Friday, November 13, 2009

Listening for the voices

We shared lunch with Gosayna Karam in the ancient village of Nazareth, remembered as the town where Jesus grew up, and heard her talk about her worries for her children’s education in a country where there is huge disparity in funding between Jewish and Arab students.

We sat in the living room of Hani Abu Haikal, a Muslim living right next door to hostile Jewish settlers in Hebron, a city where both Muslims and Jews revere a site where they believe their common ancestor Abraham is buried. We heard how Hani is trying to create non-violent responses to the oppression of occupation.

We walked with Shadi through the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, where 13,000 Palestinians live – the original refugees of the creation of Israel in 1948 and generations of their descendants, people without a country. We watched sewer water draining onto the narrow road we trod through the densely-populated camp.

We listened as Naila Kharroub, the principal of the Dar al-Kalima school in Bethlehem told about the work she does with her 300 Christian and Muslim students from kindergarten through high school to create a sense of understanding of each other’s faith traditions as well as those of the Jewish people who share their land.

And we drank coffee with Ed Rettig as this rabbi who leads the American Jewish Committee in Israel told us how he and his family now feel so much safer because of the high levels of security Israel has put in place – the same security measures that makes life so difficult for the Palestinians.

These are a few of the voices telling of lives today in Israel and Palestine, the tinderbox of global politics, a land holy to three great faith traditions and a land torn by heartache. I was there for two weeks earlier this month with a group of seven friends from the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian churches.
We heard the stories of a wide range of people trying to fashion lives caught in the swirl of so many larger forces.

There are no definitive statements one can make after a short time in such a complex place. But there are vivid images that remain.

At Augusta Victoria Hospital, Mark Brown from Lutheran World Services took us out back to look across a grove of olive trees to the area where his group hopes to build new housing to help keep the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem.

Farther out, we could see the separation barrier – the 24-foot high concrete wall that the Israelis have put in place snaking through West Bank land. And beyond that, we could see one of the large Jewish settlements housing 35,000 residents on land that is in the West Bank.

Voices. Images. Glimmers of hope breaking through an overriding sense of pessimism. It’s a tough place these days, Israel and Palestine. It’s a place that needs its many voices to be heard.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A swirl of religious sounds

It was noon on Friday in the Old City of Jerusalem. As we walked near the beginning of the Via Dolorosa -- the spots marking Jesus' journey from Pilate's headquarters to the cross -- the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the city.

We were in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and soon every street was filled with Muslims headed toward the various mosques in this area, including the al-Aqsa Mosque near the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims believe that Mohammed was transported in a night journey from Mecca to this site.

At the same time, bells were ringing from the churches in the Christian sector marking some of the holiest places in Jesus' life -- the hill where he died, the tomb where he was laid and from which he rose.

Inside some of these churches were Russian Orthodox carrying candles down to a spot commemorating the prison cell where Jesus held while awaiting his appearance before Pilate, the Roman governor of this area. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims knelt quietly to kiss the slab on stone which legend says is the place Jesus' body rested after being removed from the cross.

There were scenes of deep piety like this all across the land that is holy to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even when the expressions of piety did not reflect the styles of those of us liberal Protestants traveling across the centuries in these places, we were moved by the depth of feelings that we witnessed.

Occasionally, we had chance to experience the depth of spirituality in these places as well. For me, one such moment was in the village of Capernaum in the Galilee region of northern Israel. There is a banyan tree between the excavations in this village that Jesus used as his headquarters and the seashore where he walked with his followers. I sat there in silence, contemplating the links across the centuries.

Another day, we gathered in a church in Abu Ghosh, nine miles out of Jerusalem, marking one of the traditional places of Emmaus (there are three other possibilities) where Jesus met two followers on the road after his resurrection. Inside the Gothic church, we sang "Let Us Break Together" as our voices echoes off the stone walls covered with aging frescoes.

In the Mea Shearim neighborhood -- just across the line that used to divide Jerusalem from East Jerusalem when it was controlled by Jordan before the 1967 war -- we saw ultra-conservative Haredi Jews gathering for Shabbat services on a Friday evening. These are followers of the most theologically conservative branch of Orthodox Judaism, living in one of the oldest neighborhoods of west Jerusalem. It is a 19th century Eastern European enclave in a modern city, a place suspicious and not particularly welcoming of visitors.
On this night, as we walked past one of the buildings, we could hear the prayer chants of those inside, we could see the men bowing repeatedly in prayer.

We could see how beliefs affected the commercial life in the places we would visit. Muslim shops would be closed on Friday, Jewish shops would be closed on Saturday, Christian shops would be closed on Sunday.

In the early morning in Bethlehem, we would be wakened shortly before 4 a.m. by church bells calling Christians to the pre-dawn time of prayer known as Matins. A few minutes later, the first call to prayer of the day would start emerging from multiple mosques around the city.
Outside August Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, a lone man knelt on his coat outside the entrance to the hospital at noon, fulfilling his obligation as a Muslim to pray five times daily.

On the plateau of Masada, where Jewish rebels in the first century killed themselves rather than surrender to Rome, new Israeli soldiers come to swear a sacred oath. At the Western Wall of the old temple in Jerusalem -- the one destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, Jews from around the world come to place their prayers on slips of paper into the cracks in the wall.
And so it goes in this land.

The wars, the on-going tensions dominate the landscape. But every day, people from many sectors of these three great faiths find places where they can connect to the divine being.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Obama and the settlements: two Israeli views

For Ed Rettig, one of the biggest mistakes Barack Obama has made in foreign policy is demanding that Israel halt all building of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

For Larry Derfner, Obama's mistake was in caving in to Israeli insistence that it continue to work on existing settlements.

Both Rettig and Derfner are savvy observers of the Israeli scene. Rettig is the acting director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. He began his professional life as a lawyer, later became a Reformed Rabbi and now is a central figure among Jewish advocacy organizations. Derfner emigrated from the U.S. to Israel in the mid-1970s and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He describes himself as "a left-wing Zionist."

Rettig argued that Obama's mistake in demanding that all settlements stop was that it united the people on the fringes of Israeli politics who are ideological about the settlements with the mainstream. He pointed out that 85 percent of the 300,000 or so Israeli settlers -- those living in cities built by Israelis on Palestinian land in the West Bank -- live in five settlements that are right on the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. The more ideological -- in some cases, very aggressive -- settlers are in the other settlements scattered farther across the West Bank.

Obama's demand, Rettig said, "united Israelis instead of breaking off the margins. It drove them into the lap of the settlers."

After Israeli uproar and lobbying following Obama's demand, the U.S. administration has been easy the pressure, which in turn has led the Palestinian leadership to back away from the peace process.

That is the big mistake Obama made, said Derfner. When Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister earlier this year, he undid most of the understandings that the previous Israeli government had reached with the Palestinian leadership. Obama's settlement freeze demand was a way to give the Palestinians something to work with in resuming negotiations. But when Israel refused to go along, the prospect for negotiations ran aground.

Derfner said that the settlement lobby is incredibly powerful within Israeli government -- not just the settlers themselves, but real estate interests, commercial interests, religious splinter groups all have much invested in expanding the settlements.

