What I Did This Summer… and Who I Met

I was one of 103 pilgrims who went to Israel and Rome this summer. You probably would get 103 different responses to the question, “What was the most significant thing about your trip?” I would say that there were a thousand awe-inspiring moments. But topping my list wasn’t an “it” but a “who” – our guide in Israel, Nasser.

He greeted us every morning with, “My friends.” And I thought of Scripture, “I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”  Everywhere we went Nasser would share something fascinating about Israel. He understood ancient history, religious perspectives, as well as today’s complexities of culture, political loyalties and conflicts. An empathetic appreciation of humanity emanated from him. He seemed to walk through one of the most volatile places on earth with peace and regard for everyone. Nasser helped us appreciate the lessons even in our hotel destination. He said his heart was with one charming hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee, run by a Jewish family, serving perhaps the most wonderful food I have ever eaten. And our other beautiful hotel on the West Bank was owned by his friend, a gracious Palestinian man, who made our large group feel like we were honored guests. It was as if Nasser wanted us to know the best of all God’s children.

Obviously, a brilliant man with a delightful sense of humor, he carried himself with an aura of humility. It was as if everything he knew was in service of us, sharing his faith and love of this land, as God seemed to, having chosen this place, the Holy Land, to reveal his Son, our Savior, to us.

The week we traveled with Nasser he was awaiting his daughter giving birth to his first grandchild. And so, we probably got a glimpse into the sacredness of life through his heart and eyes as he shared with us his vulnerability of precious life in God’s hands. We prayed with him when she went into early labor and rejoiced with him at his granddaughter’s healthy arrival with celebratory baklava and warmest cheers from us, his 50 closest bus friends. He was universally loved. We all knew we were given some special gift to have him truly guide us on this holy journey.

When one friend in our group had his phone pick-pocketed, I believe most of us would have bet he would never see that phone again. But when we got to our meeting spot, we were able to tell Nasser. He “negotiated” with the local folks to get it back. We witnessed this, involving words in a foreign language (and dramatic gestures) from the thief that, let’s just say, weren’t an apology. Nasser kept coming back in a firm loud voice. When we asked Nasser later what was said, he calmly recounted, “Oh he was swearing at me. I just kept saying, give me the phone back.” If I ever wondered what God’s justice might look like I imagine I was witnessing, it. Not an eye for an eye justice but authority that rights wrongs.

We visited the Church of St. Ann, known for its acoustics. People from all over the world, including our group, come to sing there. Just before we were about to board the bus Nasser said, “Gather our group, I want them to hear why this church was created.” We did and he stood in front of us and chanted. It sounded like a pure form of prayer and praise. I didn’t understand a word, but I will never forget its celestial sound.

In our final evening together, Nasser stopped at our dinner gathering before going to meet his granddaughter (having sacrificed the first days with his grandchild to not leave us) and spoke to the group. He asked us to support the Christians in Israel as they are only 2% of the population. Again, my sense of the human community I am part of  expanded. Finally, his last words to us were, “Read the Bible. It’s all there.” I never heard the Living Word of God explained quite so simply, eloquently, or accurately.

Nasser seemed to love everyone unconditionally, each of us as individuals, but also the people of different cultures. He was so kind. He made everyone feel that they were valuable. I have always been a little envious of others who have some visual and emotional image of Jesus. That just hasn’t been a gift I had been given but that week I believe that God gave me a glimpse of that and spoke in my heart, “I am like Nasser.”

Click below to watch and listen to Nasser in the Church of St. Ann.