Inshallah: Bishop Harris reflects on Holy Land mission pilgrimage

Bishop Gayle E. Harris led her annual mission pilgrimage to the Holy Land Nov. 24-Dec. 6, along with the Rev. Debbie Phillips of Grace Church, Salem. The trip combined visits to holy sites, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Jordan Valley, Nazareth, Galilee, Nablus and Ramallah, with opportunities to learn about active mission in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem through its ministries of education, healthcare and peacemaking.

The trip coincided with President Trump’s controversial statement that the United States would begin recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which was announced near the end of the trip. Harris said that for people of all faiths who have hoped and worked for peace, the announcement was a crushing blow.

“So many people who were hoping for a two-state solution, a solution where [Israel and Palestine] recognize each other’s existence, and that hope seems to have died,” Harris said. “We had a Jewish scholar come and talk to us the night of the announcement, and he said, this is ending the hope for a two-state solution and you [Americans] are giving away your power.”

The 2017 pilgrims Courtesy The 2017 mission trip pilgrims pose for a group photo. 

Against this backdrop, Harris found herself asked to offer some words of hope. The group spent the first Sunday of Advent at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ramallah, where the priest, Father Fadi, invited Harris to speak in lieu of his sermon.

“I said, what kind of hope can I possibly give the people here? Our own country is so divided, so polarized, families can’t even talk to each other over the Thanksgiving table. I thought about gun violence in both our countries, about how indigenous people are being isolated and having their lives taken in both our countries.”

This was the story she chose to share:

“The day before, that Saturday, I was asked by my neighbor if I would watch the live stream of her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Emily, the daughter, really wanted me there but of course I was in Jerusalem, so they had it live streamed. We were at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.

“So there I was in the office of the dean of the cathedral’s office, a Palestinian’s office, watching a Bat Mitzvah in Lexington, Massachusetts. And of course the service is in Hebrew, and next door I can hear Palestinian Christians singing Christmas carols in Arabic. In one ear I’m hearing Hebrew and in the other I’m hearing Arabic, all singing praises to the same God of Abraham.

“The Scripture Emily chose for her Bat Mitzvah was from Genesis, the story of Jacob and Esau. Two brothers who were at odds with each other but who finally had to embrace each other and forgive each other. And this remarkable little girl stood in her synagogue and said, ‘We have to look each other in the eye, Palestinian and Jew, and say that we have both hurt each other. We must acknowledge what we have done to each other so we can go forward into the future.' People were just floored that this little Jewish girl from Lexington was talking about justice at her Bat Mitzvah.”

As the Massachusetts pilgrims began Advent together in Ramallah, looking for hope in a disheartening political climate, Harris said that she was able to take a bit of hope in the common Arabic expression, heard constantly among Palestinians: Inshallah, which means “if God so wills.”

“You hear it all the time: see you tomorrow, inshallah, I’ll be back next year, inshallah,” she said. “When you talk about the future, when you talk in hope, they always add that: ‘if God so wills.’ That’s my hope for peace, too.”

The 2018 mission pilgrimage to the Holy Land is scheduled for Sept. 28-Oct. 10, 2018. Please contact Liza Zayas at lzayas@diomass.org for more information.