"Israel of its own volition will not and cannot get out of the West Bank," Derfner argued. "The only thing that will do that is a fear of a greater god than the settlers -- and that is America."

While they disagree on the politics of the settlements, Rettig and Derfner did share a common theme in our conversations with them on our last day in Israel. It is a theme of pessimism -- hardly a high note on which to end the trip.

Rettig cited a mood of exasperation among Israelis. "The Israelis have had it," he said. "They are cynical and doubtful of the capacity of anyone to bring peace." He said the Palestinians are in a weird place, with Hamas unable to govern in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority facing uncertainty in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he will not seek another term as their leader. And he thinks the Obama administration is inexperienced and naive in foreign policy.

Derfner's criticism of Obama is for not putting enough pressure on Israel, he thinks his adopted country has moved very far to the right politically and that is has let the chance for peace slip away by not dealing seriously with Palestinian leaders like Abbas who have brought some sense of order to the West Bank and who have an openness to dealing with Israel.

One of the most constant realities of this part of the world is that the prospects for war and peace are continually shifting. At the moment, few of those we talked to during our two weeks here were feeling much optimism. But all of them in their own way are trying to create a path to a better life for all those who inhabit this contested country.

A friend's voice of anguish

My friend Amal Othman lives in Madison and is a U.S. citizen, but she was born in Jordan and her parents are Palestinian refugees whose home was near East Jerusalem. At the same time our group was in Israel and Palestine, she was with a group called Interfaith Peace-Builders visiting many of the same places we were. One of the places she went was to her parents' home town. This is her compelling account of that visit.

We walked the streets of the old city in East Jerusalem. The Jewish presence is clear: soldiers with guns, settlers with the Torah, the Star of David on doors, and the Israeli flag on roofs and balconies. Surveillance cameras in every corner ensure the Israeli control and dominance. “Help Us Build Jewish Life in the Old City” says one sign printed on a metal sheet in Hebrew and English mounted in a busy alley for everyone passing by to see.

A Palestinian woman selling vegetables on the street shared her grief with me. “We live a miserable life. We’re threatened everyday and no one cares.” My heart ached for I have felt her broken spirit and had nothing to say to comfort her. Waves of tourists passed her. Some acknowledged her presence and others ignored it, celebrating Israel and the distorted history. Since when an illegal occupation has become a tourist attraction!

Then we went to Jabel Al Mukaber , a small town near Jerusalem where my mother was born. We drove by the 27 foot high wall that separates, in some areas, Palestinian towns from Palestinian towns slicing through the lives of families and friends, farmers and their land, students and their schools. I’ve read about it. I’ve seen pictures of it. And now I have no words to describe it after seeing it with my own eyes. It’s a beast; a devastating reality that prevents any kind of dialogue between the two peoples to achieve a just peace.

The wall on the Israeli side is hidden by trees and cleverly planned landscapes just like some destroyed Palestinian villages are hidden under forests. And the wall on the Palestinian side is just across the street, blocking the air they breathe.

There is nothing holy about the Holy land. It’s divided, broken, and strangled with injustice.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stories of women crossing boundaries

When Nina Mayorek's sister died a few months ago, the gathering of people for her funeral created a moment when some sharp boundaries were crossed.

Mayorek is a Jewish Israeli virologist, a professor -- and an activist. She is part of Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who oppose the occupation of Palestine and who monitor activities at the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank.

She joined our group for dinner along with her colleague from Machsom Watch, Ivonne Mausbach Kleinfeld, and Dalia Landau, whose story of coming to Israel as a very young child with her family after World War II and her unusual and often strained friendship over 40 years with a Palestinian activist was told in the book The Lemon Tree.

As Nina's colleagues gathered to share in the mourning of the death of her sister, one was a woman who is an Israeli settler, an person of deep religious conviction. She does not dress as a religious Jew, Nina noted, and her work as a virologist provided a common bond, even as they differed on the politics of settlements.

Another visitor was a Palestinian virologist whose appearance also gave no immediate clues to her heritage. She dresses in contemporary, stylish clothes.

So both of these women who are just short of turning 40 began talking amid the other mourners. They talked about their work in virology. And then the Jewish settler learned that her new acquaintance was a Palestinian working at a Palestinian university.
At first, she was surprised to learn that there was a Palestinian university. Then she was surprised to learn that they had laboratories. With microscopes. With two microscopes more powerful than the ones she used in her Israeli lab.

For her friend, Nina said. it was "a real discovery. Those people are not only terrorists. They have microscopes, they have labs.

But the surprises went both ways. The Palestinian woman was also stunned, said Nina, saying, "It cannot be! How can she be such a nice person when she is a religious settler?"
What Nina witnessed she called "a process of discovery - you are a human being."

But there are so few opportunities for such encounters.
Much of Dalia's work has been to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together so they can get to know each other, to shatter the stereotypes that exist.

It is not easy to cross either the physical or psychological boundaries that allow these two peoples who share land and history to get past the deeply held suspicions of each other.
"All the time there are fewer opportunities because of the checkpoints and the travel restrictions," said Ivonne .

And even if they could cross the lines to meet the Palestinians, "the fear among Israelis is unbelievable," Nina added.

She told the story of the same Palestinian colleague who came to Nina's sister's funeral. When the colleague's mother died, her Israeli colleagues told her they would like to visit her, to console here, but they were afraid to come into Palestinian areas. Nina quoted her friend's reaction; "My mom died. I cannot deal with your fears about security."

Dalia noted that the fear is very real nevertheless.
"Why should they not be afraid to go?" she asked. "They've never been there."

So one of the critical questions for Israel and Palestine is how to overcome the fear on both sides that drives so much of the hostility.

For Nina and Ivonne, it is standing by the Palestinians as they deal with the daily indignities of the checkpoints.

For Dalia, it is finding ways to create places where Israelis and Palestinians can get to know one another.

To bring peace, Dalia says, both sides must be willing to make sacrifices. "How can you make a sacrifice if the good will toward the other is not there?" she asks.

A view over East Jerusalem

Mark Brown stood at the top of the hill behind Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem and looked beyond the grove of olive trees to the place where the Lutheran World Federation hopes to build 84 housing units for Palestinian Christian families.

Brown is the regional representative for Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem. He has been involved in issues of the Middle East most of his adult life. Agusta Victoria Hospital is in a historic building that sits atop the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives Housing Project illustrates the complexity of life in this fractured city.

"We are at a point where in a few years, there may not be a Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem," Brown said.

He laid out the numbers. In 1946 in Jerusalem, there were 31,000 Christians, 35,000 Muslims and 98,000 Jews. Today, there are only 10,000 Christians compared to 220,000 Muslims and 450,000 Jews in the city.

One of the things that has diminished the Palestinian Christian population here is the difficulty of sustaining family ties. With the intricate and oppressive system that Israelis now have in place of security barriers and check points, travel between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Bethlehem sits only a few miles away, is extraordinarily difficult. So Brown says that one big political issue is that of family reunification.

The wall that separates East Jerusalem and the West Bank is very visible from this hill behind the hospital. Later, our driver, George, who grew up in East Jerusalem, took us down tho Jericho Street, where the wall cuts across what used to be the main street in that part of the city.

