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.

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

In February 1994, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Fargo Forum.

I wrote it on a Saturday morning. The day before two events occurred. In one, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding faced off in the Ladies Short Program of the 1994 Winter Olympics.

In the other, 29 Muslims, including women and children who had come to pray early in the morning at the beginning of Ramadan, were mowed down by an American-born Zionist Jew who subsequently was beaten to death by those in attendance at the Mosque because the Israeli  military did nothing to respond when it happened.

Guess which one covered three-quarters of the front page of the paper and which one was relegated to the bottom of Page 3?

That, as you may guess, was the topic of my letter. How we get so caught up in pop culture and scandal that we miss what really matters.

Today, I visited a site that has been haunting my heart for over 20 years.

The story of Hebron is a classic tale that has both sides calling for justice.

In 1929, there were 700 Jews and 20,000 Palestinians living peacefully in Hebron. However, a group of Muslim extremists entered Hebron and massacred 67 Jews. Hundreds more were protected by their Palestinian neighbors, but in the end, all of the Jews were asked to leave because Britain could no longer protect them.

Following the Six Day War in 1967, even though it was still determined to be Palestinian territory, settlers returned to Hebron. They first came and stayed at a hotel, claiming to be tourists. But they didn’t leave. And so eventually, it was declared legal for them to be there — taking territory that was not theirs in the center of the city.

Today Hebron is a bustling city, with almost 300,000 people in the city and 1 million in the metro area. Thirty percent of all of the West Bank Palestinians live there, and it is the sight of the most successful business ventures  in Palestine. Eighty percent of the residents are Palestinians and 20 percent are Jewish.

But it also remains one of the most volatile spots in all of Israel and Palestine, where tensions run high and the threat of violence seems omnipresent.

When we got off of our bus, we walked through the area of Hebron that is controlled by Palestine, known as H1. As we walked there, we saw vibrant markets and lively people, with good produce, plenty of wares and energy and all the excitement of any city market I have visited the world over.

But as soon as we crossed over into H2, which is controlled by the Israeli Army, everything changed. The streets were quiet, the shops were closed, and the people were sparse.

When we finally entered a market where there a few shops, it was apparent we were an oddity. I asked Tariq, our guide, and he said that Americans and most tourists enter through the Israeli-controlled area. Never through this route. People don’t see this side of Palestine.

As we walked through the area we saw why. Overhead, there was a mesh material  that was covered with garbage and rocks that was used to protect Palestinians from the attacks of settlers. We were told, however, that the mesh didn’t hold back the hot oil and urine that rained down from the settlements above.

Once we went through more security, we were able to enter the Mosque where the massacre occurred. After the massacre, the mosque was shut down by the Israelis. When it was opened six months later, the shared space had been split in two by walls.

So the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the place that housed Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah’s tomb literally had a partition in the middle. Where previously people had been able to pray and worship together, there were divisions.

In order to reach this area to pray, Muslims have to go through a checkpoint. We were being led by a guide from the World Council of Churches who was there as a human-rights advocate to witness the checkpoint and make sure that Muslims have access to worship freely.

She told us that last week she saw a man go through the checkpoint to worship. He was stopped. He was asked to lift up his shirt and his pant leg in front of a female soldier. He was asked for his ID, and it was taken from him. He was told to wait. And wait. And wait. After over one hour, he was finally cleared. The only trouble was, worship was over.

The Israelis took his ID, handcuffed him and left him to wait. They asked him no questions. They just humiliated him and then let him go. That is the indignity that the Palestinians face, in their own territory, as an occupied people. So anger builds.

One of the spiritually amazing points of the trip was seeing Abraham’s tomb — and looking down into the cave where he is buried, deep below the current site where the tomb lies. This is a historical location that is not questioned. This is where he was buried. And you could look down and see the candles that are relit every day in his tomb, keeping the light burning.

Women had to wear robes to enter the synagogue.
Women had to wear robes to enter the synagogue.

We were then able to enter the synagogue. In the aftermath of the 1994 massacre, the two areas are only opened to each other 10 days a year. For the Jewish High Holy Days, no Muslims can enter, and during the Holy Days of the Muslim years, no Jews can enter.

The goal seems to be to keep the two groups separate, filled with fear and  loathing for each other, no area for mutual understanding.

We did have one wonderful moment of triumph. Our tour guide had told us, even though he is an approved tour guide (a stringent process) and a citizen of Israel, he may not be able to enter the synagogue to guide us because he is Muslim.

Our Muslim guide takes a selfie in front of the synagogue.

As we entered, they asked him if there were any Muslims in his group, to which he honestly answered, “no.”  None of us are Muslims. So he saw the synagogue for the first time. The picture I have of him taking a selfie in front of the synagogue will be a cherish photo of the trip. This is what should be the norm, not the exception.

When I wrote that letter to the editor back in 1994, I was right. It was a game-changer. Prior to that, there had been some hope for the Oslo Accord, that peace was a possibility. But that man who shot and killed 29 people in February accomplished his goal. He further divided the people, so that the prospect of peace became less and less possible.

The mosque and the synagogue share different sides of Abraham’s tomb. Abraham was the father of both the Islamic faith through his son Ishmael and the Jewish and Christian faith through Isaac, but the divide between the two remains, thousands of years later.

They are reminiscent of children in the back seat of the car who can’t get along in the small space and keep hitting each other. … One strikes out and then the other, crying, “He started it. No, he did. He hit me first.” And so the battle continues.

