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Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
17/02/20
The pilgrim group by Galilee.

From the 20th January to the 29th January, the Revd Sheila Bridge (Vicar of St Peter and St John, Rugby) and Bishop John led a Diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Here Sheila writes about the experience.

On January 20th 43 pilgrims gathered very early in the morning at Heathrow Airport to begin our journey to the Holy Land. Led by Bishop John and myself, (Rev Sheila Bridge) most of us had only met up three times previously at our preparation events so as we set out together the things that linked us were our connections to the same Diocese and our desire to go and see the Holy Land for ourselves. 

We didn’t exactly know all we were letting ourselves in for but here are some of the things said by pilgrims towards the end of our 9 day journey: “an amazing experience”, “mind-blowing”, “inspiring and memorable”, “brings the Bible to life”. As one of the group’s leaders I would describe it as “an adventure with impact”. The impact was on us - spiritually, intellectually and emotionally as we learned together, laughed together and looked out for one another. But the impact was also on those we went to see: we had raised funds before we left and we carried with us donations of over £4000 which we were able to distribute to the charities whose projects we visited.  And the impact is also ongoing: friendships were formed and connections were made with organisations which I’m sure will bear fruit for a long time to come.

So what did we actually do? After a very long first day of travelling we arrived at our beautiful hotel on the shores of Lake Galilee in time for an evening meal. The food and the welcome never disappointed in any venue. By the next morning we were refreshed and ready to begin two and half very special and peaceful days exploring Galilee. Everyone had moments at different places where we were especially touched by the natural beauty but also by that hair-raising sense that ‘this was where Jesus walked and talked and healed’. We visited the site of Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Capernaum, Magdala, the site of the Beatitudes, the beach of the post-resurrection breakfast and went out onto Galilee in a boat (some of us even swam in Galilee but in early in the morning from the hotel, not off the boat).

The Church of the Beatitudes

After so short a visit it seemed hard to believe we felt so sad to leave Galilee but we followed the Jordan River down south, stopping at Jericho and the possible site of Christ’s baptism where we also renewed our baptismal vows. By the end of that day we had arrived in Bethlehem. Our visit overlapped with that of Prince Charles. Some of us even saw him! Whilst in Bethlehem we saw the site of the Shepherds’ fields. We visited the ‘School of Joy’ a school for children with special needs supported by the Friends of the Holy Land and also had a very informative talk by Hosam, a local Christian who works for the same charity.  We were also greatly moved by our visit to St Vincent’s Orphanage, the only facility which takes in abandoned, unwanted babies in the West Bank. The stories of sadness behind the births of these little ones belied their beautiful smiles and the care of the Catholic sisters in very difficult circumstances was amazing.

Western Wall in Jerusalem

Once we left Bethlehem, the remaining four and half days were spent in Jerusalem where the focus was on following the places and events of Holy Week.  We also saw the Western Wall and visited the Holocaust museum.  Our journey ended appropriately with a final service at one of the likely sites of the Emmaus. Here we reflected on the fact that Jesus himself came alongside two disciples on a journey just as we had experienced him coming alongside us on our journey and realising that far from being over, the real pilgrimage is for life not just for nine days but that his promise holds true ‘I will be with you always’.

We came away with a better understanding of the gospels, a better understanding of history and a better understanding of the current political situation and its impact on our brothers and sisters in Christ.  On all these levels, such a journey is deeply challenging and hugely transformative. 

We have come home with our hearts full and our eyes opened.  

Bishop John says:

"It was a joy and a privilege to share with Sheila Bridge in the leadership of this Diocesan pilgrimage to the land of the Holy One. I am in no doubt that each of us was touched, moved, challenged and inspired by this experience.  There is much for each of us to assimilate as we ponder all that God has given us on the journey."

Would your church like to hear more about going to the Holy Land? Maybe you’d like to organise a pilgrimage yourself? Or would your PCC like to know how (or why) they might want to support Christians in this very special place?  Sheila is happy to try to resource you. You can contact her by email: sheilapeterjohn@gmail.com and/or you can read a more detailed day by day account of the trip on her blog: www.sheilabridgeblog.com

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