"You used to be able to go from this point in Jerusalem to Bethany in two minutes," George said. "Now it takes 40 minutes" to go around the wall and through a checkpoint.

The travel restrictions and their impact on family reunification is only one of the complexities facing the housing project. Another is getting the permission of the Israeli government to build it.

One piece of the puzzle is a law that allows Israel to take the equivalent of 40 percent of a property owner's land in exchange for housing. That means land on some other part of the hospital grounds will have to be given to Israel.

But there is a more subtle issue as well. There is a sense among the Arabs living in East Jerusalem that Israel is doing everything it can to push them out. The road restrictions that make travel difficult nudge families to move to the West Bank where they can be together. College students who go away may have their permits to be in Jerusalem torn up on their return. Bulldozers come in and level houses if the government is displeased with something.

The housing demolitions -- we saw one right across the street from the spot where Jesus is said to have begun the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem -- create a fear factor, Brown said.: "They create such anxiety that people want to leave."

And then there are the Israeli settlers moving into East Jerusalem, a traditionally Arab part of the city that belonged to Jordan before Israel claimed it in the 1967 war.

Brown said one element in the settlement efforts seems to be a desire by Israel to break up traditional Arab neighborhoods so that if there is ever a peace agreement that includes the status of Jerusalem, Israel will be able to keep the Palestinians from claiming that these are intact Arab neighborhoods.

The housing project is just the latest in a long commitment from the Lutheran church to serving the people of East Jerusalem.

Augusta Victoria Hospital was set up after the creation of Israel in 1948 to serve the population of Arab refugees displaced by the formation of that nation. Over the years, it has developed specialties like cancer treatment (it is the only major cancer center for residents of the West Bank and Gaza), diabetes, geriatrics and others. It treats Muslims as well as Christians.

As in so many areas, the disparities in health care for Jewish residents of Jerusalem and the Palestinians served by August Victoria are stark. Patients at the hospitals in West Jerusalem - the Jewish part of the city --- have an 80 percent chance of surviving cancer, Brown said. But at Augusta Victoria, 80 percent of the patients receive palliative care -- helping that have a less painful death -- because their cancers are too far advanced to successfully overcome.

Brown is struggling to create hope for the future for the Palestinians living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. In health care, in the vision for new housing, in advocacy on human rights issues, in work with a coalition of church groups lobbying the U.S. government, he is a gentle but strong voice of hope in a place where hope often seems to be in short supply.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Petra, Masada -- two ancient symbols

They both trace their origins back the a time before the birth of Jesus, they both intersected with the power of Rome, they both are fascinating places blending history, archeology and spectacular sites.

Yet there are profound differences as well.

Petra is in Jordan, Masada is in Israel.

Petra was built by the Nabateans, masters of the trade routes across the Middle East, who had an intricate religious system reflected in their buildings. Masada had its origins among the Jewish leaders in the period just before the beginning of the Christian era.

Petra is down deep in a valley, defended by narrow canyons called siqs that provided absolute control over access to the city. Masada is high on a plateau, overlooking the Negev desert, a place that should have been able to repel an any attack -- until the Roman Army came with 8,000 troops in 74 AD, laid seige to the mountain and eventually battered their way in, only to find that virtually all of the 1,000 Jewish rebels who had taken refuge there after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD had killed themselves the night before the final assault, choosing death over defeat, surrender and slavery.

For Jordan, Petra is a place of national pride and tourist income. It is very had to get to -- a couple of hours ride of Aquaba, three hours from Amman. Once there, you hike down a long trail, through the Siq and then into the ancient city.

For Israel, Masada has become a symbol of defiance over anyone who would attack their nation. Every Israeli soldier as part of his or her training goes to Masada to take an oath that those who died their will not have died in vain, that Masada will never be conquered again. It is a major tourist attraction for isiral, just off the main highway about 45 minutes from Jerusalem, with cable cars that shuttle you up to the top of the plateau in three minutes.

For photos from Petra,
click here.
For photos from Masada, click here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spirituality in the midst of struggle

Step by step, we worked our way on Sunday towards St. George's Monastery in the Judean desert outside of Jericho.

Our steps did not actually begin until after a fairly challenging van ride up the mountain to where the walking path begins.

"Don't buckle belts," our driver said, using the few English words he knew. No need to. The belts were all broken. Not that we didn't feel a need to, what with dodging Bedouins on donkeys, tractor loaders and steep mountain cliffs that could give us a fast trip into the valley of the shadow of death.

But then the walk began. We had intended it to be a reflective walk along the winding, hilly path overlooking the valley whose image lives on in Psalm 23. We had not counted on the four Bedouins on donkeys who thought we might like to ride up the monastery with them. When it was clear we wanted to walk, they suggested maybe we could pay them to go away. Real life was intruding on our spiritual quest.

Keep in mind the four of us -- Bonnie, Nancy, Petra and me -- were all alone in the wilderness at this point. Our non-English speaking driver was far behind us. There were no other pilgrims on this path. But finally, we shook the "helpful" donkey riders. And then the sight of the valley was ours to behold in peace.

When we reached the monastery perched on the side of one mountain, we found the only monk still living there. When you learn in Christian history about the 'Desert Fathers," this is what it was like for them.

Now the chapels were adorned with ancient icons. One cave above the monastery is said to be the place the Prophet Elijah sought refuge and heard the small, still voice of God. There is a sense of solitude and austerity in this place.
It is a place where one comes to know God in the struggle with the harshness and the beauty of the elements.

I thought back to our visit a few days earlier in Hebron with Hani, the man who faces constant harassment from his neighbors, the Israeli settlers. Yet he is trying to carve out a path of creativity and non-violence for his children and the other children in his neighborhood. (See earlier post.)

For Hani, every day is a struggle. He is in an urban wilderness -- not in solitude, not exposed to the elements of nature, but his spirituality has grown here as well. He is rooted in Islam, not Christianity. He hopes that someday the children of his Jewish neighbors will find their own path to peace.

Spirituality can be shaped in so many different ways. A mountainous desert. An urban cauldron. Yet somewhere in the mix, there is the facing of life's struggles and finding God's presence in the midst of them.

Creating a new reality in Bethlehem

Take your stereotypes of Palestinian society, put them on hold, and visit the Dar Al-Kalima Health and Wellness Center and the Dar Al-Kalima School, both on a hill overlooking Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank, hemmed in by the Israeli security barrier, home to three camps of Palestinian refugees. It is a place that not only is famous for the church honoring the birth of Jesus, but also for sitting in the cauldron of Israeli-Palestinian tension. And while it may be most famous for its Christian sites, it is a majority Muslin city.

Yet here at Dar Al-Kalima, a group of Christians are creating a place that is breaking through many of the boundaries and stereotypes that are so common in the Middle East. (Dar Al-Kalima - the school, health and wellness center and a college, are all projects of Christmas Lutheran Church, the partner church of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg.)

Consider the pride with which Rami Khader, the manager of the health and wellness center, spoke of the girls' soccer team that is on the verge of competing in national championships. The program for women's sports, he said, "is a good way to advocate for equal rights for women and equal participation for women in sports."

The members of this year's soccer team - ages 16 to 23 -- will become the coaches of the next generation of women soccer players from Bethlehem.