Hebron means friend,  but they are far from being that here, and the walls between them are real.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 7

Today we journeyed to Bethlehem (pictured above). No star to guide us, but walls to divide us, and to divide the Palestinian people.

Once we passed through the wall, we headed to the Shepherd’s Field, where shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night. This was without a doubt my favorite place we have visited so far in terms of the main “Jesus sites.”

Perhaps it was because we got there early and had the place to ourselves or because the skies we saw were the same ones they saw, but it felt more intimate, more real.

We walked around an archeological area into a cave, and the bishop went further into the cave once he had a flashlight, and I followed. I was a bit dubious when I had to get on my hands and knees (I was wearing white) and crawl, but I kept moving forward until we came to small “stairs” carved into the cave.

The whole time I am praying, “Please God, not an earthquake today.” Finally, light was at the end of the tunnel, and we emerged from a hole on the other side of the fence that said “Danger, Do not cross.”

So now, whenever I speak about the hills and rocky caves in Bethlehem, I will have a reference point. Good way to begin a tour.

We headed to the church there, which was simple and beautiful, and we sang all the shepherd Christmas songs. As I sang “Angels We Have Heard on High” I wept. It felt real and powerful and beautiful. And somehow knowing that a host of angels came to a group of outcasts at the edge of a small town to proclaim “Good Tidings of Great Joy for All People “ gave me hope, even as we looked out at a settlement of Israelis which was on land land from Palestinian Christians. These people need that same hope.

 

After getting my photo taken with a lamb outside the gate (yeah, I know, so touristy … but I like that every once in awhile and I like little lambs) and shopping at a cooperative that aids the poor of Bethlehem, we headed to Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem.

Their pastor, Pastor Munther Isaac, worked first as a civil engineer before his call to theology and then ministry . He has a PhD from Oxford but was just ordained and has the heart of a pastor. I was moved by his humble passion.

He shared with us that Protestants are about 8 percent of the 45,000 Christians in the occupied territories. But their numbers are going down. Because of their restrictions of movement and the lack of access to water, people get fed up and leave, and when they do, their land is taken by the Israeli government.

He said they live in peace with their Muslim neighbors, and the Palestinian Authority treats them well, but it is very hard, as they are so few and the world seems to be putting more emphasis on religion, not just their identity as Palestinians.

When I asked him what he wanted people to know, he said, “I want people to know that we Palestinian Christians exist and that they have brothers and sisters here who need their support and prayers more than ever. We live in an historically significant time, and we are headed for another flash point. Because our numbers are small, we are in a crisis for Christians in the Holy Land.

“Our perception here is that the world doesn’t care that the future of Christianity in the Holy Land is stark. So I ask, are you willing to take a stand? Are you willing to speak up for Palestinian Christians in the Middle East?

“People want to not cause problems. To not offend people by standing up for the rights of Palestinians. But this is a matter of justice. Palestinian Christians should have rights, and we need to advocate for them.

“This is a church that is struggling to survive because of oppression and occupation. There is an urgent need to know that you care. Small initiatives to show that you care matter to us. Sending us notes, telling us that you are praying for us and advocating for our rights. You have sisters and brothers in Christ, and you need to hear their cries.”

He went on to say that most people who come to Bethlehem don’t hear the stories of Palestinian Christians. They come in fear into the West Bank, spend two hours at the sites and leave. He called it “running where Jesus walked.” He said “A real pilgrimage is to listen to stories of the people. Not just run in fear and leave.”

When I asked about the stories I could share, he said he would just visualize who sits where on a Sunday morning and tell me their pain. Like the Palestinian man who married a Bolivian woman. The Israeli government won’t let her come here. If a Palestinian marries an American, and they decide to live in America, the Palestinian will not be permitted to come back to the West Bank.

He told the story of how the settlements wanted to take the land of a farmer who had farmed the land for countless generations. The family had to stay there 24 hours a day. The Israeli government authorities cut off their electricity and water, but still they stayed. They are trying to fight it in court, but the decisions are made by those who oppose the Palestinians being there. He said they say it is about security, but really it is about land grabs. Taking land that is not theirs.

Pastor Munther shared that he knows the way is hard, but he wants to be a pastor, and he talked about working on children’s ministry and Bible study and pastoral care.

He is a noted theologian — an expert on the land and what people think the Bible says and what it actually says about the promised land and God’s chosen people. When he worked at an ecumenical Bible college, he challenged evangelicals to focus on mission and justice, which is needed now, and not prophecy, which is speculative. I was deeply impressed and deeply moved by his sincerity, intelligence and commitment.

From there, we headed to Aida Refugee Camp, which has about 5,000 residents living in two city blocks (low-rise housing.) The refugees originally came from towns and cities all over Israel/Palestine after their land was taken from them in 1948.

The leader of our cooking class, Islam, was born in the camp. She is the mother of six children, one of whom had a disability. She told us that it was considered shameful to have a child with any disabilities and that the schools did not have the resources to help them.

She started this cooking classes to help provide funds so that her differently abled child, as well as others in the camp (currently there are 125)  would receive care, therapies, and an education. They also provide home stays to give people a chance to understand what life in a refugee camp is like and with the help of some foreign volunteers, were able to produce a cookbook they sell to benefit the children.

The class was nothing short of pure joy. We learned how to chop in a Palestinian way, were schooled in proper techniques of deep-frying, prepared and learned about spices, as well as presentation. For them to provide such a welcome service and share their wisdom and knowledge was astounding.

