The Words of the Cutts Family
A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
(Rev. Cutts is the Regional Director of the American Family Coalition in five Southeastern states. He is also the Co-chairman of the American Clergy Leadership Conference of Georgia. He and his wife, Angelika, reside in Marietta, Georgia with their three sons and daughter. He recently served as the Continental Coordinator for the Seventh IIFWP Pilgrimage to Israel from September 9 – 23, 2004.)
Have you ever wondered how John the Baptist survived in the desert eating locusts and honey? I bet you thought he ate insects and dined on honey comb. Well, I thought so too, until the Seventh IIFWP (Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace) pilgrimage to Israel in September, 2004. On that trip I learned that his honey was date honey crushed from dates, and that the flour for his bread came from grinding the bean of the locust tree. Yes, a personal visit to the Holy Land can dispel misconceptions.
And there are many false ideas about Israel. For example, I visited a church last year in Georgia where the sermon was about Jesus speaking to his Disciples on the Mount of Olives. The preacher knew that the Mount of Olives was well over a mile from the Temple Mount, so he suggested that Jesus and the Disciples could not see the Temple. If Jesus were speaking in Georgia, the preacher would have been correct: There you generally cannot see anything a mile away from you, because hills and trees block your view. But in Jerusalem, a deep valley, known as the Kedron, runs between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount. With no large trees to block their view, Jesus and the Twelve could have easily seen the Second Temple. A visit to the Holy Land would have dispelled the preacher’s misconception.
Five hundred North American Ambassadors for Peace did visit Israel in September 2004. Their two week trip was a time of wonder and discovery. We represented the faiths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism and included clergy, elected officials, representatives from fifteen Native American tribes, and community activists. This was the IIFWP’s seventh pilgrimage since May 2003. The earlier pilgrimages generally lasted a week and included approximately one hundred twenty participants. For this seventh pilgrimage, though, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the IIFWP, instructed every continent to bring 500 Ambassadors for Peace to the Israel for two weeks. Every continent was assigned its own two-week period between August and November, 2004.
North America’s first week, overlapped with Europe’s last week. When the 500 North Americans were joined by the 500 Europeans we represented over 40 nations. With our national flags unfurled, the Native Americans dressed in their full regalia, and the clergy in the clerical vestments, we made quite a spectacle. Through our activities with both Jews and Muslims, barriers between people were broken down, and misconceptions and distrust were scattered.
Our Middle East Peace Initiative has become well known throughout Israel. Total strangers often greeted members of our group with, "Peace, Shalom, ‘Salaam Aliakum, Pray for Peace in the Middle East". This is our trademark song. In one village, two buses were slowed to a standstill by a Muslim wedding procession. The celebrants waved to us, inviting us to join the festivities. Rev. Mike Jenkins, the U.S. President of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification joined the dancing, and one of the
Palestinians lifted Rev. Jenkins up and carried him on his shoulders. It was amazing to see him being carried alongside the bride and the groom. In another incident, a Jewish wedding was being held in our own hotel. Several of us were invited to attend. When the Marriage Blessing was explained to the host family, they invited us to pour the Holy Wine into the punch bowl, so that everyone in the wedding party could receive the Blessing.
The mainstream media in America has created the image that Israel is a dangerous place with suicide bombings and anti-American sentiment among the Arabs. Can you imagine the apprehension several Ambassadors for Peace felt one afternoon when they were walking in Jerusalem? A small car came screeching to a halt in front them, and several Palestinian men piled out of the car and ran toward them. The startled Ambassadors were pleasantly surprised when the men bowed to the ground, and exclaimed, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, for coming to Israel." In one small village, our group was recognized, and the driver of a passing car asked hopefully, "Is Rev. Michael Jenkins here, in my town?"
Rev. Moon’s vision of bringing thousands of people from all over the world to Israel is having a profound effect on the country. Not only are we helping the economy, but the people are no longer feeling isolated. During each pilgrimage an IIFWP delegation goes into the Gaza Strip. We do this against the dire warnings from the U.S. Consulate. Both Muslims and Jews recognize that we are willing to risk our lives to bring peace to the Middle East.
We reach out to people on both sides of the conflict. Israelis and Palestinians know that they have friends outside Israel who genuinely care about them. On each pilgrimage we meet with top officials in the Israeli Knesset, and with top officials in the Palestinian Authority. And we bring old enemies together. The growing level of trust and compassion was demonstrated at a recent banquet. At one of the tables, a Palestinian leader expressed his anguish for the plight of the people of Gaza. The Jewish leader sitting beside him, said he, too, wanted to bring an end to that suffering. In that moment these two men realized that they had come to trust each other, and were genuinely brothers. The imam remarked, "This is the only movement that can heal the hearts between enemies." As a token of this new level of friendship and trust, the Muslim embraced two Jewish members of the Knesset and took them to the stage where they lifted each other’s hand in a sign of victory.
