With God as Their Witness
From Armageddon to Mount Sinai, Western travelers confront the spiritual beliefs that divide them from the Muslim world, and one another

By Peter Perl
Sunday, August 21, 2005

In the cold 2 a.m. darkness of the Egyptian desert, heading up the craggy face of Mount Sinai, my large gray camel edged perilously close to a cliff, and I could see that it was a long drop to the rocks below. I was disoriented and a bit frightened by the jarring strides of this strange beast, which seemed jumpy and skittish because he was being occasionally whipped and yelled at by a Bedouin handler trailing our group. I really wanted off, but there was no turning back. Climbing higher for more than an hour, which seemed to take forever, we finally stopped and dismounted.

We then had to continue on foot on an even steeper, rockier climb that would take two more hours. It was exhausting, and surprisingly chilly for the desert. We were ascending to nearly 7,500 feet, and the air was thin. The winding path was packed with thousands of smoothed stones that had been laid down over the centuries by hermitic desert monks. The path seemed endless, particularly in the hazy moonlight, as we strived to reach the summit by sunrise. As I climbed, my legs were intermittently cramping, my breathing became labored, and my chest at times was pounding beyond my level of comfort. I had to stop, catch my breath, drink some water and rest a few minutes, maybe eight or 10 times. I am 55 years old, and, while I am in reasonable shape, it occurred to me that I could easily have a heart attack.

Perhaps it was because our group had already traveled to many holy sites in the Middle East, but I found myself uncharacteristically saying a prayer. Not a conventional prayer asking God to deliver me safely to the mountaintop; rather, it was a prayer acknowledging how small and humbled I felt -- how very easy it would be for me to make a single misstep and hurt myself horribly, or worse, simply die, just like that. There was something strangely liberating in admitting this, and so I rested and climbed, and rested and climbed. On this fabled mountain, as in life, one small step at a time. By 5 a.m., we were nearing the peak of Sinai or Jebel Musa, Arabic for "Mountain of Moses," believed to be the site where God, in a fiery appearance, delivered the Ten Commandments to the Jewish liberator.

At last, we were at the summit, along with hundreds of pilgrims from around the world who covered much of the mountaintop. Many were wrapped in blankets because they'd spent the night on Sinai, and they were speaking in many languages as we all awaited sunrise. Our group of 22 men and women gathered close together against the chill. We were an unusual collection: There were 14 Protestant seminarians whose upbringing and training encompassed much of Christianity -- Baptist, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, Christian Church, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Quaker and nondenominational. Accompanying them were six older lay people, including me. Then there was our tribal elder and leader, Max Miller, a 68-year-old biblical historian from Mississippi, who identifies himself as a "theist, with a vague sense of the divine." And there was our graceful, mountain-climbing Egyptian guide, a 28-year-old Muslim named Mohammed Shami.

We were exhausted but exhilarated as we huddled close. We were here thanks largely to the generosity of three Atlanta-based foundations that over 25 years have sent more than 600 future Protestant ministers and religious leaders on an intensive three-week study tour of the Holy Land called the Middle East Travel Seminar. METS is designed to give participants a deeper understanding of the Bible, but mostly to broaden their perspective of the peoples and beliefs outside of their own faiths. By now, after two weeks of traveling together, we made the pleasant small talk of people who become fast friends by living out of suitcases, sharing every meal, trading life stories and having spirited religious and political discussions. Our journey would span 24 days, about 15,000 miles, six countries and dozens of sites that are holy to the three major monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

By 5:30 a.m., the very first hint of pinkish light was beginning to suggest itself over the jagged peaks of the Sinai wilderness. We were eager for the majesty of sunrise on Sinai. But we were also freezing. "Where's the burning bush when you really need it?" said Manikka Bowman, a 26-year-old Georgian who is a pastor-in-training of the African Methodist Episcopal church. We snapped photo after photo after photo of the blossoming sky, and then the group fell quiet, until Sharletta Green, a 30-year-old former science teacher from West Virginia who is studying to become a Methodist minister, began to lead a hymn in the towering voice that we had all appreciated during our travels.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity . . . .

All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea . . .

Their voices echoed powerfully, and a few seminarians had tears in their eyes. I was stirred by the spirit of their song, yet I couldn't help but feel an outsider because I was a Jew who did not know the words, nor did I share the belief in the Holy Trinity. I was also deeply moved by some inchoate sense of the miraculous in this sunrise. So I turned to the other Jew on the trip, Audrey Galex, a mother of three and a professional storyteller from Atlanta, and proposed that we offer a prayer of our own. We joined hands and quickly decided it was a moment for a Sheheheyanu, a celebratory Hebrew blessing for special occasions. So we chanted: Baruch atah Adonai, elohaynu melech haolam, sheheheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higianau, lazman hazeh. It translates as: Blessed are you, our God, spirit of the universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us and for helping us to reach this blessed day.