The swimming pool at the health and wellness center has hours for men and hours for women -- something you might expect in a heavily Muslim culture. But it also has family time when men and women and children can all swim together.

"We try not to advocate separation," Rami told us.

The community nurse, Raida Jeries Mansour, talks about bring older women together for mutual support, first from the churches, then from the mosques. More barriers are broken. In the private Christian school, 57 percent of the students are Muslim this year.

Naila Kharroub, the director (what we would call a principal) said the goal is to have an equal number of boys and girls, an equal number of Muslims and Christians.
While the Muslim and Christian students have separate religion classes to learn about their own faiths, they share a common prayer time drawing on verses from both the Bible and the Koran, they learn about the commonalities of each other's faiths in joint classes once a month.

It is no secret that these children live in a place of intense conflict. So Kharroub has made peace studies a high value in the curriculum and in the overall tone of the school. (She was thrilled that we brought a peace banner from the children at Memorial UCC for the school, shown in the picture above).

"We believe peace at first comes from the inside of the person," she said.

The staff works on promoting peace between the children, who come from a wide range of backgrounds.
"You know in our part of the world, we do not have peace," Kharroub told us. "In our community, we have to raise our kids peacefully if they are going to have a good life."

Equality of the sexes. Respect for different religious traditions. A commitment to non-violent techniques to solve disputes. These are values that are helping to create a place within the world that bit by bit, may change the culture around Dar Al-Kalima. And along the way, they are making a huge impact on the lives of the people touched by these institutions.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Refugees forever?

As Palestinians fled from their villages in 1948 as the Israeli army was taking control of the land, they began to gather together in communities in what was then land controlled by Jordan or Lebanon or Syria. The flood of refugees quickly became a humanitarian crisis.

The floodwaters have not receded. You can see the aftermath as you stroll through the Dheisheh Camp in Bethlehem.
There are now nearly 13,000 refugees living there, the generational growth from the first 3,500 who settled there when the United Nations took responsibility for the camp in 1954. The camp then and now covers 1.5 square kilometers.

The original homes were 9 square meters for each family. Because there is no room to expand outward, families over generations have built upwards, adding second and third floors.

One thing is slightly better now. The original camp had one public restroom for each area of these tiny homes. Now there is running water and more bathrooms.

Overlying all of this, however, is the political stalemate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One of the central Palestinian demands in negotiations is for the right of these refugees to return to their villages in Israel. The Israeli government has consistently rejected that, since Israeli families now live in those place and since an influx of Palestinians would significantly shift the demographic balance in a state created as a place for Jewish people.

A young man named Shadi, our guide through the camp, said that at this point, most refugees would no longer choose to return to Israel. Some older ones might, but the younger ones would make a life for themselves elsewhere. But they want it to be their choice, not yet another restriction put on their lives by Israel. In the meantime, they walk this odd balance in the camp.

"We are trying to make our life here better, but we are not accepting that we will stay here forever," Shadi told us. He said that the Palestinian Authority provides no assistance to those in the camps because that would imply they are citizens of the West Bank. And memories are alive from the last time this happened -- in 2002 -- that the Israeli army can come in and exert its power whenever it wants.

"The problem is not food, the problem is not water, the problem is not the checkpoints," Shadi said. "The problem is the occupation."

But the daily problems in the camp are also realities.

Many people in the camp used to work in Israel, but with the construction of the separation barrier following the Second Intifada in 2002, many of those people can no longer get to work and they have lost their jobs.

Unemployment in the camp runs around 75 percent.
The electricity network in the camp - built in 1954 and then upgraded in 1960, is totally inadequate for the camp of today, said Hazem Al Qassas, the acting director of Ibdaa Cultural Center in the camp.

Shadi said there are 1,800 school students in the camp and only 25 teachers. The clinic has one doctor, two nurses and is open six hours a day, with some 280 patients coming in each day.

And given the extraordinarily congested conditions in the camp, going back to the original nine-by-nine houses, Shadi said that "one of the biggest problems we have here is the privacy problem. You can't have any time for yourself."

Still, there is a strong sense of solidarity in the camp, of family members looking out for each other. And they look to the rest of the world in the hope that someone will listen to their story, that someone will care.

A morning in Hebron

The three hours our group spent in Hebron on Friday morning offered an incredibly powerful look into the life of the Palestinians in that city where Israeli settlements right next to Palestinian neighborhoods, where they occupy apartments on one side of a narrow market street while Palestinian apartments are on the other side. The following three posts will introduce you to two fascinating people we met that morning -- Hani Abu Haikal and Walid Halawah -- as well as some impressions of the current situation in this major city.

Overcoming hatred in Hebron

Hani Abu Haikal speaks with passion about the future he wants for his four children -- and for all the children of Hebron.

It is a future built around a commitment to creativity and to non-violence that stands in stark contrast to the image of this West Bank city described by one prominent Palestinian resident as "The City of Conflict."

Hani also speaks with passion about the suffering he has endured at the hands of his neighbors -- Israeli settlers who torment him regularly, burning his cars and his 268 olive trees. And there is suffering at the hands of the Israeli Army that intrudes into his house regularly.

Our group of seven visitors from the United States sat in Hani's living room as he told the stories of life under Israeli occupation, stories including the harrowing hours when his wife was in labor and the ambulance got delayed at checkpoint after checkpoint.

Hani's stories are remarkable because of the way Hani has committed himself to helping youngsters find a different path.
The story of his wife's labor indicates the hardship of living under occupation. The story of the arsons shows the kind of harassment he lives with. But it is the story of how he and his friends outwitted the occupying forces to rescue the house next door that offers a light for the future.

The labor story is all too common in this land of checkpoints and arbitrary decisions by the soldiers that staff them. Hani had arranged in advance for an ambulance to come get his wife went she went into labor with their fourth child. He had all the necessary permits to get the ambulance through the checkpoints.
So when his wife went into labor and he called for the ambulance, he thought all would be well.

But one hour went by, then another. He called the ambulance driver, who said he as stopped at a checkpoint and the soldiers were taking everything out of the ambulance to inspect it.
More time went by. Still at the checkpoint. And there were two more checkpoints to go. His wife's labor was progressing rapidly.

Finally, in desperation, Hani picked up his wife to carry her over hilly, rocky, snow-covered paths as his sister used the glow from her cell phone to light the way. The birth was fine. In fact, it was well over by the time the ambulance finally cleared the last check point -- 14 hours after Hani had called for it.

He showed us videos of his car burning, set on fire by settlers. This was the sixth car he has lost to arson. He showed us a video of his olive trees burning, again the result of arson. The Israeli soldiers watched until the wind shifted, then they helped put out the blaze since it was now heading toward their post.

Hani also told the story of the curfew imposed by the Israeli army in 2000 as the second Infitada began across the West Bank. Some of the soldiers took over his neighbor's house, located on a hill that commands a good view of a large area of the city. After a while, they used the house as a jail. Hani said from his house next door he could hear the cries of the Palestinian prisoners there as they were being beaten.

Hani and some other neighbors tried to get the owner of the house to reclaim his home from the Israelis. The soldiers told him if he gave up his Jerusalem identification card -- a prized possession that allows Palestinians to enter Jerusalem -- they would give him his house back. He refused to do that.

