Children’s Book “Susie Blu and a Love Rediscovered”

I’m very happy to tell you that I am now an officially published children’s book author —in Italian no less! It was about two years ago I entered a competition to come up with a story based on four illustrations by Rossella Tauro which you can see in the book images below. I was ecstatic to learn I was chosen as the winner.

My impression was that the girl in the illustrations was longing for some kind of lost connection. In the charitable projects which I lead with Peace Gospel and She Has Hope in Asia and Africa, I have worked extensively with orphans who have suffered great loss in the death of their parents.

This coupled with memories of one of my favorite French films (Ponette) about a young girl struggling with the death of her mother all converged to inspire this story I imagined about a girl finding reconnection with her deceased father via her dream life.

In my story, the dreams of my fictitious character Susie Blu take her on a deepsea adventure that mysteriously collides with reality.

I wanted to write a story to inspire children experiencing traumatic loss with the hope of the everlasting and mystical connection between parent and child.

I’m including the original English of the story here. The Italian translation was graciously provided by Sofia Conti.

I am trying to work with the publisher to get an English version released on Amazon. I will keep you posted!

Susie Blu and a Love Rediscovered

Little Susie Blu’s father was the captain of a ship that had crashed in a very bad storm last year. He had never returned. He was lost at sea and Susie Blu was very sad.

So she made a wish with all her heart that she could be with her father again. And she dreamed a dream of the sea where her father’s ship had crashed and saw the beauty of the ocean and whales of all kinds gathered under the water.

She awakened from her dream to find herself there in that same sea, and somehow she could breathe naturally! And an old whale named Mr. Humpback began talking to her in a human voice!

He said to Susie Blu, “Yes dear, I saw your father fighting to save his ship and his crew. He stayed on his ship until the end. He was very brave.”

Susie Blu replied, “But Mr. Humpback, do you know what happened to him? Did he survive?”

To which Mr. Humpback answered, “Yes, my dear, he did survive, but not as you might expect. Mother Nature honored his bravery by letting him live on with a new body, the body of a whale.”

Little Susie Blu asked, “Oh thank you for letting me know about my father! Do you know where he is?”

Mr. Humpback replied, “I’m not sure, but you can ask Mr. Bignose, he has the nose that always knows.”

So Susie Blu swam over to Mr. Bignose and said, “Hello, Mr. Humpback told me that you might be able to help me. I’m looking for my human father who has become a whale. Do you know where he is?”

Mr. Bignose replied, “Hello there Susie Blu. It’s so nice to meet you. Yes, your father has told me so many good things about you and we wondered if you might ever come looking for us. He is usually fishing over on the second cove of the bay. You might find him there.”

“Oh, thank you so much Mr. Bignose, it’s nice to meet you too! I’ll head that way now. Good day to you!” Susie Blu replied.

And sure enough, there in the second cove of the bay where her father’s ship had crashed, was a beautiful whale smiling and happy.

“Father, is it you?” Susie Blu asked eagerly.

“My precious Susie! Yes, it is me, your father!” He answered her with love in the song of his voice.

“Climb on my back, we have adventures to follow, and many miracles of the sea I would like to show you! There is so much down here, you will never believe all the treasures of nature the sea contains.”

And so little Susie climbed on his back and they swam off into the deep blue sea.

Susie was so proud of her father for his bravery, and her heart was nearly bursting with joy that he had lived on in the form of this beautiful whale.

Suddenly, Susie awakened back in her bed to her mother’s voice, “Susie, wake up, you’ll be late for school!” And Susie Blu thought that what she had seen, felt, and heard, was just a dream.

But that bracelet adorned with a small shell, how did it end up on her wrist?

Was it really just a dream?


Day 7: Via Dolorosa, Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Yad Vashem, Farewell Lunch

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 7 of our itinerary was perhaps the most profound. There are many inspiring moments along the way but there’s something about waking up before dawn and taking a vow of silence only to hear the scriptures related to the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at each of the 14 stations. We departed from our hotel at 5am to take the walk to Herod’s Gate and then made the descent to Station One of the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrows.”

