*By Peter Kenny
It was a peace hike inspired by the biblical story of Emmaus, crisscrossing part of the Holy Land, following the footsteps of Jesus.
Luke’s gospel describes how two men saw the resurrected Jesus at the town of Emmaus, thereby regaining hope.
Emmaus motivated a group of 60 young women and men from places such as Palestine, South Africa, Germany and Sweden to embark on their two-stage peace pilgrimage.
They shared life experiences and their faith during their hikes, each a week long. They walked, danced, sang, talked and travelled together by bus in one land where there is peace, and another that is in conflict.
The mighty barrier wall between Israel and Palestine and western Sweden’s golden wheat fields are far from Qunu, South Africa, where Yolanda Ngxishe grew up on the same rolling hills as Nelson Mandela.
Like the great South African apartheid fighter and peacemaker, Ngxishe is a member of the Xhosa-speaking Madiba clan.
Ngxishe belongs to South Africa’s “Born Frees” post-apartheid generation, but said, “Many people in South Africa are not feeling the freedom our people have been fighting for.”
Thinking of Mandela
He said, “I thought about the man [Mandela]. He fought for freedom, and it made me think of the movie ‘Long walk to freedom’. It was a great moment to think about the man. We are now able to move about freely, but that is not so here.”
Noting that in South Africa economic apartheid still exists, Ngxishe said, for Palestinians, “Economically they are not equal. They don’t get enough water. Water is life.” He said it was difficult for Palestinians to move easily.
He gained a lot from the group finding that music was something they had in common and said, “I can think about positive things. My mind is more open.”
Ngxishe said, “The best thing I learned is that the group take education very seriously; unlike we do in South Africa. Most of our young people are not into education. If you get an education, you become better people.”
Palestinian Bishop Munib A. Younan, blessing the first stage of the walk, said, "You are now missionaries for a worldwide pilgrimage about the risen Lord Jesus Christ!”
“When we speak about peace, it’s larger than those countries in which people are living in a perilous situation, as we are, living under occupation,” said Younan. “It’s because sometimes it is very easy in comfortable and democratic societies to develop xenophobia or racism.”
Younan is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land, a member church of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and is president of the Lutheran World Federation.
The pilgrimage began at Church of Sweden’s Skara Diocese 1,000-year celebration in August 2014. The diocese hosted young people from diverse backgrounds for a week-long walking pilgrimage as a jubilee project.
The second part of "Walking to Emmaus" continued in The Holy Land from 4-12 April, 2015, with 60 young people along with three bishops and church leaders from Germany, Palestine, South Africa and Sweden.
In the Holy Land they stayed in iconic biblical places such as Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth.
German student Mario Münsterer said, “It was a great new experience meeting people in Sweden and Palestine. “I was born after the fall of the wall,” he said, referring the Berlin Wall erected to divide East from West Germany during the Cold War.
He said that since that wall started to come down around 1989-1990 people could move around freely in a united Germany. That is, however, not the case in the Holy Land where Israel has erected a wall and barrier to Palestine.
Reflecting on how they were away from their mobiles phones, Münsterer said: “on the pilgrimage we had time to ourselves, to reflect, and by walking we had direct contact with, and could understand the essence of the problems. This was much better.”
Salam M. Qumsiyeh, whose first name means Peace, is a Palestinian from Beit Sahur. She was able to tell the peace hikers about, and then show them, how she lives by the barrier.
“I was disappointed all the checkpoints went normally.
“For Palestinians it is different, we have to line up and be body-searched; we have to have a permit to get into Israel. They [our group] won’t understand that unless they experience it.” She said the group could experience the roadblocks but not undergo the same experience that Palestinians endure at them.
“I love hiking and this hike has a purpose, walking to Emmaus. There were people getting to know each other; people knowing what we are doing and how we live,” Qumsiyeh said during the journey.
She spoke of the questions she had from her fellow travelers on the bus and noted, “You live the answers. I wanted to tell a lot of things about what we experience.
“For me fighting for Palestine is to spread the word to the world and tell others about our reality. They only know what they see in the media and that does not show our reality.”
Divided young Israelis and Palestinians
She spoke of the divisions between young Palestinians and Israelis who live so close to one another but live such different lives.
“I don’t mind having an Israeli friend if they understand what I feel, but if they are kind of racist or extremist, then why would I be willing to be friends with them?
"From my point of view mostly they are like that. Because they don't understand what Palestinians are like; they think we are terrorists. They are not educated about Palestinians,” said Qumsiyeh.
The Palestinian student explained, “Acceptance is the answer. If you only think you are the one who is right, then you don’t see the existence of the others' thoughts, or other ethnicities.
“If you understand and see what they are in regards to you, I think this will achieve peace.”
Walking, talking, reflecting
“When you are walking together it's a good way of talking and reflecting together, that is basically the idea,” said Daniel Uddling, the project leader from the Church of Sweden.
Also on the pilgrimage were Swedish television journalist Marika Griehsel and her husband South Africa TV cameraman Simon Stanford who filmed the journey in Sweden and the Holy Land. Stanford recorded the ending of apartheid in the 1990s and the struggle against it in the 1980s for international television.
“It was inspirational being with this group and learning how people can learn about peace by sharing experiences,” said Stanford.
Göran Rask, the chair person and the initiator of the project, spoke to the young people when they had finished their pilgrimage and thanked them.
“A long walk”
“We made it! We walked to Emmaus! It was a long walk.
“We have come from South Africa, Germany, Sweden and from Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, Ramallah and Jerusalem in Palestine to this 'Emmaus'. It was a long walk especially since we took a detour to Skara in Sweden – to Flämslätt, Husaby, Forshem, Kungslena, Gudhem and Varnhem.”
He observed that one person in the group, Khaleed, said at Flämslätt, “dancing seems to be our common language”.
“Through singing and dancing we have shared faith and life in a special way,” said Rask.
He noted that, more important than walking, the group shared life expectations, dreams, daily life routines, sorrows and difficulties. They examined the effect of the suffering of the unjust, and how unlawful occupation affects the lives of their friends living in Palestine.
They also shared their faith through the life of Jesus and the Gospel of Luke, through bible texts relating to their five themes of sustainability, baptism, mission, pluralism and peace. They exchanged testimonies and faith in the daily lives among themselves.
“My dream is that you will see your mission in continuing to dream and work for peace and justice, advocating for a pluralistic, sustainable world,” said Rask.
He wanted the group to remember, “God is with us and Jesus walks by our side, just as he did with the disciples to Emmaus and our baptism is our sign from God that Jesus walks beside us.”
The project was carried out in close cooperation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria (ELKB), the South-Eastern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land (ELCJHL), the Church of Sweden Youth Skara and Sensus districts as well as Church of Sweden International department.
*Peter Kenny is a journalist and communications consultant. He writes for Ecumenical News, The Wall Street Journal, The Star in Johannesburg and other media organizations.
Photos in high resolution are available via photos.oikoumene.org