My time in Palestine was divided into two main sections; four weeks working in a parish setting and two weeks in an orphanage run by the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul in Bethlehem.
I had the privilege of staying with a Greek Orthodox, Arabic family in Beit Sahour (a small suburb of Bethlehem). I was extremely fortunate to meet and live with this incredible family and to be ‘adopted’ by them for four weeks.
My work placement did not disappoint either. I was to work with the mother’s nephew who ran a non-profit, non-governmental organisation called the Masar al Ibrahim Khalil [tr: The Path of Abraham] (https://masaribrahim.ps). This organisation runs a hiking and biking trail that runs a distance of approximately 210 miles from the Rummana in the very north of the country to Beit Misir in the south west.
The beauty of this organisation is that it provides untold opportunities and employment for the many communities through which the Masar runs. All hikers who walk the trail are encouraged to stay with families, privately and locally-run guest houses and to visit the many women’s cooperatives which the organisation has funded and assisted in setting up. Hikers also stay with Bedouin communities for part of the journey. There is a ‘passport’ system for pilgrims who are able to collect stamps along the journey – similar to the Compestela de Santiago in Spain. The Masar, in its entirety takes 21 days to complete and can only be done in March and November which are the cooler and drier months. Smaller walks of a few days can be arranged throughout the year.
My role with the organisation was to track the entire route and to link the numerous stopovers with any biblical, spiritual or theological event that may have happened in that particular place or near to it. This, we hoped, would add a further dimension to the walk, attract pilgrims along the way and, let’s face it, use one of the best assets that the Holy Land has to offer – its Biblical history.
The research was fascinating and I was privileged to be driven to many of the sites to photograph them and to write about them from first-hand experience. I had some extremely poignant and prayerful moments as I sat in the oldest church in Christendom – the very place where Christ healed the ten lepers, drank water from Jacob’s well in Nablus, visited Zachariah’s house in Jericho and the Patriarch’s tombs in Hebron amongst many other powerful and fascinating places. I also helped the organisation launch a magazine which they hope to publish annually.
My last two weeks in the orphanage were difficult and emotionally draining. Living and working with approximately 36 children all under the age of six proved to be exhausting too. The Sisters of St Vincent de Paul do an incredible job in very difficult circumstances – adoption is forbidden under Sharia Law so these children will, realistically, be moved from one organisation to another until they are deemed old enough to fend for themselves. The Sisters give them the best start in life that they can and they ensure that they are educated, cared for and loved as much as they are able. I think, and hope, that the kids enjoyed having me around for those two weeks whilst we played games in the sun and laughed together.
I was fortunate in that my stay in Palestine coincided with a visit from Fr Paul Maddison who showed me around Jerusalem too. I visited some impressive organisations which also help the most vulnerable and isolated of society and witnessed, first-hand, the enormity of the work they do as well as the need for continual help and support. Fr Paul also took me around the rich tapestry of religious sites in Jerusalem and helped me to visualise and almost live the life, passion, death and resurrection of our Blessed Lord. A remarkable city and a profound experience.
My time in Palestine was only made possible through the inspiration of Bishop Alan and the generosity of our diocese and the many people that support and help us to gain knowledge, experience and understanding of our Church – education takes place in many forms. My happiness and memories of Palestine are completely down to the family I stayed with and the warmth, hospitality and love of the people I met. Please do keep the people of the Holy Land in your prayers.
Pictured above is Alan Hodgson with his host on the house roof terrace overlooking Beit Sahour.