Audrey and I hugged. Then, despite our separate experiences on the mountain, we embraced many of our fellow travelers. We were all feeling high; collectively, in our two weeks of intense traveling together, we had formed a community of spirit. Our forms of worship differed, but we were united at this moment. Then we headed down the great mountain in the warming sunlight, each of us alone in thought.

I have never been particularly religious. My family emigrated from Hungary to New York City in the early 1900s, and I was raised by parents who spoke Hungarian and identified themselves more by nationality than religion. We didn't observe Jewish holidays at home, and only after my parents joined the suburban migration of the 1950s did they send me and my brother to Hebrew school, the first generation in memory to be bar mitz-vahed. Growing up, I was strongly influenced by the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, but religion played no major role. As an adult, though, my connection to the Jewish faith became stronger after I married a Jewish woman, raised two sons and joined a Reform temple whose worship and commitment to social justice made me feel at home. I attend services and observe major holidays, but I'm only sporadically observant otherwise.

I ended up on this Middle East journey quite by chance, thanks to a friend who began her adult life as a Catholic nun.

Hallie Lovett fell in love with a priest, married him and eventually became a psychotherapist practicing in the Washington area. She had gone on the METS trip in 2001 -- lay people of various faiths are included to broaden the ecumenical perspective of the seminarians -- and afterward she described it as a transformative experience. She said it had been a rare opportunity for people to try to get outside their own culture and begin to understand "the other" -- the people of the world who are not like you. Hallie called me in January and said that METS organizers wanted gender balance and religious diversity, so they were looking for a Jewish guy. Could she recommend me? I had never been to the Middle East, and I leapt at the chance, joking that for such an adventure I would be delighted to be a token Jew.

As the departure date approached, however, I was feeling nervous. Not about terrorism or radical Islam or the dangers of traveling in a strife-torn region; instead, I realized I was apprehensive about actually having to confront my belief in God. Yes, I believe in the concept of God, but how deeply? Religion and God are things that I only rarely think about -- and even more rarely talk about. But soon, I would be traveling with seminarians entering their final year, men and women who have made this their life's work. And what of me? What was at the core of my faith? Was there a core at all? Would I come back from the trip feeling empty?

With four months' preparation, I amassed an impressive library of books on religion, Middle East history, the Crusades and more. I learned just enough to realize how stunningly ignorant I was, across a wide range of topics. I knew the readings would not resolve questions about God, but they did solidify for me the sense that I am a religious pluralist. I believe that the mainstreams of all the world's great religions ultimately have more commonalities than differences. Particularly since September 11, 2001, religious extremists of virtually all denominations have poisoned the political climate around the world -- and within the United States. Yet all the religions, despite their variations, are united in their belief in a spirit that is unseen, and in a deep yearning for holiness and unity.

My pluralist outlook was tested, though, when I got the METS roommate list and learned that I would be rooming for 23 nights with a Southern Baptist. Southern Baptist? My vague knowledge was enough to make me quite apprehensive: Members of the largest Protestant denomination, they are very conservative evangelicals who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that The End is Near, and that those who accept Jesus Christ as their savior will ascend to Heaven in the final apocalypse, while those who don't -- like me -- will go to Hell. I wondered what it would be like to live for three weeks with someone who might try to save my soul.

Six Protestant seminaries -- including those at Duke, Emory and several smaller schools -- select students for the program, based on leadership potential. The result was an eclectic mix of METS travelers: young and older, single and married, liberal and conservative, straight and gay, and black, white and Asian. Some were children of ministers; some were "called" to ministry or to teaching religion by a love of God established early; while others didn't hear the call until they reached their forties or fifties. Mostly, they were united by low income; so the foundations require them to pay only $900 each for what many regard as the trip of a lifetime.

So as I prepared to go, I wondered, how much would I have in common with Protestant seminarians? Would I find them stuck in narrow tunnels of religious vision, or would this trip broaden their views? After years of religious education, how open would they be, not only to a Jew but to the other Christians and to the Muslims we would encounter? Interfaith harmony is a wonderful concept, but what would it look like for Americans in the Middle East in 2005?

