During Advent this year, I’m focusing much of my attention on the experience of Christians in the Holy Land today. This is because I served as spiritual director for a pilgrimage from St. Philip’s to the Holy Land last month. In this post, I want to focus on the experience of one Christian whose story we got to know over the course of our trip: our tour guide, Shafik Khbeis.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus came to and for people much like Shafik, who grew up in a multi-generational inner-city Jerusalem home with 18 other family members, just a couple blocks away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He lives in a land run by frequently oppressive overlords who follow a different faith. Yet, God has blessed him. In following Jesus, Shafik received an education at an historic Christian school in Jerusalem and then studied biblical archaeology. This prepared him to embrace the vocation of tour guide and share his passion for his homeland with thousands of pilgrims each year. He proclaims his faith by teaching people like us who know so little about how our fellow Christians live 7000 miles away in the birthplace of our faith.
Yet, as I noted in my prior post, his people are oppressed. His young son comes home from negative interactions on the streets of Jerusalem and asks if his family can move away, like other Christian families are, to a place that’s safer and more welcoming of Christians. Shafik says no, they are committed to living in Jesus’ homeland, to walking where Jesus walked. Plus, of course, Shafik’s vocation requires his presence in the land where his faith history comes alive every single day. Yet it’s hard for him to see his son struggle to follow Jesus in such challenging circumstances.
Tour guides talk about the holy land as being the “fifth gospel,” written in stones instead of ink. As I shared in several Lenten posts after my first trip six years ago, walking in the land is a revelatory experience. Pilgrims hear new perspectives on biblical stories from Christians like Shafik, whose people have lived there for as long as Christianity has existed.
Please join me in praying for the Christians living in the Holy Land. Our group of pilgrims saw the beauty and learned some of its many lessons. But we did not face the stark realities of living there as a Christian today. In my next post, I’ll share a glimpse into how another branch of our Christian family is choosing to stay and proclaim their faith in the city of Jerusalem.