These are not poor pathetic women. They are fierce, powerful, loving, hospitable, gracious and kind. They were born into nothing, but they are determined to make something of their lives.

I was reminded again of my great good fortune — a freak of nature — that I was born when and where I was. Anyone who looks down on refugees doesn’t get it. These are the Darwinian best a society has to offer — the survival of the fittest.

I suspect more than a few of us would fail miserably and be overcome by grief and despair. The next time I want to complain about a First World problem, I will need to take a deep gut check and remember Islam and her sister entrepreneurs, who will do whatever it takes for their children.

After our feast — and a feast it was- — of Maqlubah, an amazing dish of vermicelli, rice, vegetables and chicken, a salad and dessert called Basbussa, which was coconut heaven — I washed dishes with Rania, a woman who had been widowed for 13 years with five children, the oldest of whom was 18. Her husband was strangled during the Second Intifada by Israeli soldiers, and she knew pain and sorrow, but lived in joy.

As we left the camp, the words of one of our hosts rung in my ears. “We see the world with two eyes. One sees the suffering we face and the horrible conditions. The other sees the joy the world offers. We need to see and be aware of both.”

They refuse to be defeated but also to ignore their reality and not do what they can to change it, in whatever way they can.

Today I was reminded that I need to see with my eyes the suffering of the world, and of these people who have lived in a concrete jungle of a refugee camp their whole lives, and share it with others but also remember their joy and determination and relentless pursuit of what is best for their children.

Because as Rania said to me, “We are both single mothers, so we understand.” And because I understand, I will work for justice — for all God’s children. Especially the forgotten disabled children of Aida.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 6

Our day began venturing into the West Bank.

I am slowly beginning to understand the wall in the West Bank. It is not like the Berlin Wall or the wall some people think is a good idea on our borders, but rather a wall that separates Palestinian from Palestinian.

It was created because each of the areas in the West Bank have different entities controlling them, and the area that is controlled by the Israeli Army has a wall they put up to make the Palestinians pass through it if they wish to leave the West Bank. The wall is not where the legal boundaries of Palestinian Territory is — it encroaches on their territory as a way to establish “facts on the ground” that Israel has more territory than it actually does.

We ventured into the West Bank in the morning so our wait was shorter — largely because most people leave the West Bank in the morning to go to Jerusalem to work. Although they are only 15 minutes away, it can take well over two hours to go through the checkpoint, sometimes longer, and they can be denied entry randomly if they are residents of Israel, and if they are residents only of the West Bank areas that are under Palestinian control, they cannot enter Jerusalem without a permit.

As we entered, there was a sign that said, “This road leads to Area A, under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli Citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.” This creates a separation between Palestinians and Israelis and causes a sense of fear to exist. By keeping the two groups separate, a greater feeling of tribalism develops. Peace can only exist without walls between people. Figuratively and literally.

Besides the sense of fear created by the wall, the inconvenience is horrible and the indignities that the Palestinians suffer are harsh. Also, anyone who lives in the West Bank cannot drive in Jerusalem unless they have a special permit. The reason given is fear of car bombs. However, only 100 cars have permits to drive in Jerusalem for 3.5 million people. That seems like hitting a mosquito with a battering ram.

Right after the wall is an area that is essentially “no man’s land,” where people who are legal residents of Israel who can’t afford to live in Jerusalem live, families where one spouse is a resident of the West Bank and the other a resident of Jerusalem, and criminals, because there are no police. It is legal area is controlled by Palestine, but because of the placement of the wall, no one has any control. It is the dark underbelly of what ethnic cleansing looks like.

We went from this place of despair to a place of hope — the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope. And hope did dwell there. The beauty of the students — who energetically shared with us the mission of the school, which is to promote values of tolerance, reconciliation, acceptance and sustainability — was astounding.

We were given a tour by a number of vibrant students who shared in perfect English their enthusiasm for a school that was focused on holistic learning by engaging students in discussion and leadership development, rather than learning by rote.

The school does not discriminate. Twenty-one percent were Christians and 79 Muslim, 64 percent male and 36 percent female. This kind of learning environment promotes their vision of creating leaders for Palestine. As one student said, “Our approach is that the teachers want what the students can offer. We don’t want good or excellent, we want the best. Great things have small beginnings and this school wants us to grow to be the person we want to be. Great schools make a difference in the world and we want to make a difference.”

For me, the visit was summed up when I spoke to a lovely 11th-grader and asked her if she thought about university. She said, “A bit. But mostly I have joy for today.”

I left that place filled with joy — and committed to share the mission of the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope. If you ever feel compelled to support a school that is making a difference in a profound way, I encourage you to consider this school.

From there, we traveled to see the Taybeh Brewery, the first microbrewery in Palestine. It was established in 1994, when there was hope following the Oslo Accord for an independent Palestine.

Run by Christians, the woman who showed us around had returned with her family from Boston to make a difference in her native country — providing jobs and industry for Palestine.

She shared how hard it is to make a living because of the restrictions placed on them. It should take 20 minutes to get a shipment to Jerusalem, but because of the wall, it takes a full day. The port from which they ship is two hours away, but it takes three days because of the wall and the rules imposed on them. And it costs twice as much to get it to the port as it does to ship it to Italy. All of this delay is just because they have “Palestinian” on their ID cards.

The intent of the wall is to divide Palestine so that none of the areas are connected, making it impossible for them to become a state, and to choke off the opportunities for advancement and quality of life. These are not the goals of the average Israeli, who doesn’t take notice of Palestine because they are shielded from it, but rather the realities of what the government has done by imposing arbitrary walls and stringent restrictions.

