A Catholic Labor Leader Reflects on Visit to Israel

A guest contribution from Don Villar at the Chicago Federation of Labor

I had only gotten a few hours of sleep when I was suddenly wide awake. My watch said it was 4:00 a.m. Friday, December 9. I was physically exhausted, but apparently not enough to fall back to sleep.

Since arriving in Israel as part of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago labor delegation five days ago, I logged dozens of miles (more than 125,000 steps on my Fitbit) walking around Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and near the Gaza Strip. We met with government officials, Israeli and Palestinian labor activists, workers, and struggling families. Besides visiting religious sites, we were immersed in Israeli history and geopolitics. The visit revealed the complexity, the challenges, and the promise of the region.

For another hour, I laid in bed. I tried to go back to sleep, but it didn’t work. I felt something  pulling at me, calling me to get up. I fumbled in the darkness of my hotel room to get dressed, and tried not to wake my wife Rose asleep beside me.

I walked out of the hotel to a dark and quiet Jerusalem street. Hours earlier, the streets were frenetic as people enjoyed the start of their weekend. It was a cold December morning as I made my way to the Old City. It was about a 15 minute walk, up winding streets, to get to the Damascus Gates, one of the entrances to the Old City. I had some rosary beads I purchased earlier in the Old City in my pocket, and began praying the rosary as I walked in the early morning silence.

When I visited during the day, the Old City was bustling with locals, tourists, merchants, children, and workers. The sounds of conversations, footsteps, and hum of city life echoed through the narrow streets and alleys. Now, the streets were silent, except for my own footsteps on the ancient cobblestones. The once crowded shops were now shuttered. I followed the signs to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, meandering through the dark alleys and narrow streets. The signs led me through an archway that opened up to the modest courtyard of the church, Christianity’s most holy place.

I stepped into the church. The chatter of tourists from the day before was replaced by chants, prayers and serenity. I made my way to the main rotunda of the church containing the Aedicule, a small chapel or shrine. The long line of tourists waiting to enter the Aedicule was gone. In this early hour, groups of pilgrims were gathered in the side chapels of the church, praying and waiting for their turn to enter the tomb.

In the Aedicule, about two dozen Polish Catholic pilgrims were celebrating mass. After they finished mass, the Polish pilgrims filed quietly out of the tomb. As they exited, a group of Italian Catholic pilgrims entered the Aedicule to celebrate mass. I made eye contact with the pilgrimage leader, asked if I could join them. After her group entered, she invited me to come into the Aedicule with them.

I was the last person to enter as they closed the wooden doors behind me for the mass. The Aedicule is made up of two very small rooms. The first contains a remnant of the Angel’s Stone. The stone that was rolled to cover the entrance of Christ’s tomb. On Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene found the tomb open and empty, and the angel sitting on the stone. The second room contains the tomb itself.

While the mass was in Italian, I could make out the parts of the liturgy and responses. I whispered the responses to myself in English. During the course of the mass, two pilgrims at a time would enter the tomb, kneel before and touch the place where Jesus was laid to rest. During the liturgy of the Eucharist, after nearly all the pilgrims had gone into the tomb, she invited me to do the same. Standing in the back of the crowded room, the pilgrims parted enough to allow me inside the tomb. I knelt, said a prayer, grateful for this moment, and kissed the place where our faith tradition tells us Christ was laid after he was crucified. After a moment, I got back up and returned to the room of the Angel’s Stone. I pressed myself into the corner near the entrance of the tomb to allow others to come forward.

When it was time for Holy Communion, the priest emerged from the tomb and began distributing the Eucharist. He placed the host in my hand. I paused, stared at the wafer, and thought about this moment. I was taking the body of Christ in the tomb where he had risen from the dead.

I placed the host in my mouth. As it dissolved on my tongue, I felt a sudden rush of emotions come upon me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, goosebumps ran up my arm. I felt a sensation throughout my entire being. It was something I have never felt before. I felt the immense solidarity of faith across the world and time. I felt small and humbled. I felt joy and elation. I felt so many emotions. We often talk about being in a state of Grace, about having the Holy Spirit come upon us. At that moment, I truly felt a state of Grace, the Holy Spirit.

After the priest gave his final blessing, ending the mass, we filed out of the Aedicule. A group of Korean Catholic pilgrims came in behind us to also celebrate mass. Mass in the tomb was a transformative moment. I was burdened when I entered the tomb. A half hour later, I emerged transformed, changed, uplifted.

As I exited the church, I felt a new sense of clarity. I had been preoccupied by work, family life, responsibilities, meetings, challenges, personal and professional relationships, image, disappointments, heartache, sorrows, joys, successes, and with absorbing all I had seen and heard during the past few days. The burdens, ebb and flow of life that preoccupy everyone weighed me down. For a moment, those burdens felt lifted. My daily prayer included a plea for God to guide me, show me the way, give me strength to continue on as a labor activist, as an advocate, as someone trying to live their faith, and advance the Labor Movement and the cause for worker justice.

When I first entered the church, it was dark outside. The darkness was now replaced by the morning light and blue skies. The sound of birds singing filled the air. The shops catering to tourists in the Old City were still closed, except for a bakery. The baker was placing dough into an old brick oven. The smell of fresh baked bread wafted from the oven, filling the narrow streets of the Old City. Jerusalem was slowly waking from its slumber to a new and beautiful day.

Rose was still in bed when I returned to our hotel room. I sat beside her and began to cry as I shared with her what I just experienced. I know I don’t always get life right. I make mistakes. I stumble. At this moment, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I felt that God was answering my prayers to guide me, show me the way, and give me strength to continue on.

On this Friday morning, it was God that was calling me, pulling me from my sleep and exhaustion, to spend a moment of peace in the early morning in the Holy City and renew my spirit.