Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

George Orwell would have a field day with this place. Things are rarely evident at face value, labels are used for things that mean the exact opposite, and the layers of interpretation are so thick you can build a nation on it. That being said, there are some things that come across as so patently obvious that they cannot escape comment. My current list is three, moments of crystal clear (at least in my mind) cognitive dissonance:

1) Camping, Camping Everywhere and Not a Tent to See: A week ago, we toured Deheisheh refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Established to absorb some of the 800,000 Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of the new State of Israel in 1948. Initially, the camp was a tent city, and remained so for several years until the UN provided each family with a small one room house. 62 years later, continuing in their seemingly permanent limbo, the refugee community has added onto the hovels to provide space for successive generations. Now, the place is overcrowded, the streets are narrow and cracked (if paved). It is, to put it
bluntly, a slum. One week later, we stood on an overlook outside of Bethlehem, taken there by an Israeli security expert. Apparently not knowing our itinerary up to that point, he pointed out Deheisheh. “It’s not really a camp, though,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood just like any other.” the collective skepticism of the group went off the scale.

2) A Tale of Two Playgrounds: We drove through Silwan, a Palestinian village outside Jerusalem, trash strewn everywhere (no such city services are provided), houses built out of plain concrete, not a sidewalk in sight. As we drove up the narrow streets, we passed a flat space cleared of rubble, where a few kids were kicking a soccer ball around. The area was lines with rocks so the ball wouldn’t roll off and go plunging down into the valley/gorge/trash dump. Not more than a hundred yards up the street, we approached Nof Zion, an Israeli “neighborhood” in East Jerusalem. The streets were wide, public transportation was readily available, the streets were wide, plus sidewalks, and spotless. Several children played in a fenced in
playground with new slides, jungle gyms, and a soft green ground cover. You wonder what might happen if the kids were left to their own devices without parental infection.

3) Walls, Walls, Everywhere the Walls: No one in the Palestinian side of the Wall took us on a tour of it. No one had to. The barbaric 30 foot tall structure practically speaks for itself. Houses are crammed up as close to the barrier as possible; open agricultural land sits empty on the other side of the wall, separated from those who own and farm it. It cuts down the middle of streets, snakes this way and that to include this Israeli settlement and exclude that Palestinian village (in the example above, though, both play areas are on the same side of the wall and governed by the same Jerusalem municipality). As our security guide described it, he called it a fence (for the record, most of its length is fence; but most of the population is confronted with the hideous concrete), and described the many humanitarian conditions built into the structure to minimize the negative impact on the civilian population, such as agricultural gates and checkpoints. The reality of these things is very different, of course, and inconveniently, perhaps, nowhere in international law can security be an excuse for impeding freedom of movement, which a basic human right.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the perpetuation of the conflict. Mentalities and denials of the other, veiling either subtle indifference or outright aggression as self-defense, even the simple fact of old patterns all add fuel to a fire that needs very little stoking. As if I needed to be reminded of all this, our taxi driver on the way to the airport helped me out. It began as a pleasant enough conversation about family and home life and the like. And then, as if a switch flipped, we were suddenly on unpleasant ground. His all-too-familiar list of Palestinian grievances against Israelis suddenly kicked into overdrive, overstating the pro-Israel lobby’s power in DC, wondering outloud why the Holocaust museum focuses only on Jews, and then topping it all off with the obscene statement that “no Jew anywhere at anytime has done anything good for anybody.” All the peace movement folks we met, he said, aren’t really for peace. They’re just liars.

Yes, there is plenty of toxicity to go around. And the longer that walls, both real and metaphorical, persist, the faster and further these cancers will spread. When the cognitive dissonance runs as deep as these examples show, there is a thread of the prophetic observation that people are proclaiming peace while the world is in flames.

Bleak? Yes. But all the more reason for those of us willing to cross these barriers to build bridges that bypass the walls. That’s the hope and the challenge that will disturb and motivate me on the flight home.