Yassar Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.
Yassar Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.

After our tour, we returned to Ramallah to visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Our guide said it was rather unusual for a group to do this, and sadly the museum was closed Mondays, but it was a unique opportunity to see the reverence with which he is regarded.

He was an imperfect man, but he clearly loved his people and served them by never leaving them or Palestine. He was faithful to his nation unto death, which most likely was an assassination by poisoning, according to our guide. Never fully proven, he died with uranium in his system — the likely cause of death.

Our next stop was ice cream. It was wonderful — with a unique texture that was taffy-like. Getting to the ice cream shop involved going through Ramallah during rush hour, where our bus driver’s skill astounded me. It was so worth it.

Ramallah is a vibrant, modern city.
Ramallah is a vibrant, modern city.

One thing I noticed in Ramallah. The utilities are controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and so there are lovely trees, no garbage and well-kept boulevards. It was not the squalor we saw in the areas that were controlled by the Jerusalem municipality. When given the ability to marshal their own resources, the Palestinians had a modern city. But they are choked by an inability to move freely or have access to adequate health care.

Our tour concluded with a visit to the Lutheran Church of Hope and a conversation with Pastor Haddad. He shared with us that his church, which started in in 1953, began with 99.9 percent refugees — people who had lost their homes in 1948.

He told us Hope is not merely their name. It is their identity. He said Palestinians love life — they love to party and dance even though they live in suffering and occupation. But they have chosen to live and to live in hope.

Pastor Haddad said that although they live behind a wall, the Palestinians want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection.
Pastor Haddad said that although they live behind a wall, the Palestinians want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection.

Pastor Haddad said they may live behind a wall, but they refuse to live with those walls in their hearts. They want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection even in the midst of conditions that seek to choke them to death.

He said for them it is about the power of choice and by choosing to live in hope the church is about advocacy. The Palestinians are not second-class people, and they do not deserve to be treated as such, so he and the church advocate for full rights for all people.

When I asked him what he would like those who read my blog to know, he said, “First of all, come and visit. Come and see the realities of life on the West Bank and tell others what you see.

A peace pole at the church of Hope.
A peace pole at the church of Hope.

Second, he said we should not be biased. Do not be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Instead, be for justice. He said that Palestinians do not have the right to free movement. He does not have the freedom to go and worship where he likes because of walls.

They should have the right to water — to not have it restricted or diverted or limited. Right now, they go 40 to 50 days a year without water in areas controlled by the Israelis, whereas Israelis do not have that happen on such a regular basis.

He wants us to advocate for full rights as a human being and that peace should not include humiliation. Men and women should not be powerless in their own land and all they want is justice and fair treatment. So I share that with you. Advocate for the rights of Palestinians to be treated with dignity and human rights, not as an occupied and controlled people.

Following our dinner (yet another feast), I got a picture of what they went through when soldiers with Uzis boarded our bus and roughly looked at our passports. The woman behind me, who had a visa with the same date as the rest of us, was questioned and told it was out-of-date. This was clearly a power move to make sure we knew who was in control. It was the people with the guns. And we were a group of American tourists.

As I reflect at the close of the day, I am struck by how much I am learning. This is hard to understand and make sense of, and my brain is working overtime to get the pieces to come together.

There are no easy answers or perfect players in this scenario. But there is justice and there is hope. The people I met today have chosen to invest in their homeland and to not let the indignities define them. They have chosen to live in hope and embrace life with joy, even in the face of oppression.

And today, I once again renewed my commitment to chose to advocate for them. I know where Jesus would stand today. There is an old saying that says, whenever you draw a line defining those who are in and those who are out, Jesus always stands with the outcast. Jesus stands on the side of the oppressed. And I stand with Jesus. Peace, not walls.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 5

After doing a photo essay yesterday on Facebook, it is back to blogging today, to sort out what was a day of intense emotion.

As it is Sunday, and we are a group from the New England Synod visiting our Companion Synod, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, we set off early for worship.

Our group headed to Redeemer Lutheran, in the heart of Old Jerusalem, and split into two groups. Half went to worship with Redeemer’s Arabic-speaking congregation in the main sanctuary and the other half went to the English speaking service. Since I have already worshipped with Lutherans on four continents in four different languages this year, I said I would go wherever the smaller group went, so I ended up worshiping with Redeemer’s English-speaking congregation.

The service, however, was not small. It was packed to the gills. Overflowing. As in standing room only. I guess it is hit and miss — some days they have a lot of visitors and others just a few people. During the service, we were asked to pray the Lord’s Prayer in our native tongue, and it sounded like Pentecost. It was a standard Lutheran service — ELW setting 6. The sermon was good and the singing robust.

Pastor Christine Ballanger Smith.
Pastor Christine Ballanger Smith.

After worship and a joint “tea hour” between the two congregations, we had a wonderful visit with the ELCA missionary serving in Jerusalem, Pastor Carrie Ballanger Smith.

She explained to us the ELCA model for mission — accompaniment. Accompaniment means that the ELCA and its staff walk with God’s people in solidarity, encouraging interdependence and mutuality. It is not “the Americans” coming in and setting the agenda but rather listening to the indigenous community and providing whatever we can to facilitate a healthy church community with their guidance.

Currently, there are 2,500 Lutheran Christians in the ELCJHL, Palestinians who trace their roots back to the time of Christ. However, the impact extends far beyond that small number. The ELCJHL, as I wrote earlier, is known for its excellent schools, at which both Christians and Muslim Palestinian youth are educated together, in a coed environment.

