Janara Walker, 30, wanted her first-ever visit to the Holy Land to be about giving, not receiving. So last October she and 11 other members of the non-denominational Vineyard Columbus Church in Ohio flew to Israel and drove just over an hour to the Palestinian-ruled West Bank.
Once in Bethlehem, the group met up with the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that, among other things, recruits volunteers to assist Palestinian farmers during olive-picking season.
Covered in sunscreen to protect against the strong Middle Eastern sun, Walker and her friends spent most of their pilgrimage picking olives from about 8:30am until 3:30pm. During their free time, the Holy Land Trust arranged tours of Bethlehem — home to the Church of the Nativity and a Christian community dating back 2,000 years — and nearby Jerusalem, as well as other activities, some with a clearly pro-Palestinian political agenda.
“Every couple of days we went to a different family and worked alongside them picking olives,” said Walker, who has been volunteering in the Holy Land ever since. “The families told us about their lives in the West Bank and were filled with thankfulness.”
Most of the Palestinian farm families were Muslim, Wilson noted, reflecting the dwindling number of Christians in the Bethlehem region and the fact that most Christians are merchants or professionals.
Asked why she chose olive picking over a more traditional pilgrimage tour, Wilson said, “As a follower of Jesus, it was already in my heart to serve those in the Middle East and to build a relationship with those living in Palestine.”
She admitted that, prior to her arrival, “I thought Palestinians were terrorists. Now I know they’re human beings … and I have a greater heart for finding peaceful solutions between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Though their numbers are still small — probably a couple thousand per year — a growing number of Christian pilgrims have begun to avail themselves of opportunities to harvest and glean produce in the Holy Land, just as the Bible dictates.
In Leviticus 19:9-10, the Lord says to Moses: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien.”
For decades Christians, especially from Germany, have volunteered on kibbutzes — Israeli collective farms — for months at a time, in part to make amends for their countries’ role in the Holocaust. More recently, Holy Land Trust began offering social-justice-based experiences that attract Christian groups, among others.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in Beit Jala, a village near Bethlehem, said that volunteers not only help local farmers, but “also see the reality on the ground and can then go back home and share what they’ve learned.” He noted that the number of volunteers “is small” and expressed the hope that more Christians, including Catholics, will take part in this unique way to experience the Holy Land.
Outreach to Christians
Leket Israel, Israel’s largest food bank, relies on more than 40,000 volunteers annually, including many tourists, for harvesting, food rescue and meal preparation. Each year, the national nonprofit rescues 700,000 meals (from restaurants and caterers) and 21 million pounds of produce and perishable goods. It also supplies 1.25 million volunteer-prepared sandwiches to underprivileged children and food to nearly 300 nonprofit institutions that feed the poor.
Leket provides food to all sectors of Israeli society, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Volunteers, either as individuals or in groups, are welcome to work, free of charge, from a few hours to a few days — season and weather permitting.
Joseph Gitler, Leket’s founder and chairman, said the organization actively began to reach out to Christian pilgrims five years ago, first because of their heartfelt desire to connect with the land and also because the majority of visitors to the Holy Land are Christian.
“When it comes to the fields, we rely on volunteers, and we need masses of people,” Gitler said.
Both Christians and Jews are drawn to the fields, Gitler said, “because there is a biblical commandment for farmers to give to the poor. This is a biblical imperative people can do today, in modern times, in the Holy Land.”
Raymond MacDonald, the Canada-based director of Christian Friends of Leket, said Christian pilgrims are usually “shocked” to learn that Israel has a great deal of poverty and food insecurity — the inability to consistently consume healthy food.
While no one in Israel is starving, he said, vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly poor, sometimes have to decide between a meal or filling a prescription.
When Christians discover the situation, “they want to help,” MacDonald said.
Volunteering with Leket is also an opportunity to meet Jewish Israelis, MacDonald noted.
“Millions of Christians come to Israel and don’t meet a Jew, except for their tour guide. Through the centuries, Christians and Jews have had their differences, to put it mildly. If there’s one thing that unites us, it’s the Judeo-Christian ethic to help the poor.”
Outgrowth of Faith
Those who specifically want to assist Israel’s Christian Arab community can do so on a pilgrimage organized by the Christian Holy Land Foundation, an American nonprofit dedicated to “proclaim[ing] the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the Holy Land and its surrounding areas.”
The Indiana-based foundation, which is an outgrowth of the Independent Christian Church, works with “Arab believers” in the Galilee.
“Picking olives is a way to bring economic value to the local believers while providing a ‘work project’ to the pilgrims in the midst of their pilgrimages,” explained John Samples, the executive director. “Even our Jewish tour guide and our Muslim bus driver participate in the picking.”
Samples said his ministry had been searching “for several years” for a type of “mission trip” that would meet the needs of local believers.
Most grassroots church efforts revolve around building cars or medical clinics, Samples said, “and the people of Israel simply do not need these things.” Picking olives “was a way to bring economic value to the local believers while providing a ‘work project’ to the pilgrims in the midst of their pilgrimages.”
In addition to the actual assistance mission members provide, it is also “a great way to teach about the spiritual significance of the olives and olive oil in the biblical perspective. This led to some very nice moments in other parts of Israel as well, as the practical and metaphorical significances continued to be apparent.”
Janara Walker, who stayed on in the Holy Land following her time as an olive picker, said she has shared her love of Christ not through proselytizing, but through example.
Said Walker, “My service is an outgrowth of my faith.”
Register correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.