Published by

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.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Be A Voice Of Hope

On Monday, I read their names.

The names of some of the men, women and children who were among the 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.

As part of Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day, Voices of Hope and the Mandelll Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, Conn., sponsor a Community Wide Reading of the Names.

A member of my parish alerted me to it, and so I signed up for a time slot and went there to read the some of the names of those who were murdered in places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. I wore a clerical collar, both as an act of solidarity and contrition, since Lutheran clergy in Germany played a very mixed role in the rise and normalization of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Voices of Hope is an organization created by descendants of Holocaust survivors to collect, categorize and share the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the benefit of future generations. Its bold mission is to foster a culture of courage and social action against hate, bigotry, intolerance and indifference.

After learning over the weekend that almost a quarter of all millennials knew nothing about the Holocaust and 41 percent of all Americans (66 percent of millennials) had never heard of Auschwitz, the importance of reading these names became more apparent.

We are living in a country that is quickly forgetting the consequences of hatred driven marginalization of a specific race or creed. And now, more than ever, we need to remember what happened in Germany when good people looked the other way, ignoring the facts when their neighbors were isolated and then removed, objectifying them, rather than seeing them as individuals.

What happens when you read the names is that it becomes personal. No longer is the Holocaust 6 million nameless, faceless people. It is Chave Friedman, Jacov Freidlander and Mordichai Fuchs. Real people, with real stories, who bled and died in the ghettos of Warsaw or who were gassed in camps like Buchenwald.

What struck me, as I read name after name from the same family, is that entire generations were eliminated. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Genocide is a horrible thing. And seeing it in print and reading the names aloud, made it real.

We live in a world where we see both the horrors of war and genocide up close, as we see victims in living color, and yet we become immune to it. Only the rare photo, like the blood-stained face of the Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, whose trauma after a bombing captured the price of that horrific war, breaks through and makes these people real. Otherwise, it simply becomes the story of a war in Syria or Afghanistan — not the story of lives disrupted or refugees fleeing in terror.

I think of the victims of genocide and mass slaughter — the bodies of babies thrown into a pit in Cambodia, the Native Americans perishing after a smallpox- laden blanket wiped out entire communities, the mass graves in Bosnia — they are more than simply a number. Each statistic represents a flesh and blood person, whose story came to a horrible end for no reason other than hate that went unchecked.

And I think of the people I met in the refugee camps in Uganda who are fleeing a genocide in South Sudan, and the Palestinians, who are facing a slow and deliberate choking out of existence through the illegal seizure of lands and assaults on unarmed resisters who are helpless to do anything but scream as their way of life and identity is being robbed from them.

Their stories need to be told. Their names need to be said aloud — like the thousands killed in South Sudan in recent weeks or the 17 unarmed Palestinians who were shot in Gaza. When we hear their stories, we are able to understand more deeply the pain that drives them and the struggles that unite them.

When we lump people into a group by their nationality, or their religion, or their color, we take away their individuality. It is easier to hate a group than it is to focus on the person who is being targeted.

Voices of Hope gave me a chance to say the names of those who were killed nearly 80 years ago, killed because the majority did not stand up to say “no” in the face of bald hatred and vicious lies, scapegoating a people and tolerating the indefensible.

I read their names, knowing that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And understanding that a genocide does not begin in a day. Instead, it happens because good people look the other way for too long, until what once was seen as horrific becomes normalized and acceptable.

And today, I will continue to say the names of Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and others because their lives, their stories matter, too.

We can’t look the other way or we become complicit. So Monday, I read the names from the past, committed myself to share the stories of those facing a genocide today and joined in a bold venture to continue to say these names aloud too, to help tell their stories.

As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So we need to do something. And it begins by saying their names.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Single But Not Broken

I am a single parent.

It wasn’t what I set out to do. When Steve and I had Duncan and Ian, I had all the hopes and dreams of a young married mother, raising my children in a loving, intact family.

However, that was not to be.

Steve and I separated the weekend Ian began kindergarten and Duncan started second grade. I remember it well. The boys and I went away that weekend to my friend Holly’s parents house so they wouldn’t have to watch dad move out and returned to a much emptier house.

Because I was determined to do everything I could to save my children from the stigma of coming from a “broken home,” Steve and I reunited after a year of separation, but ultimately, the demons caused by his addiction became too great a burden to bear, and we had to tell our heartbroken children that we were divorcing. I can still see the look of sadness in their eyes.

From that point, I became, for the most part, a single parent. During the first couple of years, Steve had the kids for a night or two every few weeks. After that, there were occasional visits, though never overnight. As the years rolled on, the visits became less and less frequent, and sometimes they would go months at a time without hearing from him, as his addiction took its toll, until he tragically died from alcoholism when the boys were 14 and 17.

I tried to do what I could to promote a relationship with Steve, knowing that they needed a dad. And I was grateful for the men who stepped up over the years in different capacities to help — Bill, who taught them to drive; Tristan, who helped paint Ian’s room and would talk to him; Aaron, who provided a spiritual influence, and Doug, who taught them a little here, a little there, and just cared.

There were also a couple of men at school who went above and beyond — Darcy, their band teacher, and Coach Schauer, who was such a kind man.

But mostly, it was just me.

I was a single parent.

But my sons did not come from a broken home.

There was nothing broken about our home. They may not have had a dad around, but we had each other, and together we made a whole.

We developed, over the years, deep and honest relationships with each other. We were vulnerable, we expressed frustrations directly, and we supported each other in meaningful and real ways. And we spent a lot of time talking. There is an authenticity in our relationship that has created a strong and enduring bond.

My sons say that they were each other’s father, filling in for the other the gaps that happened because there wasn’t a dad in the house. Although my sons did not have a present father, I know that their lives would have been much more broken if Steve and I had stayed together the way things were.

Which is why it makes me so angry when I see single mothers become the punching bag for those who want to change the subject from sensible gun laws whenever there are school shootings.

Take Rick Santorum. On Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he changed the subject from the gun control debate by saying there was “another debate” we should have, and that’s “the fact that these kids come from broken homes without dads.”

For the record, this was the same man who in 1994 in Mother Jones, with regard to crime rates, said “What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals.”

It’s so easy to throw stones and simplify the problems of society by blaming it on single mothers and “broken homes.” My home was far more broken when I was not a single mother. And I know I am not the only parent who can say that.

Thanks to the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  may be used to advocate or promote gun control , there is precious little research on mass shooters or school shooters.

However, in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, the National Science Foundation did a study on youth violence, published in American Psychologist in 2016.

In it the researchers determined the risk factors for increased violence included “harsh and rejecting parents, interparental violence, child abuse and neglect, chaotic family life, inconsistent discipline and poor monitoring by parents of children showing early signs of aggression.”