There in the predawn blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as Pastor Chris read us the scriptures that chronicled or prophesied of Jesus’s walk to his death. It struck me that many of the stations depict those who loved him reaching out to help him, to do something for their beloved teacher and friend.

They did not understand anything he had said about his coming resurrection, so to them, this was just the most awful, dark, miserable thing they could imagine happening. Here was the man who had healed, preached forgiveness of sin, fed the poor, taught a Gospel of a higher love, yet here he was the scorn of man, bruised, beaten, flogged nearly to death, then sentenced to carry his own tool of execution while wearing a crown of thorns.

I cannot imagine anything more profoundly distressing, depressing, confusing, or anguishing than these scenes laid before the very eyes of those who had followed him and loved him. In that dark hour, before the sun had risen, I and members of our group were gripped by the reality of those accounts as we trod over stones sometimes dated to the first century. There were few dry eyes as we meditated on those seemingly slow-motion brutal moments of the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross.

At the same time, as Pastor Chris read these scriptures, it became apparent that another emotion felt in those steps is a realization of the profound love that God has for us, that while we were yet imperfect people lost in our own ways, Christ died for us because he loved us.

I’m no theologian, but I do know a few things about the Bible from years of studying it personally. I believe that when Jesus was buried in his tomb (Station XIV of the Cross) he descended into hell (“Hades”) and conquered death so that we might have the resurrection into eternal life at our bodily death. “Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.” —Joe Rigney

After this intense experience, we visited a much brighter place called the Garden Tomb, a location just to the north of the Damascus Gate believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus, a site many historians believe to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The overseers of the location have done an amazing job of keeping the gardens bright and colorful, as a representation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, symbols of rebirth blossoming all around us. We took communion in that holy space and we all felt a very present touch of the Holy Spirit, a touch of the very palpable hope of the resurrection in that supremely serene garden.

Later in Day 7, we made our way to the Garden of Gethsemane, another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his crucifixion. It is very revealing to me that Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This reveals his humanity, that he knew the fight for the salvation of the world was before him, and in that humanness, perhaps he did not feel he could bear it, and thus he prayed for God to take it. Yet in his humility and submission to God the Father, he relents, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The olive trees we saw there were at least descendants of the trees that would have arched their embracing arms in sadness over Jesus on his last night before his death (some say they are saplings of those trees that provided rebirth for the trees to carry on, as is the manner of olive trees to regenerate in their same location for thousands of years– either way, a beautiful symbol there, too). So many touch-points for us to feel, see, and experience these places where he walked, where he prayed, and where he loved us with an ultimate love unfathomable among mankind.

As if we had not felt enough for the day, the tour ended at the Holocaust Musem, “Yad Vashem.” There we experienced yet another kind of darkness, one of history’s deepest wounds, the Jewish Holocaust. There are no words to appropriately express the horrors of the Nazi’s deliberate cruelty, a merciless and systematic murder of millions of innocents, in the most unthinkable ways possible.

In this contrast to the beauty of God’s love as demonstrated on the Via Dolorosa, we remembered the total depravity of mankind, that we could fall to such a grave brokenness, to an antithesis of love, and the ambivalence of so many who turned their hearts and eyes away from the reality of what was happening all around them in those days.

Yet even in those horrible chapters of history, the museum beautifully and thoughtfully documented “The Righteous Among the Nations” — accounts of those who stood up to the ultimate brutality and evil, to rescue and hide Jews who would have otherwise perished.

The group then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus with a special liturgy to help us process all that we had taken in on this inexpressible day. Then Christina Samara and Lisa Moed of Breaking Bread Journeys met us at a farewell lunch and presented all of the group with a small but beautiful gift of cookbooks containing their favorite holy land recipes. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam.