Our September pilgrimage consisted of three separate activities. We went sightseeing all over Israel, and to the Palestinian West Bank. We held six huge reconciliation events. And we visited Israeli and Palestinian homes in our "outreach" project.
Sightseeing included visits to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem where we recalled the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We used as many as 22 buses for the 1,000 North Americans and Europeans. Each person was assigned to a bus, and generally stayed with that same group of people, driver and tour guide for the entire two weeks. Our mornings began at 5 am with prayer and readings from Rev. Moon’s speeches. After breakfast each bus departed for a different place in Israel. Frequently a number of buses would gather for lunch, and then continue with their separate tours in the afternoon.
Some of us were baptized in the Jordan River, others offered prayers at the site where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, and we viewed the desolate ruins of Capernaum, the town Jesus cursed. From atop Mount Carmel we overlooked the sparkling harbor of Haifa. We also strolled through the ancient Arab seaport of Akoo. We floated on the Dead Sea, buoyed by its salty waters, and smeared our bodies with its healing, black mud. We also frolicked in the surf of the Mediterranean. We dined in Jericho, and sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We prayed at the Western Wall, the most sacred site for Jews, and at the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims.
Whenever the North American, European and Israeli Ambassadors for Peace gathered together, we had a readymade rally of over 1,200 people. Together we conducted six major events. The first was a Candle Light Vigil in the heart of Jerusalem on the anniversary of September 11, 2001. This spectacular event, with flags from 40 nations, was held in front of the U.S. Consulate. As a finale doves of peace were released. A Jerusalem newspaper published a photograph of our rally, and our event was the lead story in an article about four or five 9/11 programs.
The next day we held a repentance ceremony at the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, "Yad Vashem". During this solemn occasion, a thousand European and American Christians and Muslims repented to representatives of Judaism. "If we Christians had demonstrated the love of Jesus to our Jewish brothers and sisters, the murder of Jews in Nazi Germany would never have occurred."
Our third big event was a rally in a Palestinian town being divided by the "Security Wall." We prayed that mistrust and hatred would be resolved, and that the barriers that divided people, not only this physical wall, would tumble down. The fourth event was a Peace March through the Old City of Jerusalem. We offered prayers at Christian shrines, at the Western Wall, and at the Al Aqsa Mosque. At the Mosque, or more correctly, the Masjid, the Grand Mufti came out to greet us.
The fifth event was conducted by the Women’s Federation for World Peace. A beautiful Bridge of Peace Ceremony was held at a site overlooking the Walled City of Jerusalem and the golden Dome of the Rock. With this backdrop, Muslim, Jewish and Christian women were paired in bonds of sisterhood. Tears were shed in this joyous celebration of life. Our final combined program was a Cultural Event at the Jerusalem center for performing arts. Over three thousand Christians, Muslims and Jews celebrated the Jewish New Year with a toast, and a bite of apple dipped in honey. The event featured the singer, David D’Or, who awed the audience with his incredible range of voice. We were so thoroughly enjoying each other that the singer and the audience did not want the concert to end. He sang three encores: The last one after his orchestra had left the stage.
Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, making new friends and participating in the rallies made the pilgrimage a rich experience. But our "outreach" project, made this tour exceptional. We went door to door in Muslim and Jewish neighborhoods, and shared our interfaith message of peace and hope.
Each pilgrimage had it own special feature. In May 2003, the ACLC held its first pilgrimage. I was privileged to participate in that landmark event when the Jerusalem Declaration was signed. On the first day of the tour, we visited the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. I left the museum very disturbed, because I was beginning to understand the involvement of Christians throughout history in the systematic persecution Jews.
At the end of the May tour, we held an interfaith conference where five Christians and five Jews sat at each table. During a discussion, I apologized to the Jewish leaders at my table for the way Christians have treated Jews. Imagine my surprise when the Jewish attorney sitting next to me at first said in jest, "Tom, I accept your repentance." But then more seriously admitted, "History would have been very different if Jesus had not been mistreated by the Jewish authorities of his day. They never should have handed him over to the Romans to be killed." What an incredible admission. We were beginning to engage in a very profound dialogue.
