First, he celebrated Christmas Day at the Church of Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish (Church of the Multiplication for short). Now, Owyn J. Ferguson has participated in a Palm Sunday Holy Land procession, which began just off the Mount of Olives and ended around the Lions’ Gate – one of the seven open gates in the Old City of Jerusalem walls.
Owyn participated in the palm-waving procession, which officially started Holy Week, with approximately 2,000 masked faithful Christians, religious men and women serving in the Holy Land and a handful of Jerusalemites. The procession was led for the first time by Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzabella, who presided over the Palm Sunday Pontifical Mass at the Holy Sepulchre, and the afternoon procession from Bethpage on Mount of Olives to Lions’ Gate near St. Anne’s Church in the Old City.
“It was truly an experience of a lifetime seeing Christians from all walks of life representing a myriad of nations, denominations, orders, monasteries, convents … etc., was incredibly astounding,” said Ferguson, 22. “We were all masked, and asked to arrange ourselves in groups that marched with 10 meters between each. On a normal year, when people are able to enter the country for this occasion, I’d imagine the crowd is at least seven times bigger.”
Ferguson was among the Palm Sunday procession that saw Patriarch Pizzabella stop on the way to the Old City at the Dominus Flevit Sanctuary to pray over Jerusalem, and bless it with the relic of the Cross, so that it may be more marked by the love of Christ and become a place of encounter, respect and mutual acceptance.
Palm Sunday recalls an event in the Scripture of Jesus entering into Jerusalem and being greeted by the people waving palm branches. For Christians, it is a reminder of the welcoming of Jesus into their hearts and of their willingness to follow him.
Ferguson was able to participate in the experience as he is now among the 60-percent-plus of the Israeli adult population that has received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19.
His inoculation meant a whole new world has opened up for Ferguson, who is on a year-long volunteerism stint at the Benedictine Monastery of Tabgha, in Tabgha, Israel, which is located at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes. He received his inoculations on February 4 and 25, along with his fellow volunteers. They joined the monks and staff of the Monastery and Beit Noah who had all been vaccinated ahead of them.
“Particularly exciting for us volunteers, was our new-found ability to travel domestically,” said Ferguson who, after being vaccinated, was able to travel and stay at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
Tabgha is a Monastery of Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem. The monks go back and forth between the two locations, but ultimately, they are one community.
“Staying at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, [gave me the opportunity] to explore the Old City extensively,” said Ferguson.
Since being inoculated, he has visited renowned sites like the Mount of Olives, which is used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and has been used as a burial location for Jews since biblical times, including the burial location for some of the most prominent biblical kings; the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray; and the Church of All Nations, also known as the Church or Basilica of the Agony, which enshrines a section of bedrock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest.
Ferguson also took in the Garden of Gethsemane, where according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus underwent the agony in the garden and was arrested the night before his crucifixion; the Last Supper Room; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most sacred site in the world for millions of Christians, as it is the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
He has also received an exclusive tour of the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine. It is commonly held that the Dome commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension into heaven; and al-Aqsa Mosque, which is believed to be the second house of prayer constructed after the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
“[The] al-Aqsa Mosque tour was particularly special because they generally do not allow visitors inside, and the mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Great Mosque of Mecca to al-Aqsa during the night journey.”
Ferguson has also hiked Jerusalem Forest, which has remains of ancient farming implements and burial caves. He has traversed the Judean Desert, one of the world’s smallest, yet most unique desert regions, which is riddled with impressive historic sites. And he has also gone for a swim in the Dead Sea (which is really just a lake), the lowest point on earth at 400 meters (approximately 1,312 feet) below sea level. The saline water of the lake lends itself to the name because no fish can survive in the salty waters. It is also renowned for its health and healing properties and the unique features that one can float naturally in the waters.
Ferguson arrived in Tabgha in November 2020 to participate in the monastic life of the community as a member of the Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps (SJBVC), which exists to provide a year of volunteer service for graduates of Saint John’s University, Minnesota, at a monastery of the worldwide Benedictine confederation, and to support the work, prayer and life of Benedictine monasteries around the world.
Ferguson’s responsibility for keeping Biet Noah running on a daily basis include welcoming and serving guests, cleaning, repair and maintenance work, gardening, cooking for the community and construction projects for the retreat house, monastery and church.
“My reason for doing the program in general is that through the last couple of summers working in corporate citizenship, I really just gained an appreciation for the citizenship part of corporate, and I thought that a volunteer experience would be very humbling and give me an appreciation and recognition for dignity in all types of work and all types of people; that’s why I wanted to do a volunteer program,” he told The Nassau Guardian in an earlier interview.
He chose to serve in Israel because of the service the monastery offers.
Up to his inoculation, Ferguson’s time in Israel had been spent working 35 to 40 hours a week doing landscaping, farming and other outdoor tasks around the monastery until Beit Noah, a special facility for special guests with special needs, reopened.
With the inoculation of the volunteers, Ferguson said Beit Noah, after a year of being closed, began receiving guests in March – small groups from throughout the Holy Land, primarily groups of families and/or friends. And that the plan is to receive larger groups, which will likely include children with disabilities after Easter.
Ferguson said he imagines once the groups with children come in and they start receiving international groups, the experience will begin to feel completely whole.
“I imagine this will feel quite hectic at first, relative to our earlier months here, but more rewarding than anything else.”
Since Beit Noah reopened, in addition to outdoor work around the monastery, retreat center and Pilgerhaus, Ferguson and his fellow volunteers are also now preparing rooms for guests, checking them in and out, accommodating them during their stay, working the convenience store, and working the entry gate for the church on weekends.
“It’s a lot more busy, so I’m glad we get to transition into this new phase of work gradually, as opposed to all-of-a-sudden receiving guests at maximum capacity,” he said.
“Having guests certainly brings the experience closer to its full form, something I’m appreciative of. Interacting with guests is extremely fulfilling. Almost all groups have invited us volunteers to join them for meals, and we often end up sharing long conversations with them discussing our backgrounds, life experiences, political views, religious views, etc. We’ve stayed up as late as 1 a.m. with guests.”
The Church of Multiplication has also opened for domestic tourists to visit on weekends. The Roman Catholic Church located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel is best known for Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish to feed a multitude. It is also remembered for Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples after his Resurrection, when he tested and commissioned St. Peter as leader of his church.
As he gears up to celebrate Easter, Ferguson said similar to Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Holy Week in the Holy Land share calendar space with Passover – the primary religious holiday celebrated across the country at this time. But he said the Christian communities certainly make the most of it, regardless.
“Here in Tabgha, a series of liturgies, similar to the schedule of a parish at home, are planned for the next few days. Services will be celebrated both in the Church of the Multiplication, as well as the Dalmanutha Prayer Space on the Sea of Galilee. On Friday, weather permitting, there will also be a Stations of the Cross, taking us all the way from the sea through the church yard, to the Mount of Beatitudes.”
He said meals are intended to be representative of the respective days – lighter, Seder-like food on Friday and Saturday, and for Easter, a more filling meal, which he said will likely include seafood.