So the neighbors made a contract with the owner to rent his house and won an order from the Israeli Supreme Court to have the soldiers vacate it. They did -- but only after demolishing it.
Hani and two others rebuilt the house with help from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Volunteers from human rights organizations slept there to protect it during the rebuilding process.

Now it is an educational center for Palestinian children between the ages of 9 and 16. Ten children come there for English lessons, 15 girls come for a course in video production, 25 youngsters come for non-violence training.

"Remember how I heard the screams of the tortured prisoners" coming from that house, Hani said. "Now I hear the laughter of children."
That's where his hope lies.

He said when he listened to his children going to bed at night, he heard them talking about revenge on the settlers. That's not what he wants for them.
He knows that path from his own past. He spent six years in an Israeli jail as a security prisoner.

"My culture was to throw rocks," he explained. "I don't want my kids to be like that."

He worries that radical Palestinian organizations will try to teach his children and other children the ways of revenge.
"I don't believe in guns," Hani explained. "We have no protection. God just protects us."

And then there are the video cameras.
He teaches his children and other children to use the camera as their weapon, to document what harassment they see, to post it on You Tube.

"I refuse to bomb buildings," Hani said as we ended our time with him. 'I will fight that. That is not being weak. To be non-violent, you have to be very strong."

No one who spends any time with Hani could doubt either his passion for justice nor the strength of his being.

Restoring downtown Hebron

Walid Halawah stood on the roof of his office building for the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee. From there, we could see this major West Bank city spreading out in all directions.

We could see the mosque and synagogue built over the caves that both Muslims and Jews believe house the remains of Abraham, the father of both of their faiths.

We could also see the Israeli army watch towers on hills on three sides of the city, symbols of occupation. And we could see the refurbished buildings in the old city of Hebron, a symbol of both renaissance and resistance.

Halawah is the spokesman for this effort to revive and secure the future of central Hebron.
The tensions around the Israeli occupation and the establishment of Israeli settlements in Hebron, including some in the oldest parts of the city, have stifled what was once a thriving commercial center. Walid told us that 500 shops in this old are were closed by Israeli military orders "for security reasons." Another 1,500 shops have closed because of a lack of business. Road repair and building projects are stalled in Israeli permit red tape.

"These circumstances force people to move out," Walid said. His goal, and the goal of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee for whom he is a spokesman, is to get people to move back in.

He cites some statistics suggesting a bit of success. In 1996, the Palestinian population of the Old City area had dropped to 500. That was the year the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee began its work. Today, there are 5,000 people living in this area. Five green areas have been created for playgrounds. A vocational training school has opened. Buildings are being restored.
This is more than an aesthetic issue for the Palestinians in Hebron.

They are also hoping to block any efforts to connect the Israeli settlements through the downtown.
"As long as the downtown can stay, the settlements cannot be connected," Walid said. "That's why it is so vital to bring it back to life."

Hebron: The City of Conflict

Hani Abuhaikal and Walid Halawah are each trying to build a future for Hebron following different paths. Yet each path offers a glimmer of hope in this place that embodies the deep animosity between Palestinians and Israelis who battle over the major city in the southern part of the West Bank.

We call it "the city of conflict," Walid told us -- a sharp difference from Bethlehem's motto of "City of Peace."

This division between the children of Abraham plays out in the shadows of the place honored by both Muslims and Jews as the burial site of Abraham and his wife, Sara, as well as Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Leah. Even here, at this holy site -- one part mosque, one part synagogue -- Muslims and Jews enter the building over the Cave of the Patriarchs from different sides, at different times, through different security systems. They are kept apart at the tomb of their spiritual ancestor.

This mosque was the site of a massacre that is etched deep in the consciousness of the Muslims here. It was on Feb. 25, 1994, that an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque during dawn prayers and strafed the worshippers with bullets from a submachine gun. He killed 29 of them.

But embedded in Jewish consciousness is another massacre 65 years earlier, when a group of Arabs in Hebron killed 67 Jewish residents and burned synagogues and homes. Other Arabs there provided shelter for the 450 Jews fleeing the violence.
A city of conflict indeed.

Our guide through Hebron on Oct. 30 was Michael Hiller, who just finished a three-month tour there with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a project of the World Council of Churches. EAPPI volunteers from around the world serve as observers at the hot spots in cities like Hebron. He was sent here by the Evangelical Church of Southwest Germany.

He described Hebron to us -- the biggest city in the West Bank, with a population in the city estimated at about 200,000, in the region of somewhere around 650,000. It is the commercial center of the West Bank, tracing its history back nearly 6,000 years, located on the pilgrimage route to Mecca for Muslims, on the trade route between Damascus, Syrian and Cairo, Egypt. It is a predominantly Muslim city, with virtually Palestinian Christians presence here.

But there are six Israeli settlements that have grown up here since 1970, including one in the central vegetable market. Hiller reminded us that under international law, it is illegal for an occupying power to settle land in the occupied region. Yet that is precisely what has happened here as well as at many other places in the West Bank.

We stood with Michael at one of the borders between the two political regions in the city -- H1, which is for Palestinians, and H2, which is called a closed military zone -- the areas where the Israeli settlers live.
But even in the H2 zone, Hiller told us, there are 40,000 Palestinians. There are about 500 Israelis there, with about 1,500 Israeli soldiers providing security to them and controlling he comings and goings of the Palestinians.

Here as in so many other places in the West Bank, the Israeli control system of check points forces Palestinians to take circuitous routes to work and to school.
One particularly striking example of the impact of this control occurred at an intersection near the Ibrahimi Mosque. This street is within the controlled zone and both Palestinians residents and Israeli settlers use it. The Palestinians must approach the checkpoint on the left side of a concrete barrier that runs along one part of the street. The Israelis and international visitors like us may use the main part of the street. They are then funneled into the separate entrances to the mosque, where Palestinians must go through three security checkpoints. By the time he sets inside, Walid Halawah told us, he feels like "I'm not entering a holy place. I'm entering an Israeli military zone."

At that check point near the mosque, there is an Israeli community center named after Yosef Yitzhak Gutnik, a wealthy Australian who has provided significant financial support for the Israeli settlements in Hebron. Loudspeakers on the roof blast Israeli music all day long, disrupting the call to prayer from the mosque and making life miserable for the three Palestinian merchants at that checkpoint as well as the Palestinians walking to the mosque for prayers.

The Palestinians see all this as a concerted efforts to push them out of central Hebron, to let the Israelis create a large area that connects all of their settlements into a contiguous community.
Because of the proximity of Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents along with the military control exerted by the Israeli army, tension is always high here.

The settlers in Hebron, a majority of whom come from the U.S. and Europe, have a reputation for being particularly aggressive. The settlers in the downtown area toss their garbage down on the vegetable market, which is now protected by nets that catch the garbage (see photo above). There are many verbal confrontations.

The once thriving commercial area along Al Shuhada Street is now block after block of closed stores, some with Stars of David painted on the doors signifying the settlers intent to claim them.