The four belly dancers, all bright-colored silk and flesh, were swaying back and forth, weaving their way among the crowded tables of a restaurant in Atlanta, where we had gathered for orientation. The pulsating music was getting louder and wilder. Our host, a cheerful, rotund man named Nicola, was doing his own hilarious belly dance with a glass of water balanced on his head. Fueled by wine, women and music, Nicola incited everyone in his Middle Eastern restaurant to get up and join the undulating dancers. Many of our seminarians, ages 23 to 56, ended up smiling, laughing and clapping along to the pounding music. When I looked over at my roommate, Matthew Cates, he was sitting motionless, hands in his lap, not very happy.

That first night, back in our hotel room, I asked Matthew about his reaction. He said that he was not opposed to dancing but that he was troubled by the public nature of the show, which he considered sexually suggestive and degrading to the women. I said I understood his view but countered that belly dancing could also be seen as harmless entertainment, and that the beauty and talent of the dancers could be appreciated without necessarily being sexual.

He held entertainment to a higher standard, he said. Does it benefit and help people and spread a positive message? People should treat each other with love, regardless of appearance or any other factor, because we are all created by God, he said. Of the belly dancers, he said: "I want to see them express love for themselves, and be loved by others rightly. And that those viewing them would love them purely, and with respect." He quoted Scripture, as he would in most subsequent conversations, citing the warning in the Song of Songs about how dangerous it is to arouse romantic love, because it is like playing with fire.

We lay in our beds talking that night, Matthew with his dog-eared leather Bible and me with my reporter's notebook and pen. Matthew said he grew up in North Carolina, where his grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister and his parents raised their three children with family prayer time as part of the nightly routine. After seeing his older brother baptized, Matthew, at age 11, began to think seriously about his own personal relationship with God and whether he lived up to His standards. By the time he was baptized by his grandfather, Matthew, then 13, remembers the realization that when the choir sang that day, "they were singing about my God, and not just some God."

After that, he said, he became an insatiable reader of the Bible. He would read and then pray to God to be able to understand it better. He would study two or three chapters every night, "and then I prayed, and prayed for everyone. I felt I had to pray for every person I knew before I could sleep, and I would fall asleep and wake up with my face in the Bible."

He began to question his commitment to God, though, because, like other teenagers, Matthew found himself experimenting with lying, cursing and other misbehavior. "I felt like I was a prisoner to my own unholy tendencies," he said. He was a good student, ran cross-country and track, played tennis and had a nice circle of friends at his church, he said, but he became withdrawn. "I was struggling with a sense that I was doing wrong, like I was at the bottom of a hole." In college, he majored in religion and sociology and wrestled with the direction of his life. After much reflection, he said, he realized what was most important to him was not his future vocation, but his relationship to God: "I wanted to achieve holiness, a desire to be holy and genuine."

After graduating, Matthew followed various paths: church mission work in Hong Kong as a youth minister, studying at a seminary in Illinois, working in a juvenile detention center, teaching English as a second language, teaching adult computer and literacy classes, and enrolling in a second divinity school, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, from which he will graduate next year with a master's in divinity.

He is 30 years old and has chosen to remain a virgin, he said. He hopes some day to find "intimacy and oneness" with a woman who is a "sister in Christ," he said, but he wants to make sure he does not pursue a wife out of some sense of dissatisfaction with God. So he is concentrating first on his relationship with God and on learning to appreciate what he calls the gift of being single.

Matthew believes that the Messiah is coming soon and that the world as we know it is in its final days. He solemnly told me: "The reality that you and I could be dead tomorrow leads me to think of this very moment, this conversation. Is this how I want to spend this moment?"

I did my share of talking as well -- about my family, my marriage of 33 years, my work, my thoughts about Judaism. Beyond that, I told him that his vision of God -- that the only path to true salvation was through Jesus Christ -- was much too rigid for me, and his religion too exclusive. This trip would be a challenge. We were an unlikely pair, in an uncharted relationship, on our way to the Promised Land.

At the spectacular Umayyad Mosque, the grand mosque of Damascus, we all took off our shoes, and the women were required to put on gray robes covering their hair and bodies, so that we could visit a holy site for our first close encounter with Islam. With beautiful mosaics, multicolored marble and three soaring minaret spires, the Syrian mosque dates to the 8th century, but the site has been a holy place for some 3,000 years, dedicated to the worship of deities and prophets of the Aramaic, Roman, Christian and now Sunni and Shiite Muslim faiths.

We entered the finely tiled shrine of Hussein, who, according to Shiite tradition, should be regarded as a rightful successor to the prophet Muhammed. In the 7th century, Hussein was killed and beheaded in Karbala in what is now Iraq, but his head was said to have been brought to Damascus. Shiites from all over the Muslim world, many Iranians, make a pilgrimage here.