Conversely, the factors associated with lower risk for youth violence included “close attachment bonds with consistently supportive caregivers, effective and developmentally sensitive parenting (including consistent disciplinary practices and monitoring) and families operating in ways that children experience as safe, stable, well-managed, and well-regulated.”

Note neither of these groups include the number of parents as a factor.

The truth is, single mothers get blasted by people all the time as the reason for a whole host of societal ills, when the facts bear out that it is the quality of parenting, not the quantity of parents.

Sometimes, one can avoid the factors that increase the risk of violence by divorcing. I know I was a much better mother when I was able to focus my time and energy on parenting my sons and not trying to salvage a union ripped apart by addiction.

Yet, I stayed in it for longer than perhaps I should have because I wanted to avoid the scarlet D of divorce and having my children deal with the stigma of coming from a “broken home.”

It was only when I got those shaming voices out of my head that I was able to do what was in the best interest of my children, even if the politicians, pundits and, sadly, religious leaders leveled blame on me and my ilk, condemning our home and labeling us broken.

My sons are now young men and both are fortunate enough to be students at Harvard, where Ian is a sophomore and Duncan is a senior. They have done well for themselves, largely because of their natural talent, work ethic, communication skills, willingness to face challenges and grit — all but the first of which were honed because of the home in which they were raised.

But for me what is more important than where they go to school is the fact that they are kind and compassionate men who have empathy and integrity.

Society may look down on my family and call us broken. But we know better. We know we are strong in the broken places, and because of that, there is nothing fragile about us.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A False Idol

There is a meme that makes the rounds on my Facebook feed after every school shooting that makes my blood boil. It takes the form of two letters.

The first says “Dear God, Why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student.”

The response reads “Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. God”

I find the sentiments of this meme incredibly offensive as well as theologically inaccurate, at least from a Christian tradition.

I know countless teachers and school employees, from administrators to cooks to custodians. Many of them are people of faith who are part of what we call The Priesthood of All Believers in the Lutheran tradition.

What that means is that they exercise their faith through their vocation. They feel called to be teachers or paraprofessionals or school cooks or administrators. They bring glory to God by ministering to the students they serve and see their work as a calling.

I know that they pray fervently for their students, during school hours and afterward, and they bring God with them to school every day.

I also know countless students who are people of faith. They show love to their classmates, sit by the kids who are lonely, share their meals with kids who don’t have a lunch and quiet bullies.

I know these students bring God with them to school every day — not just praying before exams but reflecting God’s love to others.

This arrogant meme implies that we have the power to control God and keep God in a box, letting God be some places and not others. Like we are the ones who control God.

But I believe, as a Christian, that when Jesus said, “I am with you always,” he meant it. God is never absent and is with us always. I believe God is true to God’s promise and that means that God is very present in every school. Nothing can keep God away.

The only thing being kept out of schools is a watered down prayer forced on people — that, in order, rightly, to honor our Constitution and the diversity of people’s faith lives, could not honor anyone’s God. After all, who decides what people are to pray or to whom?

People pray all the time in schools. We simply don’t have required prayer. I don’t want some government or school bureaucrat writing a prayer for kids to say. And I certainly don’t want the religious leaders who send around that meme to do it because they clearly think they are in control of where God goes and what God does.

The problem is not that God is not in the schools. The problem is that too many people are placing their trust in a false idol, their guns, the NRA or their political power and lack the courage to enact simple reforms that could help curb the violence that is becoming, sadly, all-too present.

A forced prayer would not be from the heart but instead would be as worthless as the “thoughts and prayers” of those who refuse to enact common-sense gun reform that would help prevent these kinds of tragedies.

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” — 1 John 3:18.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Power Of Forgiveness

Steve died five years ago today.

I decided to take some time this morning to reflect and pray. So I headed out to what I thought was a dog park, with the hopes that there wouldn’t be many people there on a dreary crisp morning.

As luck would have it, the place that Google told me was a dog park was in fact an Audubon Center situated by a woods with a creek running through it and an old cemetery adjacent to the walking paths.

I love how God knows what I need and often provides it, unasked. It was utterly solitary and the perfect place to reflect on a man who loved to watch and feed birds and felt no more at peace than by a creek in the woods.

It gave me a chance to remember. To remember what was good about Steve without denying the broken parts that resulted in our divorce and ultimately led him to death far too soon.

It is too easy to just hold on to either the good or the bad — to turn the dead into saints or else to allow the disappointment of broken promises and broken dreams to color all that was connected with them. Neither is fair to those who were once living, breathing people, filled with both the breath of the Spirit and the complications of living in our fallen, imperfect state.

Steve hadn’t always lived well, but he died well. Clean, sober and chemical-free. Neither of us loved perfectly, but in the perfect love of God, we both found healing and grace through the power of forgiveness.

As with all divorces, we each had our own stories, our own hurts and sins that each of us committed that the other needed to forgive. Over the years, we had more to forgive. Even in the process of dying, we each had to forgive each other again and again because at the core of any real, honest relationship is the ability to forgive. We can hold on to anger and resentment, or we can move through it, let go and move forward.

In the end, our relationship was defined by forgiveness. The last evening I spent by Steve’s bedside, I spoke to him about my regrets and once again offered my forgiveness to him, and I held his hand as I prayed with him. He had not spoken for three days or been at all responsive, but a tear formed by his eye that I wiped away. I told him I was going to leave at 8, if he wanted me there when he died. He took his last breath at 7:59.

By moving past so much brokenness, we were able to heal so many shared memories and give our sons a gift. After seven years of divorce, their dad died holding their mom’s hand. I hope that legacy of grace transformed the way they view the world to accept and forgive others who fail them in their life, even as we failed them as parents by divorcing.

I know that Steve’s and my final gift to our children was reflecting the power of forgiveness and how the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation can be what defines you, not all the shattered pieces in between.

Our lives together at their best were filled with serendipity, as I said in our vows the day we were married, which led us to “together when neither of us was looking for what we found in each other.” Sort of like finding a peaceful woods when you are looking for a dog park.

When I reflect back, it is that serendipity I like to hold onto — knowing that for all of the pain and the heartache, the two sons we created, arising like phoenixes out of the ashes of our union, were the most serendipitous acts of all. A reminder of God’s power to find grace even in the midst of tumult, of continuing hope even in the face of death.

Today, as I wandered through that park, tears streaming down my face at what was and what could have been, I felt both sorrow and peace. Sorrow that so much in Steve’s life was never fully realized and that he wasn’t there to see our sons grow up and become the fine men they are and peace in knowing that in the end, he found the courage and the strength to let go and let God take him to a place of eternal peace.

