. A pilgrim carried the cross. Then we visited the empty tomb where I laid cross necklaces, a ring, and other objects, and rubbed them on the stone for blessing. I now wear the necklace and the ring as often as I can. We returned to St. George for breakfast, and after some time of relaxation, everyone left for Emmaus for the last communion. I had to miss it due to the plane schedule.
Now back in New York. I can’t believe that I am sitting in my apartment writing about the pilgrimage. My recollection of the trip is murky overlade with the memories of coping with the difficulties of arriving and leaving, coping with the hot weather, and different personalities in the group. It is often difficult to travel with strangers, and this trip was not an exception.
Someone asked me what the most memorable of the trip was. Another asked if I came away, inspired, and renewed. Naturally, the difficulties I had getting to Jerusalem came to my mind immediately. However, my difficulties shriveled to a handful of air when I reflected upon the difficulties Jesus had gone through, ministering to the oppressed and poor in the very city where I have visited and followed his steps. I hope that my going through difficulties with determination has fostered in me a spiritual growth. After all, life is a pilgrimage filled with difficulties and challenges. The image of Jesus on the cross, suffering for my sin and sins of the world; his passion, his love, and his compassion never fail to inspire and comfort in the chaotic and often unjust world.