Jerusalem is a slippery place. You can’t help but notice that after taking your first steps within the towering walls.
Your feet slip and slide, and if it rains, you slip and slide all the more. After growing up in the evangelical subculture that is obsessed with “slippery slopes” of belief and practice, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of this major religious center being “slippery.” And sloped.
After a few idyllic weeks in the old city during my senior year of college, tragedy struck.
While spending some time with my friends in the western valley outside the old city walls, we heard the roar of ambulances zipping to the eastern side of the city. They were on their way to the Temple Mount area.
We ran through the winding streets of the Armenian Quarter and then worked our way into the narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter. The slippery limestone slowed us down, and we hardly took any notice of how few people were on the streets at that hour. Perhaps we knew that history was happening, and we had to be there for it. Perhaps we had seen so many soldiers with guns that we reasoned they wouldn’t let things get too out of hand. Perhaps we just ran to trouble because that’s what you do when you’re a 20-something who doesn’t know better.
From a lookout post above the homes in the Jewish Quarter, we finally caught sight of the scene. The Western Wall, known also as the wailing wall, was deserted. Soldiers lined up outside the entrance to the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque with riot gear. Emergency and military vehicles had streamed into the courtyard outside the Western Wall.
As with most things in the Middle East, the situation had been far more complex than the preliminary reports and even the endless analysis that followed could capture. Had a politician provoked a riot? Had military pressures and land seizure created pressure that would inevitably explode?
I didn’t come close to understanding any of those events back then, and now today I know even less.
Most visitors in Jerusalem make that wall a top priority, and tour groups decked out in matching vests following color coded banners make their way to the wall to pray. It’s the place where so much history happened. I understand a little of the fear and the disappointment. I think I understand why people would throw rocks and shoot rubber bullets after decades of conflict, and I suspect that I would be among their numbers depending on which side of the wall I’d been born on.
That wall was most likely near the place Jesus said should be a house of prayer for all nations. On the day that the men on one side threw rocks and the men on the other side shot rubber bullets, the wall stood as a reminder of the things that divide us.
I stood under the shadow of that wall to pray many times in the following months. I didn’t wear a shawl or bob or sway like the other men around me. But those prayers at the wall didn’t give me hope. If anything, I felt the weight of that wall, almost crushing me. Tucking a prayer scribbled on a piece of paper into the wall almost felt like I was making it stronger. How could a world with so much violence and division ever make it?
Slip-sliding my way down an alley in the Arab Quarter, I joined a group who visited an Arab Christian church. I didn’t think about the fact that most of the Israeli Christians were just about completely divided from this group who graciously welcomed a motley group of American college students. We sang together in a room packed with about 50 people. After the songs, a translator led us to a side room padded with red cushions where he translated the announcements, prayers, and sermon.
They prayed the prayers for unity and peace that I needed someone else to pray for me. These people who were suffering the loss of business from bottled up checkpoints and trying to send food to families who were hardest hit also had the words for peace that I couldn’t string together.
Profound and life-changing as that experience was, I didn’t return to that little church. I can’t quite tell you why. I wish I had. If I returned to Jerusalem, I think I would slip down the limestone streets until I found it. But instead, I returned to the wall. Perhaps it’s easier to visit memorials and icons of our ideals. Perhaps seeking out the places where suffering meets hope is far more costly and personally challenging.
It’s easy to stand at that wall and to remember what Jesus said. It’s quite another thing to stand among the people experiencing poverty, fear, and uncertainty, joining them in their prayers that remain the only hope I have for tearing down the divisions in their land.