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The Shawl

by Rita Lossett

     Christian pilgrims have journeyed to the Holy Land for over a thousand years.  Sometimes they went in twos and threes, but, usually, they traveled in larger groups, seeking camaraderie and safety in numbers.  Palestine could be a difficult place.  Still is.

     Recently, it was my turn to be a pilgrim. This past spring, having studied archeology reviews of ancient and holy sites and read my Bible, I attached myself to a group from a local United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation with views that match my Presbyterian faith fairly closely.  In Tel Aviv we joined more travelers, some from church groups around the country, others couples or families celebrating special occasions.  We filled a newly-minted Mercedes bus and shared a guide.

     By mid-afternoon the first day, running on adrenaline and excitement, we were on our way to Netanya, the largest city on the crossroads between Tel-Aviv and Haifa,. A thick gray cement fence surrounding The Palestinian Authority territory suddenly loomed to the right of the bus.  Hillside settlements could be seen in the distance, settlements where minarets poked their heads above the fence line.  “Look!” shouted someone from the largest of the groups that had joined us, “A prison!  And bell towers!  There must be a lot of Christians over there.” Oh, dear. Disappointed, I struggled to set my feelings aside.

     At a meet-and-greet organized by our tour guide on the first evening, it became clear that we were ‘the California group’ – loud, lively, eager to make new friends and share our experiences in Israel.  We learned that the largest group that had joined our tour was from Texas. They, however, were laconic in their introductions and more restrained in their enthusiasm to be traveling with us.

     As we continued through Galilee, seating on the bus was quickly delineated.  Our guide asked us to rotate our seating daily but had limited success in breaking the ice between the California and Texas groups. Pastors were given preference for seats in the front, even though our United Church of Christ pastor was quite happy to mingle in the back of the bus.  As a result , it seemed, he was rebuffed and many times ignored by the other pastors.

     Every morning we prayed, read Scripture and sang on the bus, with only the pastors invited to lead us.  At the top of Megiddo, a mound overlooking the Jezreel Valley, where Armageddon is predicted to take place, the members of the Texas church group detached themselves from us to pray and sing.  Back on the bus their pastor turned on the microphone and preached for a while on the end time and Armageddon.  Our small UCC group remained politely silent, but later our pastor asked the tour guide not to allow such preaching on the bus.  After that incident the pastors of the Texas group preached on their own time.  

     Israel is filled with walls and fences and rubbled fortifications.  We didn’t need another.  And so I began to look for a way to change things.

     At our next stop,  a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee, dining was like the seating on the bus.  I looked for a chance to sit next to one of the Texas women and talk about family or the re-created Village of Nazareth, which we had just toured.  But, no, faces were turned to the meal at hand or, later, out the windows as the Golan Heights’ natural beauty passed by.

     As the days passed, I also realized that many Israelis weren’t thrilled to have so many pilgrims passing through their land.  I found those I talked with to be proud of their accomplishments in technology, agriculture and conservation but quite self-absorbed. Perhaps we, too, were self-absorbed, asked too many questions, complained too much, didn’t spend enough money, didn’t understand.  Were the Texas pilgrims thinking about these things, too, I wondered.  I wanted to know if we were sharing the same experiences at all.

     Baptism or a Rededication at the Jordan River is, for many, the experience of a lifetime and many pilgrims on the bus came for this moment, although I had not. Thin white robes were issued.      The pastor chosen to do the baptisms, indicated that he was uncomfortable with the idea of baptizing members of our group.  And, indeed, those wishing to be baptized in our group preferred our own pastor to do it. So, in the end, there were two separate baptisms at the same spot in the Jordan River and the unity of the spirit was, once again, not in this place.

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke some of his most beautiful and inspiring words.  The place that commemorates this today is a lovely garden area maintained by the Roman Catholic Church.  Our tour guide led us to a shady spot and invited the pilgrims to read excerpts from the book of Matthew.  The Texas pastors started in, taking turns, but as Matthew.5:14-16 are some of my favorite verses. I jumped in, aware of my female voice ringing out,

     “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (NIV)

     I was the first and only woman on the trip to read aloud. The next morning on the bus before we left for Tel Dan and Caesarea Philippi, I offered to pray.  It felt good but, as we toured these ancient sites, it seemed the Texas pastors herded their flock closer and closer to themselves.

