I Took A Christian Pilgrimage To The Holy Land, & Here’s What I Learned

I have been wanting to go to Israel ever since all of my Jewish friends started going for Birthright. I tried getting on a Christian tour of Israel with the University of Florida, but it was so selective that I wasn’t chosen. After explaining to my parents that this was a dream of mine to go, they were inspired to do some research — so this winter break, my family went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Israel is a sacred place to three main religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Christians only make up about 2 percent of Israel’s population. Since I’m Catholic, I was a minority. I have never been in a country where the majority of people practice a different faith than I do — especially when that religion dominates Israel’s lifestyle and society. For example, when we entered Jerusalem on a Saturday night, the traffic was terrible because the Sabbath just ended and Jewish drivers were able to drive again. And then the next day was Sunday. All around, I saw little kids with backpacks going to school. I was so confused. I thought, "It's a Sunday — why are they going to school?" Oh right. Sunday starts the first day of the week in the Jewish faith, not Monday. This reminded me of how Christian influences are so engrained in American society and how I had become so used to that.

The most interesting thing to notice was how the different religious motifs, garments and styles. I almost felt left out for not having a clear indication that I practiced a certain religion. Depending on where you live in America, our religion doesn’t always affect our clothing choices. If you want to know someone's religion, you actually have to ask.

Since we were with a Catholic group, we toured famous, ancient churches everyday. We were in some churches built by Constantine’s mother St. Helena and we were in some churches built by the crusaders. It was amazing to be standing in a place that had so much history. Based on oral tradition, most of the Catholic churches we went to were famous sites where Jesus had been. Nearby were Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches that claimed Jesus was actually on their site. Our tour guide assured us that none of the sects are wrong because we don’t know the specifics. Sometimes there were places that claimed that “This is Jesus’ burial rock” or “This is Jesus’ footprint." Luckily, everyone on our group — including the priests on our trip, were a bit skeptical of these claims. But as our guide would say, “Don’t ruin a good story with facts." We may never know for sure if they were accurate are not, but the physical landmarks didn’t change. That’s why my favorite part of the trip was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, our dip in the Jordan River and our float on The Dead Sea. They were my most spiritual experiences.

I can’t wait to go back to The Holy Land. After all the trouble it took me to convince my parents to take my brother and I, I later found out I actually was eligible to go on Birthright the whole time. So I am planning to go back to Israel next summer, and I can’t wait.