Henri Nouwen wrote in a devotional I read the days after Steve died:

“Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.

“Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.”

Five years later, I read this again and am grateful for its truth, God’s power and the gift I received as Steve was dying. Because forgiveness truly does change the way we remember.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘Christian Evangelicals’ Have It All Wrong

I’ve been wavering for weeks as to whether to weigh in to the recent #MeToo movement.

On the one hand, as a survivor of rape as well as sexual harassment who has experienced sexual discrimination, I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.

On the other hand, I am fully aware of subtleties in every case and worry about broad brushes that equate molesting a 14-year-old child with an inappropriate intentional grope, or potentially an inadvertent one. All sexual offenses are not the same. And my fear is a blog opens one up to being attacked on social media over a topic better suited for face to face conversation, which is sorely lacking in our polarized society.

However, I decided to dive in after just hearing David Brody, a reporter for the Christian Broadcast Network, explain why so many evangelical Christians are standing by Roy Moore and Donald Trump. He claimed that the Bible is full of imperfect people that God used to accomplish God’s work and that as Christians they believe in grace and forgiveness.

It is true. The Bible is full of imperfect people. In fact, last time I checked, every single one of them, except for the main character in the New Testament, was an imperfect person. Which is precisely why Jesus came. To bridge the gap between us and God — to offer us the gift of forgiveness.

I believe the reason that Jesus was turned over to Pilate by the religious leaders was precisely because he came to forgive. He had the audacity to suggest that they were not perfect. That they could not follow God’s laws exactly. And that they needed a Savior.

Rather than humble themselves in the sight of the Lord, they lifted Jesus up on a cross to be killed.

And through his Resurrection, he showed us that not even death will keep God from offering to forgive us. That God’s love is more powerful than human judgment.

But here’s the thing that bothers me about what these “Christian evangelicals” — I use quotation marks because I am a Christian and an evangelical Lutheran who believes in the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness made real in a personal relationship with Christ and I wish to remove myself from their sphere and reclaim it for those of us who find their defense of the indefensible abhorrent — who support Trump and Moore without reservation because they believe in grace and forgiveness and God using broken people:

In order to be a person of faith used by God in this way, one NEEDS to repent. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which means “to change direction.” One needs to admit they were wrong and work to make things right.

Brody, echoing the “Christian evangelicals” led by the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr, used King David as his example of a person who God used in spite of his sinful action.

It is true, God used King David, who committed adultery by forcing Bathsheba to come to his royal palace and raping her. (I don’t think she was in the position to give consent, so let’s call it what it is.) When she became pregnant, he arranged to have her husband killed in battle.

By all accounts, King David was a poster child for men abusing their power and assaulting women.

But here’s the thing. When the prophet Nathan came and confronted David with his sin, David immediately repented. In response to his sinful behavior, he wrote Psalm 51, which is a plea for forgiveness.

David claims his sin and begs God, “Do not cast me away from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore me to the joy of your salvation and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10-11)

In Lutheran tradition, we use this Psalm as an offertory, recognizing in order to be so bold as to make an offering to God, we need to acknowledge that we are not worthy, and approach God with our gifts only through grace.

David gets that he did wrong and from the very essence of his soul pleads with God to put him right again.

In addition to his repentance, there are consequences for David’s action. Most notably, he was not allowed to build the temple, which was his dream, because he had shed blood in war — namely, he killed Uriah. Instead, Solomon, the child born when he married Bathsheba — more power abuse, but I’d have to write another blog to deal with that — built the temple.

When “Christian evangelicals” make this claim about David and God’s use of other imperfect people (read as humans), they miss a key point in the comparison: the essential need for repentance and a plea for mercy and forgiveness to be used by God as a disciple. God uses many different types of people to accomplish God’s will, but to be be one of the redeemed, you need to be, well, redeemed. You need to know you sinned.

Without that, you utterly miss the point. That is, as Bonhoeffer says, “cheap grace.”

Can perpetrators of sexual abuse and any sin be forgiven in a Christian community? Of course they can. Can they be rehabilitated? Yes, of course they can. But in order to do that, they need to repent. They need to change direction.

Al Franken, in his acknowledgement of his action, most particularly the photo, said it was wrong. He privately apologized to Leeann Tweeden, she accepted his apology, and ultimately he paid the consequences by resigning from his seat.

This is a textbook case of how it is done and although Franken’s iniquities were hardly in the category of King David’s, serves as a perfect example of what Brody was describing.

All government leaders who stand accused, especially in the case of multiple accusers whose stories have credibility, either need to face ethics inquiries to deal with the facts or come clean, admit guilt, repent and move forward to the stage of forgiveness with the consequences that accompany them.

For a Christian leader of any stripe to say that you can skip this stage is to forget what it means to repent. It is to defend sin without acknowledging it. Now we can get into a debate about what sin is, and what one needs to repent over, but that again is a whole other blog. I am being specific here about sexual predation.

But there was one more thing that Brody said, echoing the opinion of the “Christian evangelicals,” that left me in a fury. He said that they wanted to be people of grace and forgiveness and so they could forgive Roy Moore of his transgressions, if he committed them, especially if they were long ago.

No one has any business forgiving someone of a sin that was not committed against them.

The only person on Earth who can forgive my rapist was me. (And I did, for my sake, not his. I didn’t want to carry that burden through life with me, so I left it on deposit with God, should he ever repent.)

I have no business forgiving someone for what Roy Moore did to them. Or Donald Trump. Or Matt Lauer. Or Al Franken. Or …

I can chose not to judge someone because of their sin. Because I am also sinful. I can chose to move past it in how I interact with them. I can chose not to hold it against them.

And as an agent of God, when someone makes confession of sin, I can offer God’s forgiveness. Which is always ready for those who turn to God, regardless of the sin. And I can stand with them as they face the consequences.

But I can’t forgive them for what they did to someone else. Only the person who was victimized can do that.

That’s it. Full stop.

I think many of these “Christian evangelicals” who are selling their souls for political power would be better served by focusing their efforts not on defending the indefensible but rather focusing on those who really need defense and who Jesus called us to serve — the last, the lost and least; the downtrodden and the forgotten; the orphan, the widow and the alien (immigrant.)

Because when all is said and done, Jesus came for two reasons. To forgive us our sins and to call us to respond with mercy to all of God’s children as forgiven people armed with love. So focus with humility on your own need for forgiveness and go out and serve and love everyone with radical abandon.

That is the image the world needs of Christian leaders, and the only way we can live out the amazing grace of God.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 12

“Very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Jesus got up and went to a quiet place to
pray.”