They provide witness not by proselytizing the Muslims but rather by peace education. Their goal is that the 3,000 students in Lutheran schools in the West Bank learn as boys and girls are treated as equals. The hope is that they will be able to “convert” anyone with extremist tendencies to develop a sense of moderation and understanding to promote peace making.

Bishop Younan once did a calculation that because of the depth and breadth of the work of the ELCJHL in their schools, they have had an influence on one-fifth of all Palestinians in the West Bank. That is a profound impact for a church of only 2,500 members.

Pastor Ballanger Smith reiterated what the bishop had told us. She emphasized that the story told about Christians leaving because of persecution by Muslims is not true. Christians who leave Palestine are not doing so because they can’t live in peaceful communion with their Muslim neighbors but because of the economic disparity that results from living in an occupied land, where they have so many freedoms removed because of their ethnicity.

One of the things we discussed was extremism. Pastor Ballanger Smith and her husband, who works with an ecumenical group of Christians in Jerusalem, said that one of the big challenges that both Israel and Palestine face is the problem of extremists, and it is important to note that there are extremists who are Muslims, Jews and Christians in Jerusalem and Israel, who all have designs on it for their own personal agendas and it is vital to move beyond extremism and hatred.

That is one of the reasons one should always refer to the people who are native as Palestinians because the use of the word “Arab” in this context becomes a pejorative that pursues an extremist agenda to classify people rather than recognize this as their homeland.

Soldiers can be found everywhere.
Soldiers can be found everywhere.

One of the points that they made that hit me was that the problem is not that Palestinians and Israelis intractably hate each other. The problem is that Palestinians are oppressed by a military occupation of the land they once owned. The injustices that result in different treatment because of one’s race are apparent and painful. No one wants to be oppressed. Segmenting people by their race is wrong.

On the other side, most Israelis simply don’t understand the oppression. They have never seen the injustices of what life is like on the other side of the wall. They are taught to be fearful and to attribute all of the limits to the need for security. It creates distrust, It makes relationships hard to form.

We were urged, as Lutherans who want to be faithful to what we are learning, to advocate for peace and fair treatment of Palestinians back in the U.S. because what the U.S. says and does makes a huge difference and our voices matter.

After taking all of this in, we had lunch at what Tariq, our guide, said was the best hummus place around. I say second-best — the place the night before was better — but it is a contest I enjoy! The meal, which included salad, falafel and pomegranate juice, was filling and superb.

We then wandered through the Old City, checking out a place for spices, coffee, and some incredible dessert that was like cheese meets pasta meets ooey gooey goodness with pistachios on top. Its called knafeh, and I highly recommend it.

Topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact.
Topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact.

We then headed off for a quick tour of the Israel Museum, where we saw a huge topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact. It gave a good feel for where things were in the biblical times, and I appreciated the perspective. It reminded me of the huge map at Gettysburg, where you get the feel for the battle, and I’m glad I saw it.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are also housed in the museum. It was incredible to see this amazing piece that showed us the written word from thousands of years ago — the second-oldest surviving manuscripts of Hebrew Scriptures. We were able to see the Book of Isaiah. It was astounding.

From there we ventured to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead, honoring the Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need.

I have been to a lot of Holocaust memorials in several countries as well as four concentration camps. I am always struck by the different focus each one has. In this one, a couple of things carried profound impact. One was a sculpture or diorama that pictured the Jews entering the showers at Auschwitz, then disrobing for showers, then the horrors of the masses being gassed and finally a depiction of them carrying the bodies out and putting them in the ovens to burn.

I have seen the ovens and the showers in several camps … but I have never felt the impact that display provided. The goal of the curator was to remind us that it wasn’t “6 million Jews” but 6 million individual murders. That hit home hard.

I learned more about the resistors to the Nazis within the camps and ghettos than I had before, and I was moved to see Schindler’s actual list of those he saved from death, as he was honored in the Righteous Among the Nations.

One aspect that was different than any memorial I have ever seen was how less nuanced they were about the role of Christians in justifying or ignoring the Holocaust as well as the fact that the pope did nothing to prevent it and basically was co-opted in collusion to avoid attacks on the church. They laid out the simple truths of what the church did to look the other way in the face of this terror and how at some points they actually aided and abetted Hitler.

Sometimes, I think we try to cover up things with niceties and to be honest, 80 percent of all clergy said nothing as Hitler and his apologists focused hatred on specific groups based on their ethnicity, demanded loyalty above all else from those who were members of the Party, took control of the media for purposes of propaganda and sought to rework the justice, education and foreign service to their ends.

By going along or looking the other way, they became complicit in the atrocities that followed as the slippery slope of marginalizing a people based on race, religion and sexual orientation fell into the deep pit that became acceptance of the unthinkable.

As a pastor, it was a stark reminder that I cannot remain silent in the face of similar injustice. It is yet another time when the words of Santayana ring through my ears. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I left Yad Vashem reminded once again to never underestimate humanity’s ability to do the unthinkable and my responsibility to seek to be righteous among the nations as well when I am able, and to speak up for those who are being oppressed and hiding in the shadows — at home and abroad.

Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. It was then. It is now. I just need to know what side of history I want to stand on.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 3

Although over the years I have read articles and books about the situation in Palestine and Israel, today as we drove through the West Bank and East Jerusalem on a tour led by Jeff Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, a nonprofit, direct action group dedicated to opposing and resisting the demolition of Palestinian homes, it came alive for me in a new way.

