I grew up attending various Bible and Baptist churches. We were never an every-Sunday church family, but we were fairly active and integrated in the thick tradition of church. My faith transitioned from something I learned from my parents to a kind of fundamentalism in high school, partly thanks to a Bible study I attended and somewhat because of my own extreme interpretations of my faith.
Then one day I was with family friends in the backseat of a suburban en route to Family Camp, a church gathering in Colorado. I remember reading the first book of the apocalyptic series called Left Behind. The novel introduced a character — a pastor, I believe — who wasn’t taken in the rapture because his faith wasn’t real. He thought he was a believer, but it was an act. He had too many doubts. Something like that.
If that sort of idea couldn’t entirely rupture my impressionable little Christian teenager faith, nothing could. I had a crisis of faith, which in hindsight may actually just have been God knocking me off my pedestal. At that point I’d become a bit of a holier than thou, “show-off” Christian.
But from that point on I struggled with my faith. Still had it, but had a lot more doubt and uncertainty.
I got to know myself a lot better in my college years. No more fundamentalism, though I still struggled with a lot of engrained judgments. I still struggle. It’s hard.
At 28 I moved to Taiwan, a country of a very different culture and religion. It helped cement my own beliefs, and I realized I wanted to love others wholly, no matter their belief system. My faith became realer to me, and I decided my goal was just to help others see what Christianity — my version of faith in God — looked like.
I was living Stateside again at 30. Two years later, the idea crept into my head: Jesus was 33 (ish) when he was crucified. What if I went to Jerusalem at that same age? What a spiritual trip that would be!
Then I was 33. Then another couple of years passed. Every once in a while I’d check flights, but always took other trips. It just never felt pressing. In 2019, though, at 37, I suddenly felt really drawn to Jerusalem.
Over a series of events that strike others as silly (understandably) and me as signs, I felt like I was supposed to go. One October morning I found a good fare. I found a good place to stay. I texted my sister and mom, essentially asking for permission. That afternoon, roughly one month before I was to leave, I booked my flight. It was a bit of a spur of the moment thing, and my heart was racing. I was excited and nervous and the adrenaline was pumping.
And I was going alone. After visiting 15 or so countries with friends or future friends, or at least knowing someone there, Jerusalem was going to be my first solo international trip.
I looped my dad in, then shared the news with a select handful of friends.
That day, October 8, 2019, was when I finally started researching this place I’d heard so much about and just booked a trip to. I knew its name, sure, but knew next to nothing otherwise. As I would come to find out, there was a lot to learn, and much of what I thought I knew was wrong or wildly incomplete.
I started with my trusty friend Google. Maps and articles and Wikipedia and scholarly stuff. I watched old documentaries on Amazon Prime: The Gates of Jerusalem and Temple. Searched around for information on Jesus’ birthplace, the Holy Church of Something, the Wailing Wall?, and religious sites that seemed to multiply every time I researched one.
I consulted an older book about world conflicts to start figuring out the Palestine and Israel conflict. Learned it wasn’t about which name was correct, but about where each of these nations started and ended. (That sentence could be the most basic explanation and heavily asterisked series of words I’ve ever written.) I learned that while it’s correct to say Tel Aviv is in Israel, Jerusalem is under contention for a number of reasons. As far as the UN is concerned, Jerusalem is half in Israel and half in the West Bank, with the Old City of Jerusalem being a part of the West Bank, or Palestine. This is one of the reasons why the decision to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem was so controversial.
(But oh boy is it more complex than that. I didn’t know just how much more until my first tour on my first full day, a dual-narrative tour of the Old City of Jerusalem that was led by an Israeli Jew (originally from London) and a Palestinian man.)
What fascinated me was learning that most of the locations deemed sacred around Israel and its neighbors have question marks. For example, the Wailing Wall, more accurately and properly named the Western Wall, is believed by most Jews and many others to be the last standing wall that was part of a temple complex. Just inside the area contained by the Western Wall and its siblings was the Holy of Holies, a sacred room where God lived on Earth. A number of Jews believe God is still there, and the Western Wall is the closest they can physically get to their creator.
There’s debate on the location of the original temple. The wall may actually be a remnant of a fort or something along those lines. The current Old City may not be the site of the two famous temples from ancient times. The First Temple was built by Solomon, then destroyed by the Babylonians. The Second Temple was built by Herod, but then “Roman forces led by Titus were finally victorious, razing Jerusalem to the ground (70 CE) and defeating the last Jewish outpost at Masada (73 CE). The total destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple was catastrophic for the Jewish people.” If it was razed, and the temple totally destroyed, would one large, imposing wall still stand?
There’s also debate on a number of sites where Jesus was. He may not have been crucified and entombed at the location marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (“sepulchre” means tomb). Was he born in Bethlehem at the site marked by the Church of the Nativity, or in Nazareth, an entirely different place?
There’s debate that the City of David, currently being excavated beyond the walls of the Old City, may actually hold more significance than the current, walled-in Old City.
Then there’s debate about — or, rather, staunch opposition to — giving archaeologists the ability to rummage around and figure this stuff out. An archaeologist trying to get permission to study these places is running a fool’s errand. Politics, traditions, and religion often steadfastly stand in the way of science. The act of preserving religion and worshipping God The Right Way is a righteous battle. Stand back, or you will be beaten.
Debate and questions don’t make faith incorrect. Faith is being comfortable with unanswered or unanswerable questions.
Learning about the incredible amount of debate in a place about the same size as New Jersey showed me that I needed to go on my trip without thinking I’d be able to stand in the exact location where Jesus did anything. There are places where he most likely was, but little is certain, and with Jerusalem’s history of razing and rising, we may never have the complete truth.
That gave me peace. I was ready to go and just learn. What I didn’t realize, thought, was just how much — and what — I was going to learn.