Inside: an intense, chaotic jam of worshipers and tourists; black-shrouded women; men wearing robes, Arab kaffiyeh headdresses or black skull caps; other men wearing Western-style clothes, some with video cameras. Most people were pushing forward, but in their midst, robed women and men stopped to kneel on worn Persian prayer rugs; some praying loudly, chanting and weeping. People relentlessly pressed ahead, jostling each other. The din of wailing and loud praying in Arabic and in Farsi was disorienting. It was stifling hot and stuffy, and I wanted to leave. I felt like an intruder in a strange world. What was moving these worshipers so ecstatically? A spirit was swirling around me, yet I had no clue what was driving it.

I was tempted to retreat, as some of my METS colleagues did, but I kept pushing forward, several times nearly falling over people who had kneeled to pray. Everyone was trying to reach an ornate silver grid enclosure at the end of the handsomely decorated hall. When I finally got close enough, I could see through the filigree-and-silver mesh a green shroud that was tied around what looked like a human head. Men and women, praying and sobbing, pressed close enough to touch the grid. Some slipped small papers inside, and a few tied little pieces of string to the silver, as personal tokens of prayer.

Afterward, some seminarians said they felt as alienated as I had. Matthew said he felt sympathy for the fervent worshipers, who he believed were misguided. Sharletta Green, from Emory University's seminary, said: "I appreciate their passion, but I felt a disconnect as a Westerner, and as a Christian. I think I felt a sadness in the fight of people to move forward; I felt people were stuck in the worship of a slain leader" instead of God. But Sharletta said she struggled to try to appreciate, rather than judge, the faith of others. "What can I learn from you that will honor the divine in both of us?" she said. "It is about leaving your bags at the door."

But this would not be easy. We did not understand Islam, and the Muslims we encountered would be both welcoming and challenging to Americans of other faiths. Many received us as children of God, reminding us that Islam shared our reverence for the same prophets -- Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Others showed warmth toward us as Americans but open hostility to our government and our leaders. One seminarian was told by a Sunni woman that she believed the U.S. military had conducted the September 11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to retaliate against Islam. A Sunni merchant told one of us that if she liked President Bush, she must hate Arabs, and another declared, "Your president is a murderer." It would sometimes be a challenge to honor the divine in the others we would meet.

Throughout the Middle East, we climbed hills and crossed dusty plains under the scorching sun to see the massive ancient ruins of the places of everyday life and worship. We saw remnants of innumerable warring civilizations: the Egyptians, Hittites, Amorites, Aramaeans, Canaanites, Israelites, Ammonites, Moabites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Nabateans, Romans, Parthians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Crusaders and more.

As our bus traveled south near the Jordan River, Max Miller took the microphone and quoted bloody passages from the Book of Joshua about the burning, smiting and slaying of entire peoples. All this, the Bible says, was commanded by God because these people worshiped other gods. It struck me that Joshua and the ancient Israelites did their share of killing, a thought I'd never before entertained. In his Mississippi drawl, Max said much of the Hebrew scripture can be summed up as one big battle: "It's God and 'us' versus 'them.'" Indeed, virtually every one of these ancient peoples had claimed in the name of their God -- whether it be Baal, or Ra, or Zeus, or Jupiter, or Jehovah, or Adonai, or Allah, or Jesus -- the right to subjugate, enslave and kill the nonbelievers.

Violence in the name of God. I was disheartened to see and hear so much of it, and I couldn't help but lament that nothing had changed much in the current Middle East. So I was particularly in the mood for interfaith peacemaking when I overheard a group of seminarians making plans for an "evening devotional" at our Syrian hotel one night after dinner. I knew it was some form of religious service but wasn't sure just what. I also wasn't sure how welcome I would be.

"Are Jews invited?" I cheerfully asked, and was warmly received.

That evening, eight of us crowded onto the small, open patio of Matthew's and my room. We were in a Syrian town called Meshtayeh, in a region that Max had called "the bloody plain" because of the magnitude of warfare it saw up through the Crusades. We started by reading and briefly discussing a New Testament passage from Luke that had a military theme, in keeping with what we had seen that day. Then we were each given a chance to offer a prayer. One person prayed for peace in the Middle East. Another prayed for the health of his wife at home, and the desire that she not worry too much about his safety. One prayed to be able to see the face of God in everyone we met, regardless of their faith. Another prayed for all of us on the trip to keep in touch more closely and share the experiences.

