Why I Keep Returning To Palestine

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Why do I keep returning to Palestine? Why, for the third year in a row, do I pack and board planes and change dollars into shekels? Why do I keep coming back to this place, and not Zanzibar or Paris or Morocco?

I remember a conversation I had once with the then-U.S. ambassador to Burundi about my recent trip to Jerusalem. “I’m not sure what draws me there,” I confessed.

“Surely it’s your faith that attracts you to the Holy Land,” she said.

I nodded my head in polite agreement. But inside I churned. The answer fell short. It was wrong or perhaps incomplete.

The evangelical environment of my youth boasted fervor for the Holy Land. Churches offered once in a lifetime trips led by pastors who promised to show you where David wrote his psalms or where Jesus was born and crucified. You could walk in the footsteps of Jesus. They said you could be baptized in the Jordan River. Everyone wanted to go… except me.

Maybe it was inevitable that as an ardent student of the Bible I would go one day and connect with the concrete markers of Biblical testimony, like Galilee where Jesus healed and walked on water, or Gethsemane’s garden where he prayed.

I recall standing on the Mount of Olives where he spoke about people not knowing what made for peace. Looking across the valley toward Jerusalem, those ancient words felt so contemporary. But that is not what triggered my change of heart.

Modern history turned me toward these lands. The conflict between Israel and Palestine piqued my curiosity, not as a religious tourist but as a person curious about peace.

The first time I traveled to Palestine was with a group of women who traversed the region meeting the peacemakers. We listened to Israeli and Palestinian women share stories of loved ones lost to the conflict, and we bore witness to their pain and their determination to forge peace in their land. We met innovators like Elie Pritz, an educator creating a new curriculum for schools based on the study of history through the lens of the peacemakers. We observed the facts on the ground, like the Separation Wall and growing settlements, which make the logistics of peace difficult. We heard the deep hurts held by the Jewish and Palestinian communities—the Holocaust and Nakba respectively. I returned home with the awareness that all are victims of one trauma or another.

Claude returned with me the next summer to share the experience and deepen our learning as practitioners of peace. We met with one man in Jerusalem who taught us about history of Christian Palestinians in the land, who spoke of a way forward. We visited another friend in Bethlehem, a man who has been working for peace for decades. He was tired and discouraged, unsure what the path to peace looked like now, as long-time donors pulled funds to support new endeavors elsewhere. They wanted to give to initiatives that worked— and nothing in Palestine worked.

Elie joined us and drove us up to Nazareth (and Sepphoris) for a glorious day of walking where Jesus lived and worked. She told us stories about growing up in Israel, how frightening it was when Iraq threatened to bomb them in the run up to the Gulf War. She lived through drills at school and remembered being fit for a gas mask. When a bomb did come, she told us about her family scrambling to the basement. I learned that the fear, the discouragement and all the questions were real.

We met Sami the tea guy on Star Street, a man able to make a street café materialize from thin air and serve the best cup of tea chock full of fresh rosemary, mint and sage. His love for neighbors and sojourners seemed boundless as he knit us into a small community with his smile and stories. He introduced us to the barber who gave Claude a shave, the best money changer on the street and the shopkeeper who sold me some colorful scarves. We ate the best falafel in Bethlehem at Afteem’s where he greeted us like friends each time we came for lunch. We met Naim, a driver, who turned off the meter and showed us his hometown and his neighbors in Beit Sahor. He took us to the first Banksy graffiti work that appeared in Bethlehem, painted on the side of an old petrol station. He drove us along the Separation Wall and told us what it was like watching it built, feeling it choke his little town of Bethlehem. Over tea he lamented that because of that wall the children today don’t know anyone from Jerusalem like he did growing up, they don’t know them and so they cannot make peace with them. Claude and I left knowing where it hurts, knowing a bit more about the obstacles to peace – and yet seeing tenderness and sprouts of hope.

I am returning to this land with my friend, Annie Rim, this very month. We will meet with Elie for more walks and conversations. We will enjoy tea with Sami and eat falafel at Afteem’s. Why do I keep visiting Palestine? Because I don’t yet know what makes for peace, but I am desperate to learn.

I want to walk with people of peace—those learning to love neighbors and enemies amid a deeply conflicted place. I want to walk in solidarity with them. Maybe I return to a place holy and rife with conflict because that is where peacemakers go. We move toward conflict to observe and lament, to hope and forge new paths toward peace. That the modern conflict has ancient roots only means that we join many ancestors who journeyed to this place, pilgrims and peacemakers seeking the peace of Jerusalem.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” —Matt.5:9

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Kelley Nikondeha and Annie Rim are currently in Palestine! Follow their journey through Instagram! 

Annie: @Annie_Rim
Kelley: @KelleyNikondeha

Have questions for Kelley about Palestine, theology, the trip, her experience, or anything else? Leave a comment below! 

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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