A Witness to Living Stones
Just a few months ago, I had the great privilege of standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that shore of black basalt stone that has been ground into tiny rocks and mixed with millions of minute seashells, which, altogether, create a distinctive black and white coarse sand, sharp against my bare feet. I could view the Sea of Galilee before me, …
Just a few months ago, I had the great privilege of standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that shore of black basalt stone that has been ground into tiny rocks and mixed with millions of minute seashells, which, altogether, create a distinctive black and white coarse sand, sharp against my bare feet. I could view the Sea of Galilee before me, but that was not enough. I had to walk into the sea and feel it against my feet as the cold water came rolling over my ankles in waves. The sea responded to my touch with its sharp shells. I thought of Peter running up on that shore, so hungry to be in the presence of Jesus after all that had happened, that his tough, fisherman feet did not even feel those shells.
A chapel stands nearby, covering a large rock, said to be the stone on which Jesus cooked breakfast the morning that Peter had gone back to fishing after the events of the crucifixion. The sign by the rock inside the chapel is Mensa Christi, or the Table of Christ, and it commemorates the location where Jesus fed his disciples and told Peter to “feed my sheep” as he brought Peter back into his fold, forgiving him for his betrayal. We participants of “In the Footsteps of Jesus” (Jan.-Feb. 2013) gathered around another stone table nearby to celebrate communion together. These two tables combine in meaning to say that the Lord’s Table is not just about remembrance, but about the actions that come with that, the being fed, the feeding, the renewed commitment, the living Christ and our interconnectedness of all His living children.
That meaningful morning continued to be surpassed every day on this trip that became a journey, and then a pilgrimage, by our experiences while being in the presence of Christ’s Palestinian children in His homeland.
My husband Steve and I wanted to take this trip to Palestine as soon as we realized Jeff and Janet Wright were leading it, having known them for many years and knowing of their experiences in Palestine. We couldn’t go as soon as we wanted to because of work commitments, so we waited and read and planned, but even as we boarded the plane to leave, we didn’t fully realize what the words “alternative trip to Palestine” meant. Since returning home, however, I have compared our itinerary with many others, and none of them comes close to what we saw and experienced. I was recently asked of all the places I have traveled, which was my favorite? I don’t believe any trip of the past or in the future will compare to the experiences we had in Palestine. I’m also constantly asked, “Would you go back?” The answer is an immediate “Yes. I’d go today.”
The whole area of Palestine and Israel is rocky limestone and basalt, remnants of the ancient sea that covered this rift valley. Caves abound. And every holy site, it seems, is marked by stones. Archeologists dig at these rocks to prove theories of past existence, and sometimes we become so enamored of the broken rocks of the past that we don’t see the more important living stones, the people who now inhabit this land. This trip brought us to so much more than the places. We were able to meet the living stones.
Since this trip, their voices continue to sound in our ears. Our guide Ibrahim from Beit Sahour, a neighboring village to Beit Lachem (Bethlehem), called to us many times a day, saying, “Yalla, Habibi,” or “Come, my dear ones,” as he explained not only the history of where we were and the translations of the names of villages, mountains, and rivers into the words that gave their history meaning, but as he showed us what we could not see from our distant homes: the settlements taking up the hilltop lands and resources in Palestine; the signs that exacerbated the distrust that separates people; the walls of many kinds, ugly and fear-inducing; the open-air prisons being made of Palestinian villages; the attempts by Israel to erase the inhabitants of Palestine.
We were thrilled to stay in Bethlehem and walk its streets, but we were stunned to pass through the huge separation wall with its sniper towers, barbed wire, and armed guards. We walked through the checkpoint one day to attempt to see what Palestinians experience daily, but, of course, we were protected by our international passports. Walking through that and other checkpoints made the daily humiliations Palestinians endure at the hands of young Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, 18 and 19 year olds serving their required enlistment, clearer and more shocking.
In Bethlehem, we heard Dr. Abdel Fattah Abu-Srour, who was born in Aida, the refugee camp in Bethlehem in 1963. He has gone on to get two doctorates in France, but has returned to work with the youth in Bethlehem, creating a program he calls “Beautiful Resistance,” which, he says, is a “way to use the creative arts as a means for non-violent resistance. Theater is one of the most amazing and powerful and civilized and non-violent ways of expression. It’s a way to be truthful and tell your story without compromises. Theater is about change, not about diplomacy. It’s about putting this injustice on stage. It’s about putting dreams and hopes for people, for young people, on stage. It’s about asking the harder questions and provoking people to find their own answers.” Dr. Fattah’s life choices are inspiring, and he challenges us all when he says, “Everybody is important. Everybody is a change maker. Everybody has to realize his or her potential to create the change we need.” Dr. Fattah has received international recognition and support for the Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Society.
Another voice we continue to hear is that of Daoud Nassar whose land near Bethlehem, owned by his family since 1916, is surrounded by settlements. Despite all the attempts to force him out, including cutting off all power and water, bulldozing the roads leading to and from his property, threats to confiscate land on which he has no buildings but refusing to give him building permits, he has chosen to create a place of peace, calling it the “Tent of Nations,” and declaring, “We refuse to be enemies.” This would be a place to which I would love to return to help plant olive trees or pick their fruit and listen to someone who lives what he believes. Daoud says, “We will never act in a violent way; we will never sit down and cry and blame the other. We refuse to be victims, and we also will never leave the area. We are people who believe in justice. They cannot force us to hate because we believe that people are created in the image of God, and they’re not created to hate each other. So we created a fourth way of action, a creative way of non-violent resistance.