Hebron -- a city of conflict in desperate need of the hopeful initiatives of people like Hani Abuhaikal and Walid Halawah.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Holy sites, hard realities

It has such a richness in its name - Nazareth, the village where Jesus grew up. But Nazareth in 2009 is a far different place than it was 2,000 years ago. It is a place that mixes holy sites with some of the hard realities of contemporary Israel.

There are the well known holy sites, like the Church of the Annunciation, commemorating the story of Gabriel, God' messenger, telling her that she would conceive a son who would be God's ultimate revelation to humanity.

But just down the street is the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, a French order of Catholic nuns who came to this city in 1855 to teach Palestinian girls.
About 30 years later, in 1884, a worker cleaning a cistern discovered the underground remnants of what has been identified as a first century Nazareth home and burial crypt.

Sr. Marguerite, who guided us through the passages beneath the convent, told us there were about 40 homes in Nazareth in the first century. While there is no evidence that this was the home of Joseph and Mary and their son, Jesus, their home would have been similar to this one. And since the families were pretty well interconnected, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus at least visited this home.

Off to one side, deeper in the earth, is a tomb honored over the years as "the tomb of the righteous one." Again, there is no evidence who that might be, but the speculation of course runs toward Joseph, Mary's husband, known as "a righteous man." (Matthew 1:19) Sr. Marguerite was careful not to make any claims in that direction, but the twinkle in her eyes offered the tantalizing possibility.

We darted through a rare rainstorm up the hill to Nazareth Village, a modern re-creation of a first century Jewish village. But the real story of Nazareth came over an authentic lunch -- lentil soup, cabbage salad, apples with date dip -- we shared with Gosayna Karam, a staff member at Nazareth Village. Both she and her husband grew up in Nazareth, they were married in a grand ceremony in the Church of the Annunciation and they are raising their four children there. But she spent part of her life growing up in Australia and their first three children were born in the San Francisco area.

She talked about the mixed blessings of life for Palestinians in Nazareth. She values the closeness of family ties, which means that even when someone is unemployed, they are cared for by their extended family. There are no homeless people here, she said.
The Israeli health care system covers everyone, even those without jobs, Arabs and Jews equally.

But the education system - that is another story. Schools receive four times the amount of government aid for a Jewish child as for an Arab child. The curriculum is dictated by the government and ignores any sense of Palestinian history.
While Gosayna appreciates that her children are learning four languages -- Arab, Hebrew, English and French -- she is dismayed by the teaching style that emphasized facts but not learning. She lamented classes of 40 children all expected to look straight ahead, teachers who yelled rather than encouraged, homework for even young children that stretches into four hours a night.

Nazareth is a predominantly Arab village -- now with a Muslim majority, but still with a significant Christian presence. A new city just up the hill - Nazareth Illite -- is a Jewish city with far better facilities provided by the government.
But at least here, the existence of Palestinians is acknowledged. When we talked about our visit to Biram, the Palestinian village that has virtually been obliterated from Israeli consciousness, she told of many other Palestinian villages that are no longer acknowledged by the Israeli government, which means no more building permits, no electricity, no running water. She said that Palestinian aid organizations work to help residents there.

Such is the story of Nazareth. The tourists come to visit holy sites. Doing the work Jesus talked about -- embracing all across social and political boundaries, caring for those in need -- goes on in less visible places.

It's not all that different from what Jesus did in those relatively obscure years he lived in Nazareth, doing the work of God even when he was not being noticed.

You can't get there from here

Our journey from Nazareth through Jericho to Bethlehem provided a classic illustration of the absurdity of travel restrictions between the West Bank and Israel.

Yes, I know the Israelis would say there is nothing absurd about protecting there citizens from the threat of terrorism. But on this day, the absurdity played out in a journey that went on far longer that it needed to.
We drove from the Galilee region down the Jordan River Valley, entering the West Bank with just a nod from George, our driver, to an Israeli guard at a check point. So far so good.

But when we got to Jericho, we had to bypass the first entrance to the city -- just a couple of minutes into downtown had we been able to take it -- to the only open entrance several miles down the highway. We went through an Israeli checkpoint where the soldier said he was just checking to make sure we were all wearing our seatbelts. (We were.)

The main issue here was to make sure no Israeli citizens entered into this West Bank area which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Then we came to a Palestinian checkpoint, where George and the guard had a brief but friendly conversation.

When we left Jericho, we could take a direct route to Bethlehem, which is also in the West Bank. We had to head out past the same two checkpoints, although now both were unguarded. Then we had to drive to Jerusalem, enter Israel (another checkpoint) and drive to the main entrance to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. There we were waved off because there was an Israeli celebration at Rachel's Tomb near that checkpoint and the checkpoint was closed. ("When they celebrate, we suffer," said Rev. Mitri Raheb when we arrived at the International Center in Bethlehem.)

The next nearest entrance to Bethlehem had about a two-hour wait, so George drove a circuitous route to a third checkpoint that would let us in through Beit Jala, a city adjoining Bethlehem. We could get in that way, but George pointed out that as tourists, we could not leave through that checkpoint.

What should have been a couple of short journeys into Jericho and into Bethlehem became extended and exasperating adventures in life in an occupied territory. For us, this was just one adventure. For the residents, it is a daily reality.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wandering along the Sea of Galilee

We were seated in a semi-circle on the hill where tradition has it that Jesus spoke the phrases known as the Beatitudes to the crowd that had gathered to hear him.

Behind us was the Sea of Galilee, that body of water that is so central to the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life. Down the coast we could see Capernaum, the village that served as Jesus' base of operations for so much of his ministry. Up the hill a ways was the Church of the Beatitudes, where people were participating in a Catholic Mass.
Bonnie Van Overbeke read the Beatitudes as Matthew recounted them: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blesses are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted ... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled ... Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God..." (Matthew 5: 1-12)

There were tourists milling all about, of course, but for these few moments, we had this beautiful space to ourselves, letting the spirit of those words sink into the core of our beings. A bird sang from one of the bushes behind us.

There were other moments like that on this day as we traveled along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At Capernaum, you can see a church built over the excavation of the house of Peter, the apostle. You can walk into the fourth century synagogue built on the foundation of the first century synagogue where Jesus came to teach. But for me, the stunning moment of the day came under a banyon tree that rises grandly above the Galilee shore. I sat under the tree, watching the water, imagining the times Jesus would have walked along this shoreline letting his spirit connect with God. It was a sacred moment.

Down the road a bit is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. This commemorates the story of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. (told in Matthew 14: 16-21) Nearby is the Chapel of St. Peter's Primacy. These are both in an area called Tabgha, which means Seven Springs. There is wonderful access to the Sea of Galilee behind St. Peter's Chapel. This spot commemorates Jesus' appearance to his apostles after his resurrection when he came ashore, ate fish with them and told Peter to "feed my sheep," which some interpret as giving Peter primacy among Jesus' closest followers. Both of these stories use food to show how Jesus opened people up to a spirit of hospitality and generosity.
We stood near the shoreline as Nancy Baumgardner played her recorder and we sang the wonderful hymn about Jesus coming down to the lakeshore to invite the fishermen to follow him. "I have abandoned my small boat," we sang. "Now I will seek other seas."