This verse has ordered my life for years, serving as a reminder for me that Jesus, whose mission it was to save the world, literally, still found it vital to pray and made room for it in his busy days, so who am I to think I don’t need Daily Quiet Times with God.

This morning, I had the perfect Quiet Time.

I awoke about 5:15 and knew I wasn’t going back to sleep, so I quietly dressed, so as not to
disturb my roommate too much, and slipped down to the Sea of Galilee well before the sun had
risen.

It was quiet, and reflective and beautiful.
As the dawn sky began to lighten, I prayed and I sang all of my favorite songs about Jesus and water. “You have come down to the Lakeshore” and “Come to the Water” were both sung at my ordination, and I always associated those with the Sea of Galilee.

I was in my element.

It was a magical time of prayer and reflection for me — a reminder of why I need that time with God to stay focused and how it connects me with Jesus, who was as human as he was God,and who needed reflection time too.

For all of the incredible things in Israel, the Sea of Galilee is definitely “my place.”

After breakfast, we headed to the Mount of the Beatitudes for a wonderful Eucharistic experience.

The chapel is at the center, but there are several altars surrounding it that can be reserved, so
we set up for Communion on Altar 1.

The Bishop presided, having four different people read four different versions of the Beatitudes in lieu of a sermon. It was more time for reflections on what it means to be blessed and how the values of Christians are at odd with the world — but that we will be blessed for being faithful.

Sharing the Common Cup and song united us with the disciples over the past two thousand years who have come to this place to hear the voice of God. It truly felt like we were part of the Communion of Saints, in every time and place.

During the service, large acorn like seeds kept falling from on high, which added a sense of danger to the service. After it was completed, I learned who the culprits were — at least five parrots who used the camouflage of the tree well.

We had 45 minutes after worship ended before we needed to board the bus, and I used it well. I
wandered from altar to altar and heard worship services or songs in at least a dozen
languages.

My favorite was when I head one group singing to the tune of “The Last Supper,” which I videotaped and posted, tagging everyone who appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar with me in 2015, the musical that made the song famous.

I also found a quiet place to be alone here as well. One song that has always touched my soul is from the Iona community “Take, Oh Take Me as I am, Summon up what I shall be, set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”

It has been a song that has centered me at many crossroads in my life and I sang it over and over again on the Mount of Beatitudes, to serve as a touchstone as I begin a new call in Hartford, but also as I offer myself up to God in service to the people whose cries I’ve heard
here in the Holy Land.

God has called me to care and will summon up what I need to be a bearer of this message from the people of Palestine.

Going from one spiritual high to the next, we drove to Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived and was the center of his ministry.

Whereas Nazareth is now a lively modern city with large churches to mark the places where Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived, Capernaum was an archeological site and for me a place of reflection.

The Synagogue there is the largest ever found and it is quite possibly this is at the same place
and location where Jesus taught.

There is also a space over which there is now a church that is thought to be the homes of Peter and Jesus.

But for me the highlight was seeing the layout of homes in the city. One of my favorites Bible Stories is the one where four friends bring the man who could not walk to Jesus by lowering him through the roof.

I love this story because there have been times in my life when I felt like I couldn’t move and it was others carrying me to Jesus in prayer that got me through.

Recently I shared that image with a friend who was struggling and I know it helped.

Seeing that spot and carrying friends to Jesus in prayer made it real to me. This whole trip makes the story real. They make Jesus more real.

After more time of reflection on the beach where I pictured Simon, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee being called to “fish for people,” it was back on the bus for a fish dinner at Peter’s Place and one more stop in Israel.

Enroute to Beit She’an, we took a route that went through the Golan Heights, which I didn’t expect. The Golan Heights have been a tense area since Israel seized them in 1967 and a tense truce followed with Syria talking 5 percent and Israel the remainder.

When that division was not respected by Israel and they seized more land, the UN declared that it was all Syrian territory but Israel ignores that and controls it all, without regard for international law.

I decided to go along with the UN and added Syria to my country list. But we didn’t get out to walk. Our guide said the Syrians left lots of land minds when they retreated.

We toured Beit She’an, an impressive ruins that traces its origins as far back as the 15th Century BCE and was destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th Century CE.

Beit She’an’s extraordinary Roman ruins gave us a great sense of what it was like to live, work and shop in the Roman Empire. Colonnaded streets, an 8500-seat theater that looks much as it did 1800 years ago with the original public bathrooms are nearby,  two bathhouses and huge
stone columns that lie right where they fell during the 749 earthquake evoke the grandeur, self-confidence and decadence of ancient Roman provincial life.

Nowhere was that decadence more evident than the brothels in the center of town — right down the street from the theater. And looming large around the city was a huge hill with a cross on it — used as the site of the Crucifixion in the movie Jesus​ ​Christ​ ​Superstar​.

For me the most striking story was the one about a skeleton that was found of a man crushed by a pillar in the earthquake — with a pile of gold coins lying next to his hand bones. If ever there was a more poignant story proving “You can’t take it with you” I’d like to hear it.

Following our tour, we headed to the border to bid our driver Ismael and our guide Tareq goodbye as we continued on our Jordanian part of the journey, which I will cover in my next blog.

Israel and Palestine were confusing, overwhelming and filled me with a host of emotions I will explore at a blog when the trip is over, but my experiences today reminded me of the one things I need to do most when it comes to what is happening here.

I need to take the time to pray. And then carry the people of Palestine with my actions on their behalf, when they can’t move forward themselves, knowing that we find blessings in hungering for righteousness and being peacemakers.

In the end, like the man under the pillar, we will all fall victim to death, under the weight of time,but what becomes our legacy is not what we have, but what we do for others. In that, ultimately,
we find our greatest blessing.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 11

I am writing this blog with my headphones on and classical music ringing in my ears.

We are staying at a Youth Hostel on the Sea of Galilee, where a lot of families come, and near as I can tell, let their children run wild. Last night, there were shouts in the hallway echoing loudly in my room until midnight and they started up again early this morning. I suspect it is going to be another long night.

Different cultures, different standards. Part of the travel experience. Not all experiences are positive, but we learn from them, putting the pieces together.

Putting the pieces together could easily be the theme for today as we visited Zippori National Park.

Sepphoris was once the capital of Galilee, a place where throughout history there have been repeated rebellions. Whether it was the Jews rebelling against occupation in 55 B.C., rising up against Herod, or when the Crusaders had their last stand before being defeated by the Saladin and the Muslims, or when the Jews returned in 1948 during Ramadan and forced the Palestinians to leave, the history of this place, like all of Palestine and Israel and Judea, is one of rise, rebellion, and ouster … pieces torn apart and put together again.

During the last battle, in 1948, most of the people who had been living here for thousands of years were forced to seek refuge in Lebanon and Syria.

I learned something new today about what happened during the war. After the war in 1948, most of the Palestinians were forced to leave, but there was a brief time when they were told that they could come back and live here again.

Mosiac at Zippori National Park.
Mosiac at Zippori National Park.

Unfortunately, the announcement of that was often only posted in papers in Hebrew, with short notice, so most didn’t know and ultimately lost their house forever because of the law of absenteeism: If you aren’t in your home, it can be taken. That explained a lot.

But we weren’t focused on modern history today but rather ancient history as we looked at the amazing mosaics that were at this location. The intricacy of the design and the quality really was quite astounding.

Mona Lisa of Galilee.
Mona Lisa of Galilee.

Besides the mosaics, I took pleasure in a rather simple action. This city was the center of Galilee when Jesus grew up in the small town of Nazareth nearby, so there is no question he would have been here.

As we walked around, our guide pointed out a road whose stones were original. You could trace it back thousands of years, and you could see the groves in the stone from the wheels of chariots that went over it.

So I took off my shoes and walked down the smooth stones. I walked where Jesus walked. Literally.

From Zippori National Park, we headed to Nazareth. Prior to 1948, Nazareth was largely a Christian community, but in the aftermath of the war, it shifted to 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, as refugees came to here to rebuild their lives.

It has grown from the sleepy small town in the time of Jesus to a community of 75,000.

There we saw three different churches, dedicated to Gabriel, Mary and Joseph.

St. Gabriel Catholic Church.
St. Gabriel Catholic Church.

The first was St. Gabriel Catholic Church. A stream runs under the church, which is the place that it is said that Mary first received the angel Gabriel.

I have to admit, I was baffled as I heard this story. I kept running through Luke in my head, wondering if I missed something. I am happy to report that I did not (having read that text hundreds of times).

The spot where according to the Koran and Christian tradition it is said that Mary first received the angel Gabriel.
The spot where according to the Koran and Christian tradition it is said that Mary first received the angel Gabriel.

This story is attributed to both Catholic tradition and the Koran — so I did not sleep through something in seminary I should have been paying attention to … at least not with regards to Mary and a stream.

The second place we visited was my favorite of all of the major churches we have visited (there were a few smaller places, like where  Jesus wept over Jerusalem and the Shepherd’s Chapel that I really loved).

The Basilica of the Annunciation and the altar near where Mary is said to have encountered the angel Gabriel.
The Basilica of the Annunciation and the altar near where Mary is said to have encountered the angel Gabriel.

The Basilica of the Annunciation was completed in 1969, and one of the unique things about it is that there are incredible works of art from many nations that circle the outside and the inside of the Basilica. They each portray a depiction of the annunciation.

What I loved about it was how in many of them, Mary was seen as representative of the nation — so she was Asian in Japan’s Annunciation and Middle Eastern in the one from Iraq and South American in Peru’s.

I love that Jesus and Mary aren’t just viewed here through a certain lens, but rather all-encompassing — as the pieces come together to reveal a greater whole — a God bearer who represents all people and places.

Would that we could see God that way — and each other as images of God. So much of the history of hate might be able to transform.

Sculpture at the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Sculpture at the Basilica of the Annunciation.

There was a space in the Basilica —  a grotto — where they believe it is historically quite possible the spot where Mary was living when Gabriel visited her. It felt holy and sacred and reminded me of how human our story is. And how it relies on our being open to God coming into our presence in the present.

I think that openness to God being present — Emanuel, God with us, in the pieces of life is my greatest take away from today. Our lives are made up of different parts and our world is made up of different people.

That was drilled home this evening as our group bid farewell to our bus driver and guide. Both Muslim men. One an Israeli citizen, the other a resident of the West Bank. We saw both go through questions and indignities in their time with us.

Gracious men profiled by race and religion, they will not be coming to Jordan with us.

And later, I shared a drink and more conversation with Carol, my Israeli friend.

Each has a story. For them a true story. And as the stories are told the pieces come together to reveal the full picture, which is complicated, long and hard to comprehend.

But it is only with God and our openness to the peace that God brings that there will be any peace in this area.

Because God alone can put the pieces together to reveal beauty of a mosaic of people from every race and people living in harmony.

And it is that promise in which I hope.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 10

It’s loud at our lodging tonight as I write this. Children are running around, yelling joyfully, riding on scooters and playing with each other as parents mill about, sipping on wine.

Toto, we aren’t in Palestine anymore.

Tonight is our first evening in Israel, as we are staying in Galilee to see the places where Jesus grew up and where most of his ministry occurred, and the differences are profound. We can drink the water from tap, there isn’t the constant tension felt by armed soldiers everywhere, and it feels very much like a middle class culture.

It is easy to see why so many Israelis aren’t invested in what is happening in Palestine. Out of sight, out of mind. Living in completely different world.

We left the West Bank and headed north. Going through checkpoints is not a problem for us, as we passed through the wall. We have a yellow license plate on our bus. That means that we are able to drive anywhere we want — that we are able to be in Israeli territory.

Yesterday I heard that some women aren’t able to enter Jerusalem until they are 40 and men until they are 55 because they need a permit before that age to leave the West Bank. Hardly anyone is permitted to drive a car (100 permits for the whole of the West Bank can drive in Jerusalem.) Most will never travel north and see the beauty of Galilee.

Along the way, we passed by Haifa, a port city, which our guide, Tareq, told us was the best example of positive relationships between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel. The city is 70 percent Jewish, 30 percent Palestinian, and they get along. They speak each other’s language, the city has a nightlife, there is no conflict, and they live as a community.

I asked why this was the case. Tareq said it was because their relationship wasn’t about who was a Muslim and who was a Jew. If you take the focus on religion out of it, people get along. It felt good to see at least one beacon of hope here. The future of this land is focusing on the people, not isolating them by religion and ethnicity.

Prior to today, I was wondering about the “land of milk and honey” that Abraham was promised — Jerusalem has a desert on one side, and it really felt like one large place of rocks and hills.

But here in Galilee, it is lush and green. The farms are productive, and the beauty of the rolling hills and mountains makes it clear why people fought for this land and didn’t want to give it up as their home.

I also learned the milk was the olive trees and the honey was the figs.

Our first stop was  the Sea of Galilee. As we walked up to it, it was apparent the lake was much smaller than it used to be. It needs to rise 15 feet to get back to the size it once was — a product of the lack of rain caused by climate change. It’s shrinking has also increased the water shortage, since it can’t be drained to be used as a water source.