For those of you who follow my blogs, this one will be filled with a lot of statistics and history, but I think that it may be helpful to give those who are not fully versed in the struggle between Palestine and Israel a better understanding of what is going on. Although Jeff is a leader of a group with a very definite political agenda, I made certain to verify this information with others who are connected with the ministry of the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land.

It started 100 years ago, when the British Foreign Minister Balfour declared that the United Kingdom would look favorably on a national homeland for Jews in Palestine, recognizing the Zionist movement. It was, put simply, a classic case of colonialism, where one nation promises another nation its right to a third nation.

Fast forward to 1947, when after the Holocaust and diaspora of the surviving Jews, the United Nations came up with a plan to divide Palestine into two states, to provide the Jews with a homeland. Approximately one-third of the population would be Jews, mostly newcomers, who would receive 56 percent of the land and the remaining two-thirds would be the Palestinians, who traced their ancestral homes back thousands of years and who would receive 44 percent of the land. Approximately 2 percent of those totals would be Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which would be International cities.

The Palestinians rejected this as a takeover of their homeland and after the ensuing war in 1948,  Israel triumphed and came out with 78 percent of the land.

That remained the status quo until 1967, when during the 7 Day War, Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and Palestine became on occupied territory, controlled by Israel.

In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization declared independence and accepted the idea that there could be two separate states. The Palestinians were willing to give up claims to the 78 percent of the country they had owned prior to 1948 if they could have control of the 22 percent where they were now living, but Israel refused and tensions mounted during the First Intifada as Palestinians revolted for over five years.

The Oslo Accord in 1993 was a declaration of principle that although Israel did not agree to a two-state solution, it was willing to negotiate with the PLO, and the world community had a vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, co-existing together, within five years. In preparation for that, the Palestinian Authority was formed, and there were to be three withdrawals by the Israelis — of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Whether this would have happened or not is unknown, but the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an extreme right-wing Zionist in November 1995 put an end to any hope for peace through the Oslo Accord. Bibi Netanyahu was elected on an anti-Oslo ticket, and Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories ceased.

Even as the Israelis are building settlements on Palestinian land, there is a housing crisis in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli’s want more space for their settlements (communities of up to 120,000 people) and Palestinians want to be able to provide upkeep on their homes, have additions to their space and perhaps add an extra bathroom.

There is a lot of land available in East Jerusalem to build houses for Palestinians, who need an additional 25,000 housing units to provide adequate housing. But they can’t build on it for two reasons.

One is that they often lack the funds. Seventy percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Because the housing market is so tight, the prices are high. In addition, because foreign workers have been brought in to do jobs that Palestinians previously did, because you can pay foreign workers (from East Asia, Africa, etc) below the minimum wage, there is trouble finding employment.

In addition, all of East Jerusalem has been zoned as open green space. That allows Palestinians to own land but they can’t build on it. If they wish to build, they first must apply for a permit to rezone, which costs at least $20,000, which is hard when you are living on $1,200 a month. In addition, it is next to impossible to get a permit, since the commission that makes the decisions is entirely Israeli. Last year, for the 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, 18 permits were awarded for any kind of addition or change to a house, no matter how minor.

However, if you don’t get a permit and you make a change to your house, or if you leave the area to work elsewhere, like the West Bank, because there are no jobs, or if the zoning commission finds something wrong with your house when they inspect it, it can schedule your house for demolition.

Since 1967,  50,000 Palestinian houses have been demolished in the occupied territories. Once they are demolished, the Israelis take hold of the land the house was on, rezone it immediately, place an Israeli flag on it and build a new home for an Israeli. As a result, Israel has been able to build massive settlements while Palestinians are not even allowed to add a story to their homes or make a change in their bathrooms.

In addition, the disparities between the Israeli and Palestinian parts of the occupied territories are vast. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are 37 percent of the people, they pay over 50 percent of the taxes and when you look at municipal ledgers, they receive 8 percent of the service — services like sidewalks, adequate water, electricity, regular garbage pick up and paved roads.

Garbage pickup is spotty in areas of East Jerusalem occupied by Palestinians.
Garbage pickup is spotty in areas of East Jerusalem occupied by Palestinians.

The difference between driving through the settlements and the Palestinian areas was profound and readily apparent. One area looked like an upscale suburban neighborhood, and as we drove along, we literally saw “where the sidewalk ends.”  The streets narrow and some aren’t paved. There are no streetlights, and it goes from finely manicured public landscaping to literally nothing. It is clear the garbage trucks haven’t been there for a long time. It is the same municipality and tax base, but they clearly have two tiers of services and infrastructure. In a matter of feet, it turns from suburbia to third world public space.

Water usage in the West Bank is a clear example of the disparity. Eight hundred thousand Israelis live in the West Bank and 2.5 million Palestinians. However, the Israelis receive 85 percent of the water resources. Palestinians have barrels on their roofs that water trucks have to fill to preserve water when there are water shortages or no water flows. Israelis have no barrels on their roofs because that never happens to them.

I will write another day about the wall and what that means, as well as reflections on the inequity, but the piece that impacted me so profoundly today was how easy it is for these Palestinians to lose their homes and how unfair the system is.  As someone who is about to sign papers to purchase my first home, I am filled with pride that I will at long last be a homeowner. I can’t imagine the feelings that the Palestinians who have lived in the same place for hundreds if not thousands of years experience when they look out the window one day and see that the bulldozers have shown up.