Two more stops. We saw a first century fishing boat similar to the one those fishermen would have used. It has been restored and is displayed at a museum near Magdala, the home village of Mary of Magdala. Then we ended the day at the point south of Tiberius where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee. This is honored as the spot where John baptized Jesus. As darkness crept over the river, people dressed in white garments gathered along the bank to re-enact their own baptisms -- or perhaps to be baptized for the first time. Here was one group where the baptizer wore a cowboy had. One way down the river were a group of African men and woman being plunged into the water. The other way, a group of Mexican-American Catholics were standing barefoot in the water as a priest led them in a renewal of baptismal vows.

Somewhere ... beyond the rows of tour buses, the ever-present gift stores, the variety of legends about each place ... somehow along this shoreline, the spirit of Jesus is still vibrant, calling people to step out of their boats, share a meal with someone in need and live in the way of the beatitudes.

The hidden story of Biram

From the entrance, it just seems like a pleasant national park area. You pay a fee, park your car and meander up the rock steps to the site of an ancient Roman temple that had been converted into a synagogue by the Jewish community in the third century in the Christian era. The ruins of another synagogue are nearby. A sign an the entrance to the park tells part of the history.

What it leaves out are the hundreds of years when this village of Biram was the home of the Melkite Christians, generations of Palestinian families who cared for this land. One of them was the Chacour family. A son of that family, Elias -- the founder of amazing educational institutions at Ibillin, now the Melkite bishop of Israel -- wrote about that point in history that gets only a glancing reference in the tourist brochure.

"During the War of Independence (1948), the villagers were evacuated," the park brochure says. In Chacour's book, Blood Brothers, he offers a lot more detail.

First the Israeli soldiers, moving to take control of their newly formed nation, showed up in Biram and took up residence in many of the family homes, including that of the Chacours. The family slept on the roof. Then in the spring of 1949, the military commander told the village elders that they needed to evacuate for a few days. Leave the keys with us, they told the elders, nothing will be disturbed.

So the families "evacuated," as the brochure said. But they never again would be allowed back in their homes. After extensive legal battles, with two rulings from the Supreme Court that the army should let them return to their village, the commander told the Biram residents who had been staying in a nearby village that they could return on the morning of Dec. 25, 1951. But as they approached in joy that Christmas morning, the Israeli artillery opened fire on the village, destroying virtually all of the home, damaging the church.

So as we walked deeper into the park, we came to the church, rebuilt in the 1960s by some of the young men who had been born in Biram. Chacour tells of helping them "rebuild a symbol of hope for the Palestinian people." The church is now used for Christmas and Easter ... and for funerals. This day, our group from Wisconsin and Mississippi stood outside the church. Nancy Baumgardner took the stairs up to the roof and rang the bell.

If there is a glimmer of life at the church, the rest of the village of Biram is a monument to destruction. The ruins of the old homes dot the landscape. You can see the door frames, a grill, a window. But mostly, you see weeds overgrowing the piles of stone rubble left by the artillery barrage of 1951.

At the edge of the village is the Chacour home, just a bit down the road from where Eilas' parents are buried. In the book, Elias tells the story of his older brother Rudah, who came home one day with a rifle back in the late 1940s when he heard that the Israeli soldiers would be moving in. (It was Rudah and his son who took me on my first tour of this village in 2004). When their father, Michael, saw the gun, he erupted in a rare display of anger: "Get it out of here! I won't have it in my house." He paused, then said more calmly: "We do not use violence ever. Even if someone hurts us."

There is a rich history of family love and tragic displacement in these stones. It's a history that most visitors to this Israeli national park never encounter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's one part pilgrimage to holy sites. It's one part bonding with friends we know. It's one part exploration, planting seeds for new friendships as we learn about life in Israel and Palestine in a time of tension.

Eight of us are leaving today to spend 12 days in Israel/Palestine. Four of us have ties to Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg -- Bonnie Van Overbeke, the former pastor there; Nancy Baumgardner, a very active member; Petra Streiff, the former parish nurse who is now associate pastor at Swiss UCC in New Glarus; and me, the current full-time pastor. Memorial has a partnership with Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, where we will all be worshipping next Sunday (Nov. 1). Joining us are two couples from Mississippi -- Rims and Judy Barber (Rims in Bonnie's brother) and their friends Glenn and Betty Gentry.

We will arrive in Israel on Tuesday afternoon and head to Nazareth. We'll see various Biblical sites around the Sea of Galilee; visit Biram, the hometown of Elias Chacour, an amazing Melkite archbishop who works to cross the barriers among Christians, Muslims and Jews; and spend some time at Nazareth Village, a recreation of the first century village where Jesus grew up.

We will head to Bethlehem on Thursday and spend several days there, including time chatting with Rev. Mitri Rabeb, the pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church and a good friend.
On Monday, Nov. 2, we will head east to Eliat on the Red Sea. We will visit the ancient city of Petra and on the way back to Jerusalem after a few days, we will stop at the Dead Sea and visit Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We arrive in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, Nov. 4. We will visit the holy sites there, spend time at Augusta Victoria Hospital and meet a wide variety of people.
And then it's back home.

I'll file updates and photos as I can along the way.

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Videos of the demolition

Watch Michael Magness make an assault on Tuesday on the crumbling - but very tough shed -- with a tractor. Then watch our gang on Wednesday make the final push to topple what remained of the structure.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thoughts from the students

One of the most amazing parts of the trip for me was a conversation in the kids' room at the hotel we are at in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I wanted to hear a few of their thoughts about he experiences of the week. They talked and talked and talked. Clearly this week had a profound effect on all of them.

They talked about the bonding they had with one another, starting with the afternoon at City Museum in St. Louis on the way down and continuing through the week. They talked about the bonding and their new friendships with our colleagues from Cedar Hills UCC in Portland, who shared the week with us. They were happy about the good food they got during the week, about the experience of living in a couple of trailers at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi.

They were very appreciative of the stories they heard from the people they were helping in Biloxi -- at houses, at the meal program, in the service areas at Back Bay. They were very excited about being part of the worship service Wednesday night at Missionary Baptist Church in Biloxi, a traditional African-American congregation. They liked seeing the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, the various neighborhoods in New Orleans. The bad parts? Long car rides, one bad restaurant stop along the way, the heat.

They were struck by the contrast of huge casinos right across the street from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Biloxi. They wondered how many houses could have been built for the cost of the huge guitar sign outside the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino. One of them said they expected to see poverty in Biloxi, but once they met the actual people living in poverty -- living in a tent, struggling with disabilities. "I never thought about the stuff that made people poor," Austin said.

That's the kind of insight that these kids gained on this trip. I am so proud of them. They were easy to travel with, extraordinarily hard working, lots of fun and very thoughtful. Thanks to all who helped make this happen.

Heading home

Greetings from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where we are spending the night on our way back to Madison. It has been a great week for all of us.

We spend Friday seeing some of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. On the way from Biloxi to New Orleans, we drove along the Gulf Coast, including an amazingly beautiful and haunting trip through the Bayous to the southeast of New Orleans. We got a briefing on the situation from a woman at Good Shepherd UCC in Metarie, who works with relief groups. She took us over the Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward to see what is happening there now.

