The New Northeast

tracking the Spirit in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine

Tracing the steps of Jesus: past, present, and future

by Judy Smart
Grace Church, Bath

In late fall, 18 Episcopalians from 11 Maine congregations* (and one adopted from the Diocese of Oregon) joined the co-leaders, the Rev. Bob and Maurine Tobin, on a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine.

The purpose of the trip was twofold: to walk in the footsteps of Jesus (the past) and to experience the everyday life of Palestinians in both Occupied Palestine and Israel (the present). Our ten days were filled with overwhelming encounters and experiences.


We did follow, where known and possible, “the footsteps of Jesus” in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, although these cities have expanded beyond what anyone in Jesus time could have imagined! New cities have been built on top of old; buildings are high rise and – where Palestinians live – topped with huge water storage tanks; people crowd every corner; traffic is terrifying. Holy places and spaces are a press of bodies, local and foreign, competing to see and imagine what life in Jesus’ day was like. I had difficulty.  The country was far more meaningful to me: hot, dry hills of stone and rocks, cracked dirt gullies, no growth for miles, occasional Bedouin camps, no visible roads or paths other than the road on which we traveled.  This is where I could imagine Jesus. I think each one of us experienced this historical aspect of the trip quite differently and very personally. It was, however, the present that profoundly affected us all.


As a former student of Middle East history, I knew the “facts” surrounding the creation of the State of Israel and the subsequent seizing of land from and denial of human rights to the centuries-in-resident Palestinians. Now being present to the everyday life of Palestinians was sobering, and it was unimaginable. The following two experiences are two among many that had a great impact on me.

The Tent of Nations

Climbing over the barrier that shuts off the Nassar Farm

Early in our pilgrimage, we visited the Tent of Nations, a 100-acre farm, south of Bethlehem owned by the Nassar family since 1916.  Because a permanent Israeli-built road block cuts off access, we had to climb over it and hike a half-mile to the farm. At the entrance, a large boulder is inscribed the family’s motto: “We Refuse to Be Enemies.”  The road block and the inscription were among the first of many disconnects we were to see between occupiers (Israelis) and occupied (Palestinians).

The farm “buildings” included family sleeping quarters, an open kitchen, a compost toilet, several miscellaneous outhouses and two worn tents that house volunteer workers. In winter, the family and volunteers move into age-old caves for additional warmth. The farm itself produces olives and other crops.

Daoud Nassar tells of this family’s struggle to keep their farm in one of the caves

We were warmly welcomed and given a bountiful lunch cooked by Mrs. Nassar. After lunch we explored the immediate surroundings and settled in one of the caves to speak with the director Daoud Nassar, whose grandfather, in 1916, made the unusual but prescient step to legally document the ownership the land. He spoke about the ongoing intimidation, physical pressure, and the violence that is a constant in their life and work.

The farm is surrounded by five illegally-built Israeli settlement cities – one with a population of 45,000 people – and constant construction circling the farm. Throughout our visit, we could hear the sounds of construction of a new yeshiva at the edge of the farm by the road block. Access to the farm, except by foot, has been cut off, as have water and electricity. Building permits, even erection of additional tents, are denied. The right to use solar power with equipment donated by a German nonprofit is currently being challenged by the Israelis. The family has been threatened by Israeli settlers. Thousands of olive trees have been bulldozed.

walking back to the bus

With the help of volunteers from many nations, the family has worked tirelessly for 25 years to overcome barriers creatively, sustainably, and peacefully through the legal process. It is the volunteer presence, support from around the world, and Grandfather Nassar’s decision to register his property that keeps the farm from being bulldozed and seized in order to expand Israeli settlements on what is rightfully and legally Palestinian land. Israel knows the world is watching the farm at Tent of Nations.

Daoud repeated, “we will not be enemies” and “we are not optimistic, but we are hopeful.”  The pilgrims from Maine were overwhelmed.


Mainers negotiate one of the 121 checkpoints in Hebron’s Old City

Hebron, located in the West Bank of Palestine south of Jerusalem and one of the oldest cities in the world, is a holy place for Muslims, Christians and Jews as the burial site of Abraham and the Patriarchs. It is the largest city in the West Bank with 215,000 residents. While the New City is major economic and commercial center, the once-thriving historic Old City of Hebron now is largely a ghost town. It is home to about 6,500 Palestinian residents and about 500 Jewish settlers who are guarded by 1,500 Israeli military personnel at any given time. Because of the occupation, apartments and homes remain empty where for centuries both Muslim and Christian Palestinian families lived and worked. Hundreds of businesses have been forced to close or have shut down due to lack of customers. Settlers and the military control local life and do so brutally.

walking through the empty streets of Abraham’s city where once there was a vibrant marketplace

We arrived by bus. Our guide, Walid Halaweh of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, pointed to the place where the pavement changed color thereby differentiating the levels of security between the “New City” and the “Old City.”  He indicated that from this spot until our return our every step would be recorded. An armed guard in a tower looked down on us from one of 121 checkpoints in the Old City alone. We watched the high-mounted cameras – 106 in all in the Old City – track our process through the once-vibrant market place.

