Searching for the Holy in the Holy Land

Peace and reconciliation have always informed Evans’ call to the priesthood, so nine weeks in Palestine and Israel participating in a School of Theology cross-cultural learning experience wasn’t a stretch.

Boyd Evans, T’16, walks through a crowded classroom filled with science fair projects. Students flock to him, tapping him on the shoulder and tugging his arms.

“Come look,” they plead, “Come see what I made!”

As usual he has his camera at his side. He scans the room and takes pictures of proud students posing with their work. 

“The children were amazing” Evans said, smiling, and clicking to the next picture on his computer screen.

 

Science fairs were a staple at the refugee camps at Hebron, Jenin, and Kalandia where Evans worked this summer on his trip to the Holy Land. He could probably tell a story about each of the over 8,000 photographs he took, but his face lights up just a little more when he’s talking about the students.

“I really bonded with the children in general. There were always a couple of children that would adopt me and translate Arabic to English for me,” Evans said.

Evans spent nine weeks in Palestine and Israel participating in a cross-cultural learning experience as part of his curriculum as a seminarian at the School of Theology. The trip was funded by a grant through the Seminary Consultation on Mission (SCOM).

“Things were different than what I thought they would be,” he said. “I really wasn’t aware that there were Palestinian Christians before I went, but essentially all the Christians in the area are Palestinians.”

Although there is a long history of Christianity in the region, the Christian population in cities like Ramallah now hovers around five percent. When Ramallah, currently under Israeli control, became the de-facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in the early nineties, the Muslim population increased.

Both Christians and Muslims in Palestine weather the harsh conditions of Israeli occupation. They face violence, segregated transportation, travel restrictions, and water that only runs to Palestinian territories a few days a week. Evans said it was impossible not to feel the affects of the intense political climate there on a daily basis.

“Parts of the Holy Land didn’t feel “holy” after I was there a while, so I’m not really sure what to call it now,” he said. His nine-week immersion allowed him to gain an acute awareness of the Palestinian perspective of the conflict.

Evans had a close-up view of these realities not only working with Palestinian Christians in the refugee camps, but also in Ramallah as a first and fourth grade teaching assistant in the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School.

Boyd with kids

It was there, in spite of the oppression, that displays of tolerance and acceptance among the students profoundly affected him. Of the nearly 1,000 students at the school, 43 percent of the students are Muslim and 57 percent are Christian.

“Students typically pray together every morning. In fact, many of the Christian schools in the region have a majority of Muslim students in attendance,” Evans said. “It just shows how in that culture the Christians and Muslims have gotten along really well.”

Even in this environment, the students at the Episcopal school in Ramallah are keenly aware of the violence around them. Before Evans arrived, one of the members of the graduating class was killed while participating in an anti-occupation rally.

“To hear of that was really, really painful, to think that someone would have killed one of these students,” Evans said. “Three teenage boys were killed that day, and the students posted photos memorializing the boys on Facebook. Some of the photos were taken at the time that the students were killed and were a little graphic. I have to wonder how seeing the life of one’s classmate taken as if it means nothing affects the self-worth of these children. I have to wonder what kind of anger it fosters, what sorts of resentments?”

Evans said increasing the students’ empathy for the humanity of those around them is the best way to combat this anxiety and anger. Through the strife and political friction, these students of different faiths live and learn together. “The Muslims that graduate from here know that the stereotypes of Christians that they see portrayed on Al Jazeera and CNN are not the norm,” he said.

“What could be a better source of reconciliation in the world, especially amidst the violence,” asked Evans, “than Muslims and Christians growing up together, eating lunch together, and playing on the same soccer teams?”

Peace and reconciliation have always informed Evans’ call to the priesthood. Before coming to the School of Theology he worked with conflict resolution in churches and always felt God guiding him through those scenarios—scenarios that Evans describes as the “seed” of this trip.

“I had come from a parish that had been in conflict in the last decade, and so I thought it would be interesting to go to an area that is known for conflict to learn more about how the Palestinian church is functioning and how it is modeling, in some small way, peace and reconciliation,” he said.

That’s exactly the stories his pictures tell. As he makes his way through them each one sparks a memory, some tragic like the one of a fallen classmate remembered at the graduation ceremony, and some joyful, like Christian and Muslim staff members, best friends, standing arm in arm.

And then he comes to another image of the students he met and he smiles wide as he remembers what he learned from them.

“They welcomed me and fed me,” he said, “there’s just so much joy and love to be shared.”