They live with this fear because currently there are thousands of homes slated for demolition, but the authorities do them randomly, without prior notice, keeping people off guard and uncertain. The bulldozers just show up one day and the house is gone. I talked to church leaders who knew of men who literally died of strokes or heart attacks as the demolition occurred and even more who have lost their will to live. It is truly devastating.

Jeff, our Israeli guide for this tour of the inequities between areas, is committed to getting the word out about how this system of home demolition works and how unfair the system is because when he talked to Palestinians, they repeatedly said home demolition was the most demoralizing aspect of their lives.

Sadly, most Israelis are unaware of what is going on. The lives of the Israelis and Palestinians are kept separate, and when you are in a settlement, it is easy to see how you could be unaware of the struggles of a group you have been taught to hate and fear.

My commitment is to share facts that I heard, sights that I saw and stories that are true to help others understand more about the struggles the people living in the occupied territories face. It was a heavy morning, and I know this blog reads like a history lesson, but it is history I learned and feel compelled to share, as I seek to live in solidarity with a people that are clearly oppressed.

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.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 1

After a typical Middle Eastern breakfast of pita, cheese, vegetables, an egg and hummus, our group, a mixture laypeople and clergy from the New England Synod on a Companion Synod Pilgrimage to visit the places and people connected with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, went off for our first stop.

We arrived at the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the holiest places for three world religions. Not only does this area — also known as Temple Mount — house the site of the Temple, where the Ten Commandments and the Holy of Holies were located, and where the curtain was ripped in two during the Crucifixion, the mosque situated there is the third-most holy site in the Islamic world.

It is also one of the most contentious places in the struggle between the Palestinian State and Israel. Because this is a gathering place on days of prayer, sadly, this is also a place where tensions are high and it is prone to violence.

After being screened by Israeli guards once we entered, a Muslim guard told me to cover my bare arms. I didn’t have my jacket because it had a cross on it, and religious symbols of that type are banned there, but fortunately had a head scarf I wrapped around me.

As luck would have it, our tour guide’s cousin, Mohammed, was on guard duty that day, and he had been a key part of a recent incident at the Dome of the Rock.

In July, two Israeli guards were shot at an entrance, and so the Israeli police entered this area, which is normally forbidden for Jews — both because it is under administrative control of Jordan and because there are tombs there, which makes it an area that is ritually unclean.

The Israelis desperately want to take control of this area to limit Muslim autonomy, and after the shooting, they ransacked the whole area, saying they were looking for co-conspirators in the shooting. But a group of guards, including Mohammed, entered the area when the Israelis were there and refused to leave. Because of their tenacity but also their peaceful approach, the Israelis left after two weeks, and the tension abated. But the fire keg that lies all around this area seems ready to be lit.

We explored this magnificent site, although all buildings are closed to the general public, as well seeing the place where Jesus was tried by Pilate. Although that site is far beneath the surface of the ground now, it was powerful to see the space and walk the same grounds where Jesus walked, even as the tensions that existed between forces of power and religions haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years.

From there, we walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross where Jesus carried his cross. I always envisioned it as a straight shot, but it was up and down narrow streets, complete with twists and turns. Clearly the way of the cross is not an easy walk.

Along the way, we saw St. Anne’s Church, where the Virgin Mary was born, complete with its incredible acoustics. Our group sang The Doxology. The group after us sang the chorus of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an interesting choice for a group of Christians we discerned was from the Philippines. As I left, I heard a chorus of “Amazing Grace” that made me shudder at how many badly sung versions of that this space has had to endure.

Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, and the Tomb of the Resurrection were less than 100 feet apart.

I would be a liar if I didn’t say I was disappointed. It is controlled by six different churches, working peaceably together, but nonetheless, it felt like a market, and I related to how Jesus must have felt with the money changers, even though no one was selling anything. People were everywhere, with different levels of reverence, and taking selfies in front of the place where the cross stood.

After climbing up to Golgotha, I stood in front of the cross and apologized to Jesus. It didn’t feel reverent or holy. It felt like a tourist stop. That was hard.

We didn’t see the tomb, as the line was well over two hours long, but I did check out the “tomb next door” that Joseph of Arimathea would have used. They later explained that they had to build strong buildings around these holy sites because of the level of danger posed to the new church in protecting it. They needed a fortress — so it isn’t an open area. It is enclosed, and I felt entrapped. Not like I envisioned the place at all.

Thankfully, this was followed by lunch with the bishop of ELCJHL, who after 20 years of ministry, is retiring at the end of this year. He and almost all of the Christians in Palestine trace their heritage as Christians back to the time of Christ.

Palestinian Christians are lumped in with the Muslims as Arabs in the world of Israel. The bishop told the story of how his father wanted to see the house he was raised in, which was stolen when Israel became a nation in 1948, and the gruff woman answering the door refused him entrance saying, “I didn’t take it from you. The government took it from me.”

Imagine having lived in the same house for generations, on the same land for centuries, and one day it is just taken from you, and you are forced into a refugee camp. That is what happened to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. But both the woman at the house and the bishop’s father had their own realities. And for them, the story was true. That, I think, is one of the biggest problems we have in the world today: our own reality and our refusal to see another’s perspective.

The Lutheran Church has focused its ministry in the Holy Land on education and is known for its excellent schools. Lutherans educate Muslims as well as Christians and seek to be a place promote peace.

