Clayton Hardiman Chronicle Staff Writer
February 2, 2001
They meant to trace the steps of shepherds, prophets, warriors and kings. They were going to stride into the pages of the Bible itself. But when they arrived in Israel, the Rev. John Grostic and the Rev. Glenn Wagner, both pastors of Muskegon-area churches, found the territory full of surprises — and the footing unsure.
In a sense, they were swimming against the tide. Tourists, frightened by a media portrayal of a land in tumult, have been staying away in droves. But Grostic and Wagner were determined to keep their appointment with history.
They had signed up with Jerusalem University College for an on-site course in Bible study. They had watched and read the news accounts of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They had a fairly informed opinion of what they were walking into.
“But the appetite to grow in faith is compelling,” Wagner wrote in his Holy Land Diary, his daily journal of the trip.
Grostic and Wagner are pastors of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Community United Methodist Church, respectively.
Via the air waves, Grostic and Wagner bring the Bible into West Michigan homes. Each week, on their local cable program “Sunday’s Lessons,” they explore a passage from the Common Lectionary. Along with a weekly guest, they laugh, talk and explore scripture.
This was a chance to visit the Bible up close and personal.
Their journey was supposed to take them up and down the length of Israel, “the Bible in one hand, a map in the other,” Wagner said. It would conclude with a visit to Qatar, an emirate along the Arabian Gulf, where the Lebanese ambassador is an old college friend of Wagner’s.
It didn’t happen quite that way.
In the wilderness, Wagner fell and badly broke his leg. Before returning home, he stayed in a Jerusalem hospital ward, making friends and sharing insights with a diverse group of roommates.
And Grostic, separated from his friend and colleague, formed new relationships.
Now they are back in West Michigan. Wagner moves about gingerly on crutches when he isn’t keeping his right leg elevated.
Both got an education they hadn’t bargained for.
Paths of righteousness
As you travel east from Jerusalem, the terrain is transformed. Elevations plunge dramatically. The climate is drier, the land more desolate. The hard-scrabble limestone shifts under the feet.
It was there that an instructor made reference to the 23rd Psalm. Specifically he talked about the phrase “paths of righteousness.” It refers to solid ground, he said.
That was just before Wagner fell and broke his leg.
“I strayed from the paths of righteousness,” Wagner quipped.
He can laugh about it now. At the time, he was maneuvering for one more photograph of the famous St. Georges Monastery when his legs went out from under him.
His right leg landed on jagged rock and snapped in two places.
“My ankle felt like jelly,” Wagner said.
It happened less than a mile from the legendary setting of one of Jesus’ most famous parables.
“It occurred to me that I could identify with the fellow in the Good Samaritan parable, who was beaten by robbers and left for dead,” Wagner said.
At Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Wagner underwent surgery to repair his shattered leg. Doctors inserted four screws into the leg, from knee to ankle.
“Lying on my back, I learned a lot more about the healing texts in the New Testament,” Wagner said.
And he found his own group of Samaritans. He shared a ward with three Jews and two Palestinians.
“We were all in the hospital with broken bones,” Wagner said. “You learn that you can’t survive without each other.”
In the polyglot of Hebrew, Arabic and English, Wagner said, “there were enough language skills in the room for me to communicate with everybody. I felt like the dumb one — I spoke only one language.”
Translating for each other, speaking up for each other and sharing food and drink, they quickly formed a bond. “We had a wonderful conversation about what was going on,” Wagner said.
“We decided collectively that the way to bring peace in the Middle East was to ban CNN and to confine everybody in Israel to a hospital where they would have to depend on each other.”
Land torn by conflict
Grostic is still meditating on the land, its majesty and its significance.
“It changes my perspective to stand at Miggido and look over the Jezreel Valley,” he said. “Honestly, whether that is all that important, I’m not sure.
“A lot of the struggle today is a continuing sense of the importance of the land. But there’s something much more important there than a piece of dirt. I think we forget that too easily.”
What is evident is the Holy Land’s history and culture. Grostic, who continued the course after Wagner’s departure, visited the remnants of Herod the Great’s massive construction projects. He looked down on the land from the plateau fortress of Masada.
Along with the “deep, rich history of the land,” Grostic said he got an impression of the conflict that continues there. “Both Glenn and I made the comment that the Israelis have won,” he said.
Israeli construction proceeds at impressive rates, Grostic said. Israeli settlements continue to grow and dominate, even in occupied areas.
“You get the sense that Israel is occupying the land,” Grostic said. “It’s hard to see how that can be reversed. You have these wealthy Israeli settlements looking down on poor Bedouin communities.”
Under the mounting toll of violence, the land, the people and the tourist trade have all taken hits.
“It has resulted in about a 90 percent drop in tourism,” Wagner said.
As a result, their group had many of the historic sites to themselves. “We were the only tour bus in Bethlehem,” Wagner said.
“We were the only group in the Church of the Sepulcher,” Grostic said. “It’s been devastating for the economy.”
Israelis blame international news agencies, Wagner said. They say news accounts turn inconsequential events into international incidents, reinforcing the picture of Israel as a land of border-to-border violence.
Even Wagner, in an early diary entry, had referred to Israel as “a place where barbed wire is a national flower.”
In a sense, though, the danger was part of the lure. “I was aware of the potential risk,” Grostic said. “But there’s something about risk that has always excited me.”
Besides, it’s not as if America is completely at peace. “There are parts of our own country where I would be careful about going,” he said.
Wagner agreed. “The day I left, I read about a shooting in Muskegon,” he said.