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Stone by Stone

The stones of this place are amazing. The history practically leaps out of them. From the time of the patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets to the time of Jesus, and down through centuries of one Empire and nation after another, there are stones to mark each and every transfer of power. It’s an impressive city, one that inspired to the heights and depths of emotion and faith. It’s all so remarkable, all so seemingly eternal, and yet all so truly temporary.

Jesus said as much as he stood in front of the Temple with the disciples. They were going on and on about how amazing and intricate it all was, when he commented, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Christians through the centuries have understood this statement as his prediction of the Temple’s destruction in the year 70 when the Emperor Titus carried out the demolition as punishment for what is called the Great Jewish Revolt. And that may be true – the Temple had already been destroyed once already, when the ancient Israelite kingdom had been conquered by the Babylonians. There had been several rebellions against Roman rule already, and Jesus knew what the Romans were capable of. But I think that there’s a more permanent meaning to this observation.

Layer after layer of history fills this place. Politics often works to prioritize one layer over another, but the one enduring truth is that every layer has been followed by another. That is no less true of the present as it was in the past.

That’s not an excuse for inaction, a justification for passivity, simply because injustice and evil are the one thing that seem to be consistent. Instead, it should be the very encouragement we need to build something more permanent. As a Christian, I call it by the name of the kingdom of God. But unlike any earthly kingdom, unlike a theocracy, this building is made of living stones, the people of this place so full of horror and wonder.

We have spent ten days as a group building those relationships with each other. I hope that we have also done the same with the many people with whom we’ve come in contact. Working for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a noble goal. Endeavoring to end Occupation and terror and to tear down walls is a righteous enterprise. But this is only a start; it is only the strength of living stones knit together that can bring about the peaceable kingdom.

One thing is certain: these walls of dead stone will come down.

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A long time ago, a man named David brought a sacred object to a town named Jerusalem, placing it on a mountain as a way to enhance the spiritual identity of the Jewish people.

If you identified this as a Biblical story, you’re half-right. King David did, indeed, place the Ark of the Covenant at Mount Moriah in Jerusalem of the Jebusites to establish the new capital of his kingdom and unify the Jewish people. In 1949, another event shares echoes of this story. David Ben-Gurion, President of the new State of Israel, brought the remains of Theodore Herzl (founder of modern, political Zionism) to a mountain in the new Jerusalem (soon to be called Mt. Herzl), so that the Jewish people could be united around a new secularly sacred site.

Our time in Israel and Palestine has been engaging a number of stories and and narratives. We have certainly privileged the Christian stories, both modern and ancient. But you cannot come here without engaging the political, cultural, and religious narratives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. And as we spend time with the Israeli Jewish cultural identity, there is no better place to do this than Mt. Herzl.

I’m very aware of how much of a parallel there is between the Israeli civil religion and the American version. Benjamin Franklin, in the early days of the new republic, reflected on how these new Americans could have allegiance to a transcendent idea when there would be separation of church and state. As a good deist, he identified several characteristics to which he thought all religions could ascribe. It was around these ideas that the American civil religion took root and grew. It has its own rituals, like the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier (for more on this topic, read Robert Bellah).

There are many parallels between how the two nation’s civil religions have unfolded, including conflict with and exclusion of indigenous people, as well as a religious vision being a part if its establishment. And since then, the lofty ideals of these nations have remained as reminders of how far they still have to go (and have left some waiting for injustices to be redressed).

It is easy to stay hopeless in the face of realities and facts on the ground here. And having spent so much time engaging and living with the Palestinian community, a visit to the grave of Theodore Herzl was not an easy one to make. But our guide today left us with this quote of Herzl’s:
“Zionism, as I understand it, is not solely about the desire to acquire a legally secure piece of real estate for our downtrodden people, after all, but also about the desire to grow towards moral and spiritual perfection.”

As we stood on another hill, this one called the Mt. of Olives, we read the words of Jesus which, too, speak of unfulfilled visions:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is hard to stand in this city and not weep for what might have been or what yet might be.

