On the last night of Westgate’s 2023 Middle East Trip, students and staff met on the rooftop of the Ecce Homo Convent to reflect on their experiences, Fittingly, their meeting was interrupted by the call to prayer echoing across Jerusalem. No one seemed to mind. All of us soaked in the melodic sound, inviting people to pause and reflect on the place of God in their lives.
When the meeting resumed, everyone had something to share. Some students reflected on their time in Nazareth at the beginning of the trip, listening to Waseem, a Palestinian Israeli, tell his story of upheaval and struggle. Others commented on the kibbutz tour with Ellis, an Israeli Jewish man who spoke with pride about what his community had accomplished in northern Israel. A number of students spoke about their time in the Wadi Rum, enjoying the rocks changing colour as the sun set, sipping on sweet Bedouin tea. Still others reminisced about Petra and its magnificent carvings shaped into the red rock. Many were overwhelmed by the blend between the majestic human made creations of the Nabateans and the awe inspiring natural formations like the canyon by which we entered.
In thinking about our time in the West Bank, students reflected on their visit to Hebron, walking on streets that were off limits to our Palestinian guide. We spoke about the separation barrier and the graffiti scrawled upon it, graffiti that pleaded for a world in which walls are not needed, where people can live together. It was in this spirit that trip participants remembered our meeting with Gilli, an Israeli Jewish man, and Laila, a Palestinian Muslim. Gilli shared about the loss of his brother and Laila, the loss of her son. Both admitted that their anger and grief were almost unbearable but somehow they found a way to use their stories to tell others that the cycle of violence must end. The pinnacle of the sharing came when Laila shared that she had recently met the soldier who was one of those who caused the death of her son. Westgate students spoke about her response with reverence, the fact that she could move through her anger to a place of reconciliation.
After our meeting and our many stories, we still had no answer to the question we knew was going to be asked of us: What was your highlight? After realizing we had no answer, some students went to pack the gifts they had bought in the Jerusalem markets, while others remained on the roof, quietly listening to the sounds and taking in the nightscape of the city of peace. – James Friesen