Local pastor makes Holy Land pilgrimage

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
When the Rev. Phil Hagen went to the Holy Land recently, it was a pilgrimage, not a tour, he says.
The difference? A pilgrimage is a slower-paced exploration, one allowing time for reflection.
Instead of simply seeing one holy site after another, Hagen and his fellow pilgrims had opportunities to pray at the sites as well as have worship and communion.
Hagen has been pastor at Unity Presbyterian Church in Woodleaf for almost two years.
The trip started out at Haifa, in Mt. Carmel, where the prophet Elijah is said to have challenged the prophets of Ba’al.
Hagen also visited Tabgha and Capernaum, where the feeding of the five thousand happened, as referenced in Mark 8. He visited the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Pool of Bethesda, the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
He saw the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, ancient Roman ruins and a place called Tel Megiddo, also known as Armageddon. Described by St. John in the book of Revelation, this site is where some believe the end of the world will take place.
One highlight for Hagen was meeting Elias Chacour, who is the Archimandrite in the Melkite Church in Israel. Chacour is an Arab Palestinian Christian who has worked tirelessly for peace and good relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He is the author of “Blood Brothers” and “We Belong to the Land.”
The site that affected Hagen most, he says, was the Wailing Wall, also called the Western Wall.
“To be able to pray at a spot that’s been around for thousands of years, that was a very special moment for me,” he said. “I felt very connected to God and also to the world.”
The Mount of Beatitudes was also inspiring to him. While he was there, he read Matthew, chapters 5-7.
“It was special to be there, to read the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount while sitting there.”
He says that he was “surprised by the intensity of each day” of the pilgrimage.
One thing that was eye-opening was realizing how connected the people are to the land — and also becoming aware of how space is at a tremendous premium in Israel.
The Jews and Palestinians, of course, have competing claims on the land, and Hagen says that he prays for both groups, since he believes it’s important to show solidarity with both the Jews and Palestinians.
“As an outsider coming in, it’s important to show unity with our brothers and sisters, no matter what their faith,” he says.
Hagen feels that one important thing he got from the trip is perspective.
Seeing places where Jesus walked, and where his ministry occurred, and seeing how close together everything is made an impression on Hagen.
At its widest point, Israel is only about 90 miles wide and perhaps 200 miles long, he said.
He was struck by how gracious and helping people were.
“People went so much out of their way to help us,” he explained.
The pilgrimage helped to strengthen him as a person, he says, and not just a minister in a church.
Hagen took the two-week trip in March as part of a program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. It was the culmination of the Certificate in Spiritual Formation program.
The focus of the program is on personal and group faith development, Hagen says.
“The hope is after you get certified, you’ll be able to facilitate Sunday school classes (and) retreats,” he says.
The idea is to help people grow in their faith, he says, and to connect heart, mind and soul.
He finished the pilgrimage with a sense of how important it is to be connected.
“It’s easy in the United States to be disconnected to the rest of the world,” he says.
But the world is a lot smaller than we think it is, he says, and “it’s the connectedness of people that matters” — and not just to technology or our wallets.
Jesus, he says, charged us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that applies even when our neighbors are half a world away, he says.
We need to “speak with and not over” others, he says.
“It’s important for Americans to be connected to the world and show love.”