These weren't Baptist prayers or Presbyterian prayers. They were simply words from the heart, desires that are not always easily expressed. So when it came to me, I felt open to prayer, something I don't normally practice. I offered a prayer for my brother Steve, who, at age 59, had been hospitalized that month with pneumonia and other problems relating to kidney disease and bipolar disorder. Earlier in the week, I had talked with Matthew about how stressful and difficult it had been to try to help my brother back to health.

Then, when it was Matthew's turn, I was surprised to hear him also pray for my brother's health; he asked God to give my brother strength to hold up under a prolonged struggle and also to "give Peter the strength to help his brother -- if he can." I was moved by Matthew's words because they reflected how closely he had listened, and because they conveyed how much he cared about people, about me.

At the end, we all said a prayer of thanks for this moment, and for the new friends we had made, and someone asked God to keep us "open and gentle and loving" toward one another. And then everyone just sat in silence for what seemed like a long while. Nobody wanted to leave. The air was very still and cool and quiet. The stars were twinkling brightly in a sky unpolluted by urban lights. I felt like I belonged here; I was part of a small, instant family and also part of a communal longing for something larger than ourselves.

Walking down the hillside from the spectacular ancient city of Petra in Jordan, Matthew was burning with a question for our Jordanian guide and interpreter, Sofian Nawash. Matthew was particularly disturbed by a story he'd heard from an American friend living in Amman: a Jordanian man had recently been convicted by an Islamic court of the crime of apostasy because he had converted to Christianity, and refused to convert back. The man had lost custody of his child, and, under Jordan's interpretation of sharia, the Islamic-inspired code of law, he could even be put to death.

The three of us kept walking as Matthew avidly explained details of the case. Sofian, sporting designer sunglasses and a thick mustache, is a thoroughly modern, charming, university-educated man in his thirties, with two children and a third on the way. A Sunni Muslim, Sofian has been guiding METS trips for 11 years and enjoys joking, bantering and answering the inevitable flurry of questions that arise from perplexed Christians visiting a country that is 95 percent Muslim.

Sofian told Matthew that he had not heard of this particular case, but that the verdict did not surprise him. He said he doubted the man would actually be executed. But his act of conversion was considered a most serious sin against God, Sofian said, and his understanding of the Koran was that it calls for the ultimate punishment.

Matthew was incredulous. What if someone was born to a Muslim family but never practiced Islam and just decided to become a Christian? he asked. No matter, said Sofian, same crime, same penalty. Matthew turned the question personal: What if Matthew had been born to Muslims but tried to spread Christianity? Sofian's answer was matter-of-fact: If Matthew chose to proselytize for Christ among the Muslims, he would likely die.

Both Matthew and I asked Sofian whether that was perhaps a bit harsh, but he would not judge it. Rather, he said, it simply was what it was: the will of God.

As we walked silently back toward our bus, I could sense there was no point in arguing with Sofian about the extremes of his faith. And it also occurred to me that, in some way, there was very little difference between Sofian's faith and Matthew's. Matthew's was not so draconian, but his belief in the true word of God as expressed in the Bible was just as absolute as Sofian's in the Koran. Matthew's only doubt was whether he was interpreting God's word correctly.

This emerged vividly several nights later in Israel when it was Matthew's turn to lead the devotional. Ten of us gathered in a hotel conference room, where Matthew sang an opening hymn, "Hallelujah, What a Savior!" He has a strong, sweet voice, and his face lights up when he sings or reads Scripture. He then chose for discussion Chapter 3 of the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans that begins: "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?"

I winced when Matthew started reading the passage. In Romans, Paul, himself a Jew converted to Christianity, goes on to say that while Jewish practices are part of God's law, the only true path to salvation is through Jesus Christ. I disagreed with the message, but I had accepted that it is the central belief in Matthew's life.

Others were not as forgiving. Audrey, my fellow Jewish traveler, told Matthew later that his reading choice was hurtful. Her roommate, Manikka, told him: "You didn't give everyone a place to stand." Matthew said he knew the passage might be offensive, but nonetheless thought the message was important to hear. Four seminarians apologized to me that night and the next day on Matthew's behalf, saying they did not share that interpretation of Romans 3. "None of us can know who is saved," said Richard Hayes, a 30-year-old Duke seminarian. "We can apprehend God, but we cannot comprehend God."

I asked Matthew later why he'd chosen that particular passage, instead of something more inclusive. He said he had prayed about what passage to choose, and God had led him to this choice for spreading the Gospel. "Scripture does not allow you to be inclusive," he said. "It is exclusive."

Later, Matthew shared with me the passage he had written in his personal journal about that night. It was addressed to God: "I believe that I spoke the message I should have, but I'm not sure if I spoke truth in love, and how people received it. Several seemed to be troubled and maybe even angered by it. I hope that they are wrestling with you, God, and not just me."