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There is something central about the reality of Jesus as the embodiment of the divine. Christians absurdly believe in the story that the one who created it all is most fully revealed to us in a first century man named Jesus; and that same Jesus tasted, quite literally, the utter humiliations that humanity faces.

It is in the echoes of that, hopefully, that most Christian ministry takes place. And ad we’ve been traveling through the regions, this vision of incarnation, of Godly enfleshment, has been one of our anchors. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we have been reminded of the physicality of the Biblical stories. As we have met and worshiped with Christian communities, we have engaged the living stones and have, I hope, represented the body of Christ well.

Everywhere we have been, we have been reminded of the story where Philip invites Nathanael to meet the Messiah. Nathanael is very skeptical. Rather than argue with him, though, Philip simply says, “Come and see.” In other words, don’t take my word for it. Go and check it out for yourself. We have been following in these footsteps of Nathanael. It is not necessary to buy into one narrative or another in this region. The best thing to do is to come and see for yourselves. Walk the Emmaus Road; you will most certainly be joined by the presence of the living Lord.

One ministry we heard about was the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. A project of the World Council of Churches, EAPPI is a manifestation of bringing the presence of Christ to places of great anguish. Checkpoints, places where the Wall/Barrier/Fence is evicting people, anywhere that people can be helped by the presence of internationals, showing care for the local Christian communities, all of these are ways in which the EAPPI accompanies people in dire need.

There are so many ways in which the connective tissue of the body of Christ becomes real. Don’t believe me? Come and see for yourself.

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As soon as we turned onto the road into Jenin, my stomach turned. My head knew that everything would be fine; but memories linger and tend to overrule common sense. The crossing at the Green Line near the village of Jalame held some intense emotional resonance apparently.

We had spent three and a half years in the area during the second Intifada. So crossing this checkpoint was always an unpredictable, and sometimes harrowing, enterprise. We almost always prevailed and were able to cross in whatever direction we wanted to go – almost. But negotiating with fully-armed soldiers pointing M-16s at you with tanks rumbling by isn’t exactly a stroll in the holy land. No wonder those nerves came screaming back.

Right before we left, the Barrier had started going up – a good quarter of a mile inside the Green Line. Since then, the area has been transformed into an industrial crossing. I hardly recognized it when we arrived this time, having just recently been open to non-industrial traffic. The guns and bulletproof vests were still in evidence, but unlike my previous experiences, there was no one in military fatigues. We passed in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a cursory glance at passports.

Coming back through promised to before complicated, as we would be crossing back into Israel. We were sidelined over to an area where German Shepherds were eagerly searching cars in front of us for explosives. They took the guide, driver, me, and one other off the bus. I figured we’d be questioned separately about our whereabouts. Instead, we were guided into a room which acted much like an airport security check: emptying of pockets, running all of that through an x-ray machine, and walking through a metal detector. Our “interrogation” consisted of a young Israeli woman who asked us a lot of superficial questions so that she could “practice her English.” And then we were off.

It’s hard to explain, because in many ways, things feel so much better and quieter. Especially in the Northernmost West Bank, where there no settlements to speak of, life is certainly much less stressful than it was. But life still feels like it’s on hold, waiting for political settlements to be enacted. And in that way, things haven’t changed at all. The powers that be still can’t seem to muster any kind of moral vision to get past these blockades and find a way across.

One thing has changed for sure; my shoes certainly stay cleaner at the crossing these days.

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“We have been waiting for you to come and visit us for 2000 years,” Fr. Firas welcomed us.

We joined the Melkite congregation in Zababdeh for worship, the 23 of us taking up the bulk of the small worship space. Elizabeth and I had been in Zababdeh when the Melkite church was closed and had also been fortunate enough to participate in Fr. Firas’ ordination to the office of both deacon and priest, and to celebrate the first liturgy to be sung in the church in 17 years. So to be back for what was now a “regular” worship service was quite the welcome change.

