Musalaha’s Spring Youth Desert Encounter completed another year of taking 30 Palestinian and Israelis teenagers and youth leaders to the desert as they embarked on a reconciliation journey. Few, from this equally mixed group of guys and girls were acquainted with each other before boarding the bus, yet by the time we reached Chai Bar resort, where we were staying the first night, this group of youth were carelessly chattering away. It was clear to me that some of the girls regarded the prospect of spending 3 nights under the stars on desert dunes and going 4 days without a shower with apprehension, but that adolescent burst of energy was not lacking. The 8 counselors were also not short on energy as many of them had participated as youths. It was so exciting to see a new generation of leaders coming up through Musalaha’s programs.
 
Our first morning was spent reflecting on the story of the prodigal son, as our dynamic group of Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders interactively brought this story to life. For these youths it was a story that emphasized the need for reconciliation first and foremost with God.  The counselors brought the story to life by acting it out as it was read from the Bible. What particularly struck me was the emphasis on the excitement of the father as he was reunited with his son.  For the son, reconciling with his father was just a matter of reaching out his hand to a forgiving and loving parent. We discussed how God is like that father, ever ready and willing to be reconciled with us and to be in relationship with His sons and daughters.
 
After the devotion we packed everything up and left for our day-long hike. The hike was about 8 hours up and down throughout a few wadis in the desert and was breathtakingly beautiful. The harsh realities of the desert seem to break down barriers between people in a unique way and these teens soon began bonding while sweating through the hike. The contrasts of the geography of the land in Israel are unexpected and rewarding, none more so than the glimpses of the sparkling deep blue of the Red Sea through the cliffs of the desert mountains. We paused during the hike and lay still for some quiet time to enjoy the type of profound silence that you can only find in the desert. It is amazing how even a short rest can renew your strength.  The second night we camped at a Bedouin campground. After dinner we gathered around to sing songs of worship in Hebrew, Arabic and English and shared our reflections on the morning’s bible study. Later that night, watching the stars, I reflected that the stillness that the desert brings to your soul is an apt metaphor for the work of reconciliation. It must take place in the difficult realities of the world and yet if we will pause and take time, God fills us with His peace and this gives us strength to continue on.  
 
Wednesday morning began with a devotion on Jacob and Esau, emphasizing another part of reconciliation, that with our brothers. Again the kids giggled as the counselors pantomimed the story but the message was clear. Trying to compare ourselves to others and compete with one another for favor just leads to strife. It is when we begin to see those around us as our brothers and sisters and to treat them with love and respect, no matter what injustice we have suffered, that our “family” begins to thrive. Reading this story in the context of reconciliation really brought home to me the power of forgiveness. 
 
After the teaching we started off on the camel trek. This was the highlight of the trip for me; watching the kids taking turns riding and walking with their new friends.  In the evening we reached the sand dunes where we were to spend the last night. It was amazing to see how quickly everyone ran up the dunes, even after a long day in the desert sun. That night we continued the discussion about Jacob and Esau and some of the counselors shared what the story meant to them. As young adults many of these leaders have already experienced a much harsher reality than the youths they were leading, but had also been exposed to reconciliation as youths themselves and still their own example of unity gave these teens some great role models of reconciliation with our brothers.
 
The final morning we left the camp, after breakfast and some worship, and caravanned by camel back to the bus. On the return trip I looked around the bus at new friends that were strangers just 3 short days before and thought about all of the stories shared during the trip.  It was a personal blessing for me to have the chance to take part in this desert encounter. Even though the work of reconciliation can be extremely complicated I will always remember the importance of the two things that I learned in the desert: a right relationship with God and right relationship with your brothers and sisters.
 
By Michelle Stapleton
Musalaha Volunteer