It all began in 2018. Jennie Lewis and her son, Thom, visited Israel on a tour organised by The Tree of Life Bible Society, an American Messianic Jewish group. And it was during that trip that Jennie visited the Nazareth Village for the first time.
And so, fast forward to the Spring of 2020, when the grass under the Village olive trees is lush and sprinkled with colourful wildflowers, when the almond trees are in bloom, and the air is almost chill, I find myself back in Nazareth Village, not as a tourist but as an international volunteer for the Nazareth Trust.
It is my privilege to don the ankle-length rough fabric tunic, all-covering headscarf and flimsy flat leather sandals at the beginning of each working day and head out into the Village to collect olive prunings or carob pods to feed the sheep confined to the fold, or to carry an earthenware vessel up the steep paths past the potter’s workshop and the synagogue to the well.
My given Village name was “Naomi”, and the tour guides would often stop their groups and talk with passing or working Villagers, encouraging photos and conversations. They made it clear that we were volunteers from many different countries and were free to talk to visitors, whenever language difficulties did not intervene! Guides translated from my English into Portuguese and Korean, Italian and Tagalog, Gujarati and German, Japanese and Norwegian (I well remember a group of younger high school students from Norway who were too shy to practice their English!). They were interested in the carob pods (the ones the prodigal son would gladly have eaten himself, rather than be feeding to the pigs), the sheep, what I was doing so far from a New Zealand homeland – and always wanting photos with Naomi, many of them smiling close packed selfies.
I remember one earnest conversation with an Israeli who lingered by the sheepfold as his group moved on… “I am a Jew”, he said, “not a Christian, but I want to know more about why shepherds are so important in these stories of Jesus – I have many questions!” But his guide sent a group member back to fetch him as the next group approached the sheepfold. “Keep asking those questions!” were Naomi’s last words to him… I do hope he does!
I found it touching how enchanted the visitors seemed to be with the Village, its Villagers and the small insights it offered towards a greater understanding of the first-century lifestyle behind so many of Jesus’ parables and metaphors. I quickly learned, first-hand, how hard many aspects of that lifestyle were. Fit though I am, my feet and lower legs ached as I made my way hour after hour over those Village slopes on rough paths in non-supportive footwear. On the rainy days the visitors huddled under supplied umbrellas while my tunic clung wet around my ankles, my feet slipped around on the mud inside my sandals, and I was glad of the thick, olive-coloured hand-woven woollen shawl around my shoulders, and at times over my head. Village life varied greatly as the weather and the seasons changed, my experience was teaching me. Knowing 21st-century comforts, I would not have found sleep easy on a pile of straw on the packed dirt floor of one of those little rock village houses, with the chilly wind creeping in through non-glazed windows and the snoring of my whole extended family in the same tiny room!
(And anyone who walked from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back twice or three times a year over those paths in footwear like that has my respect!!)
Watch this space on Monday for the next chapter of Jennie’s story!