Friday, April 29, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Three

(This is another is a series of reflections from my trip with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

My introduction to Israel was an airport shuttle van ride from the Tel Aviv airport to the Gloria Hotel in Old City Jerusalem. The view of Israel during this van ride was of a modern, western society with beautiful highways and a bustling, modern infrastructure. The countryside did not look particularly Holy or particularly conflicted.  The van driver dropped us off on the curb at the corner of a busy, urban intersection in Jerusalem with the directions to walk up the steps, through the Jaffa Gate and take the first left turn to our hotel. This was easy. The walk was short. What I quickly learned was that walking through the Jaffa Gate brought me into a beautiful, mystical and fascinating new world: the Old City of Jerusalem.

The 30 participants of our study tour to Israel and Palestine were spread out over different airlines and different flight schedules. Only my new friend Ann and I were on a direct United Airlines flight which made us the first members of our team to arrive, and gifted us with a whole afternoon of free time. Ann shared my enthusiasm to use this free time well, we quickly checked into the hotel, dropped our bags and starting walking. From my pre-reading I knew about the Old City, and my tourist logic was correct. I would have no problem walking around, no concern about getting lost, and no need for a car or bus ride as long as I stayed within the walls of the Old City. We immersed ourselves in the Old City, not hesitating to explore any twist or turn or small alley of this ancient place. The Old City is now a tourist haven and every imaginable Holy Land souvenir and Middle Eastern sweets and juices are available in the small, store front shops that are tucked in everywhere. The chatter and hospitality of the shop owners and the boisterous fun of sellers and buyers was all joyful; “Please come into my shop, I have a special deal for you today!”

We twisted down alleys, around corners, up and down steps not knowing and not seeking any sense of direction or destination. We came out onto a landing and, to our surprise, a view opened up before us of the Western (also called Wailing) Wall. We had wandered all the way across the Old City. Now our path tightened up a bit with posted signs and explanations, and we needed to pass through a security check-point to enter the plaza and approach the Wailing Wall. Ann and I needed to separate into the divided male and female places for prayer. Just touching the stones of that wall, admiring their heft and size and soaring height was inspiring. The stones carry you back in time. This is a Holy Place; prayer came easy.

Ann and I met up and continued exploring. We were baffled by an ugly, sort of wooden deck which rose up from the Wailing Wall plaza floor and exited up on top of the Wall somewhere we could not see; so we explored it. There was another security checkpoint and this little, wooden walkway delivered us onto the plaza for the Dome of the Rock. My pre-reading has also taught me about this place; the Dome of the Rock is the third most holy site in Islam, the legendary spot of the prophet’s mystical ascension to heaven. 

The geography stunned me; and still does. I had book knowledge about the Old City and the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. In my theological mind, it seems to me that the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock are the opposite ends of the whole Middle East conflict. What the Wailing Wall is and represents to Jews and what the Dome of the Rock is and represents to Moslems seem to be the opposing parenthesis between which is all the seething conflict that we call the Middle East. What stunned me is that the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock are so close together. Because of their physical locations with the Wall sinking down to the foundations of the world and the Dome reaching up to the heights of heaven there is not a common viewpoint where both are in one’s frame of vision together. When standing in front to the Wailing Wall, it is so high you cannot see the Dome of the Rock above it. When standing on the huge plaza surrounding the Dome of the Rock there truly is no sense and no acknowledgement that the Wailing Wall is one of its foundation walls. In my introductory study there was always either a view and explanation of the Wailing Wall or a view and explanation of the Dome of the Rock; but I did not realize how close together these holy places are to one another until I stood there. The Wailing Wall creates the foundation wall upon which the Dome of the Rock sits. Of course, this makes perfect physical sense; a point that I completely missed in my pre-reading. Spiritually, this proximity fascinated and confused me. How very close; how very far apart.

Of course, today, given generations of conflict the distance between these sites is exaggerated. The Moslems who seek a time of worship and prayer at their Dome of the Rock use an entry point completely opposite from where the Wailing Wall stands. And the entry points for Jews to their Wailing Wall never clearly presents a view of the Dome of the Rock above it. And yet there is this ugly, sort of haphazardly built, wooden walkway which Ann and I wandered upon which carries foolish tourists from the plaza in front of the Wailing Wall to the courtyard surrounding the Dome. They forgot to tell us that these holy sites are so very, very close; maybe we have forgotten to mention that peace is very, very close.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”   Psalm 122: 6

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Two:

(This is another of a series of reflections from my recent study tour with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

What the Israeli’s call the Separation Barrier and what the Palestinians call the Wall winds its way on a convoluted path through Bethlehem, Palestine. We walked along the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem on our way to visit the Wi’am (Wi’am is Arabic for Agape) Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. (Please check out their excellent English language website.) The Wi’am Center, by a strange irony of geography, is now located immediately next to the Wall, which was built along the border of their property. The Wi’am Center is a small, local Palestinian Christian peacemaking ministry trying to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis in personal and local ways. The Center is particularly focused on empowering women and girls. The fact that the Wall was built immediately next to their office both inspires their ministry and seriously hampers their efforts.

