Joe Woodfin: Elbowing through Sacred Space

By Jeannie Babb

Joe Woodfin, T’15, tells how a visit to the Holy Land shifted his perspective. Seated in an armchair beneath the wall of diocesan seals in Hamilton Hall, Woodfin explains why he sought to make the pilgrimage. On one level, the exercise was historical. “At seminary you spend a lot of time reading the Bible, and that was part of my personal history as well. I really had a familiarity—a deep familiarity—with the stories. But I had never seen the backdrop against which some of these stories are set.”

The constant turmoil in the region did not deter him from visiting; if anything, it signaled the importance that the land signifies to the many different people who live there. “I thought I’d really like to get my eyes on the land that seems so important. It’s not just historically important. It’s the right now; things are happening right now.”

Woodfin received a William A. Grifffin Holy Land Theological Scholarship and set out to join a 13-day Palestine of Jesus tour through St. George’s College of Jerusalem with fellow classmate Seth Donald, T’15. Woodfin’s search for a better backdrop, however, would lead him to something else entirely.

“I love history,” he says. “I enjoy reading the Bible in a historical-critical way and I expected to be historically enamored, but I actually found it to be more theological. I didn’t expect to be so moved by just being in those spaces where thousands and thousands of people have prayed over hundreds and hundreds of years, and by touching those things and kissing those stones. I mean, given my liturgical tendencies I’m a big fan of kissing things, so that wasn’t a terribly big surprise, but I was really moved by the theological richness to participating with people at places that are so significant for our faith.”

Woodfin says he did not know what to expect in terms of geopolitical conflict. “I was not unaware of the conflict, but all conflicts are mediated to those of us who don’t live there by someone telling the story. For the most part, conflict in the Holy Land seems white-washed and oversimplified in the media. Not a lot of background is given, and each media source is trying prove a different point. I knew I would be standing in the story instead of hearing it, and I really didn’t know what to expect.

“This is one of those cases where seeing made the difference. I saw a great big wall running right down the middle of the country, literally separating one people from another people. It makes a bigger impression on the consciousness than I would have expected.”

Although this was Woodfin’s first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his connection with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and with St. George’s College date back to 2008 or 2009, when Father Kamal Farah taught at his sending parish, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tenn. “Father Kamal told us people sometimes ask him when Palestinian Christians were evangelized, and his answer is ‘Well, my ancestors sent people to evangelize Rome. This is not something that’s come late to us.’ There have been Palestinian Christians as long there have been Christians.”

Listening to stories told by his hosts in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, Woodfin imagined what it would be like to become a priest inside the restrictions of Palestine rather than within the freedom of the United States. “I was thinking about what it would meant to literally need papers to get to a parishioner who lived a few miles away, or the difficulty of visiting parishioners living on the other side of that wall.”

Woodfin says pilgrimage may focus on the land and sites, but another important aspect is the strengthening of connections between people.  “Christian holy sites make up a lot of the real estate in the Holy Land. And with the responsibility for all those sites comes the responsibility to be loving and caring neighbors to those who live nearby.”

For Woodfin, honoring the space means sharing the space, including the urgency and the chaos, with others who call it sacred. “Some of the people in our group commented that it just feels so wrong to be in these holy spaces and to have people elbowing you out of the way and pushing to get in line. It’s very chaotic.”

He says, “After giving this some thought, I realized how much I appreciated the pushing and jostling. The crowd made the sites more special for me, because their pushing and elbowing told a story about how important it was to be near these sites that are really holy. They are willing to do anything to get there.”

Woodfin’s description evokes a common gospel image. The New Testament gives us several accounts of the crowd pushing, squeezing, and elbowing—not toward a holy place but toward the holy one. He says, “There is something utterly significant about being there and telling really vivid stories about it afterward. I suspect that is not just the case for future priests. I suspect it is true for anyone who’s interested in faith, who’s interested in theology, and interested in what these biblical stories have to do with current issues.”

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