     Our bus of pilgrims next headed south along the Jordan River Valley.  It was getting warmer.  Bet She ‘an is an Old Testament spot where the bodies of Saul and his sons were displayed on the city walls after being murdered by the Philistines.  It was also one of the ten cities of the Decapolis established by the Romans.  The archaeological park amazed us with its columns, temples, fully restored main streets, mosaics, even sewer covers!  The Tel or mound behind the Roman city was not completely excavated, but we were invited to walk to the top. The climb in the noonday sun was sweltering.

     Upon my descent, I found women from the Texas group sitting in the shade, fanning themselves, drinking cold sodas.  My water shawl – a loose weave garment soaked in water, wrung and draped around my body – had kept me comfortable on the hot trek up the mound.  I offered it to an older pilgrim who looked drained.  “Please, let me drape my water shawl over your shoulders,” I said. She didn’t refuse and immediately she grinned. “Oh, what is it?  What kind of shawl did you say this is?”

     “A water shawl.  Doesn’t it feel good?  Here, let your friend try it.”  I took it off the first woman and draped it around a second.  She too felt relief, and exclaimed that it felt good.

     “Where did you get this?” she asked.  “This will change my life back in Texas,” she added, as she spontaneously passed it to her friend.  And so the water shawl went from woman to woman until it was dried out and no longer cooling.  I poured fresh cool water from my bottle over it, wrung it a bit and continued to let people try it.  I even tried to drape it over the shoulders of a big burly man.  He liked it but said it didn’t look good on him. His wife, however, asked me to help her buy one in the tourist shop next to the park.  She wasn’t getting back on the bus without one.

     The buzz on the bus all the way to Qumran and Ein Gedi was the water shawl.  I explained that I had been a missionary in Africa, years ago, and had learned how to use a piece of fabric in this way.  Today I see similar shawls in many shops, although few women know you can use them wet.

     I climbed the dry Judean hills with the other pilgrim women, many of us wearing our soggy shawls. Together we were drawn to the breathtaking views, marveled at the ingenuity of the Roman soldiers and waded in the streams of Ein Gedi.  As we arrived at the Dead Sea I felt there was a tentative thawing between our group and the others.

     On our way up to the Holy City, Jerusalem, the bus stopped for lunch at a site called Abraham’s Tent.  We shared a meal of fresh vegetables, pita, hummus, chicken, fresh dates and dried fruit.  Entering Jerusalem from the east, the view gave me a shiver as I saw the golden Dome of the Rock and the old city sprawled around it.  All of us were silent, awestruck, together.

     For four days we rambled through the streets of Jerusalem, sometimes following in Jesus’ path, sometimes stopping to barter with a merchant in the souk.  We sought each other out for advice about jewelry, books, olive wood crèches, more shawls.  It was cooler here; now we wore our shawls dry and wrapped around our necks to protect from a reckless, dusty wind. As women we were grouped together at the Western Wall with a partition between us and the men. Some of us were elbowed aside by Orthodox Jewish women at the site, who were sure of their preeminence.  

     Our pilgrimage was nearly over.  A communion service – the embodiment of unity among Christians – was to take place at Jesus’ garden tomb.  As we entered we were amazed by the little spot of garden amid the stones and traffic of the city.  Then one of the Texas pastors took our tour guide aside to say, “I will be celebrating communion with my own people. The others will have to find another site.”

      Embarrassed, the tour guide’s jaw dropped. This had never happened before . Scurrying around, she found another smaller site for us and asked that more communion elements be prepared.  Our pastor was dumfounded when he heard the news.  It seemed our attempts to mend the differences between our two groups had been fruitless.  Proceeding with the service of communion, he spoke the familiar words and passed the elements but was visibly shaken and disappointed.  He turned his back for a moment to serve the bread and two of the pilgrims not attached to either group slipped into our space to share communion with us.  Our pastor faced us again, and I saw that his eyes were filled with tears.

Rita Lossitt is a friend of Irvine Irvine United Congregational Church

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