Updated: Oct 30
October 6th began our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I made my way through passport control at the Tel Aviv airport and was greeted by Father Anthony and our other mission leads. I had been anticipating this trip since applying to go in the beginning of the summer. I had no expectations and was ready to discover the journey in store for me. We boarded a bus and made our way to Emmaus, where we would come together for our first pilgrimage meal and prepare for the rest of the trip by gathering food and supplies. Father Anthony told us that upon reaching the Holy Land, many pilgrims would kiss the ground, so that’s what we did. When we left Emmaus we made our way to Nazareth, where we would spend the night in the parish center of an Anglican church. We woke up in the morning full of joy and thankful for sleep (October 7). We celebrated Mass in the Church of the Annunciation and then made our way back for breakfast.
After lunch, Father Anthony called us together for a group meeting. The leads had received important news. Early that morning, Hamas launched rockets into southern Israel, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. This was also the day of Simchat Torah, one of Judaism’s holiest days. I hadn’t expected to hear this news, but it still felt distant to me. What is different about the rockets today than any other day? There was some initial uneasiness and worried conversation, but the group fell back into routine. Father Anthony told us that the situation was being closely monitored and that we were safe in Nazareth. The Sea of Galilee was our next stop, still north of the attacks, so we continued on.
We were originally supposed to sleep on a public beach, but for safety purposes we changed locations to an area near Franciscan friars so they could help us if we needed anything. There were hardships such as having no public restrooms or showers, after being sweaty from the heat all day. Despite these challenges, being in Galilee brought so much joy. We swam in the sea, full of laughter and I felt the beginning of a community knitting together. I remember thinking “I am so happy to be right here, right now, with these people.” Thoughts of conflict were still on my mind, but I felt a profound peace within me. On the Mount of the Beatitudes, we read the Sermon on the Mount. I kept Matthew 6:25-34 close to my heart. This reading prepared me for the days to come: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6:34). Every day of pilgrimage since then, I was given the grace of only focusing on the current task at hand and embracing each blessing as it came. I slept peacefully in a hammock and woke up to a beautiful pink sunrise, trees overhead, and sounds of birds chirping and water falling from the spring into the sea. I felt ready for the day (October 8).
Later that night we had another group meeting. Father Dave, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where most of us are students, wanted us to end the trip and return to our campus in Austria. He communicated to us that he was happy we were where we were, for the moment, but Tom Wolter, our director in Austria, was looking into flights. There was still nothing figured out about how we would get home; we just knew that options were being assessed and sought out. Parents were anxiously texting their children, wondering what was going on. Many of us were disappointed, but we were already given so many blessings in the short time we had been there. I saw tanks being transported north and I heard jets overhead, but the Lord’s silence engulfed my heart. The decisions being made were out of my hands. All I could do was follow. There was no choice but to lean on the Lord. I had to remind myself that this is a pilgrimage, not a vacation. The point of coming to the Holy Land was not to see as much as possible, but for my heart to be changed as radically as possible.
I awoke the next morning, just like the last, peacefully in my hammock. (October 9). We met again to talk about the administration’s status on bringing us home. It looked like we wouldn’t be getting home until Saturday, October 14th, the original date of our departure. We continued our pilgrimage, visiting Tabgha, the site of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. We celebrated mass on the Sea of Galilee and then we went our separate ways for some free time, swimming, and personal prayer. A few of us had gone back to Tabgha and were talking with another tourist about the war in Israel. Amid our conversation, Isabella made her way over to us from the campsite. “Did you hear the news? We have to go back and pack up. We’re leaving in an hour.” Father Dave had made the executive decision to evacuate us through Jordan. We would head to Jordan the next day. We made our way to the campsite and packed our belongings.
I went into the Sea of Galilee one last time while others were still packing. I treaded and looked out in silence. I pictured a storm with rocky waves before me. The Apostles were on their boat and turned to Jesus who immediately calmed the storm (Luke 4:35-41). Jesus was walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come [to me]” (Matthew 14:22-33). The boat was gone and Jesus turned toward me saying, “Come to me.” In the raging sea, He is peace. He told me that He would take care of everything. Jesus was showing me what it is like to live day by day, with no knowledge of tomorrow. I can’t trust in a plan, but only in Jesus Himself.
The next day we got on a bus and drove to the border of Israel (October 10). We waited at the border for a while, went on foot to passport check, and made our way to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing. It took us four hours to cross over into Jordan.
Our Jordanian guide, Solomon, left us with a few words: “You are not here for no reason. I believe God takes us from one place to another to move us from one level to another (in faith) … Though you are in the Holy Land, you are not home yet. The Holy Land is still to come”. After spending the night in Jordan we boarded buses to the Amman airport (October 11th). I got to say goodbye to Father Anthony at the last minute and thank him for his leadership. We had a layover in Istanbul and then descended into Vienna, greeted by a deep orange sunset. I stared out the window in thanksgiving. We were filled with joy and relief to be back. Upon boarding the bus that took us from the plane to the terminal, everything hit me. We checked the news and discovered that as we were getting off the plane, a siren warning went off in Galilee and people had to hide in bomb shelters. We later learned that the siren was a false alarm. Regardless, citizens were still hiding in fear of Hezbollah, who was targeting northern Israel. I could have been in a bomb shelter at that moment fearing for my life. How is it that we are all just people, no more important than anyone else, but my group managed to leave Israel safely?
We were greeted at the airport by Franciscan University administration and the TOR sisters. We embraced, shared some tears, and made our way back to the Kartause. I had started my pilgrimage by kissing the ground in Emmaus and had returned home by kissing the ground in Gaming. I left 5 days ago one way and returned completely different, with a new perspective on life and death.
We were meant to be on this pilgrimage. I am thankful for Franciscan’s administration who tirelessly worked out every alternative and brought us home to safety. I am thankful for the mission leads who heard each and every one of our voices. I am thankful for everyone on this pilgrimage who lifted one another up, leaned on one another, and worked with and for one
another. I am thankful for the prayers from the people closest to me and from the people that I don’t even know personally. Every part of this pilgrimage was an answer to these prayers.
How peaceful it is to be back. The God that gave me peace in the Sea of Galilee is the same God that gives me peace right here, lying on a field surrounded by Austria’s rolling hills, clouds stretching overhead, laughing with friends with the same joy as before.
-Written by: Mei Chiang October 2023
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