Adventures of a Presbyterian pastor on a Jesuit campus
How I found resurrection in the Holy Land
Lessons from a trip to Israel and Palestine
by Abby King-Kaiser
When an olive tree reaches a certain age, it develops a weathered and gnarly bark full of wrinkles that I hope my face will carry some day, wrinkles that testify to a life well lived.
If an olive tree, with good, solid roots, is cut down, if everything above ground is destroyed, it can come back. It may come back. I don’t know what makes the difference.
I do know Jesus came back. Jesus, who kneeled in Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion, who said, amid the olive trees, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34 NIV).
Growing from the outside, an old olive tree can be hollowed out. Dead on the inside—is it an empty suit of armor? Or does it live inside out, vulnerable, exposed to weather and worse?
Tradition says that there are trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that witnessed the prayer and the betrayal of Jesus.
Following the college group I traveled with—15 students with a wide variety of orientations to faith, two philosophy professors, a ministry colleague, and an advisor from the school of business—into the garden, I experienced the scholarly nature of our trip fade. Our esteemed guide—a Jesuit, an archeologist, a pastoral witness to the hardness of our world—told us that roots of a couple of trees in the garden have been dated to more than 2,000 years ago.
This does not mean that the bark, which seems to cry and sing out to me, witnessed the sorrow of Christ. It does mean that rooted in this ground, a tree has come back, maybe even more than once, to survive, to be resurrected, after bearing witness to that sorrow.
It is the trees that spoke to me.
Including the trees that grew along dead things—along walls.
As I approached the separation barrier, the ground was littered with debris that had to be interpreted for me. The art spoke for itself. The base of the wall was littered with tear gas canisters and rocks from protestors. This is The Wall, the Separation Barrier, started in 2002, largely on Palestinian land, though built by Israel. Just below, behind a sign—“Make Coffee/Tea and Not Walls”—is the garden of Wi’am, a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. It too was littered. Zoughby, the center’s director, picked up a black, matte ball and peeled back the rubber to show me the steel center of a “rubber” bullet. After he discussed his office’s tear-gas evacuation plans over the most amazing falafel of my life, he showed me that the tear gas canister and I are practically neighbors, as it was manufactured in Pennsylvania.
Recently, a canister rolled down from the street, onto an awning, and ignited. The fire damage was visible along the wall, and the formerly cheerful, shaded picnic table took on a grey sadness that blended in with the looming wall and the low clouds.
Above us, graffiti marked the spot where Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray at the wall. Banksy, an internationally famous street artist, left his mark. These stories have been heard, and yet the wounds are still fresh, the conflict still alive, and the wall as impervious as ever.
My soul is overwhelmed, and I’ve just been here for the afternoon. What of those who live here? My feelings are irrelevant.
As we shared details of our lives, Zoughby spoke with humor about dividing chores and working out domestic life with a partner from another culture. He bantered with shopkeepers as we climbed a hill. He helped me find the right kind of saffron for my husband at a price that seemed laughable in the States. He plied me to eat more falafel. I watched as he welcomed travelers from Eastern Europe, folks who took him up on Wi’am’s sign. On his day off, over coffee and tea, he fielded questions and told the story of his people with integrity. I met him just days before Orthodox Christmas, and he shined when he talked about the celebrations and the aid Wi’am would provide at the holiday. When I asked about the faith of those receiving his Christian hospitality, he shrugged and confirmed that they were almost entirely Muslim. His hospitality was more overwhelming than the sorrow.
My trip to Israel and Palestine challenged me, once again, to take resurrection seriously, not just as an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but as a reality of God’s movement and presence in the world. The olive trees testified to this, but their stories paled in comparison to the stories of the people. Jerusalem is a city of resurrection—layer after layer of new city built upon layer after layer of destruction, dating back millennia, where bullet wounds on a building can be mistaken for simple age.
I think of resurrection as a I stand on a hilltop, peering down into a valley at Daoud Nassar, a farmer whose land has been in his family for a century. He’s standing at the empty tomb of his life’s work, afraid and bewildered. Daoud hosts a summer camp for Palestinian city kids each year to help them connect to the land. Just before last year’s harvest, Israel ripped out 1,500 fruit-bearing trees, destroying a year’s worth of crops. Volunteers and community planted 4,000 trees in their place.
Returning home, I am still peering into the tomb, knowing what I have seen, yet feeling unsure of where it will take me.
Abby King-Kaiser is the Assistant Director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for this call after a long sojourn in the Bay Area. She is a coffee snob, occasional painter and obsessive, though amateur, Instagrammer (@revabbykk).
Did you know that the PC(USA) has a mission coworker in Jerusalem, who maintains relationships with mission partners and whose work is consistent with our stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict? Kate Taber is a bridge for us and is building bridges in the region. If you find yourself in Israel, reach out to her. I am truly grateful for the way she shared her work, and the work of resurrection, with me. I hope to share more about her work soon.