When we met with Zoughbi Zougbhi, the executive director of the Wi’am Center, he at first smiled graciously and quickly apologized that their office was in a bit of turmoil and confusion. During a disturbance just days earlier on the street in front of the Center, an Israeli tear gas canister, shot off to disperse the crowd of young, rock throwers, landed on top of their electric panel. The initial heat from the canister burned up their electric box; they were now working to restore full electric service and get their internet service up again. This was all explained in a sort of matter-of-fact, casual tone like we would explain the hassle of a plugged drain in the kitchen sink at home. This is life in the little town of Bethlehem today.

I asked Mr. Zoughbi about his church connection and what support their Center receives from American churches. He mentioned that he also worked closely with the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and is grateful for the Presbyterian support in Palestine. There is also a long list of American churches that partner with their work. But he also made a point that we heard from other Palestinian Christian leaders. When he meets with American Christian groups either here in their office in Bethlehem or in Jerusalem, since many Americans are afraid to travel into Bethlehem, he is often asked when he converted to Christianity. A hint of anger flashed in his eyes. “Why do you American Christians always believe that we Palestinian Christians converted to Christianity? Sometimes I think you Americans are convinced that all Palestinians are Islamic terrorists. If you learn anything here, please know that this is a Christian ministry founded by Christians and supported by Christians. My family has been Christian and has lived in Palestine for many, many generations. My family has a Christian heritage that is older than your United States! Our Christian heritage goes back directly to the disciples of Jesus.” We, American Christians, need to check our perceptions and carefully evaluate our own deep stereotypes about the complex and confusing reality of the Middle East today. There many different expressions and historic distinctions among all the religions of these peoples. This is Holy Land where our great religions are originally rooted. The depth of religious conviction and identity is profound and powerful. History is so much deeper and longer than in our American culture.

There are Christians and Churches in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. But given generations of conflict the numbers of Christians have seriously declined. But as the Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem told our group, the influence of the Christians in the Middle East is much, much larger than their small numbers would suggest. We need to support these Christian brothers and sisters.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reflections from Israel and Palestine, Part One

“O Little Town of Bethlehem:” 

I grew up going to Sunday school and worship in a small Presbyterian Church. Every Advent and Christmas Eve we sang this classic hymn; I can instantly bring up its tune in my mind. I cherish the memory I have, as a young boy, helping my Mom carefully unwrap her ceramic manger scene and setting it up. I have this idyllic, romantic image of Bethlehem. My imagination created a Christmas story that was soft and innocent with a beautiful Mary, an honest Joseph, a delicate but divine baby Jesus along with prayerful, reverent shepherds and majestic wise men. Somewhere deep in my heart I wish I could have that image back again.

My innocent imagination of the little town of Bethlehem is now forever shattered by the truth of what Bethlehem is today. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program study tour on which I participated did not do the typical, fly-by tourist visit to Bethlehem. Most tours quickly visit the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square to buy an olive wood manger scene and then quickly escape back to the security of Israel. We did those things, but we also went deep into the bleeding heart of Bethlehem, Palestine. This real Bethlehem has shaken me, tossed all my preconceptions around a bit, and immersed me deeply in the history, ambiguity and the pain of the Israel/ Palestine conflict. This is our Holy Land; it is a profoundly conflicted place.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church is a mission partner of our PCUSA World Mission program; one of the leaders of our study tour, the Rev. Kate Taber, now serves as our mission coworker on the staff of this amazing congregation. It is a short walk from the Church of the Nativity to Christmas Church along the main street of Bethlehem. Our team walked back and forth from our Manger Square Hotel to Christmas Church several times; it is a delightful walk overflowing with all the colors and flavors of Palestine today. I wandered up and down this way alone during some free time on a sunny, Sunday afternoon checking out the shops, the vendors and people watching. But I wonder how many tourists would never consider, and how Americans are afraid, to make this walk because of our perceptions and stereotypes about the Palestinians who live there?

I will make a strong statement: To be a Presbyterian today and to try in any, significant way to contribute to our church’s work in mission and peacemaking you must be educated about the work of Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine. You can start by reading the recent book by the senior pastor: The Rev. Dr. Mitri Rahab, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes or, at least, learning about him at his website.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" Psalm 122: 6.