We concluded our last night with a special Shabbat dinner hosted at a local Jewish home by the group called Shabbat of a Lifetime. Photos are not allowed so you will have to imagine the scenes of an authentic Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) meal.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these images might be inspiring as a visual expression of what I felt this day. God bless you.

We entered the Old City Jerusalem at Herod’s Gate around 5am to begin our walk on the Via Dolorosa:

They’ve recently made the cross at the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre illuminated, making for a beautiful glow against the predawn blue hour sky:

We made our way onward to the final 4 Stations of the Cross, passing various doorways and eerily empty passages along the way: 

Entering into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

At one of my favorite spots within the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, there is a small side-crypt I always like to visit. You have to bow low to get in. On this visit, I found this monk carefully lighting candles there. Using nonverbal gestures, he invited me to help him light the candles there: 

We left the church just as the sunlight started to emerge through the dome’s windows:

Making our way out of the church, we found sunrise slowly changing the sky while the city was still awakening. We walked over to the Damascus Gate to head back to our hotel: 

After a much-needed break, we visited the Garden Tomb. I just love the gardens here, and find it very fitting that they’ve re-created the space to be as lovely as surely it must have been on that Resurrection Sunday 2000 years ago: 

The hillside near the Garden Tomb that resembles a skull (Golgotha): 

Pastor Chris leading us in communion at (or at least near) the spot of Jesus’ resurrection:

The empty tomb they believe closely fits descriptions of the tomb where Jesus was laid before his resurrection:
Onward to the Garden of Gethsemane, where we had a beautiful view of the eastern wall of the Temple Mount and the sealed Golden Gate where Jesus entered the city on a donkey as he came from Gethsemane: 

The beautiful Church of All Nations and its gorgeous mosaics depicting Jesus’ night praying in the garden before his crucifixion: 

One of the ancient olive trees in the garden: 

Another view to the sealed Golden Gate on the east side of Jerusalem’s Old City: 

Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum and its beautiful gardens, sculptures, and architecture: 

Our farewell lunch at the wonderful Azzahra Restaurant:

As a bonus archive, I’m including some audio files of our tour guide Bassam explaining various aspects of our tour this week, provided courtesy of one of our group members:

Day 6: Jerusalem Old City, St. Anne’s Church, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Western Wall, Razzouk Tattoos

Continuing the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys… after a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we started the day with a visit to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own song as well!

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pools of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”). Chris mentioned how we have trouble waiting 38 days, much less 38 years.

And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.

A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all three faiths: food, family, and friends.

We met the chefs took us for lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri, which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served. They then took us shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made.

Afterward we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service, the pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late father Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read here. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.

Some of us then broke off from the group and made our way through the Jewish Quarter and to the Western Wall to pray.

Some of the group ended the night with a visit from Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk, whose family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.

Our tour guide Bassam sharing with us about the old city at Herod’s Gate: 

Church of St. Anne, located at the birthplace of Mary:

Archaeological ruins of the Pools of Bethesda:

Chapel of the Condemnation, at Stations of the Cross I: 

Our tour with Chefs for Peace through the old city there are endless images each with 1000s of stories to tell:

Cooking with Chefs for Peace…

Jewish Quarter and Western Wall: 

Razzouk Tattoos:

Day 5: Jordan River, Jericho, Mt. of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem Tunnels

Day 5 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way to the Jordan River, the river in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan.

I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. It’s like packing three days into one. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of the group remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?”

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way.

Our tour guide Bassam pointed out that according to Luke’s Gospel 19:1-10, Jesus came through Jericho and met Zacchaeus the tax collector who had climbed a Sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus.

Some very interesting facts about Jericho. Jericho is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. It sits at the edge of the Dead Sea valley, 846 feet below sea-level, which also makes it the lowest inhabited city on earth. It is, literally, an oasis in the desert — a large spring there has fed that part of the valley for thousands of years and is the only way people have survived there.

