Rev Simon Winn reports ... "The Christians here feel they are ignored and neglected by the Church outside: we wish the church in England would exercise the 'Barnabas spirit'. Come and visit us in our homes; you will meet real Palestinians and find out the sort of people we really are."
Those words from a Christian leader in the desperate town of Bethlehem have rung in my ears since our return from the ©ollective trip to Israel-Palestine.
Sixteen of us, with leaders Garth Hewitt and Beki Bateson, were guided by local Christians Rimon, Wisam, and Kaed in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Galilee. In 10 well-planned and stimulating days, we met courageous people seeking to make a difference in small ways for peace and justice in projects, churches and communities that never make the headlines. From the hospitality and warmth of the welcome it is clear that the Amos Trust is respected and appreciated there.
From Hebron's deserted alleys with the Christian Peacemaker Team to the lakeside in Galilee, from worship in ancient churches in Jerusalem to reconciliation and social action in Bethlehem district, there was plenty for group members to reflect on each night over a bottle or two of Taybeh, Palestine's premier beer.
Some of us - myself included - had spent time in the region before, but for the majority this was a first visit. It was inspiring to meet confident, dynamic leaders of our own age. Their plea, which we heard daily was: "We are your ambassadors in the Holy Land, please be our ambassadors: go and tell the world what you have heard and seen here." Many of us have returned intent to do exactly that.
I was humbled by examples everywhere of 'mustard seed' faith, heartbroken by the crippling restrictions and pressures Palestinians face, and wondered how my family would cope in such circumstances. And I heard the fears of Israeli friends, worrying that they could be killed or injured by the actions of a suicide bomber. I returned changed and churned up, and my faith has been stretched: what more should pilgrimage do?
As Simon notes, our Amos trips are pilgrimages - we journey (as the dictionary puts it) to sacred places for religious reasons. The sacred places are not empty; they are full of living, suffering (but also inspirational) people, and our religious reason is to hear the words of the prophet Amos and to pass them on - "Let justice roll down like a river, and right living like an ever-flowing stream". Very few reporters take the opportunities that we take to hear so much testimony first hand - they tend to pass on the information that is given to them in a press release. The situation on the ground is worsening day by day for the Palestinians, and those of us who know the truth have to tell it.
We have an all-age group going to the Holy Land in June (all places on this pilgrimage are fully booked), and another such trip is planned for May or June 2006 (exact dates to be confirmed). While the pattern for ©ollective trips is to a different country every 18 months or so (the next planned one is to South Africa in the autumn of 2006), we are considering running another ©ollective pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine at some point during next year as well. If you would like to be sent information on any Amos trips (as and when available), do let us know.