We were standing at Armageddon. I never knew it was an actual place, called Megiddo, about 50 miles north of Jerusalem, on a hill overlooking a broad, fertile plain at a strategic crossroads on the main route between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. (Armageddon is a Greek word adapted from the Hebrew Har Megiddo or Hill of Megiddo.) Under blazing sun, Max explained that here, over a period of more than 4,000 years, countless armies had met and destroyed each other -- Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Canaanite, Israelite, Persian, Roman and more. Archaeologists have found layers of ruins from more than 25 cities that were annihilated by warfare or earthquake, and were rebuilt atop one another with each successive conquest. Some historians believe that more military battles have been fought on the plain of Megiddo than anywhere else on Earth.

"This is where the Bible says the final battle will occur in the last days," Max said, gesturing over the plain, "the final battle to end all destruction and persecution." He was referring to the New Testament's Book of Revelation, which says that when Christ returns, the armies of good will gather at Armageddon for the apocalypse.

As if on cue, while we were touring Megiddo's elaborate ruins, several supersonic Israeli jets flew overhead, the sound of humankind anticipating the next battle. I looked out at the horizon, which, like much of the biblical landscape, presents a harsh grandeur. We had traversed scorching desert and forbidding mountains. In this austere and unforgiving environment, I could imagine how wandering desert tribes would have worshiped the sun that was both life-giving yet so punishing; I could picture how miraculous it must have been for the thirsting shepherds to find an oasis; I could feel what an act of faith it must have been to trudge over sand and rocky peaks, in the hope that fertile valleys lay beyond. It made sense to me that these great religions grew out of this arid place. In our travels, I found myself appreciating a drink of water more than I ever had in my life and marveling at how wonderful the shade and the breeze can feel to a hot and tired body. Over time, somehow, I had been absorbing, through nature, a sense of the presence of God.

Yet I had also absorbed a strong sense of the pitiful state of humankind and warring religions. And my sadness at the stupidity of killing in the name of God peaked at Armageddon. In talking to the seminarians, I realized I wasn't alone.

"I see these places of the Bible, and I just see violence, violence, violence, violence, violence. I don't see God in it, and I pray to Him to show me," said Manikka. "I've been struggling with God on this trip." Richard said he found in the cycles of conquest a sobering message for America about "global imperialism." Like the Romans, he said, "it seems we are imposing our power over half the globe, and now we look at the Roman ruins."

As our bus rolled to a stop at a West Bank military checkpoint, the controversial Israeli "security fence" loomed above us. We were headed into territory of the Palestinian Authority, to Bethlehem, a small town about five miles south of Jerusalem. It is a place that is sacred to Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, and also significant to Jews, as the burial spot of the matriarch Rachel and birthplace of King David.

But whatever sense of reverence we had anticipated was immediately blotted out by the bold, block-printed graffiti that Palestinians had painted on the hulking gray wall: "WELCOME TO THE GHETTO," declared one sign. "AMERICAN MONEY, ISRAELI APARTHEID" said another, with a hand-painted Star of David and a scrawled "NO ISRAEEL." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shadowed our travels in much of Israel. The security wall cast a pall over the sprawling West Bank, as did the frequent sight of machine guns wielded by police and soldiers in public squares. Historic places such as Jericho and Bethlehem were marked by barbed-wired military checkpoints and the aura of war. We had been eager to visit the 4,000-year-old site of Jericho, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, but it was devastating to first see all the modern remnants of the intifada, the burned-out buildings, grim cinder block refugee camps and bullet-riddled walls. And our destination in Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, had been the site in 2002 of a bloody, tense five-week hostage siege by Palestinian gunmen who held more than 100 churchgoers.

Visiting Jesus's traditional birthplace was a letdown for many of us. This followed a pattern throughout the trip -- it seemed that the man-made sites, churches, temples and shrines, were mundane and underwhelming compared with the sights of nature. Matthew and several other seminarians said a high point for them was the visit to the beautiful Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, where they felt they were walking where Jesus had walked. By contrast, few among us were as moved by Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, believed to be the site of Jesus's crucifixion. In both churches, tourists overwhelm the holy places in a relentless search for a photo op. At the Holy Sepulchre, some seminarians said the site lacked a sense of spiritual unity because the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches all have their separate spaces, customs and times of worship. Several seminarians said it felt like a theme park, like "Jesusland."

"It's become such a tourist attraction, all the gold and silver, and so gaudy," said Sharletta. "It seems awful."

