From the Midwest to the Middle East

Published 10:00 am Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Rev. Curtis Zieske of Trinity Lutheran Church in Albert Lea is planning a pilgrimage to the Middle East for this November. He said it’s a good opportunity to meet people who live there and who are affected by the current conflicts as well as learn about the history of Christianity and see holy sites.

“It’s an education thing as well as spiritual enrichment,” Zieske said. “It’s a place filled with unusual delights and things that are hard to describe.”

This will be Zieske’s sixth time going to the Middle East, and the fourth time he has brought a group with him. He also took a sabbatical there and attended a peace conference.

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“What I find is that once people have been over there and they experience the land of Jesus and the Bible for themselves their eyes are opened,” Zieske said.

He tries to make sure that it’s not a tourist trip, but that those who join him will get to see biblical sites as well as the people who live there.

“I like to introduce them around old city Jerusalem and Bethlehem to get a feel for the surroundings,” Zieske said. “I like to allow lots of free time so they can do exploring on their own. They’re free to discover and enter into conversations with people.”

He said most people speak English and are excited to talk to people from the United States. The neighborhoods are safe, and he encourages walking around looking at shops and bakeries.

“A typical comment I get coming away was that they felt safer over there than in some big cities in the U.S.,” Zieske said. “We take great care to travel in safe places.”

Zieske has room for 15 people to go on the trip with him. Only two spots are taken so far, and he hopes that he will be able to get local people to join. It will be a 13-day trip starting Nov. 4. There are plans to visit holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. There are also plans in the itinerary for free periods of exploration.

Persons interested in joining the pilgrimage can talk with Zieske. There will be an orientation with the travel guide before the trip and a gathering after the trip as well.

The Rev. Todd Walsh of Grace Lutheran Church in Albert Lea has accompanied Zieske on a pilgrimage before. He said one of his favorite things about the trip was the sense that the area was so small but that so many people of different religions visit there.

“I think Bethlehem was my favorite place to be because you had what is probably the oldest church in Christianity right in front of you and beneath you,” Walsh said.

He said the Church of the Nativity had sunk so the doorways were 4 feet tall. Most people duck their heads to walk in and naturally put their hand on the wall as they do it. So many people have visited that church that there’s a permanent dent in the wall where everyone touches as they walk through the doorway.

Zieske said that people he has taken on pilgrimages come back and have been affected by what they have seen.

“I think people should have that experience of travel in the holy land because it makes the Bible come alive,” Zieske said. “You don’t read the Bible the same way after you’ve been there because you can visualize these things.”

He said the people are welcoming and want to get to know visitors. Walsh said that though the area is in serious conflict he felt safe. He met new people and said that the stereotype of a typical Palestinian was proved false for him.

“I found they were gracious and glad to meet us and tell us their story,” Walsh said.