By the Rev. Paul Jack

I had been to Israel only once, in late March 2011, on a Church of Ireland Connor Diocesan Pilgrimage along with 81 other pilgrims. It was a very special, enriching, meaningful journey through the land of the Bible, in terms of my own journey of Christian faith and “faith seeking understanding” to use that densely challenging phrase of St Anselm.  It led and inspired me to deeper faith as it brought alive so vividly Jerusalem, Galilee and many other of the places, stories and events of the Hebrew and Christian Bible.

It made me also deeply aware of the other passionate commitments I have always had within my Christian journey and ministry, a love of people and relationship, a love and commitment to peace and reconciliation, a love of fairness and justice. Another firm passion grew from these and out of that first visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and that is an interest in the Jewish faith and Islamic faith, their interaction with Christianity and the dynamic between them all.

And so to get the invitation to go on the January 2016 Anglo Israel Association Clergy Tour was amazing, after 4 years of concerned thinking about the 2011 Holy Land trip and praying for peace and stability in the region, it was like an answer to a prayer I never said!!  I was very soon really looking forward to the impending January 2016 Tour and after all the busyness of Christmas I was also full of quiet expectation and anticipation.  What would it be like and what would it be about?

Well, like a lot of life, it was an unfolding journey and it has to be experienced, an itinerary does little justice to standing high on the roadway at Mount Scopus and looking across at Jerusalem in all its glory, as you hear the words of Psalm 122 read aloud.  Or being at the first ever new Palestinian town of Rawabi and hearing of all the positive, exciting hopes and plans the city planners have for its future.

The Study Tour as a whole was very busy and really challenging in many aspects, you certainly learn a lot in a very short space of time about politics, the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what it’s like to be Jewish, Palestinian and Christian.

I think of many moments that were profoundly challenging or special and very often a combination of the two.  A few of these follow.

I think of us all gathered on the first day of the tour proper, at a Gaza Strip observation point, learning about Gaza and its 1.8 million inhabitants, 1.2 million of whom are 18 or under. Then visiting the Kerem Shalom crossing where 850 truckloads per day take all supplies into the Gaza Strip from Israel. There was the complexity of the poor relationships between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt. It was a sobering and challenging time for us all, possibly one of the most profound on the trip.

Much later on in the week Shabbat was amazing. As it approached and before darkness descended, there was the busyness of the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, it was colourful and happening, normal, very dynamic and full of character. Then Shabbat began and there was palpable quietness and tranquillity- faith driven and enveloping Jerusalem.  The Shabbat meal with Rabbi Yonatan and his family was equally special, learning about the Jewish faith and Sabbath. It made me think about faith, all the possibilities of commitment to relationship, interfaith dialogue and learning from each other.

So much is memorable; the meeting with members of the PLO negotiation advisory unit in Ramallah, led by a Xavier, a Palestinian Christian, the productiveness, inventiveness and communal living of life on Kibbutzim like Saad (one of the oldest) or Sde Eliyahu (Bio Bee and full of ecological innovation).

I think of the students of Birzeit University milling about with normal university life and academic study going on, yet mixed strongly with politics, and our meeting with Israeli diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem who were committed to peace-making in the reality of great complexity and many issues.  I would like to go back to Ancient Shiloh one day because I found it so biblically profound.

One day, it was a bright morning on the shores of Lake Galilee, at the Church of the Beatitudes and we had just finished a service of Holy Communion outside. On walking along the path, I stubbed my toe off a little marble inscription at the path’s side. It said simply, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  I do not think I can add to that.

The trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories has changed me, the very special, enriching, meaningful journey through the land of the Bible has happened again. It has made me want to be more of a peacemaker, advocate and reconciler in all that I do. It has made me more desirous and prayerful than ever before God, that the Israeli and Palestinian people will take the brave and incremental steps towards the peace, new relationships and prosperity they all deserve.

I would like to thank the Anglo Israel Association and The Christian Friends of Israel in their generosity and for making this trip possible. It would also be impossible not to mention Ruth Saunders, Jacob Vince, Avihu Cohen, Mike Rogoff and the many others (both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories) who made the 2016 Clergy Study Tour such a blessing, such a special time and a real privilege.

The Rev. Paul Jack is a Church of Ireland Minister (Anglican) and Rector of the Parish of St. Thomas, Eglantine Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland.