PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 2

Our group is staying at the Lutheran World Federation Guesthouse, which is located at the top of the Mount of Olives. The land was given to Kaiser Wilhelm when he visited Jerusalem in 1898, and the compound was named for his wife, Augusta Victoria. Since my grandfather fought in the Boxer Rebellion for the Kaiser’s army and my middle name is Victoria, I felt an immediate connection to the place.

Initially, the compound focused on building a guesthouse for German pilgrims visiting Jerusalem as well as a German Protestant Church to match the one we visited yesterday, Resurrection Lutheran. Since this is located on the mount where Jesus ascended, the church is known as Ascension Lutheran.

Painting of Jesus on Palm Sunday.
Painting of Jesus on Palm Sunday.

The highlight of the church visit for me was seeing an old painting of Jesus on a donkey coming down from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday. I recognized it immediately from Sunday School book covers I saw when in grade school. The painting is in desperate need of restoration, but it reminded me that “the old, old story,” even with an ethnically white Jesus, which is so so wrong historically, still warmed a place in my heart.

This was a reminder of the challenges of ministry during a time that we need to balance what draws out our spiritual heritage or memory with cultural sensitivity.

I am not tied to a white Jesus by any means — in fact I love and celebrate the fact that Jesus was a person of color. But that picture is part of a tradition of my faith from childhood, and I love it for that, even if it is wrong.

How do we balance that? I question worth pondering at a later date, but an idea sparked in me as I toured the church.  But I digress …

We had a chance to hear from the LWF representative at Augusta Victoria Hospital, Mark Brown. A remarkable man, he shared with us the history of the hospital, which was transformed from its original purpose as a guesthouse — our guesthouse was built much later — to become a hospital.

In the aftermath of 1948, when Israel became a state and 800,000 Palestinians had their land and homes taken from them and they became refugees, this became the primary hospital caring for the refugees who lived in Jerusalem. Later, when the Israel invaded area that was not included in its original agreement for territory with the United Nations, the Palestinians who were uprooted fled to this area for sanctuary.

After the Oslo Accord in 1993, which allowed for an independent Palestinian State within five years, the Palestinian Authority formed, and so health care options expanded and the focus of the hospital changed to become a specialty care location for Palestinians with cancer and kidney issues.

Although the hope of the Oslo Accord never materialized and the Palestinians are still an occupied people, they continue with expanding their focus as a hospital.

It was astounding to see the good work these people do on a limited budget and with scarce resources — one PET scan and 1½ radiation units for 4.5 million Palestinians. It is a wonderful example of what the dollars used by USAID and Lutheran World Relief provide — hope and help for a people who have few resources and fewer freedoms. When the U.S. talks about cutting foreign aid and help for Palestinians, places like this are on the line — a place of healing in a broken world.

Old LWF signage.
Old LWF signage.

From there, our “Lutheran pride tour” took us to this amazing LWF Vocational Training Center, where high school students have a chance to learn a skill that will translate into a job for them.

Lutherans are known for their outstanding educational institutions in a place where there are 2,000 fewer classrooms than needed for Palestinian students, and this place was no exception. It was incredible to see the students who were in the classes, working on metal shop, carpentry and auto maintenance, to see the beautiful pottery they made — I bought some — and to taste the fantastic food prepared for us by women in the culinary class.

The women, in particular, face challenges — both in areas where they are allowed to be educated and in finding a vocation because women are not encouraged to work. They face rules and restrictions from the controlling Israeli regulations as well as their own culture. It is a hard place to be a woman in Palestine.

It was a place of hope and promise, as the students not only learn a technical skill, but they also learn life skills, are trained in learning their own human rights and standing up for them and develop team-building skills through sports and cooperative activities. Once they graduate or complete their courses, they return to their homes to become leaven in their communities.

Our meal was also a chance to get to know the director of the school, Yousef, a Palestinian Christian who entered the school as a student and years later has gone on to be its director — representing it around the world as a model of community empowerment and development.

The view from the top of the Mount of Olives.
The view from the top of the Mount of Olives.

Following dinner, we headed up to the Mount of Olives and had the most incredible view of the Kidron Valley. We weren’t far from Bethany, where Jesus was anointed by Mary and where Lazarus was raised, and it was the point from which he descended into Jerusalem for the Triumphant entry. Although in the midst of the city now, at the time, it was a distance away and allowed time for the crowd to grow as he headed to the gates. It is also the area where Jesus ascended. Seeing it was deeply moving.

On the way down, we passed cemeteries, including ones where the prophets were said to have been laid to rest, and we came to the spot where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, looking at their erring ways and wishing he could gather them together like a mother gathers her chicks.

My reaction to this church was the opposite to that of the Holy Sepulchre — it felt holy and sacred. Perhaps because it wasn’t full of people taking selfies. I loved the design, including the cross in the clear window that lined up the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the location of Golgotha.

The grounds around it also carried a sense of serenity and grace that I can’t really describe. I felt peace, even with the heaviness of the world — through the tears of Jesus and his action we found hope beyond tears and light beyond darkness. It is a place to which I hope to one day return.

The road continued down to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed while his disciples slept and where Judas betrayed him. The olive tree garden was cordoned off, but it gave me a good picture of where the disciples would have slept, and the rocks around and in the church gave me an image of where he would have prayed until his tears became drops of blood, saying, “Not my will, but thine.”

Message at the entrance of the church — no tour guide explanations.
Message at the entrance of the church — no tour guide explanations.

The church itself had a sign that said, “No explanations in the church,” meaning tourist guides couldn’t talk. It was a place of silence, and that made a difference.  I felt the power and force of the struggle and sacrifice of Jesus.

Our guide, a Muslim man, made a connection I had never considered. He talked about the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus was most connected with his divine self, and the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was his most human. One was on a mountain, the other in the valley, one was in the morning and the other at night. Truly the dark night of his soul. Food for thought.

We left the Garden and for dinner had a grand feast with some of the Lutheran Young Adults in Global Mission at a local restaurant. I can’t describe all we ate except that the salads are astounding, the appetizers spectacular, the main dish filling and the dessert sublime. Middle Eastern food and spices are my favorite.

And the company — young adults who are giving a year of their life in accompaniment to our global partners in the Lutheran Church — was even better than the meal. I ended the day proud to be a Lutheran, for what we are doing in the world and who is representing us in the global community.

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Paula Mehmel

Paula V. Mehmel is currently parish pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo. Based in Casselton, N.D., but a Minnesota native, she holds an undergraduate degree in English and German from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. “Pastor Paula,” as she is widely known, is a popular speaker, writer, and proud single mother of two sons who both attend Harvard University. With a passion for serving the last, the lost and the least, Mehmel is a committed community member with a special interest in homelessness, refugee resettlement and addressing issues of sexual violence. She also created a no-cut community theater in Casselton to assure herself a small role in the ensemble each summer, fulfilling her desire to sing and dance on stage. She relishes the opportunity to share her thoughts on anything from social justice to theology to random musings about her latest travel adventures.

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