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The culture of Bethel is one that encourages students to try new things and to think critically.
Sarah Unruh ’12

Israel/Palestine pilgrimage an ‘encounter with the sacred’

by Naomi Graber

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – What does it mean to be a pilgrim or to go on pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage can be defined as a journey to a sacred place as an act of devotion, though to me this is rather formal and doesn’t sound very fun. As one who would claim the title of pilgrim, I understand it to mean someone who devotes themselves to a journey and in so doing encounters the sacred.

On Jan. 3, I left my home in Elkhart, Ind., and started a journey that would lead me to a new understanding of my world. The Bethel College and Tabor College interterm class Jerusalem Seminar, led by Patty Shelly of Bethel and Doug Miller of Tabor, comprised of students of both colleges and adults of all ages associated with either college, is a journey worth taking. While much more than a traditional pilgrimage, it was a journey traveled with devotion and where I most certainly encountered the sacred.

My pilgrimage took me from ruins of ancient glory and majesty, spaces of reverent worship and faithful remembrance, to places of strife and suffering. But where I encountered the sacred was not in any one space, but through relationships – with God, my fellow travelers and pilgrims and those of the region who shared their stories with us so generously.

My trip began with a mixed group of strangers, young and old, from near and far, who as time went on became a community of love and friendship.

We came together in places of worship to join the faithful cloud of witnesses who had come before us. We sang, prayed and remembered, becoming part of the continuing history of faith as our experiences became part of our own stories. Feeling connected with worshippers from around the world and from ages past, all finding meaning in the stories revealing aspects of God, I realized I am a small part of a larger tapestry of faith spanning time and space.

Sharing these experiences with fellow travelers, talking about them and coming to a deeper understanding of faith through our growing relationships was a journey of devotion, in which I found the sacred.

In places of strife and suffering, we came together to hear the stories of our brothers and sisters. We heard the story of two grieving enemies coming together to create a new world without grief – the story of a house that will not be torn down, a family that will not be destroyed; the story of a people looking for a home.

Hearing these stories was painful, and our traveling community grieved together. Hearing these stories was inspiring, and our traveling community came together in hope for the future. As we grew together, we journeyed away from our limited understanding of the world and found the sacredness of truth.

It is only in humanity that we can understand truth, for only humanity has as many dimensions and facets as truth. As I formed relationships with my fellow pilgrims, our community brought together the vast array of our own humanity, which enabled us to better journey toward an understanding of another’s humanity.

Note: The 2011 Jerusalem Seminar group’s experience left them wanting to take some kind of public action.

As a result, said Emilie Doerksen, junior from Newton, “We would like to offer a time for community sharing where we will try to provide insight into our experiences. We invite you to come and listen, ask questions and/or share your own stories about trips to this region.

This event will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28, in the Bethel College Library, to be followed up at 8 p.m. with a time of planning responses to the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. “We would appreciate any ideas you may have on how we, as a community, can move from reflection into action,” Doerksen added.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Naomi Graber is a junior at Bethel College, majoring in psychology. Other Bethel students who participated in the 2011 Jerusalem Seminar were Evan Conrad, Lakewood, Colo., Emilie Doerksen, Newton, Laith Hasan, Halstead, Mariah Hostetler, Dodge City, Martin Olson, Denver, Ben Preheim, Topeka, Renee Reimer, Sioux Falls, S.D., Abram Rodenberg, Halstead, Allison Schrag, Newton, and Claire Unruh, Clay Center. Tabor College students were Brian Bostic, Talia Doerksen, Sara Ratzlaff, Hannah Vogt and Sarah Vogt. Other local participants were Karen Brunscheen, Wichita, Michael and Kathy Neufeld Dunn, McPherson, Katherine and Peter Goerzen, North Newton, Lois and Tom Harder, Wichita, Marilyn Krehbiel, Pretty Prairie, Jim and Lois Loflin, Halstead, and Holly Swartzendruber, Hillsboro. Also part of the group were Elmer and Tally Case, Max, Neb., Bob and Lynette Ewert, Bingham Lake, Minn., Glenn and Susan Myers, Bakersfield, Calif., and Caroline Wiebe, Winnipeg, Manitoba.