JERUSALEM – Jack Tironi, a GNJ student at Drew University, reports that a recent trip to Israel and Palestine has transformed his life on many levels. The trip deepened his understanding of scripture, brought new insights about the conflict in the region, reinforced his call to ministry and helped him grow as a United Methodist. The Young People’s Ministries, a unit of Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church, led the journey in May with partial funding from the Young Clergy Initiative.
The pilgrimage was designed to connect United Methodist young adult leaders from around the world to increase their Biblical understanding, engage them in the global church context and learn lessons in conflict leadership.
Chris Wilterdink, who is the Director of the Young People’s Ministries Program Development in the U.S. says, “The mixture of lay and clergy young adults led to the reaffirmation or discovery of calls to ministry, and I think Jack is a great example of that dynamic to the trip.”
After coming together and traveling with other young United Methodists from the Philippines, Mozambique, Russia, Germany and the U.S. including Colorado, Texas and Tennessee for the ten day exploration, Jack says, “We all became very close and I’m so happy to now call all of them good friends.”
The participants bonded especially in the evenings when they reflected together on the day’s activities.
The group journeyed throughout the region, including from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Jericho to Nazareth, and a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Because they were constantly on the move, they got to visit many sites in the Holy Land. Tironi says that “Each of the places had a clear connection to religion and history and many related to the history, people, culture and the sacredness of stories we’ve read from the Bible.”
In a presentation to his home church, First UMC of Blairstown, he said, “Seeing each of these sites throughout the week, I truly felt God guiding me through the story of not just Israel, but of Jesus Christ. How he would have lived, his environment, where he went to pray and worship and teach.”
The group prayed, worshipped, and learned together exploring the holy sites from their Christian heritage while reflecting on the centuries of conflict and occupation in the land.
One of the stops was the Tent of Nations, a Palestinian farm owned by the Nassar family. The group camped out on top of the mountain overlooking Israeli settlements. Tironi says that hearing first hand of a personal Palestinian experience about how the Israeli government has tried to claim his family’s land offered him a helpful perspective.
“Palestinians are usually portrayed in the U.S. media as terrorists,” he said. “But we had the opportunity to sit and learn from Palestinian people who are actively working for peace.”
Noting the complexity of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, Tironi said that visiting a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Bethlehem had a significant impact on his understanding.
“The camp was a disaster zone. We took a walk through the streets and saw empty metal shells. There were tear gas cans that had been shot at children.” He continued, “I understand that there are two sides and that Israeli Jews have suffered from deep persecution and discrimination. But it is clear, even by just driving around and seeing the disparity in the homes and neighborhoods, that one side has more power and privilege than the other and that the Israeli government treats Palestinian people cruelly.”
Much of the journey was led by Mejdi Tours using “a multiple-narrative guided experience.” According to Wilterdink, “The model allows for leaders of different backgrounds and opinions to both present information and engage in discussion during the tour, allowing for open-ended questions and engagement with the trip participants.”
The tour guides were Palestinian and Israeli, and each guide lives in Jerusalem. Tironi says they took turns showing participants the sites and teaching about the history.
“They debated in front of us about the land, people, and what people want. It was a rare opportunity to witness and learn because they didn’t avoid each other but found mutual respect.”
Making a connection with the multiple narrative model and the future of The United Methodist Church, Tironi says, “I see a lot of greatness in spite of the divide. I wish it wasn’t there. But we need to work around our differences.”
Wilterdink agreed saying, “We at YPM think this multiple-narrative model can be helpful for the UMC. Since we have a big tent, we have lots of different backgrounds and experiences. It is important to experience healthy and respectful dialogue among leaders. That way, young people can bring this model into disagreements at whatever level of leadership they find themselves in the future.”
Expressing gratitude, Tironi explains that through this journey he deepened his love for The United Methodist Church as a global community. As he built relationships with United Methodists from around the world on this Holy Land trip and saw the general church at work, he recognized the many ways The United Methodist Church is engaged in strong kingdom building.
“We are flourishing and will continue to flourish,” he said. “There is so much more happening than we know. I am grateful for the opportunity to see the strength of the connection.”
Planning to continue sharing what he experienced on the Holy Land pilgrimage Tironi says he will use what he saw to expand his understanding of scripture and ministry to serve God. He told the congregation at his home church, “Let’s remember our paths as we go out into the world to share the good news. Let’s not become so embroiled in conflict and confusion that we lose sight of our faith and let our fears get the best of us. Let’s work on that… so that we can all live in this place with an even greater peace than ever.”