Holy Land Pilgrimage

A smile — the most universal currency

February 9, 2018

Declan McNicholas (Diocese of Gary) speaks with a parishioner outside a church near Bethlehem.

When we first arrived in the Holy Land, I really didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t given it much thought. The writing was very different: there is not just one strange alphabet here, but there are two! (Hebrew and Arabic, for those keeping score.) It was ridiculously late in the night, though, so I didn’t run into a whole lot of people.

Of course, that all changed the next day. To someone not paying attention, everything here seems very chaotic, but if you look beyond the crazy traffic laws (I’m not sure they exist) and the vendors shouting to get your business, you see people. You see kids who just want to play. You see adults running their business, shopping for things, and doing their best to raise their kids. You see teenagers being… teenagers. You see smiles and tears; pain and joy.

Students from Bethlehem University talk with pilgrims on campus.

It dawned on me that people are people, wherever you go. That sounds like something Dr. Seuss might say, but I first really heard it on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. (I was a line cook for a while, anything Bourdain does appeals to line cooks.) In that show, he travels the world, experiences people—and their food—and tells you what he sees and thinks while doing so. It seemed like a good perspective at the time, but now I know just how true it is. We all want to be happy, we all want to belong, and a smile is maybe the most universal currency.

Anybody and everybody can have this currency. The people who live in poverty, such as those living in certain areas of Bethlehem and Hebron, are some of the friendliest I’ve met. The biggest, most heart-warming smiles I’ve ever seen were on the faces of the children in a refugee camp we visited. They don’t have much, and their lives are not easy, but they still experience joy from life. Perhaps the culture here is inherently hopeful, but I think the challenges of life become a crucible which refines us. When you mix in a little hope and a little love, you’re bound to get something amazing!

Pilgrims visit a refugee camp in the West Bank.

So now I’m stuck asking myself: How can I be happier and more hopeful, like the people I’ve met here?

I could try counting my blessings, but it’s amazing how many things I take for granted! Instead, maybe I should do what all the saints seem to do: embrace the challenges that life throws at me, and suffer through them with hope and charity.

By Matt Siegman (Diocese of Wichita)
Photos by Peter Pedrasa (Diocese of Tucson) and Declan McNicholas (Diocese of Gary)

Blog Home
Blog Archive
2018 Archive
2019 Archive
2020 Archive
2021 Archive
Blog Archive

Subscribe to receive pilgrimage updates