Once there, we boarded “The Jesus Boat.” It was a large wooden boat, reminiscent of the kind that Jesus and his disciples would have used. It was a still day on the Sea of Galilee, with no movement whatsoever.

I noticed there were cross winds, with the way the hills and mountains broke, so that surface waves could rise in both directions in a hurry. Surface waves swamp boats. The whole story of Jesus in the storm made a lot more sense.

The hourlong cruise was peaceful and serene — except when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and hoisted an American flag on the boat  since we were all U.S. citizens. That I found a little weird, but given the rampant nationalism of Israel, it made sense that they promoted it with all of the tourists.

Once the U.S. flag was raised (I decided not to confuse them by asking for equal time for “O Canada”), the remainder of the cruise was reflective. We read the story of Jesus in the storm and we looked out at the calm waters.

As a water person who loves boats and has been caught in more than a few storms, I felt very connected to Jesus.

The Ancient Boat was found in 1986 and has been dated to between the First Century BCE and CE.
The Ancient Boat was found in 1986 and has been dated to between the First Century BCE and CE.

While at this same sight, we were able to see the Ancient Boat that was found in 1986, which is the oldest freshwater boat in the world.

The boat has been dated to between the First Century B.C.E> and C.E., which means that even though no one knows if this was a boat that Jesus used, he would have used one very much like it. Seeing it, like the Sea of Galilee, gave me a deeper appreciation for the Word, as I saw how low it was and how waves could easily fill it with water to sink it.

Our next stop was the Tabgha or Heptapegon, the site of the Church of the Multiplication, with its unique mosaic floors. This was the spot where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes — a reminder of God’s power to work miracles if we first offer up what we have to give.

That, by the way, is the reason I am blogging so faithfully. To offer what I have to give in order to do what I can ameliorate a horrible situation.

Speaking of which, this church also fell victim to an arson attack in June 2015, from radical, anti-Christian Jews in Israel. It was a reminder that the violence isn’t just against Muslims. Christians face it, too, and the source is always extremist, regardless of the religion.

The Mensa Christus (The Table of Christ), the place where Jesus made a breakfast on the beach for the disciples after his Resurrection.
The Mensa Christus (The Table of Christ), the place where Jesus made a breakfast on the beach for the disciples after his Resurrection.

From there, we went to my favorite place associated with Jesus on the entire trip, the Primacy of Peter, also known as the Mensa Christus (The Table of Christ.)  This was the place where Jesus made a breakfast on the beach for the disciples after his Resurrection and where he told Peter to feed and tend his sheep.

It is also where they say that Jesus told the disciples to cast their nets out after a fruitless night fishing and when they did, they hauled in 153 fish — which was the exact number identified fish in the region at that time. A reminder that Jesus’ came to include everyone in his kingdom.

As luck would have it, we arrived between tour groups, so we had the beach essentially to ourselves. At first, a number of people went down. I took off my sandals and tried walking on water, Not surprisingly without success.

But then, all but one other person left, and for a quarter of an hour, I had a chance to be “in my zone,” by the water, praying, reflecting and letting tears flow at the power of a God who forgave an imperfect Peter on that beach, as he called him to serve Jesus with his whole life. For that same Jesus called a very imperfect Paula, too.

One of the amazing things about being there was visualizing the story in a new way. Though we don’t know for sure this was the site, if it was in the area, it was likely that the shoreline was rocky and not sand beach.

That means that when Peter leaped out of the boat after catching the fish and swam to Jesus, when he reached the shallow area he was on rocky ground, which is painful to run on. But Peter was focused on Jesus, not his pain, and that focus led him to his place by Jesus.

If I can keep my eyes on Jesus, then I, too, can traverse rocky paths to keep moving forward in mission, obstacles be damned.

From there we arrived at our lodging — an international youth hostel on the Sea of Galilee.

We had some down time before dinner, so I took a long walk on the shore. Going away to a lonely place to pray.

When I came back, I greeted a woman on the beach. She responded in Hebrew and when I told her I didn’t speak Hebrew, she responded in perfect English. Carol was a Chicago native.

We started to talk and in a short time, I was not only sitting in a chair next to her, I was also sharing her wine cup, as we split a bottle of very good red wine.

It was fascinating to talk to her. She came to Israel in the 1970s with a dream of being part of a new nation, and she stayed because it was a good fit.

Yet, she knew about the struggles and challenges. Carol was far left in her politics, supporting the political party that believed in Palestinian rights. She saw the wall for what it was — a source of oppression for the Palestinians  and the dangers posed by the settlers in Hebron. She recognized what extremist views did to distort the possibilities of peace in the country.

However, she also had a sense of helplessness. She hated what the settlers were doing in Hebron, but what could she do. She saw the inequities, felt  sorry for what people who lived in the West Bank had to experience and knew it was wrong. But she also believed in the vision of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.

When I called the residents Palestinians and not Arabs she did a double take, but to her credit, she reflected on that as well. She said, “I guess you’re right. They are Palestinians.” This was coming from a very liberal person who had lived in Israel for over 40 years. They do only hear one story.

One of the most fascinating things she told me was how the extremists were working to get their way by Judaizing the country and making it a religious state.

She said they have schools where they offer free education for the Sephardic Jews, largely from North Africa, who are poor.

They use the schools to indoctrinate the children to hate Palestinians. The children who follow Palestinians or Orthodox Christian priests in Old Jerusalem to spit on them and call them names are products of this indoctrination. We heard firsthand stories of this happening, and now I know why.

There is a passage in Proverbs that says, “Train up a child in the way you want them to go and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).

The extreme Orthodox Jews of Israel glommed onto that verse and are training up a generation to be filled with hate, seeking a final solution of a nation void of Palestinians.

Carol told me a friend of hers summed up what she felt. “This isn’t the country or the dream we envisioned when we came here in the 1970s. But what can we do but remain here and keep working on that dream.”

The more I learn, the more complex this situation is. But one thing is becoming clear. Extremism in all its form leads to more division and destruction. The only way forward for peace is to recognize a shared humanity.

There are religious extremists of all stripes here at the birthplace of three religions. Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And as long as people focus on tribe and what divides us, there won’t be peace.

It is only when we see our shared humanity that we are able to find a way forward in this incredibly divided world — here in Israel and back home in America, where the divide isn’t as deep or as long, but where the rift is ever expanding.

Wherever we are, whoever we are, we need to keep working on that dream of human rights for everyone in this world we share together.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 9

A story in four acts.

The first act involves the land and nature. We visited the Environmental Education Center, a ministry of the Lutheran Church, on the campus of the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School. Michael, the very knowledgeable and passionate ornithologist on staff, showed us around their wonderful center.