In Bethlehem, a town of less than 50,000, the view outside the church was disheartening. There were a few thriving businesses that depend on the tourist trade, but we saw many shuttered shops, largely vacant streets and groups of ragged and listless young people with seemingly nothing to do. I couldn't help but sense a resentment and hopelessness in the eyes of some. As our bus rolled back toward the security wall, Richard told me he found the sights to be depressingly reminiscent of America's urban ghettos.

"Bethlehem," he said wearily, "is Compton, California, for all intents and purposes."

Interfaith harmony between Jews and Palestinians seems a distant dream in Israel, but one night in Jerusalem we had at least a small vision of it. I had talked to Max before the trip about the potential value for the seminarians to hear about Jews who were working with Muslims and Christians to try to bring peace. Too often, I told him, Jews are portrayed as narrow-minded Zionists. He was happy to add that to our itinerary. So, through my rabbi in Silver Spring, I had made contact with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, one of many small but devoted peace groups that believe that honest dialogue among people of different faiths is the key to coexistence.

We gathered at 8 p.m. in a hotel conference room -- tired from another long day of trekking but eager to hear something hopeful from Issa Jaber, a Muslim school superintendent, and Ron Kronish, a Reform Jewish rabbi, who have been working together for more than a decade. They sat side by side, Kronish, with a fringe of white hair and matching mustache, and Jaber, olive-skinned with darker hair and mustache.

Many attempts at interreligious dialogue have been "too nice," the men said. Muslims, Christians and Jews should not just try to "neuter" their religions by saying that we are "all children of Abraham." Rather, they said, we all must engage in the harder work of really listening to one another and understanding the other side's history in a deep enough way to be willing to compromise.

"It's going slowly and painfully, with too many people dying along the way," said Kronish. "We have to help change the hearts and minds of people, to learn to live together, but it's going to take a generation or two or three."

The majority of Jews and Palestinians have finally accepted that they must all make some sacrifices to achieve peace, they said, but extremist leaders on both sides fan the flames by reminding each group that they are a persecuted minority.

"Each side seeks to show they are the bigger victims, that we have suffered more than you," said Jaber, who runs the schools in the predominantly Muslim town of Abu Ghosh.

This can end only when each side begins to listen to and understand the other side's narrative, said Kronish. "It is all about de-demonizing 'the other.'"

Jaber's presentation particularly resonated among the black METS travelers. He spoke of the "double-identity" of Arabs who live as minorities in Israel and must cope with lower educational and economic status. "Amen," murmured several of the black seminarians. "Amen . . ."

I had been especially looking forward to visiting the Western Wall in the Old City in Jerusalem, which is among the most sacred sites in all of Judaism. It is a massive stone remnant from the destruction of the city's main temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., and it is the place where Jews across the world come to pray. On the day before I left on the trip, I'd awakened with a start and had the sudden inspiration to pack in my bag the tallit and yarmulke, the prayer shawl and skull cap, that I had worn more than 40 years ago when I was bar mitzvahed. I would put them on and pray at this holiest spot.

At the wall, there was a substantial midday crowd, and I felt a bit awkward about praying in public, particularly because I stood out as being different. Orthodox Jews were packed in tightly, with chairs, tables, desks and lecterns they set up outdoors to spend hours there in prayer. Some were Hasidic, with their distinctive long beards, black suits and black hats. Other Orthodox, many with thick beards, had their heads and arms wrapped in tefillin, the black leather case containing passages of Scripture that is attached to the body by straps. Others stood and davened, rhythmically rocking back and forth as they rapidly chanted prayers, their heads touching the wall.

I didn't look like any of them; I was clearly a Western tourist with only the surface trappings of Judaism. I put on the shawl and skull cap, and bid my Protestant colleagues farewell to approach the wall. I was alone because Audrey, unhappily, was not allowed at the main section. The Orthodox Jews, who control religious affairs in Israel, have segregated the wall by sex, with a small section set apart by a fence for women.

As I tried to work my way to the wall, a Hasid approached me with a quizzical expression. "Are you a Jew?" he asked. I was stunned, and then angry. I didn't answer him. Of course I am a Jew. I just don't look like you. How dare you question my faith?

"Would you like me to pray for you?" asked another man. The implication was that I was not capable of saying a proper prayer, and that he would pray -- for a fee. I was getting angrier. Then another man stopped me to ask for money for his charity. Now I felt like I was not seen as a fellow Jew, but just an outsider to be hustled.

