Day 6: Church of Saint Anne, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Tunnel Tour, 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!

Our tour guide Bassam shared some very interesting facts about the unique nature of the church:

Unlike most other Crusader churches, St. Anne’s was not destroyed after Saladin’s 1187 conquest of Jerusalem (Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states). In 1192 Saladin converted the building into a madrasa (Islamic educational institution), known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin), as is still written in the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the church.

During the renewed Muslim rule of Palestine, Christian pilgrims were only permitted inside the grotto after paying a fee. Eventually, the madrasa was abandoned and the former church building fell into disrepair. In 1856, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I presented it to Napoleon III. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what remains today is original. Currently St. Anne’s belongs to the French government (thus the French flag that flies atop the church) and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called “The White Fathers”, for the color of their robes.

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”).

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 faiths: food, family, and friends.

We met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients we would be using to prepare our dinner!

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, 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.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

Afterward, we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The photo prints this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, an orphaned refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his family are featured in the National Geographic film “Jerusalem: Within These Walls” to represent the Armenian Quarter. The photos, which had been hidden away since 1947 by Elia as he thought they were of no value, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and now 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 the group bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

We stopped by Samara Tours, where co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys works running her decades-old family tour business. As it was Valentine’s Day, Christina and her co-workers had an unexpected gift of roses for each member of the group!

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.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and another visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall (which our group was able to see and touch) weighs an estimated 570 tons. To put this weight into context, the heaviest stone in the Great Pyramid of Giza, found in the “King’s” chamber, weighed 80 tons.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit to Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo studio. The Razzouk 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.

Day 4: Mensa Christi, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Mt. of Beatitudes

I am happy to introduce one of our pastors, Wayne Brown, who is along with us on this pilgrimage. He will be guest blogging for me tonight in the written portion of the post, and I could not be more grateful for the break! Thank you Wayne! Here’s what Wayne recalls of our Day 4 experience…

Continuing Day 4 with Ecclesia Houston and Breaking Bread Journeys, today we visited Mensa Christi Church, Capernaum, spent some time on and around the Sea of Galilee, explored Magdala, and finished with a nighttime reading of the Sermon on the Mount while sitting on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Sound like a full day? There’s more going on than you think.

First, we set out on the bus for Capernaum. On the way, we stopped at the Mensa Christi Church (Table of Christ). There we made our way down to the shoreline, placed our feet in the ancient waters of the Sea of Galilee, and Pastor Chris Seay taught from John 21. This is where the disciples returned to fishing, something that they knew and found comforting in a time of confusion, frustration, and fear following the crucifixion of Jesus.

Jesus meets them on the shore, prepares a meal of fish and bread for them, and engages them in a way they never anticipated. Jesus meets Peter after his denial and arguably the greatest failure of his life. But instead of scolding Peter, he uses it as a time to reaffirm, encourage and commission him towards the greatest work of his life. Pastor Chris reminded us that our greatest failures always have the opportunity for the greatest redemption, and can serve to strengthen our faith, courage and resolve, making us better prepared for a more challenging calling that lies ahead or just around the corner.

Next, we made it to Capernaum, where we saw the remains of a 4th Century Jewish synagogue, as well as the town of Capernaum nearby. The church there is believed to be built over the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, where Jesus miraculously healed her. Seeing the town and the walls of the houses helped to provide perspective on just how small the houses were in Jesus’ day. On the way back to the Scot’s Hotel, we read some passages including where Jesus heals a man lowered through the roof on a mat in a house in Capernaum.

Next, we ventured on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The weather was perfect, and the water was as calm as glass. We listened to hymns and songs on the journey to the middle of the lake, and read the story where Jesus walks on the water to the disciples. Pastor Chris also reminded us of how Jesus invites us to face our fears, calling us all into greater faith. And in the moments where we become fearful again, he uses it as a moment to teach us and to help us grow. Some even swam briefly in these ancient waters, and we danced and sang songs of praise to God on the journey back to shore.

After a brief time to rest at the hotel, we made our way to Magdala to explore the remains of a 1st Century Synagogue discovered there in 2009. We had the opportunity to stand with our bare feet on these 1st-century stones, where Jesus himself walked. Pastor Chris reminded us of the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ garment and invited us to pray for healing for ourselves and for a loved one with our feet touching the place where Jesus walked.

We were led on a tour of the site by an Irish Catholic Priest, Father Kelly, and his sister Celine. They were an absolute delight! They both shared so fluidly, passionately, and genuinely about their faith in Jesus and the stories and passages in the scripture that took place in this city. Magdala was the home of Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus cast out 7 demons. It was a major fishing port at the time of Jesus. As Sister Celine told us, “The question is not ‘Did Jesus come here?’ The question is, ‘How many times did he come here?’”