We then made our way up to the Mount of Temptation and the Monastery of the Temptation, a Greek Orthodox monastery. The earliest monastery located on the site was constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century above the cave traditionally said to be that where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting and meditating during the temptation of Satan. The monastery receives its name from the mountain which the early Christians referred to as the “Mount of the Temptation.” The Mount of Temptation was identified by Augusta Helena of Constantinople as one of the “holy sites” in her pilgrimage in 326 AD.

When the Crusaders conquered the area in 1099, they built two churches on the site: one in a cave halfway up the cliff and a second on the summit. They referred to the site as “Mons Quarantana” (from Quaranta meaning forty in Italian, the number of days in the Gospel account of Jesus’s fast). Thus the Arabic name of the mountain is Mount Qarantal.

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries were made by a shepherd boy, then to the Dead Sea where the group took a float in the extremely buoyant waters, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem where we arrived in time to take the tunnel tour under the old city along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Some personal thoughts inspired by this journey:

I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives.

We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way.

We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose to open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has seen its share of hard times, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

Pastor Chris leading us in reflection and prayer at the Jordan River:

Onward to Jericho:

Taking the cable cars up to the Mount of Temptation:

This is the view of the monastery embedded into the cliff wall:

Pastor Chris reading and reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel describing the Temptation of Christ and his 40-day fast at this spot:

On up to the monastery:

Images from the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered: 

And on to our Dead Sea float at the lowest point on earth!

Next, we made our way into Jerusalem, and the group went on the Jerusalem tunnel tour. I went ahead to prepare our group dinner arrangements at Jacob’s Pizza (by far the best pizza inside the old city walls) but here are some images from my previous visits to the tunnels:

Day 4: Tabgha, Mensa Christi, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, Magdala

I’m here documenting a unique Christian pilgrimage to the holy land with Ecclesia Houston guided by Breaking Bread Journeys. I hope you’re enjoying my photo-journal of our experiences.

This morning we began with a visit to Tabgha, an area situated on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is traditionally accepted as the place of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the fourth resurrection appearance of Jesus after his Crucifixion. There we were able to visit the Church of the Loaves and Fish, and the Mensa Christi, or the Table of Christ.

From there we visited Capernaum, which was a fishing village established during the time of the Hasmoneans, located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It had a population of about 1,500. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A house turned into a church by the Byzantines is believed to have been the home of the Apostle Peter. It is known as the center of his public ministry in Galilee after he left his childhood home of Nazareth.

We later embarked upon a boating excursion where our guide David took us out on the waters. Pastor Chris Seay shared with us from the account of Matthew’s Gospel describing Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s struggle with his faith to follow Jesus onto the water.

We then headed to an archaeological site called Magdala, the site of at least two places in ancient Israel mentioned in the Jewish Talmud and possibly a location mentioned in the Christian New Testament. They have discovered an ancient Jewish Synagogue which would have been active during Jesus’ time.

Pastor Chris told us it is almost 100% certain that Jesus would have visited this Synagogue. A church is also located at the site with a beautiful view of the lake and very impressive and inspiring murals and artwork throughout. The discovery at Magdala is said to be on par with the Dead Sea Scrolls in historical importance.

A view of our beautiful hotel on the Sea of Galilee, The Scots Hotel:

From Tabgha Church of Loaves and Fish: 

From Mensa Christi, our group removed their shoes to connect with the waters as Pastor Chris shared from the Gospels:

From the ruins of a 4th Century Synagogue in Capernaum:

A sculpture of “Homeless Jesus” inspired by the verse Luke 9:58, “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'”

From our sail upon the Sea of Galilee: 

Magdala archaeological site, and the Duc in Altum Spiritual Center:

From the mosaics in the Duc in Altum…

Jesus calls the disciples:

Jesus catches Peter after he falters on his attempted walk on water:

The fearful disciples on the Sea of Galilee:

Jesus casts out seven spirits from Mary Magdelene (Luke 8:2):

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). -Mark 5:41

Day 3: Mount Precipice, Nazareth, Tulip Winery

Continuing our tour with Ecclesia Houston led by Breaking Bread Journeys, we started our day in Cana, where, according to John’s Gospel 2:1-11, Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine for a wedding celebration. The married couples of our group took the opportunity to renew their wedding vows in a very moving group ceremony led by Pastor Chris Seay in one of the gardens of the Franciscan Wedding Church at Cana. I find it beautiful that Jesus’ first miracle was performed at the celebration of a marriage.

After Cana, we made our way to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus where we took a short hike to Mt. Precipice for some beautiful panoramic views over the Jezreel Valley. It is believed by many to be the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in Luke 4:14-30. In this passage, Jesus proclaims himself as the one described in Isaiah, saying,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The people of Nazareth, not accepting Jesus as Messiah tried to push him from the mountain, but “he passed through the midst of them and went away.” The mount is situated on the southern edge of the city and provides beautiful views of the valley below and Mt. Tabor (Mount of Transfiguration) seen as an isolated peak to the east.

After that, we were ready for lunch and a wine tasting at Tulip Winery (יקב טוליפ). I love the cause behind Tulip, which our lovely host Lital told us employs 45 special needs adults who live in the village where the winery is located, a former kibbutz. The village’s name, Kfar Tikva, means “Village of Hope.”

At Tulip, they say “Labels are for wine bottles, not for people.” They were founded with the purpose of making great wine while providing special needs adults with employment and the support of community on the former kibbutz where they’re located. Started as a tiny boutique winery in 2003, now they are shipping over 300,000 bottles of wine annually and have won various awards locally and internationally.

Founded by the Itzhaki family, they fulfilled their long-time dream of establishing a winery that combines the production of quality wine with social responsibility. The owner, Roy Itzhaki, came to sit with us at our wine tasting and shared some personal stories of the origins of the business.

Their wonderful vision produced an exciting model of wine entrepreneurialism that employs members of Kfar Tikva and provides them with a business platform from which they can integrate into the labor market like any other person.

Tulip has become an industry leader and the largest boutique winery in Israel.

Our group presented one of the employees we have come to know well over our several visits, Nathan, with some special gifts. Nathan has a rare genetic disorder and is known to be the oldest person in the world with the condition. He was Tulip’s first paid employee. They attribute his remarkable health to the joy and fulfillment he gets from his job.

Day 2: Jacob’s Well, Nablus Old City, Samaritan Village, Mount Gerizim

Continuing on Day 2 of Ecclesia Houston‘s Holy Land pilgrimage with Breaking Bread Journeys, we started our tour by making our way from Netanya to Nablus in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. Our first stop was to the Greek Orthodox Church that sits atop the three-millennia-old Jacob’s Well. Christianity has a longstanding connection with the site of the well, with various churches being constructed on the site since 384 AD. We tried to guess the depth of the well today, which prompted me to research the question. I found that based on a measurement made in 1935, the total depth of the well is 41 meters (135 ft).

Pastor Chris read to us from John’s Gospel 4:1-26, which describes the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who drew water for Jesus from this very well. In the passage, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman of the living water that quenches our spiritual thirst forever. Jesus breaks accepted social barriers of the time by associating as a Jew with a Samaritan, and by associating publicly with a woman.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Drink this water, and your thirst is quenched only for a moment. You must return to this well again and again. I offer water that will become a wellspring within you that gives life throughout eternity. You will never be thirsty again.”

We experienced the rare blessing to drink water from the same well mentioned in this Gospel passage – to quench our physical thirst – while on the very same site were reminded of that eternal spiritual wellspring deposited within us!

Next, we made our way into the old city of Nablus to visit an olive oil soap factory that’s been making hand-cut soap for 180 years. It has made Nablus famous throughout the middle east for its soap. We then toured more of the old city, visiting several street food vendors and a candy factory.