The night before, Fr. Firas had spoken with us about our call, as it were, not only to come and visit the living stones of the ancient churches. “You must also be willing to get your hands dirty,” he said, “working alongside us.”

Liturgy, from its Greek origins, means “the work of the people.” And so, in that sense, we began that work Sunday morning. Since most of the service was in Arabic, we may not have understood the content of what was said. But we certainly knew, especially as the peace was passed between us, that the love of God is alive and well and can breach all of our human constructs of tongue and nationality and culture and, yes, even faith.

All of us crammed into his tiny home for lunch, a wonderfully messy meal msakhan, oil-soaked bread covered with almonds, spices, and chicken. Without any silverware to speak of, we also managed to heed the call to get our hands dirty.

As we left, Fr. Firas reiterated his earlier welcome. “We waited 2000 years to welcome you. Please don’t make us wait another 2000 for your next visit.”

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Going Home

As soon as the rest of the group headed off to the olive harvest, I grabbed a taxi down to Zababdeh. No sooner had the car risen over the hill and the town came into view than I felt a smile overtaking me. I was home.

We had lived here during some tough times, from 2000-2003. I’ve been back for a couple of short visits only, but the place and the people have a special place in our hearts. It was good to be back.

One of the stops had to be the Latin (Roman Catholic) School where we taught. It was wonderful to see so many of the same teachers there, and it was also amazing to see some of our former students employed there now. I also had the chance to stop by and visit with a couple (but not all) of the families who were (and are) special to us.

In the afternoon, after I had ingested enough coffee to float a duck, the rest of the group arrived, and we visited the four churches of Zababdeh to hear about their many ministries. Father Touma (film buffs, he is featured in “A Mantle”) welcomed us at the Greek Orthodox Church, giving us a quick overview of Orthodox church history. We went from there to the Latin Church of Visitation. Father Nedal is in his second year as the priest here. I had met him on a brief visit last year. It was youth group night, so the grounds were full of the energy of young people (the first person I saw was Mughannam, featured in “Advent”).

We went through the Latin School as well, a place and ministry so familiar to us, and then on to the Melkite Church to see Father Firas (“Resurrection”). This church had reopened during our time here, and since then Fr. Firas has continued to both renovate and expand the buildings, experimenting with different economic empowerment projects. Our final stop was the Anglican Church, where Fr. Na’el, also in his second year, welcomed us. We were treated to a marvelous dinner of maqloube (lit. “upside down”) at a restaurant owned by friends of ours. They all were curious to hear news about Elizabeth and the boys, even suggesting a possible future bride for the eldest.

After getting everyone else back to the hotel, I spent the evening reminiscing with Fr. Firas and his family, making a video call back home so the two families could see each other.

They say that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown. Apparently the rule doesn’t apply to second homes.

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Eight years ago, we met Nasser Abufarha. A PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, Nasser was originally from a village near where we lived called Jalame (for fans of our film Salt of the Earth, Nasser makes a cameo as the homeowner Sa’ed visits to discuss electrical work in the segment called The Wall). One of the results of Nasser’s research was the Alternative Palestinian Agenda, a creative political approach to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in which in place of the two-state or one-state solution was a multi-state solution where local regions would be classified as either Arab states or Jewish states in a patchwork which would be joined together in a confederation for national purposes.

Since then, I have followed Nasser’s career with great interest. His dissertation was published under the title of The Making of a Human Bomb and is an incredible anthropological study of how suicide bombing came to be so prevalent a part of the Palestinian “resistance”. From a Palestinian national identity so fundamentally shapes by the reality of dispossession (especially as a result of the 1948 war) originated a deep desire to find a rootedness. As dispossession has continued through subsequent wars, settlement expansion, “security”-based land confiscation, and the ongoing languishing of Palestinian refugee camps-cum-ghettoes, this desire to find rootedness in land (an important cultural heritage of the mostly agricultural Palestinian villages) became practically irrelevant. Along came another cultural value of self-sacrifice, and thus many found national rootedness and expression in the self- and other-destructive violence of suicide bombing.

