2018 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan and Israel with the seminary’s May term Middle East travel seminar. It was both amazing and overwhelming, awe-inspiring and frustrating, invigorating and exhausting to walk in this very special land!

Drs. Sam Adams and Carson Brisson led 15 of us participants. Our journey began in Jordan. Although some people on the Israeli side were being baptized by full immersion in the ice cold, murky, mountain water of the Jordan River, we chose not to do that for sound theological reasons! We visited on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, saw the antiquities site at Jerash, and fulfilling a life-long dream for me, we walked down the al-Siq to Petra. It was even more magnificent in person than it appears in the movies! We spent one night camping in the desert and many of the participants took the opportunity to ride a camel. I did not, as the previous day I’d nearly been thrown off a donkey. No more animal rides for me. We went up to Mt. Nebo to see what Moses saw. Everywhere, there were ruins of the many civilizations that had claimed this disputed land over the centuries.

After nearly a week in Jordan, we made the crossing into Israel. To walk in the places where Jesus conducted His ministry was amazing and humbling. We had communion on the Sea of Galilee and visited the churches built on the sites of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion and burial or should I say burials as there are two disputed sites for the garden tomb.

For me, one of the most holy places is the garden of Gethsemane. It is a small garden, surrounded by a fence with hundreds of year-old olive trees. I sat with Sam Adams in the shade and we talked about, of all things, “Jesus Christ Superstar” which had been playing in both of our heads all day. I told Sam that one of my most profound theological experiences was hearing Jesus say in the show that God should take him before He (Jesus) changed His mind. I had never considered that Jesus’ sacrifice was indeed His own choice.

Throughout the trip, students and alums gave presentations about the places we were visiting. We had the opportunity to meet with a Jordanian pastor, a Muslim and a Jewish man who are working on reconciliation and to hear from the renowned Palestinian liberation theologian, Dr. Mitri Raheb. Talking to Palestinian Christians is where my frustration began.

Our guide in Israel was a Palestinian Christian. In addition to showing us this wonderful land, he also told us a great deal about what it is like to be Palestinian in Israel. He pointed out the “settlements”— which I had always thought were small farms or little suburbs but which are in fact enormous towns of upwards of 90,000 people living in high-rise apartments. It is obvious that Israel won’t be returning that land. We also visited a section of the wall, a 25-foot monstrosity that seems less for security and more to remind people on the wrong side of it how small they actually are. I felt ashamed at our nation’s complicity in the suppression of these people. We left Israel the Friday before the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem and unrest broke out.

The trip was long and exhausting, but it gave me much to think about, wonderful memories, and the opportunity to get to know the other travelers better. I highly recommend this experience.

Michelle Walker is vice president for community life and dean of students at Union Presbyterian Seminary.