There are many days when I wonder why I’m here — why I am in Israel, why I am in the Galilee, why I am in Tiberias. What is the point of the Church of Scotland’s presence in this part of the world, this part of the land? What is the point of my presence? It’s a question I wrestle with, a question I’m often asked. Nothing I do is going to make much of a difference to the situation here.
One aspect of ministry my predecessor developed was offering hospitality to volunteers and church workers, people who come to the land for a few weeks or months or years, who work in troubled areas, who accompany West Bank children past soldiers and settlers to school, who offer a protective presence to vulnerable communities, who monitor activities at checkpoints. When I interviewed for this post, I said I wanted to continue that ministry, and I have.
Yakfie, the house I live in, has two flats. I live downstairs, and the upstairs apartment is available for whomever wishes to come stay; it can easily sleep five people, though has held families of up to eight over the summer! I offer it free of charge, only asking that guests tidy up after themselves and change the sheets on the beds. The hotel generously allows my guests use of its facilities and a discount in the bar and restaurant, and guests are welcome to join the staff in the staffroom for meals. Front desk staff kindly hold onto the keys so guests can come and go freely if I’m not able to welcome them when they arrive; housekeeping staff come after particularly busy periods to give the flat a good clean. It’s usually occupied about 3-4 days in any given week.
I love meeting the people who come to stay. I get a sense quickly of whether they want company and sometimes ask them to join me for a drink or a meal, but often they just want time alone (many of them not only share a house, but often a room with two or three others). All of them are fascinating, filled with passion even at their weariest. I listen with admiration to the stories they have heard, the experiences they have had, the work that still needs to be done.
It is so easy, simply opening my home to others.
And yet from the feedback I receive, it makes a real difference to the people who stay.
‘It’s so peaceful here,’ is a common refrain.
‘I arrived wanting to see the sites in the north, but as soon as I got to the flat, I realised how exhausted I was. I feel I’ve done nothing but sleep, but that’s what I really needed,’ I often hear.
‘I woke at 4am, like I usually do, but instead of having to get up to go to the checkpoint, I made a cup of coffee and watched the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee, and wept at the peacefulness,’ one person told me.
It’s not a fancy place, not luxurious, though it does have a fabulous garden. It’s an old house and fairly basic upstairs. But when my parents were here last Christmas, I told my mom how the flat would be used — I wanted it to be comfortable, a retreat for weary souls. She and I shopped for fabric from Nazareth, and she made curtains for the windows. She hung Hebron glass baubles which send coloured light dancing across the walls when the sun streams in the windows. Books of all kinds from my predecessor provide ample reading material. For those who want a wee splurge, brochures from the hotel spa are available. I’d like to think that because it’s been used so much by people bringing peace — and needing peace — that peace is now infused in its stones.
One person left me a note after her stay, giving me permission to quote her:
When I arrived, I was exhausted. The last month had been a whirl of preparations, training, a new country, two new cultures. My team is based in a conservative city and there have been fatal shootings, tear gas and sound bombs even in the first couple of weeks work … For weeks I have listened to stories. People’s stories of injustice, of losing farmland, of attacks on children by so called ‘religious’ people, of hate and distrust and fear. So although, for my part, I have done little more than witness and engage and ‘be there’, I was exhausted when I arrived, exhausted, confused, baffled and sad.
I arrived to a warm welcome, to tea with milk waiting, to clean sheets, air conditioning and a feeling of being cared for. I have eaten beautiful meals at the Scots Hotel, swum in the pool and had cold wine. For my first day, I had the luxury of waking without an alarm and shuffling around in my pyjamas most of the day, reading and dozing. We went out to eat in the evening, walking out in the dark (no problem here) and we ate out by the sea at Decks. On my second day, I trekked between Tabghe, the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum and came back after my adventure to clean towels, a fantastic shower and a cool room. That evening we had dinner in the Torrence Restaurant and it was glorious.
Only two days, but I feel rested, restored and, although I am still sad and baffled, I feel I can go back and be an ‘accompanier’ again.
We have been treated as ‘honoured guests’ and I will never forget it, or the fact that you made it possible.
I have come to realise that many of us ‘internationals’ question our presence here, regardless of where we are based. Being here, in this part of the land is a privilege I do not want to take for granted. And I have come to embrace it as a gift that I (along with the hotel and its staff) can offer to others who are doing much more demanding work than I. I have learned that maybe sometimes the point of my presence is simply to be present, to offer a place of peace, of beauty, of hospitality to those who need it. And to say to them the words they so need to hear when they arrive: ‘Welcome. Rest. Be still.’