Michael, staff ornithologist at Environmental Education Center, a ministry of the Lutheran Church, on the campus of the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School.
Michael, staff ornithologist at Environmental Education Center, a ministry of the Lutheran Church, on the campus of the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School.

There we saw the botanical garden with only indigenous plants, tasted the sweet cocoa-like pod of the carob tree, smelled the type of thyme used in za’atar, the ubiquitous Palestinian mix of spices, learned about the medicinal value of the eucalyptus tree and enjoyed  a short a forest nature walk.

We learned of the challenges of “vagrant” birds that come into another bird’s nests, kill the babies and take the nest for themselves. Having visited Hebron the day before, the comparison was not lost on us.

He was most excited to show us their bird-banding station, where they catch, band and release birds to follow their migratory patterns. Over 500 million birds migrate from Europe to Africa and back each year via Israel/Palestine, as the land bridge between continents, the same reason it has been vital to humans throughout history.

He shared with us some of the challenges presented by Israel’s separation wall — it affects the migratory paths of animals and limits the ability to move freely to do research — impacting both the environment and its caretakers.

The highlight of this visit for me was the opportunity to release one of the birds they had banded — a tiny migratory bird called a red star that was placed on my hand before it flew off, uninhibited by walls and able to move freely.

The second act is a story of art and culture, when we visited yet another amazing ministry of the Lutheran Church, Dar Al-Kalima, a university of arts and culture.

Angie, of the Public Relations Department at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.
Angie, of the Public Relations Department at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.

Angie, who works in their PR department, shared with us how rare a university like this is, in a society where most parents want their children to be doctors or lawyers. Here people come to study art, dance, music and filmmaking.

She said these are vital exports, since so many people see Palestine through the false lens of terror, and they wish to be ambassadors of beauty and dignity. She was so happy that we had come to see them and hear their stories. Too often, Angie said, people come to just look at the stones on the ground, but the people are the living stones whose stories we need to hear.

Art at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.
Art at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.

The vision of Diyar (the whole consortium of ministries that Christmas Lutheran Church has given birth to) is to create room for hope, to reach the people of Palestine “from the womb to the tomb.” Their founder, Mitri Raheb, believes that people focus too much on politics when they think of Palestine and that they offer so much more. They emphasize the need for the arts and culture, which are like a breath for the soul to help make a person whole, to help develop the story of the real Palestine that has been pushed aside by the ravages of occupation.

The theme verse at this Lutheran University is John 10:10 — to have life and have it abundantly, so that people don’t just survive, that they thrive. Diyar is located in Bethlehem, and that is where the word became flesh, and they want people to see the image of God in each other — in the flesh around them — as a bridge to peace.

Angie said that they have lost so many human rights that they can’t count anymore, so they want to focus on the people and the gifts of the arts to bring joy back to life.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Nuha Khoury at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.
Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Nuha Khoury at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.

After getting a tour from Angie, we met with the Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Nuha Khoury, a gracious and beautiful woman who spoke eloquently and expressively. She said Dar All-Kalima is a beautiful space — which indeed it is — because they want to “attack the students with beauty.” There is so much ugliness outside and they wanted a respite here.

She told us that Dar Al-Kalima is committed to sharing the elegant grace of the Palestinian people, in a program that is unique in their country, by nourishing the talents of young people (and adults of every age as well), who can use a film or a painting or their music to go further than words ever could to capture the beauty of a people and their culture, to show the world who the Palestinian people really are. In a world where people know the bad and the ugly, they want to be the good.

The goal is to be a place that shows the hope of a people who experience beauty in their art and culture and who want to be known for that. It truly was a place full of abundant life.

Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.
Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.

The third act involves identity, as we visited with Pastor Ashraf Tannous of  the Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.

He told us he wants to be seen first of all a human being, then an Arab Palestinian, a Semite, a Christian, a refugee and a Lutheran pastor.

Pastor Ashraf Tannous of  the Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.
Pastor Ashraf Tannous of  the Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.

First and foremost, he was created in the image of God. This identity is most important.

Then he is an Arab Palestinian. That is his nationality. Arabs are connected by language — Arabic — not religion. You can be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jewish Arab — and people need to know that. And Palestinian is his nationality.

He is also a Semite because he speaks a Semitic language — which means a language that originated in the Middle East, such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. He said Palestinians can’t be anti-Semitic because they are Semites, and you can’t be anti yourself!

He reminded us that Arabs and Jews have Semitic roots. The state of Israel is a Jewish State. Judaism is a religion and not a nationality, either. He said that Israelis say they are a democracy so they can’t say they are a religious state — but they divide people by race. If that weren’t the case, a Palestinian who was a Jew could have freedoms. But they don’t. So this is an issue of dividing people by their race and ethnicity. It is a separation by race.

He went on to say that he was a Christian but that his Christianity was not a product of Western society. It wasn’t brought here by others as a “mission field.”

The first mission field was the Shepherd’s Field, and he won’t let others colonize his Christianity.

He went on to tell us that he was a refugee. His father was born in a camp, and because of that, he is a refugee and so is his son. What that means to him, he said he was unsure. Do I want to kick out the people who are living in my grandfather’s house? The house that my ancestors built but was taken from them?

The situation is complicated, but because his family home was taken, he has no hometown to name. So he is a refugee.

And finally, he is a Lutheran pastor. He finds his identity in service to others. He chooses to give back and in spite of the oppression and struggle, he chooses to live in hope.

He shared with us one of the last words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow Lutheran pastor who went to his death for siding with the those who were standing up to oppression of Jews and others during World War II. Before he died, he said, “A faith that does not hope is sick.”

Ashraf agrees with Bonhoeffer and also believes that faith without serving and working for reconciliation and justice is also sick, So he serves as a pastor.

He lives as a human, Arab, Palestinian, Semitic, Christian, refugee Lutheran pastor, finding his identity in each and his hope in Christ.

The final act is one of devotion. We went to the Church of the Holy Nativity, where history has said for over 1,700 years that Jesus was born.

A sign welcomes visitors to Bethlehem.

The line was long and the rest of the group did not want to wait in it, but Betsie and I did. We came all the way to Bethlehem, so we figured we had to make room to see the place where the manger lay. We told our group we would take a taxi back to the hotel, and we waited in line.

Do we know that Jesus was actually born there? Hardly. But nonetheless, throughout history this place has been honored — from empire to empire, generation to generation. So it is made holy in that alone.

For me, the process of the 45-minute wait with the crowds was worth it. Was it a jostling group of people? Yes. But our focus was the same — to visit and see, to experience, to place my hand on a spot where millions have placed their hands before me, in an act of pilgrimage. To see where the baby lay.