We walked down a dimly lit street where most businesses were boarded up. The few shops still operating had few or no customers. With all the heavily-guarded checkpoints, people don’t come and businesses suffer. Overhead, metal mesh covered the street. It kept out garbage, including bottles of urine, which Israeli settlers throw out of their apartment windows into the Palestinian area below. A line painted on a wall showed the level of sewer water that had arisen when sewers had been purposely blocked, thereby flooding shops and destroying merchandise.

At a checkpoint our guide was stopped by very young, heavily-armed Israeli soldiers. Because Walid is a Palestinian, he was not allowed to accompany us down a street of “ghost” houses. One of our members was screamed at for going too close to a wall. The sole bright spot was a Palestinian shop keeper who invited us to stop for coffee. He refused payment because “you are guests.” As we exited the Old City, one of our group said that she had never felt so dirty in her entire life. It was not a physical statement but an emotional one. I think most of us felt the same.

There are so many stories and so many disconnects.  On one side we saw checkpoints and walls; land and property appropriation; refusal of permits to build or rehabilitate or to travel; an armed military that can threaten, beat, kidnap, and imprison without charges, trials, or judges; reduced or cut off water or electricity, educational and employment opportunities, garbage collection, and other human services. These are just a few of the violations of human rights and international laws we observed first hand.

On the other side we saw and we heard over and over again: speak the truth to power, we will not be enemies, we are not optimistic, but we have hope, we want justice and peace, we want an end to military occupation, we want our human rights. Who will prevail? How can peace be achieved?

The Future?

Our co-leader, the Rev. Bob Tobin, introduces Fr. Fadi Diab, rector of St. Andrew’s, Ramallah

We visited St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ramallah. In my mind, its small size and simple beauty eclipsed the big Cathedrals we visited earlier. Father Fadi Diab described the work of the Christian church in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Diocese of Jerusalem. Most of the work involves providing social services: human, health, and educational services that Palestinians pay taxes for but that Israel does not provide except at the most minimal levels.

After describing the work, he then turned to us and said if the Church united and took a stand against the Israeli military occupation, it would have more power than the Church imagines it could possibly have. “What the Church needs today is a prophetic voice, and it does not have one. You can pray and pray but in the end you must also do. We are God’s hands.”

And so here we are back in the United States, the Diocese of Maine, our communities and homes. I think most of us are committed to doing something, yet we do not know how or what that might be. Perhaps telling what we witnessed there is a start.

*The pilgrimage, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Maine and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship – Maine Chapter, included members from the following congregations: St. John’s, Bangor; Grace Church, Bath; St. Francis, Blue Hill; St. Paul’s, Brunswick; St. Brendan’s, Deer Isle; Christ Church, Gardiner; St. David’s, Kennebunk; St. Andrew’s, Newcastle; St. Luke’s, Portland; Trinity Church, Saco; St. John Baptist, Thomaston.


6 responses to “Tracing the steps of Jesus: past, present, and future”

  1. Edward Greene says:

    Thank you for your insightful observations, Judy. My experience of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was way back almost 40 years ago; it was bad then, and your account shows how much worse it is now. All those items made out of “olive wood from the Holy Land” are very likely from Palestinian olive groves uprooted by Israelis in building new settlements.

  2. Stephanie J Batterman says:


    Thank you for your insightful report on your trip to the Holy Land. Let us hope that the “prophetic voice” that is so necessary appears soon. The future of that part of the world, indeed the whole world, depends on it.

  3. Jim Boales says:

    Bless you for your humanity and Grace. Reshaping with comments.

  4. Diane Paterson says:

    So grateful, Judy, for your absorbing account of the pilgrimage. You are giving witness; you are providing the people you met a voice; you are giving meaning to the experience you shared with others. Thank you.

  5. Judy, you beautifully encapsulated our pilgrimage and I am glad that I shared witness to the apartheid with you. When people ask what I thought of what I saw I answer simply, “It was enlightening and frightening.” You captured both. Hope to see you soon. bob

  6. Glenis Elliott says:


    I have finally sat down and completed reading your journey to the Holy Land. I have a much better understanding about what is going on over there now and want very much to help in whatever small way I can to help this situation. Looking forward to hearing more of your story when you present to the Women of Grace.

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