I reached the wall and pushed myself into a small opening. I touched and kissed the stone, but I was rattled. I struggled to clear my head of anger and get in a prayerful mood. The men around me were babbling prayers, incomprehensibly fast. I closed my eyes and tried to achieve a meditative state, but I could not. The activity around me was too disorienting. It did not feel like a holy place. I stood in silence for a time, and then I quietly recited the Sheheheyanu. Then I sang the Shema, the most fundamental of Jewish prayers from the Torah, "Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad!" Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one! I wanted to feel uplifted. Instead, I couldn't get away from the wall fast enough.

I should have known beforehand what to expect, but I had not done enough homework. The ancient wall in recent years has essentially been taken over by the Orthodox Jews of Israel, so that Reform and Conservative people are considered outsiders. The non-Orthodox often choose to pray at another, lesser-known site called the Southern Wall. Afterward, I reflected on the fact that I had felt more at home singing the Shema with Christians than I had with the Jews at the wall. That happened a week earlier, on the Friday night before we were to climb Mount Sinai, when Max had asked Audrey and me if we would like to conduct a Jewish Sabbath service. So, as the sun was setting, the whole group gathered on the ancient rocks outside St. Catherine's Monastery, built around 300 A.D. by monks at the foot of Sinai. With the sun streaming down on us and a congregation of Protestants spread out before us, Audrey and I recited and sang the first of several traditional Sabbath blessings. Then we sang the Shema. It may have been the cooling mountain air, but it gave me chills to sing it. And afterward, every single one of our fellow travelers stood up from the rocks and clambered over to embrace us and thank us for a moving service.

In the end, on Day 24, after we had cleared customs at the Atlanta airport, we hugged and said our farewells, although we knew we'd be seeing one another soon because we are all required to write papers and attend a reunion back in Atlanta in September to talk about our experience. A few of us were waiting for connecting flights home, when Matthew pulled me aside. He took out his notebook and started to ask me questions.

He wanted to know what I had gotten out of the trip, but he also wanted me to give him an honest critique of what I had observed of him. Mostly, he said, he wanted to know, "Do you think that my actions match my words?"

I was caught off guard, but I understood that he wanted an honest response.

I greatly admire your honesty, Matthew, I said, your devotion to God and your desire to love people. But the most disturbing thing about you is that your religion seems so exclusionary, with no room for anyone else. (More than once, he had told me that many of the other seminarians did not hold proper beliefs about salvation, and therefore were not "true Christians." They were too "universalist" in believing that there are many paths to finding God.) I find that position quite sad, I told him.

Matthew nodded his head, listening carefully and taking a few notes. He smiled. He reminded me that Christian scripture is by its very nature exclusive because it holds only one path to God. I said that you seem to use that view of Scripture as a crutch, so that you don't need to really examine your own beliefs.

He smiled, as he often did, and listened in good spirit. And at the end, he thanked me. We embraced and went off to board our flights.

Throughout the trip, Max Miller, who grew up Methodist in a very religious, Bible-reading family, had scrupulously avoided being drawn into theological arguments. He told me that he found debates about the correct path to God to be painful and ultimately pointless. Instead, his advice to the seminarians was that they clarify their own beliefs. "You are grown folks, getting ready to lead churches, so you need to deal with it and struggle with it," he said.

Earlier, one night at sunset near the Sea of Galilee, Max invited me up to talk on the verandah outside his room. He said that at age 68, after leading the METS trip for 25 years, he wondered how much longer he could do it, and he feared that if he stopped, the program would die. I asked him what effect he thought the trip had had on the hundreds who'd taken it.

Among the seminarians, reactions cut both ways, he said, "Some of the rigid people -- liberal and conservative -- dig in their heels and get more rigid. And others open their eyes and ask: 'How can I learn more about this? What can I study?'" But then he surprised me by saying that over the years he thought the lay people had undergone more significant changes than the seminarians, who tend to be more established in their faith. Among the lay travelers, he said, he has heard of the trip precipitating divorces, career changes and other key decisions about directions in life.

Later, as I reflected on Max's observation, it became less surprising. I had felt the stirrings of a divine presence in the Holy Land and its people, but how would that figure into what lay ahead, now that I was returning to my secular life and my old routines?

By contrast, that uncertainty does not exist for True Believers. For them, the path is clear: for Christians like Matthew, convinced that the way to God is through Jesus; for Muslims like Sofian, fervently believing that God has spoken the rules for living through the Koran; for Orthodox Jews, who are assured that theirs is the only Jewish way to worship the only God. But for the rest of us, probably the majority, the path is less clear, and the place of God in our lives is still to be learned. The one thing we know with certainty, however, is that familiar inner yearning for something to lift us above whatever it is that traps us in ourselves and keeps us separate and alone.

Peter Perl, a former Magazine staff writer, is director of newsroom training and professional development at The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company