The holiness was found in a shared faith, in the singing with a group from so many nations of “Silent Night” in the cave where a manger once laid, in the recognition that I am part of something bigger than myself, that expands before and behind me, world without end. That word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we are the living stones that reflect the message that Jesus spread.

So the play tells of us the land, the culture, identity and finally, why we all care so much. Each part is filled with blood-stained tears and horror, but also hope.

It is that hope to which we cling until the curtain goes down, knowing that God, in the end, takes the final bow — and love wins.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 8, Old Hebron

I have traveled the world and been in all sorts of situations. But I never experienced what I did today in Hebron. I walked through what felt like a war zone on a tense truce as I saw a town gasping for its own survival.

Israeli flag staking claim to Palestinian property.
Israeli flag staking claim to Palestinian property.

This story, which is the story of Old Hebron, began in 1979 when a group of extreme Zionist women and children broke through to Palestinian territory and took control of a building there. Although it was illegal, they were allowed to stay. The Israeli government did nothing to remove them.

After one year of remaining in the building, tragically extremists on the Palestinian side killed six of the settlers. Once that happened, the settlers were allowed to stay and 40 families joined them. They took control of Palestinian territory.

Because this was in Palestinian territory that is controlled by the Israeli Army, the army took pains to protect the illegal settlers. Today there are 700 settlers protected by 2,000 Israeli soldiers in an area that is actually part of Palestine.

We were led on a tour by Anna, a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches, along with Iris, from Uruguay. Their job is to watch what is happening, report it,  videotape it and share it with others, as well as being present to help protect children going to school..

They showed us the empty streets of a ghost town being choked to death.

Places where there had been vibrant businesses and a market were forcibly closed by the Israeli Army because it claimed there were security concerns. Palestinian homeowners needed to put bars on their windows to protect their homes from attacks from settlers. Where Palestinians had abandoned their homes because of their inability to have any mobility or businesses, a flag of Israel hung, claiming it for the settlers.

Street signs in Hebron are in Hebrew. There is no Arabic in a city mainly inhabited by Palestinians.
Street signs in Hebron are in Hebrew. There is no Arabic in a city mainly inhabited by Palestinians.

The names of the streets were all changed from their Arabic names to Hebrew names, and the street signs were in English and Hebrew. Keep in mind — this is Palestinian territory.

Our guide told us horror stories. She showed us a gate that students and teachers must go through to attend school each day that is controlled by the Israeli military. The people who live in the area by the gate also must pass through. But the residents are the only Palestinians allowed through the gate. They are forbidden to receive any Palestinian visitors.

Because of the control of the occupying Israeli forces, ambulances can’t come into this region. If residents need medical help, they must be carried out. And because there are turnstiles at the checkpoint, the army needs to open the gates to get through. Unfortunately, they are closed at night, and so the residents are trapped.

She said that when people go through Checkpoint 56, only internationals and residents can enter that area. No other visitors, except the schoolteachers and students at the school, are allowed.

Those who live there have a handwritten number on their pass and they give it to the guards. They are then told if they are on the list. If the soldier says they are not on the list, they can be made to wait for hours, even if they have lived there their entire lives. They are at the mercy of the whims of the soldiers.

Teachers are often detained, as well, making them late for school, even though their passes clearly said that they are allowed to enter.

Our guide, Anna, a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches.
Our guide, Anna, a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches.

Our guide was there to report what she sees and she told us. She had been personally assaulted and hit and spat upon and had eggs thrown and urine dumped on her.

As she walks with the children to school, settlers  throw rocks and hurl insults at children. They dump urine on them. But the Palestinians are helpless to respond. The goal is to get them to retaliate and if the Palestinians do, they are put in prison or their homes are taken. The only thing they can do in the face of vitriol and assault is to run away because any other response will get a person detained to face charges.

Anna told us there are two sets of laws. The Palestinians face military law, so a thrown rock is an act of terrorism. For the Israeli it is civil law and a minor—uncharged — offense.

At 14, a Palestinian can be put in jail as an adult — and if they are 13, they are held until they are 14 to be charged. It isn’t the age when they commit the act, it is the age they are when they go to trial. And children can serve up to 15 years in prison for throwing a rock.

At 14, Palestinian children can be jailed.
At 14, Palestinian children can be jailed.

She told us that last week 14 Palestinian children — all under the age of 12 — were detained by the Israeli guards. They were put in a cage by the checkpoint together, so small cage that they were forced against one another. The military kicked them, hit them, took selfies in front of them.

And they did all of this while it was being videotaped by the human rights activists while others were watching.

Imagine what happens behind closed doors. In custody, people are blindfolded, spat upon and threatened to have their home taken away or to be thrown in prison. It is no wonder that so much anger is stirred between these two factions. It breeds hatred from the very beginning. It seems so hopeless.

The settlers are biding their time. They use claims of security concerns for the illegal settlers to  clamp down on every available freedom in order to make the place unlivable for the Palestinians. The settlers’ goal is to  provoke violence from the Palestinians in order to claim more territory as their own when they act out.

Yet nonviolent resisters hold onto the hope that some day they will be able to keep their land, and in the meantime, maintain their dignity. They also want to  help those who wish to respond in violence to turn to nonviolence as a way to survive. Violence will lead them to lose what they have. So the Palestinians  need to hold on, hope and pray that world will care enough to say “enough.”

After our tour, we had dinner in the home of a Palestinian woman. We reclined in a room that was reminiscent of the upper room and shared a feast she made and then she came in to join us.

She lives in fear that her home is next, that what happened in the Old Town will happen to her, and in the reality of economic and physical oppression.

She first made it clear that the Palestinians don’t fight because the people are Jewish. They are willing to share. But they also want to keep what is theirs.

She said, “It is so hard, but we know we will go to heaven for surviving this. That is our hope. We suffer so much. We have no weapons. They surround us with guns, but we have only our bodies.

“Our children are in prisons you built with your U.S. tax dollars. We need you to look at what we see and feel what we feel. To see what it is like. We aren’t fighting because they are Jewish. We fight because it is our home and our land. Peace you should feel. We don’t feel safe. We need to feel safe. Then we can talk about peace.”

She finished by saying, “I just want to share. What you want for yourselves you should want for me.”

This is a sad and hard story of a town being killed and the people within it slowly losing hope, as their neighbors wonder if they are next. But it needs to be shared.

I can testify with my own eyes what I saw and what I heard with my own ears in order to know what my brothers and sisters in Hebron are feeling.

This is an illegal occupation, and we need to advocate for a powerless people. They deserve justice, dignity and human rights. Layla is right. We should want for them the basic rights what we want for ourselves, and anything less than that is not enough.