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I met Robin and Nancy Wainwright in Jerusalem in 1993. They were newly married and full of excitement about a project they thought would bring attention to the Arab peoples of the Middle East. Long before anyone had thought of millennium celebrations, the Wainwrights were looking ahead and thinking of ways to use the end of the second millennium in a positive way.
They had many ideas, but the one that seemed to capture everyone’s imagination was a pilgrimage for peace, following in the journey of the wise men, or Magi. The biblical story of the Magi, coming from the East, to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, is taught in every Christian Sunday school in the West.
Few Christians around the world stop to think about where these Magi came from. What was the area like in their time, and, more important to the Wainwrights, what is that East like these days? What better way to celebrate the millennium than to retrace the footsteps of the Magi?
For seven years the dream was to make this historic journey on foot and camel. Every historic reference and discovery was scrutinized in an attempt to find the route the Magi most likely took.
Governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, were contacted. They all welcomed the idea because of the opportunity to profile their countries’ rich heritages.
The Middle East Council of Churches agreed to lend its name and reputation to the journey.
A number of international foundations also agreed to give seed money to make the journey possible.
Since the Magi of old came to visit the baby Jesus and presented him with gifts, the new magi also wanted to give gifts to the people of the region. They sought out humanitarian needs and funding to meet those needs. Clinics and soccer fields were planned as gifts for remote villages on the suggested route.
Staff was hired and media and logistic coordinators were assigned to every country with the hope that the trip would produce much publicity for the peoples of the region.
The journey was planned to take 99 days.
But the dream and the reality are two different things.
The trip originally planned for the fall of 1999 was postponed until the fall of 2000, with the travelers arriving in Bethlehem on Christmas of 2000.
Shortly before the journey began this September, Iran, which had agreed to be the first leg of the journey, backed out, saying that there were local disturbances near its borders with Iraq.
The Palestinian intifada threatened to cancel the entire journey as Iraqi officials were concerned for the safety of the modern magi, many of whom were Western nationals. The presence of Africans, Asians and Arabs made the Iraqis less jittery.
Delays at every entry point were problematic. Getting the security people to allow the pilgrims to walk (rather than be bused) even the short distances between the border checkpoints was nearly a miracle.
Media coverage was eclipsed by the intifada and the American elections. The travelers made up for this by using a Web site they established which they fed daily (except while in Iraq), via a satellite phone.
They prayed for rain for the thirsty Middle East. Their prayers were answered to a degree that made the journey difficult at times.
Two-thirds of the journey took place during the month of Ramadan. Many of the travelers fasted as they walked, in solidarity with their host communities.
The main purpose of the journey was to draw attention to the peoples of the region, particularly to Palestinian and Iraqi children.
One attraction of the journey was the presence among the travelers of a number of professional soccer players. This allowed them to hold friendly matches in every town on the journey. At times the same travelers had fasted, walked all day, and were still willing to play soccer at night.
As the journey winds down this week, a candlelight march is expected on the evening of Christmas Day, in cooperation with the Palestinian Rapprochement Center.
Thousands are expected to join the modern magi walking from Beit Sahur to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, thus retracing the journey of the shepherds who heeded the call of the angels, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, to come and visit the newborn child lying in a manger.
Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth, goodwill to all men. May this be the prayer of us all as we celebrate the holidays this season.
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