Five years ago, Nasser set out to do something about this issue in his own way by founding Canaan Fair Trade Company. In that brief time, the enterprise has grown impressively to encompass a wide variety of local products (olives, oil, spices, almonds, soap, etc.), many of which meet organic and fair trade standards around the world.

I had assumed that there was no connection between the two pursuits: academics and commerce. But for Nasser, they are intimately related. The olive tree, for Palestinians, is another rich source of cultural heritage. There is both a literal and a metaphorical rootedness in these ancient groves. And for Nasser, providing an alternative source of identity and national pride is probably even more important than the economic boost the farmers get for the fair (and timely) price for their produce. “The diplomats have taken Palestine off the maps, he says, “So we have put Palestine on the shelves.” One farmer, interviewed by German television, put it this way: “Germany has BMW. Palestine has Canaan.”

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We began an extraordinary day on the edge of Mt. Arbel, a cliff next to the old via romana toward Nazareth and overlooking the Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Off in the distance, the peak of Mt. Hermon was visible through the clear morning sky. Once again, Psalm 133 had come to bear: “It is like the dew of Mt. Hermon.”

In cooler weather, Mt. Hermon is snow-capped. The melting snow flows down into the feeder rivers that make up the River Jordan, which flows into the Sea of Galilee at its northern point, flowing out through the south as the Jordan River down to the Dead Sea. A little goes a long way.

The same thing could be said for Jesus’ ministry. Much of it took place in easy view of what we could see from Mt. Arbel: Capernaum, Bethsaida, the gathering of the disciples, the miracles of healing, and loaves and fishes, and sermons on mounts and plains…all of this predated the dramatic week in Jerusalem that was to end his life. And yet, from a story that really began in such a relatively small area, it had made such an impact that 23 Presbyterians had traveled halfway around the world to see it.

From that mount, Jesus told those who would be his followers, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Christians in this part of the world consider this their God-given calling, to continue to be that salt and light. And in the heritage of the dew of Mt. Hermon, and in the footsteps of that wandering rabbi Jesus on the shores of this Sea, they have taken to heart the message that a little goes a long way. A pinch of salt is all you need to flavor a meal; a single candlelight can be seen, even when surrounded by the darkness.

May your light so shine. May the blessings of God flow through you. May the lives you touch be moved far beyond your wildest imagination.

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The traditional name for the central part of the church is the nave. The maritime name comes from the idea that the church is, like Noah’s Ark, protection from the storms that rage outside.

It’s the stories like the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, and the fear of the power of water that sit behind the story of Jesus walking on water. He comes across the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a terrifying storm. When they recognize him, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk to you.” Jesus says, “Come.” Peter sinks, an cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus pulls him out of the waves and says, “O you of little faith. Why didn’t you believe?”

Most of us read this story and assume it’s about Peter’s lack of faith. If he had enough, he would have stayed afloat, the thinking goes. My take is a little different. I think that Jesus is showing his power over the terrifying force of nature, by both walking on water and calming the storm, and therefore exhibiting divine power. When Peter falls in, it’s not because he didn’t have enough faith; it’s because he’s not divine. And Jesus’ challenge to him for his lack of faith isn’t about him sinking; it’s about him fearing that Jesus might not save him.

I wonder how often we think we can walk on water ourselves and then are shocked when we aren’t keeping our heads above water. But more importantly, whether or not the storm is of our own making, the one who can calm the waters is never far away.

We spent today on the Sea of Galilee, visiting the stretch of holy sites dedicated to various miracles and teachings of Jesus. And before we did that, we took to the Sea on a boat of our own, a nave which became our church for the day. The seas were choppy, and giving a reflection and having communion with the waves rocking the boat back and forth added a layer of realism to the gospel reading above. But what a reminder of the one who rides the storm out with us!

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