How Their Holy Land Trip Fostered Peace and Goodwill

A fleeting interaction involving a Christian grandmother, a Muslim grandmother, a Jewish mother and an adopted girl in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Posted in , Oct 1, 2021

An illustration of three doves perched on tree branches; ILLUSTRATION BY LUCY CARTWRIGHT

Winter 2020 in Jerusalem’s Old City almost felt like a homecoming for my husband, Michael, and me. It was my third trip to the Holy Land, his fifth. We had returned to one of our favorite guesthouses along the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus is said to have taken on his way to Calvary. We watched crowds of pilgrims from around the world walk in his steps on the cobblestone streets lined with the stations of the cross that commemorated his journey and his suffering.

Built in the 1800s, the guesthouse was run by a small community of Christians with occasional help from the guests themselves. The rooftop terraces of the honey-colored Jerusalem-stone building overlooked the skyline with its gold domes and crosses. Distant hilltop gardens bloomed with olive trees and date palms. The air rang with the sounds of church bells, pilgrims singing in the streets and muezzins calling Muslims to prayer.

Mike and I felt God’s presence on the Via Dolorosa. Over the years, though, we had become increasingly aware of the region's deep religious divisions. Amid the political strife and violence that made the headlines, it could be hard to remember that Jesus’ birth in nearby Bethlehem was heralded with the words “Peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind.”

One morning I was pitching in at the reception desk, my favorite place to serve. It was where I’d met Malika, a Muslim Palestinian who lived in Jerusalem and worked at the guesthouse part-time. She was kind and gracious and full of stories. Both grandmothers, we’d made an instant connection and become friends.

The reception desk was in the vaulted stone lobby. All day it resounded with tours of pilgrims who came to see all that the building had to offer.

Chatting with Malika that morning, I noticed a little girl making her way through the lobby toward us. She was adorable, wearing a purple coat, pink scarf and knit hat. She appeared to be alone.

She parked herself in front of the desk and eyed a rack of postcards. A little hand reached forward and plucked down a postcard. The girl gazed wide-eyed at the card, then reached for another.

“Is your mommy or daddy here?” I asked, looking around to see if I could spot the girl’s parents.

Just then, a woman wearing a tour guide badge entered the lobby. She surveyed the room, and I saw her relief upon spotting the little girl.

The girl noticed her too, smiled and held up the postcard for her to see.

The tour guide, who was Israeli, spoke gently to the girl in Hebrew, then said to Malika and me in English, “I hope my daughter is not bothering you. It’s her birthday, and I told her she could come to work with me.”

“How old are you?” I asked the girl.

“Eight,” she said after some prompting from her mother.

Malika and I sang “Happy Birthday,” as grandmothers do.

“Please keep the postcard as a gift,” I said. “What’s your name?”

The girl turned shy. “Sappir,” said her mother. “It means ‘sapphire.’ We adopted her from Russia when she was 10 months old. Her older brother picked her name because he said his little sister would be like a jewel for him.”

“What a beautiful name,” I said. “May we take a picture together?”

I came around to the other side of the reception desk and sat on a bench with Sappir and her mother. Sappir rested her head on my shoulder. Malika held up my cell phone to frame the shot.

I realized this was a moment that could happen nowhere else. We were in one of the holiest sites in all of Christendom. A crossroads of the world. Here we were together: a Christian grandmother, a Muslim grandmother, a Jewish mother and a girl adopted from far away.

Sappir, her mother and I pressed in close. I put my arm around Sappir. We smiled for the photograph, all of us united in a happy celebration.

“Thank you for the postcard,” said the tour guide.

“Happy birthday,” Malika and I said to Sappir. Mother and daughter said goodbye to us, and off they went to rejoin the tour group.

I wouldn’t forget that amidst upheaval anywhere in the world, the words that heralded Jesus’ birth remain true. God continues to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind, even in our most fleeting interactions.

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