In the Lower Ninth, one of the poorest areas of the city, it is striking how few homes have been rebuilt four years after Katrina. We did see the very modern and sustainable homes being built with help from the Brad Pitt Foundation. In the main Ninth Ward, which suffered a bit less destruction during the storm, we saw Musicians Village, a reconstruction project of the Marsalis family to help keep musicians in New Orleans by helping them with housing.

Then it was down to the French Quarter, dinner in Metarie at a wonderful oyster restaurant. We were on the road on Saturday by 9 a.m.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A slide show our week at Back Bay Mission

We posted a link to our photos earlier, but we have added many more since then. They are all on the earlier link, several posts down the blog, but here they are as a slide show.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An old shed bites the dust

For most our crew, Tuesday and Wednesday invovled destruction. And they loved it.

"Demolition seems like the opposite of Back Bay," said Elliot. But as our group learned, it's also an important piece of helping out people here.

In this case, the group was tearing down a large shed that had been used as a house for a while. The owner, JW, had led some relatives live there after Katrina hit in 2005. It eventually became used as a drug house. Once officials got wind of this, they condemned the building and required JW to tear it down.

The thing is, JW has his own Katrina story. He's a man in his late 50s, the kids estimated. His wife is from Scotland. They got married just after Katrina and he was helping fix stuff that had been damaged by the storm. He was going through several small heart attacks that week and finally went to the hospital in Gulfport, where they diagnosed what was going on and eventually did bypass surgery. But he said he had been unconscious for 28 days and diminished circulation led to the amputation of a leg and several fingers. So he was in no condition to tear this structure down himself.

Back Bay came to this assistance and our folks were the assisters. Michael and Beth, the four guys -- Adam, Austin, Elliot and Phillip -- and Janine went out on Tuesday to begin the work. They stripped off the tin roof and began removing pieces of the structure. But the temp was setting new records for Biloxi in June, cracking 108 degrees where they were working on Tuesday. And as flimsy as this structure looked .. well, as Austin said, "Now that we're trying to tear it down, it seems a lot sturdier."

Michael tried to pull the whole thing down with a tractor, but that did not work on Tuesday. Eventually, the crew came in from the heat with a plan for Wednesday.

There was one casualty the first day. Phillip tried to break out what seemed to be fiberglass, but actually was real glass and got some cuts in the process. The second day, he really did get covered with fiberglass and he had the experience of a huge cockroach crawling up his leg and onto his bare stomach. But mostly, the casualties were tee-shirts drenched sweat.

So the gang got up before sunrise on Wednesday and left the trailer at 6:15 a.m. to do their work in the cooler part of the day. By 8:30, the structure was down. But getting it down took a combination of pulling with the tractor and guys lunging toward it like the front line of a football team. "All" that remained was the cleanup. That was done by 12:30 and the crew headed back for lunch, showers and a trip to the beach.

And then there's a footnote. At that point in the day when everyone was feeling pretty dragged out and discouraged, JW came out with something for us to read. It went like this:

TO: You
DATE: Today
SUBJECT: Yourself

This is God. Today I will be handling all of your problems. I do not need your help. So have a nice day. I love you.

P.S. And remember ...

If life happens to deliver a situation to you that you cannot handle, do
not attempt to resolve it yourself. Kindly put it in the SFGTD (something for God to do) box. All situations will be resolved, but in My time.

Once the matter is placed into the box, do not hold onto it by worrying about it. Instead, focus on all the wonderful things that are present in your life now.

If you find yourself stuck in traffic, don't despair. There are people in
this world for whom driving is an unheard of privilege.

Should you have a bad day at work, think of the man who has been out of work for years.

Should you despair over a relationship gone bad, think of the person who has never known what it's like to love and be loved in return

Should you grieve the passing of another weekend, think of the woman in dire straits, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week to feed her children

Should your car break down, leaving you miles away from assistance;, think of the paraplegic who would love the opportunity to take that walk.

Should you notice a new gray hair in the mirror, think of the cancer patient in chemo who wishes she had hair to examine.

Should you find yourself at a loss and pondering what is life all about, asking what is my purpose? Be thankful. There are those who didn't live long enough to get the opportunity.

Should you find yourself the victim of other people's bitterness, ignorance, smallness or insecurities, remember, things could be worse. You could be one of them!

Should you decide to send this to a friend, thank you. You may have touched their life in ways you will never know!

Now, have a nice day!

Drama in the front office

Kirsten spent part of Tuesday and Wednesday helping out in the reception area at Back Bay Mission. This is where people in need of help come. Sometimes the folks at the reception desk can direct them to services. Sometimes they can give them the things they need. Often, they connect them with one of the caseworkers at Back Bay.

Back Bay Mission is the only service agency in Biloxi (population about 50,000) that offers daily emergency assistance to people, so they get a steady stream of visitors.

Kirtsen said she loved this part of the trip because she was actually getting time with the people who live here. And on Tuesday, she was part of an extra measure of drama.

One of the gentlemen who came in was a frequent visitor to the mission. He was sweating a lot this day -- not unusual as the temp was climbing to 100. Kirsten talked with him a bit and eventually he went back to see a caseworker, where he told about his chest pain and shortness of breath. She determined that the man was having a heart attack and called 911.

Devastation remains along the coast

Tuesday night, we took a four-vehicle caravan with all 26 of us from both congregations along the Gulf Coast to get a little sense of the devastation that still exists after Katrina. It's an odd sense. There is a fully functional mall -- Dillards and all - right next to empty lots. Someplaces there are long stretches of grass growing over And then there are businesses and condos that are in full gear. There are almost no homes rebuilt along this stretch.

We went as far west as the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park. The dorms and administration there still stand empty, windows blown out, blinds dangling. You can peer inside and see things that have been thrown around the rooms. This is also the site of a sprawling Friendship Oak, that dates back to about 1487.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God

Shari Prestemon's predecessor at Back Bay Mission came there with a well-defined task -- close the mission. The divisions of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s had split local churches. Back Bay's activism on behalf of the had created controversy in Biloxi. There were no longer any UCC congregations in Mississippi. The mission appeared doomed. But, Shari noted with a smile, her predecessor "failed." Back Bay Mission experienced a rebirth. And now it tries to live out the words of the prophet, Micah -- to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Shari talked about the kindness part -- the food pantry, the outreach workers, the housing reconstruction. And she talked about the justice part -- asking why people faced oppressive conditions and then trying to change those conditions. "When you go home," she told our groups, "think about the justice issues in your back yards and then figure out what you can do about them."

Monday, June 22, 2009

A photo view of our week

Back Bay 2009

A day of painting

We started out this morning putting the final (we thought) coat of paint on the ceiling of a new house that is about to be turned over to a woman who has been displaced in the last four years since Katrina. "You know how excited you are when you move into a new house," said Bob, our crew leader from Back Bay. "Just imagine what it's like if you have had no home for the last four years."

But, of course, things did not go totally as planned. The paint was not quite dark enough and some slotches were showing through. So this afternoon, all five of our teens plus Michael and Janine went back to put on a second coat while Mary Kay, Beth and I, along with Allison from Cedar Hills UCC went to Winn Dixie to buy groceries for the next few days. When everyone gets back, we'll head to the Gulf shore and do a bit of swimming before dinner.

The temp, by the way, is pushing 100 and the humidity is, shall we say, noticeable.