We were reminded throughout the tour of the importance of the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Sister Celine reminded us of how many barriers these women broke in order to be at the crucifixion as well as to be the first people to visit his grave. She reminded us, “Love is stronger than death. Love is stronger than fear, and that’s why these women were able to do what even the disciples did not.” At the end of our time in Magdala, we had the chance to write the name of significant women in our lives with our finger on one of the pillars in the church foyer and to say a prayer of thanksgiving for their role in our lives and in our faith.

Sharing 113 photos with you tonight! What an amazing day. First up is from the Mensa Christi Church and the shore of the Sea of Galilee nearby:

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 Sea of Galilee sailing experience:

On our way to Magdala we stopped for a group photo:

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

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

Pastor Chris led us to the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the base of the Mount of Beatitudes to read us the Sermon on the Mount under a moonlit sky:

Day 6: St. Anne’s Church, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Western Wall, Tunnel Tour, 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 at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients they would be using to prepare our dinner!

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, 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.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

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.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and a visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple, and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall weighs an estimated 570 tons.

Last but not least, we 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.

Day 4: Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Rosh Pina, Mt. of Beatitudes

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. After our breakfast at the U Boutique Kinneret Hotel with the breathtaking view of the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, we 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.

After a much-needed afternoon break at our beautiful hotel property, we enjoyed an wonderful meal at a local French Restaurant, the Auberge Shulamit, in the town of Rosh Pina on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. The owner personally introduced us to the menu and helped serve with a very friendly staff.

After dinner Pastor Chris led the group in an after-hours visit to the Mount of Beatitudes where he read us the entire Sermon on the Mount at the location it is traditionally believed to have been preached by Jesus. It was an unforgettable evening standing there listening to our pastor read what is regarded as the most famous sermon of all time, near what would have been the spot that Jesus shared it almost 2000 years ago. I’ll share some of the beginning verses of this beautiful and timeless message here:

Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful—they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart—they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Day 4: Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Rosh Pina

I’m here documenting for a group of Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land from Ecclesia Houston with Breaking Bread Journeys. I hope you’re enjoying my photo-journal of our experiences. After our breakfast at the Ma’agan Hotel with the breathtaking view of the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we took a stroll on the docks but our boat ride was canceled due to bad weather. We hope to reschedule for tomorrow morning.

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.

Pastor Chris led us in prayer in the basement chapel where our bare feet could walk on stones that are believed to have been at street level when Jesus visited Magdala during his public ministry. What I’m receiving in these days is that the incarnation of Jesus is the highest form of love that God could express to us, and oh how he loves us! And here we are where it all happened.

After a much-needed afternoon break at our beautiful hotel property, we enjoyed an extravagant meal at a local French Restaurant, the Auberge Shulamit, in the town of Rosh Pina on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. The owner personally introduced us to the menu and helped serve with a very friendly staff.

Day 5: Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Rosh Pina, Mount of Beatitudes

I’m here documenting for a group of Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land from Ecclesia Houston with Breaking Bread Journeys. I hope you’re enjoying my account of our experiences. After an unbelievable breakfast at the Scots Hotel, we embarked upon a boating excursion on the Sea of Galilee where our guide David showed us how fishing nets would have been cast in the time of Jesus. 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.

Personally, although this was my eighth visit to the Sea of Galilee, something different struck me this time. I stopped to ponder the events accounted in Matthew’s Gospel describing Peter’s struggle as our guide David explained to us how bad the storms can get on the sea there, with waves recorded as high as 12 feet. I love the metaphor that a boat, a vessel, provides us with in parallel to the journey of life. The storms of life will come, there is no question about that. The question is what is my anchor, what is my constant when I’m feeling lost and tossed about, when I’m feeling that everything around me is unstable? For me, it’s the grip of Jesus much like Peter felt when he began to sink on the water in his attempt to walk in faith.

We will all find seasons in life when we feel we’re sinking. We can either reach up with an open hand or clench our fist in bitterness and just keep sinking. When I arrived at the Magdala center with this thought on my mind, I saw again the mural there depicting this scene of Peter sinking, and the artwork captivated me in a way I had not felt it before. You will see my photo of the mural later below in the blog post. Jesus is so constant and steadfast, standing there on the water, grabbing Peter. The feelings I felt there in that sacred space will stay with me. Our time here has been extremely inspiring and there is a bond we are all feeling as we journey together, walking in spaces and places where Jesus proclaimed his radical message of love.

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 chapel 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.