It’s been a year since I started walking the Israel National Trail with a friend. We go when our schedules — and the temperatures — allow, walking a segment here, a segment there, twenty or thirty kilometres at a time. We’ve now walked over 330km along a winding path from the Lebanese border to Tel Aviv, roughly a third of the whole Trail, which ends in Eilat on the Red Sea.
It started as a challenge to ourselves to see if we could do it. But for me at least, it’s become a pilgrimage, a prayer. It’s a place for me to reconnect with the land, with myself, with God. After all, we are walking the hills that Christ walked, through olive groves so ancient they date back to the earliest days of Christianity, past ruins of towns that his followers would have inhabited.
Today our journey took us up Mt Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. We began at sunrise and the trail climbed immediately and steeply nearly 3km to the top. It was just a short detour to visit the church and gardens, and though I knew the church wouldn’t be open, I’d hoped we could rest in the grounds and have a short moment of prayer as the sun brought the land to life.
We came to the first gate, which was open. Standing next to it was the ubiquitous ‘holy site’ sign with 8 or so large red prohibition circles: NO smoking, NO food or drink, NO dogs, NO cars, NO shorts, NO …, NO …, NO …, NO …
I was wearing shorts. We walked through anyway, passing a couple of gardeners, and came to the second gate where there was another sign with the opening hours and another list of printed rules, which included: ‘Ladies are requested to be dressed in a manner befitting the character of this place (no shorts, sleeveless blouses, or miniskirts)’.
Nowhere was there a sign that said ‘Welcome’.
I knew we were testing our luck. However, I’d hoped that it would be obvious that we were walking the Trail, that we were not looking to desecrate the place in any way and instead were simply doing what pilgrims do — seeking a moment of respite in what claimed to be a holy place.
But another gardener spotted us. And seeing my bare legs, without even looking at my face, sent us away. ‘Didn’t you see the signs?’ he said, repeating each of the NOs in turn. ‘Always it’s no?’ my friend asked. ‘So much for the gracious love of God,’ I added.
Hot angry tears threatened to spill over, and I walked as fast as I could through the gates, past the unwelcoming signs. A simple stone chapel stood to the left, outside the ‘holy’ grounds. I raced towards it, knowing that it would be locked, but my emotional response had startled me, and I needed to try again … to try to find a place of peace. I clung to the metal rods, looking at the crucifix on the altar at the far end and cried.
This is a land — like so many others in our world — where women’s appearance and behaviour are policed, and women’s bodies are treated like public property. No matter how covered or uncovered one is, harassment is unrelenting. Groping in the queue at the cash machine. Marriage proposals when buying milk. Intimate questions during a pastoral conversation. Lewd looks at the petrol station. A sexually explicit text sent from someone observing me lead worship.
Obviously when I am at events or on partner visits, I observe the dress codes of the other religions, erring on the side of caution whenever I’m in doubt about how conservative those I am meeting might be. Legs, elbows, collarbones all covered, no matter how hot it is. I do it out of respect and for respect as I navigate the different communities for my work here. (And, I should add, usually I am more prepared for the dress codes at the holy sites.)
But I was not at work today. I was not in another religion’s place of worship. I was in the grounds of a church looking for rest, rest for my body, rest for my mind, rest for my heart.
My vision blurry with tears, I looked at Christ’s arms spread wide on the cross and thought of the women he encountered: the woman accused of adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, the ‘sinful woman’ who washed his feet with her tears, the woman with the haemorrhage, Martha, Mary, Mary Magdalene … women whom Christ did not turn away on account of their past sins or their present failings or their marital status or their religion or their impurity … women whom Christ touched and healed and welcomed.
And so I prayed for all the women today who have their #MeToo stories … those who bravely speak out and are not believed … those who cannot yet put words to the trauma they have experienced … those who have been made to feel so unworthy or ashamed or unloveable that they think they are outside the bounds of God’s grace.
We cannot talk about liberation for one group of people without working together to liberate all people. We cannot point our finger at the injustices of occupation if we don’t also address the other forms of oppression and objectification we see around us.
Christ did not walk these hills of Galilee or the hill of Golgotha to have his name guarded by signs that say NO and his presence contained behind locked doors. He said, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary or carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’. He came, that all may have life and have it abundantly.