It never ceases to amaze me how extremely friendly the people of Nablus are to us foreigners. So often we heard, “Where are you from?” with us replying, “America” and them then saying, “Welcome, welcome.” We learned to say “salaam alaikum” which means “peace be with you” and “shukran” which means “thank you.” These two phrases carried us far with these kind people, as you could tell they were grateful for us visiting their city, and we were likewise humbled by their hospitality.

Next, we arrived at an event prepared by Slow Food Nablus, the culinary school for The House of Dignity which is an empowerment and education program for Palestinian women. The women of this community are incredibly joyful and were so happy to serve us. Our meal was an unbelievable feast we will not soon forget. We got to hear from the founder of The House of Dignity, Fatima, about her vision to help empower and unify the women of Nablus.

Part of the aim of this unique tour is to demonstrate the love of Jesus to all peoples of this diverse land as we enter into their homes and neighborhoods to break bread and listen. I believe that part of loving like Jesus loves is to break the accepted social barriers as he did with the Samaritan woman, to go across those “borders” and listen with respect to those who are not like us.

We will do that again later in the week as we tour Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum, and as we enter a Jewish home to break bread in a traditional Shabbat dinner. And we did it today by listening to our new friends in Nablus. In between these two book-end experiences, we will walk where Jesus walked and further consider his radical ways of love, with no better backdrop than to be among those who often feel hated and misunderstood.

Next, we visited the Samaritan Museum on Mt. Gerizim and enjoyed a scenic overlook with stunning views of Nablus below. The Samaritan Priest explained to us much about the tiny minority Samaritan faith (essentially, an obscure sect of Judaism, although they would not describe it that way) and its ancient history in the region. We were reminded again of the account of the Samaritan woman, and of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus, when asked by the scholar who Jesus means by “your neighbor”, tells a story of a man attacked by robbers and left for dead. An apparently pious priest and a Levite pass by the wounded man, but a Samaritan stops to help the man recover. Jesus then asks, “Which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man who had been mugged by the robbers?” The scholar answers, “The one who showed mercy to him.” And Jesus said simply, “Go and do likewise.”

I felt this day that Jesus was calling us to “go and do likewise” to show mercy in the simplest of ways, by showing up, accepting hospitality, and blessing strangers with the gift of listening. It’s a theme I’ve seen on these tours, and I think our presence represents Jesus well while trying our best to stay unbiased and avoid politics, to diffuse the tension of the region with the love deposited within us, to be ambassadors of God’s peace in the most unlikely ways. I feel that this is part of the adventure God calls us to.

At the end of the day, we made it back to Netanya just in time for a little post-sunset walk along the beach. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. I’m happy I get to share a few scenes from the beauty of God’s creation along this coast.

I hope you’ll enjoy my photos from the day, and hope they offer a representation of some facets of what we saw and experienced today. Thanks for following along!


Day 1: Netanya Travel Recovery Day, Welcome Reception

I’m here in the holy land to document my 11th tour group from Ecclesia Houston embarking on a Breaking Bread Journeys tour. I wanted to try to get something up before I sleep to commemorate the arrival day for an amazing group of new friends who have all come together to discover the beauty, depth, history, and diversity of this magical land. Here are some images from this first day together in Netanya, Israel, a simple beachside town with many beautiful, serene scenes to welcome even the most travel-weary sojourner.

I won’t write much today as it was basically a free day with the group taking it easy to recover from travel and jet lag. We enjoyed a small reception for the entire group to meet each other where we also met Christina Samara and Lisa Moed, co-owners of our tour company, Breaking Bread Journeys, the first joint Israeli-Palestinian tour company. Pastor Chris shared with us why the holy land is such a meaningful destination for him and included these quotes for us to consider as we take in all the perspectives we will encounter this week:

“To feel the