K.C. educator recalls beauty, wonder, sadness of Israel
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Walking through the international airport in Tel Aviv was like walking through an international airport in any large city. And then Kay Walkup stepped out of the airport into the sights and senses of the Middle East.
photo courtesy Kay Walkup
Photographs and memories of a trip to Israel: A visiting American nun talks with an Arab-Christian woman in Makable, a predominately Muslim village near Nazareth where the Christians are building a church.
"At noon I heard the sound of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer," she said. "I smelled the spices used in cooking. I saw white buildings, blue skies, lots of flowers, and the desert in the distance. I heard people talking in many languages. It was a real melting pot."
But not a pot about to boil over.
Walkup, dean of academics and mission director at Notre Dame de Sion High School, was invited by her friend, Mercy Sister Carol Rittner, to join a group of 15 religious and lay persons on a New Year's trip to Israel. Sister Rittner is Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, and has traveled to Israel several times. This particular trip was sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1971 to develop and foster good relations between the people of the two nations.
Walkup said her perception of Israel changed during her visit.
"Israel is a beautiful country," she said. "It's full of natural wonders, mountains, forests, deserts, both salt and fresh water bodies. And it's full of people wonders, ancient villages and towns and families with children being educated.
"The media would have us believe that the country is in total chaos," she said. "We only hear about car bombings, suicide bombers and security fences. We don't hear that terrorism has been reduced. We don't hear that Americans are welcomed here. I had no sense of hostility while I was in Israel. Why don't we see positives in the press?"
The week-long trip was chock-full of official meetings, tours and pre-arranged meetings with several families, but Walkup said she was able to visit most of the holy sites she hoped to see. One site that impressed her was at the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
"A portion of the grounds had been excavated and the floor of a gaming area was found. The sisters said it may be the site of Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate."
The convent is built on the site of the Ecce Homo Arch, where Jesus was condemned to death. "When I stopped to think that Jesus may have walked here, it really moved me," she recalled.
Much of the touring of Jerusalem's Old City was "a windshield tour," but she was able to visit the Western Wall, which includes the Wailing Wall, The Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. Walkup's group also took a short walking tour of the Old City's Jewish, Armenian and Arab quarters.
Later the group visited the Garden of Gethsemane. "It was a powerful experience, but sad. I looked down from the Mount of Olives into the garden. It was largely unchanged since Jesus' time. It hasn't become a tourist trap, I guess because of the emotional impact of what happened here."
From Jerusalem, the tour took her to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.
"Again, I felt no sense of hostility, even in the West Bank. Many Palestinian Christians were leaving their settlements and moving because of the political situation and the lack of civil rights in the West Bank. Maybe with the cease fire agreement that has been reached by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas they'll be able to return eventually," she said.
It was in Nazareth that she felt closest to Jesus, she said. "The terrain in Nazareth is basically the same as it was 2,000 years ago. I felt really close to Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth."
She visited Sde Boker, the Negev desert home of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, which local residents have been working to reclaim from the desert.
An afternoon spent with a Bedouin family left Walkup with "the sense that we are all created in the image of God." The family was in mourning for a soldier son who died in a Dec. 13, 2004, tunnel bombing attack on the Egypt-Gaza border. Six Israeli soldiers died in the attack.
"If I closed my eyes, I could swear I was talking to a family in Kansas City," Walkup recalled. "That family wanted the same things we want for our children: a home, enough to eat, a good education, and peace. Everyone wants peace. The father of the soldier who was killed asked me, 'Do all Americans think we're all terrorists?'"
"The press talks only of division and alienation. But if you go there, you see the face of God in the people you meet," she said.
The Golan Heights, scene of the 1967 Six-Day War, is the home of several Arab-Christian families who are in the process of building a church.