Ellen Wood and Pastor Ron Gregg in Israel. photo provided
By Becca Pelham
In a three-month journey of renewal, exploration, adventure and education, Pastor Ron Gregg and his wife, Ellen Wood, found a refreshing commitment to peace and understanding in many ethnic cultures and people from a wide variety of world religions and lifestyles.
Their adventures found them invited to a Hindu wedding in Bali, sipping tea in the home of a Muslim carpet store owner in Turkey and walking the 40-mile "Jesus Walk" in Galilee.
"Visiting these historic places makes you think about tolerance and respect towards others instead of prejudice and lack of understanding," said Pastor Gregg. "Everywhere we went in Muslim regions, individuals assured us that they like Americans, that they aren't like the extremists."
The couple were on a sabbatical journey sponsored by The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program, which seeks to give pastors a rejuvenating break from the responsibilities of day-by-day duties to their parishioners and faith communities. They traveled in Thailand, Bali, Israel and Turkey.
"Everywhere we traveled, people went out of their way to help," Wood said, "and the most hospitable were the Turkish citizens. We would take out a map, someone would notice and come over to assist with directions."
She was speaking mostly about Eastern Turkey, which is lightly populated, more conservative and nearly all Muslim.
"Turkey is a very secular Muslim nation, with about 80 percent of the population quite liberal," Pastor Gregg said.
In Thailand and Bali, Pastor Gregg experienced a simple willingness by Buddhist and Hindu leaders to discuss their religions and their communities.
Gregg and Wood were included in many ritualistic ceremonies. Wood was very pleased to have received a blessing from a Hindu priest in a large gathering and seeing the rituals of a brilliantly colorful Hindu wedding.
Gregg and Wood visited historical sites with most of their destinations planned around archaeology and history of religious significance.
In Thailand and Bali, they were struck by the beauty of the temples and gardens in the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) protected shrines. They had access to a remote Thai region where they stayed four days in a house on stilts and spent one afternoon picking leeches off their legs after a hike through the landscape. It helped to laugh their way through that adventure, but the setting was so stunningly beautiful that the leeches didn't change their enthusiasm.
Gregg, who had visited Israel in 1985, was impressed by how much had changed.
"It is apparent that they deal with diversity by segregation," he said. "They live in intentional communities, all Christian, all Palestinian or all Jewish neighborhoods. The borders of these are well demarcated with walls and wire."
The Israeli sophistication in a tourist economy was also breathtaking, with technology helping visitors understand from a nearly hands-on relationship. Holograms of Roman soldiers, St. Paul, and King David appeared at sites to explain noted periods of history, along with computer images of the topography of that particular site.
"The common line is that if you own a home in Israel, there is an historical archeological site beneath it," said Wood. "Everything is so historical. There are so many stories in the landscape."
The community of Neve Shalom, an experiment in promoting peace between people of varied religions, was quite a contrast to the general separation of cultures. The community has shared classrooms where both Jewish and Muslim cultures are taught, and everyone lives in respect of their religions and commonality, as they learn by example and education from the time they are children.
"Interestingly, the biggest challenge in Neve Shalom is in getting government support for infrastructure or other projects, yet the people there manage to stay focused on the sense of community," Gregg said.
The couple agree that possibly the greatest personal experience was on the five-day, 40-mile Jesus Walk in Galilee from Nazareth to Capernaum.
"It certainly helped us understand the tradition of washing feet," Gregg said, chuckling. In support, Wood stated that the landscape was sometimes difficult, dusty and often muddy. When they arrived at a destination, removing shoes and showering were the first order of business.
At night, they stayed in host homes, much like bed-and-breakfasts, in which they were fed, slept, and met very interesting natives. Many of the villages through which they traveled and stayed had populations of about 25 residents. Wood's favorite stop-over was in the "mansion" of a fascinating Palestinian Christian woman, whose stories of family history held her attention into the night.
"We learned what it is to be dependent on the hospitality of strangers," Wood said.
That has been the way of life for centuries in that region. The average 12-miles-a-day were challenging, even for a couple for whom hiking is a favorite activity. Their group of 12 shared communion one day at a scenic viewpoint before they descended its sheer rock face.
Greater still was personally experiencing the journey that Jesus made multiple times, in his 40-mile range of life that changed the whole world.
Pastor Gregg will begin a series of discussions and photos on Sunday, October 13, at 4 p.m. at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, 386 N. Fir St. in Sisters. The first topic will be Israel's archeology and history. The public is welcome to attend, with the option to stay for a potluck dinner that will follow the discussion.