Today was district conference for the Israel district--and it was possibly the neatest thing I have done since I got here.
We had known it was happening this Sabbath since last week. We are all members of the Jerusalem Branch here (how cool is that?), and for district conference (the equivalent of stake conference) we would be joined by members from the branches in Galilee and Tel Aviv. President Schafer told us about the group in Bethlehem (the church's only official "group"--the next smallest unti after a branch), but had told us that the likelihood was that none of them would be able to come. If you are a Palestinian you have to have the proper papers to get from the West Bank into Jerusalem, and most of the Bethlehem members don't have that documentation. Without it they would have to drive over three hours out and around to get in. I prayed all week that those who were trying to come would be able to get here and that those who could not would know of our love and feel of Heavenly Father's guidance and assurance.
Anyway--the day came, and we were joined by members from all over. It was incredible. I met people today from Chile, Israel, the United States, the Phillipenes, and Russia. One of the Russian sisters spoke in the Relief Society session with the aid of an interpreter--and even with the constant back-and-forth between her and the young man interpreting, the spirit was there. The Relief Society president spoke as well--and I almost cried for joy to see that she had come from Bethlehem. She was the only one who made it, and it was because she had documentation--but I rejoiced all the same.
Her story was incredible. She was born in Israel, joined the church at BYU in the states, then came home. She spent the first several years of her membership in danger every Sabbath. She used to spend three hours running over hills, climbing fences, dodging guards, and even being shot at--and all just to get to church. I just don't know anything like that in the States--I can't remember a time when I haven't lived less than ten minutes away from meeting house. I am only now begining to realize what an incredible blessing that is. It is not easy to be a member of the church here. The walls and boundaries make travel difficult, and the non-prosylitizing agreement extends not only to visitors but to members as well. I have learned so much from these incredible saints today. I will never again take the blessings of religious freedom I enjoy for granted.
Another even that made the day special is that yesterday I got a calling. I am the Compassionate Service leader for the Jerusalem branch. As I went around meeting the sisters today, I was humbled and overwhelmed. I am in charge of service for the student sisters, and I have some ideas for ways I can serve them--but I am also over the service of the sisters who live here in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. I am in charge of giving and delegating compassionate service to these incredible sisters, many of whom I have not yet met and who all have sacrificed infinitely more than I have to be members of this church. However, most of them also live very hard lives. I cannot wait to get to work doing whatever might be needful for them.
I played the piano and sang with Katie for almost an hour today. I had missed singing with her. It was wonderful.
The crowning point of the day was this afternoon, when we made our first trip to the Garden Tomb. Nobody knows if that is truly the place where the Savior was laid, but it was a beautiful place to remember Him and His glorious resurrection. We sat under a pavillion and sang hymns for a while. Several worshipers stopped their walks to listen in or even to sing along with us. I think it touched all of us to think that we were able to bring something to that sacred place. Many of the groups were singing in many different languages--but I loved listening to them all. No matter where we are from or what language we speak, we can all sing praise to our Heavenly Father.
Yesterday night we went to the Western Wall for the start of Sabbath. Both the partitioned sections were packed. Both men and women sang, chanted, danced, read scriptures, or just quietly prayed, welcoming the Sabbath day. I covered my hair and made my way up to the wall with a friend (Carrie, my Old Testament teacher's daughter) to touch the stones and pray. We both followed to tradition of not turning our backs on the wall until the last moment.
I have ben praying that as this trip continues, I would be able to learn love for all the people here--Jews, Christians, and Palestinians alike. Heavenly Father is already answering my prayers. I especially love the members of my district. They are all such faithful, wonderful people. As I was walking around after the service, a sister I had never seen before came up to me, smiling ear to ear, exclaiming, "Sister! It's so good to see you here..." She embraced me warmly, kissed me on the cheek, expressed her joy for my presence here as though she had known me all her life. Her warmth and love touched me straight through.
I gave a talk on charity in my singles ward a few months ago. One thing that I said (though I hadn't thought of it until I said it) is that because we are Heavenly Father's children, we share His infinite capacity for love. I am seeing the truth in that idea the longer I am here. It seems like every time I meet someone new here, my heart just keeps making a little more room to let them in. I hope that process never stops--imagine how much love there could be in a lifetime!
Ma'salaama, friends--more soon!
(PS: Thanks for the comments! I love you all so much! It made my day to hear from you all!)