During my second trip to Israel in December 2003, I led the first Peace Task Force of 120 Peace Ambassadors from America, and Europe. Along with 120 Japanese volunteers we were preparing for the December 22nd Interfaith Peace Rally. In teams of four and five, we visited nearly every mosque, synagogue, kibbutz, and community center in Israel. We met with the imams and rabbis inviting them to the rally. We had many powerful experiences where we felt God’s presence and His guidance, and we were touched by His longing to embrace every person with His love.
We also felt a profound sense of urgency with our mission. While five million Jews suffered torture and annihilation during the Holocaust, we sensed that if we failed our mission in this time of the Second Coming, perhaps five hundred million people would suffer due to our failure. Can you imagine our joy on the day of the rally, when 20,000 Christian, Muslims and Jews gathered in the heart of Jerusalem and pledged to work together for peace? We really felt that Heaven had accepted our offering.
During the December 2003 rally, we conducted an unprecedented ceremony of reconciliation. Muslim imams respectfully presented a Menorah to Jewish leaders. And Christian and Jewish leaders presented the imams a robe of Authority for Muhammad. And finally, Jewish leaders placed a crown on a chair for Jesus, recognizing him as the King of Peace. Many of us were in tears as Jesus was publicly acknowledged among his own people, and finally welcomed home. "Welcome home, Jesus."
The six earlier pilgrimages laid an incredible foundation for the September tour, when we visited people right in their homes. One bus load of Ambassadors for Peace celebrated the Jewish New Year in the home of the Chief Rabbi of Haifa. He and his wife were wonderfully gracious. Both have worked tirelessly for interfaith cooperation and peace. Another bus load visited the Jerusalem home of Sheik Bukhari. He is the descendant of the world renowned Islamic scholar who compiled some of the Islamic texts. The Bukhari house is in the Old City of Jerusalem and dates back fourteen hundred years. It has been in their family for four hundred years.
Another bus visited the home of Abu Hatoum, an Eastern Catholic priest, who lives in Nazareth with his wife and family. He has been persecuted for his involvement with IIFWP, but he has stood strong, and the climate is now changing. Something really extraordinary happened to this minister at the end of 2003 while our Task Force was preparing for the December 22nd rally. He reported that, "This morning at 3:00 am, Rev. Moon came to my bed and woke me up. Rev. Moon told me, ‘The Peace Task Force members have come from America and Europe to help save your country. Why are you sleeping while they work?’" Immediately, Father Hatoum got out of his bed, and left his house in Nazareth without waking his wife. He made the two hour drive to Jerusalem, in time to join us for our 5:00 am prayer and reading.
On another day, two bus loads of Ambassadors went north to Mount Carmel to visit the home of Sheik Ali Barani. He is a leader of the Druze faith. This same group visited the masjid of Imam Kiwan outside Haifa. Parts of his mosque are a thousand years old. Inside the beautifully carpeted worship area, the Imam instructed us in the meaning Islamic ritual and prayer. This same group of Ambassadors also visited the church established by Christian peace activist Abu Chacour in Ibillin. He is a Palestinian Christian Israeli who, with international support, founded a University for Muslims, Jews and Christians. Today, he provides instruction for three thousand students. Two other buses went south to Dimona in the Negev Desert to visit the African Hebrew Israelites. Many of the African American pastors were encouraged to see this self-sufficient community established by blacks who had come from America. Earlier this year Rabbi ben Ami and the African Hebrew Isrealites celebrated receiving their permanent residence status.
These group visits were exciting, but a real highlight of the tour was going door to door in both Muslim and Jewish neighborhoods. We went in groups of three or four. Our unannounced visits were met with unexpected hospitality. Our hosts were eager to share their food, their drink, and their lives with us. In one Jewish home, the son gave us a piano recital. And in a Muslim home, several Ambassadors had the opportunity to help prepare lamb stuffing for an Arab dish. On another day, two bus loads of Ambassadors went to Bethlehem and in groups of four or five, had lunch in Palestinian homes. Barriers came down, and understanding and trust blossomed.
This September tour was the seventh IIFWP pilgrimage. We felt like Joshua and his army as he circled Jericho seven times. When those ancient Hebrews blew their trumpets, the walls of the city came tumbling down. This was our seventh pilgrimage to "circle" Israel, and truly walls were coming down. Many of the misconceptions we had before we came to Israel were corrected. We forged relationships of genuine trust and compassion, and with sadness we had leave Israel. When we first arrived, we were greeted with "welcome home," and in a very real sense, the people and the land had become like our second home. Many of us left knowing that we would soon return, and continue in the effort to bring peace to the Middle East.
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