“It is easy to say that, but it is very difficult to live it on the ground. It’s a non-violent way of overcoming obstacles with good, overcoming evil with good, overcoming hate with love, overcoming darkness with light. This is the Christian non-violent way of resistance. In the middle of suffering, you can encourage other people. That’s faith in action. We have inspired many people, locally, internationally, even Israelis. With the daily problems we are facing, our example is bringing hope to so many other people, and this is actually what inspires me too.” He walked and talked with us back to the boulders that block his road, around which we walked to get to our bus. Parked as it was on the main road, it became a sign to all passing by that he had international visitors. As we said goodbye, I took away a rock, very small, but one less rock on the pile.
Another of the living voices, Jean Zaru, the Clerk of the Ramallah Friends group and an international peace activist, also gave us pause as she spoke of her experiences with and her thoughts on suffering. Her brother was studying at Harvard when Israel took its census after the 1967 war so he was never allowed to return home, as happened to thousands of other Palestinians. His efforts to return home must have led to his death because the family never saw him again. Not many years ago, she could travel freely to Jerusalem and did to shop, go to the doctor, or to church; but now, due to the intensification of travel restrictions for Palestinians, even though she can see the lights of Jerusalem from her rooftop, she cannot go there without applying for a permit that allows only one day’s travel from 7 to 5 and which may not even be granted.
About suffering, she says, “It’s not a competition.” One cannot use his or her suffering to cause suffering for another. And to those who say, “Well, don’t watch the news” (if you want to avoid suffering), she says, “Life and faith is not about detachment.” She refuses to be un-involved. And suffering should not create barriers between people. Instead, “Suffering should eliminate the divisions and problems and masks between people.” One can’t blame the other for their suffering; in fact, “One can’t act out of guilt or fear or victimhood.” I have continued to share this thought from her as well: “We can’t change the past, but what we do in the present can change the future.” And she reminded us that we are all deeply inter-connected, whether we are aware of it or not.
For so many reasons, we in the West too often have stereotyped images of Palestinians as violent and Muslim only. Those we met were far from violent and often Christian, inspiring us with their creativity in the face of oppression, and saying to us, as did Father Ra’ed, also of Ramallah, “We are the continuity of the first Christian community. We are the 5th gospel. This is the community that, with a lot of difficulties and sufferings, maintains the faith in the Holy Land. Come. Tell others to come. Don’t leave us alone.” One of Father Ra’ed’s projects has created jobs for Palestinians who create a candle in the shape of a dove that he would like every church in the world to light each week and, when lighting it, to pray for peace in Jerusalem. It’s the least one can do. My candle is now lit.
Also, in Ramallah, we heard from Sam Bahour, a businessman and second-generation Palestinian from Youngstown, Ohio, who, along with his wife, is bringing up his two daughters in Ramallah. He brought the economic picture into focus by explaining the obstacles he has faced in trying to create a telecommunications business on the West Bank. His efforts brought him the realization that “the air is just as occupied as the land and the water underneath.” He is one of many who worked to bring the Palestinian petition for recognition to the UN by gathering the support of 138 member nations and by being part of the presentation to the UN. Now that Palestine is part of the UN, his hope is that Palestine can appeal to UN agencies for economic justice as well as human rights. It has already begun.
There were many other places we visited and people we heard whose names are listed on the proposed itinerary for next year’s trip. We heard from Israeli groups who document the human rights violations at the checkpoints and other locations. We listened to a young man from the US who works with the Christian Peacemaker Team by standing between settlers and local Palestinians in Hebron with a camera to deter violence, who sleeps in the homes of Bedouins in the Jordan Valley who are being disrupted during the night by IDF forces that claim they need this piece of occupied Palestine for their own “security.” When IDF forces encounter internationals during these nighttime raids, the violence is also decreased. We were in awe of his courage and joyful commitment. We visited Rawdet el Zahur School in East Jerusalem, one of many Global Ministries partners, where the beautiful children giggled as they posed for pictures, sang “We Shall Overcome” for us, and gathered us by the hand to join them in their dancing.
Another person whose words are now a part of me is Father Elias Chacour, Archbishop of Galilee. I had read his life story in his book Blood Brothers, how the villagers of Bar-am had been driven out in 1948 when he was six, how the entire village had been demolished a few years later, how he had become a priest and been working to build a school, all the while continuing to live out his own father’s lessons and practices of forgiveness which came from him seeing all human beings as God sees them. Hearing this human force-of-nature in person adding to that story was an experience I could barely hope to have, but it happened. He was not traveling, as he often is. We 24 people were blessed to sit at his feet, and he told us to get our hands dirty for justice. Nominated 3 times for the Nobel Peace Prize, he certainly is one who has done that.
Hearing him in person was a gift, but, somewhat selfishly, I guess, I had the immense joy of claiming a moment for myself as I also got a chance to tell him in person how much his life story had meant to me, how many people read his book with me, and to how many others I told his story. I was able to tell him how I’d told my church about him by bringing his experiences and teachings to my communion meditations, particularly his interpretation of the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes, which has changed my understanding of the message completely. Speaking to him face to face, receiving his blessing, was a moment I will always treasure.
Have I told you the whole story of my pilgrimage? No. It would take far longer to do that. The journey is ongoing, too, as the group members have stayed in touch, sharing what they are doing and what they are continuing to learn. If you are ready to walk in this place and meet the living stones, you will never have a better opportunity. If you read the books recommended for the trip, they alone will change your life. But if you are able to see it, hear it, taste it for yourself, you will never read the Bible the same again, and your pilgrimage will give you far more blessings than you can imagine. Not only will you see the places that Jesus walked, you will be inspired by the courage and humor, the intelligence, the graciousness and the patience of the living stones who challenged us to care about all who suffer, no matter how far away; to partner with them and stand with them in their struggle; and to get our hands dirty making peace and justice happen in the places that need it wherever we live.