NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In late December, the Israeli government launched a military campaign targeting Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. Most Americans heard the news of escalating violence in a volatile region with the understanding that this conflict would remain a safe distance from their everyday lives.
As war broke out, however, 27 Bethel College and Tabor College students, professors and adult friends of the colleges traveling with the Jerusalem Seminar were only days away from our arrival in Israel-Palestine, which would put us at a much less comfortable distance from the violence.
Although many of our friends and families were concerned about us going forward with the trip, group leader Patricia Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College, and her contacts in the region assured us that we would be safe. We flew into Amman, Jordan, in early January as planned.
Our three-week tour of the region was widely varied in subject matter. For many, the trip was something of a Christian pilgrimage, and so we visited many sites traditionally associated with Jesus’ life and ministry.
The group often joined together in song and worship as our travels traced those of Jesus as described in the Bible. We celebrated Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, learned about Mary’s story and Jesus’ early years in Nazareth, contemplated his teachings and ministry throughout the Galilee, and made our way to Jerusalem to ponder Jesus’ final days.
Scattered among these pilgrimage sites were a number of archeological sites that helped us to gain a better understanding of the history and geography of the region. During our two days in Jordan, before we crossed over into Israel-Palestine, we visited the Nabatean and Roman ruins at Petra, an ancient city carved into a canyon. Another archeological highlight was Masada, a fortress built by Herod the Great on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea.
But while we became familiar with the ancient history of the region and the context of the biblical stories, participants in the Jerusalem Seminar also learned a great deal about the modern conflict and the struggles of Israelis and Palestinians to achieve justice and peace. We heard from many Palestinians who face daily the injustice and oppression of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even as we took advantage of our American passports and tourist status to travel through extensive checkpoints at will, we began to understand the destructive power of a wall designed to segment Palestinian land and cut off the resources and mobility of an occupied people.
As we struggled to come to terms with the injustice and suffering all around us, we heard from a variety of groups and individuals whose work for peace offered some sense of hope. We spent a night at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, an intentional community of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians living together. We learned about the work of organizations like Zochrot, a group committed to helping Israelis remember and understand the scope and tragedy of Palestinian displacement, and Combatants for Peace, made up of former Israeli and Palestinian soldiers who now seek to build bonds and bring about peaceful solutions to the conflict.
Our three weeks with the Jerusalem Seminar were intense and often overwhelming, but we also came to appreciate the beauty and history of a region that remains holy to three religions and home to many people who hope and pray for peace in their land.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.
Meredith Lehman is a senior from Bluffton, Ohio, double-majoring in Bible and religion and history. The other Bethel College participants in the 2009 Jerusalem Seminar were Dana Daugharthy, senior from Iola; Miriam Friesen, senior from Filley, Neb.; Rachel Gaeddert, sophomore from Larned; Blake Johnson, senior from Topeka; Will Peterson, junior from Bonner Springs; Alison Schmidt-Tieszen, sophomore from Newton; Laura Stevens, junior from McPherson; Terra Wiens, sophomore from Newton; and Nathaniel Yoder, junior from Kalona, Iowa. Patty Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College, and Doug Miller, professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, co-led the group, which also included four Tabor College students, one other Tabor professor, and five non-student couples: Judy and Keith Harder, Hillsboro, Amanda and Clarence Rempel, Newton, Don and Elvira Schierling, Denver, LuWanda and Richard Schroeder, Moundridge, and Myron and LaVona Vetter, St. Oneida, S.D.