The bishop shared stories of their oppression. For example, a Lutheran pastor who lived in the West Bank married a woman who lived in Jerusalem. Because where they can live is limited, she would lose her Jerusalem identity if she moved to the West Bank, along with health care benefits and ability to move freely. Their child, who is 4 months old, can’t get a birth certificate because there is a dispute over whether the child should have the freedom and benefits that are refused to any Arab living in the West Bank. If the child doesn’t get this, he can’t get a passport, and he could remain essentially a prisoner in the West Bank, unable to ever leave.

I asked the bishop what he wanted me to tell people about Lutherans in Palestine. He said to say that they are a peaceful, moderating force and that there is no conflict between Arab Muslims and Christians in Palestine. They live in peace. The conflict is between Israel and Palestine over land and water. The Palestinians wish to share the land and Israel does not, so we need to advocate for the two-state solution.

It was moving to see a man of such humility who witnesses to a heritage that goes back further than any of ours and to think of the oppression they face in witness to the social gospel.

After lunch, many of us walked the 178 steps to the top of the bell tour at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, for which we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Jerusalem.

Our tour continued with a walk through the Old City, which included the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, ending at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, where Jews go to pray. It is the only part of the Second Temple where Jews can go to pray, since they are forbidden to go to the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is because as I said before it is not ritually unclean.

Divided between men and women, I went to the women’s side, wrote my note to leave there, touched it and prayed. I prayed for peace in a land where male and female soldiers sport AK 47’s with the ease that we carry backpacks and where the tension between warring sides is palpable. In our own nation, which is becoming increasingly tribal, it was a stark and powerful reminder of how important it is not to demonize those with whom you don’t agree.

The day ended with a gathering at the Stone House that is part of the Lutheran World Federation’s ministry in Jerusalem, as part of the Wednesday potlucks that happen weekly as a place of community and support for Lutheran expats in Jerusalem,

As I wind down, I reflect on Day 1 with a sense of exhaustion and amazement. I walked the way of the Cross, where Jesus walked, on stones he may have walked on, and I saw the Way of the Cross that is continually born by people living in a land that is seen as holy, but where the way of violence is too often the path that is followed. May God have mercy, and may I be an instrument of peace.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Don’t Let Tribalism Tongue-Tie You

I am no longer tongue-tied.

People who know me well most likely are stunned to hear I was ever tongue-tied. After all, my nickname as a child was “talk talk.”

However, I have, until this week, been tongue-tied my entire life. I just didn’t find out I was until I was in my late 40s.

I have a congenital, hereditary condition that is technically called ankyloglossia. Essentially, it means that a membrane attached my tongue to the bottom of my mouth, and so I can’t stick my tongue out. Or move it around the way others without the condition can.

I was unaware of this, however. I always knew I had a lisp. My mother, the speech therapist, spent endless hours with me, making me say, “Sassy mice race across the ice,” and “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.” It improved but never disappeared, which I guess I always attributed to just bad luck.

It wasn’t until Ian was getting braces that I found out I had this condition. The dentist mentioned that he was tongue-tied and could not stick his tongue out and that it was hereditary. When we went home, I wondered if his father had it, and then thought I was sticking my tongue out, to show that I was fine.

Thing is, I wasn’t sticking my tongue out. I thought I was, but it didn’t go out. Apparently, I never stuck my tongue out in front of a mirror. I must admit, it was shocking to find this out so late in life, although I think if I had known earlier it might have created an even greater sense of stigma. I was, after all, at one time a 6-year-old with a lisp whose hands were covered in warts. There is only so much a child can take.

A couple of years later, when Ian had an errant wisdom tooth that shifted to the middle of his palate that needed to be removed, the doctor clipped his tongue in what is known as a frenectomy, releasing him from his tongue-tied state.

I, however, soldiered on, tongue firmly tied to my mouth.

That is until I had a conversation with my wonderful dentist, Jesse Hagen, who had been in Boston for a conference. I asked him what it was for, and he said it was about a new technique to do frenectomies, which is important for children who breast-feed.

As we chatted, he mentioned learning to do it on adults. I inquired how much one would cost, thinking that maybe I could put it on my “perhaps when I feel completely financially sound” list, and he said he really wanted to try one out on a person and would do it for free, so I could give him feedback and he would be able to tell people how it had worked.

Well, far be it from me to say no to that — I am a sucker to do anything for the sake of science. Oh, and a good deal.

I did a little research, discovering that for some people it can cause speech problems because the tongue is a muscle and when the membrane is cut, the muscle is weak. But as I prayed about it, I felt it was worth the risk. Something deep inside me told me this was going to be a very good thing.

And let me tell you, it was! As soon as he began to cut the membrane and release my tongue, I felt like a tight rubber band was being snapped in the back of my neck. For many years, I have struggled with headaches and neck tension, and suddenly, that felt released.

As I walked around later in the day, I was able to flop my head from one side to the other — I felt like a bobblehead doll. Never in my entire life had I felt so free — so loose. And my speech felt freer. I could finally do what my mom had told me all those years earlier. I had tongue control to speak more clearly.

For my entire life, I had been anchored — held in place by a membrane that kept me from experiencing the full mobility of a key muscle. And I didn’t know anything different. This was how it had always been for me, so the new reality was truly life changing. I felt less tense and more open, and I could speak more clearly.

As I was reflecting on this, I thought of how easy it is to get stuck in one mode — and to think that the way we experience the world is the only way the world is. We don’t take time to look at ourselves as others see us and figure that our normal is the same as other’s normal.

That is actually one of the dangers of tribalism — when we surround ourselves with those who are like us, listen to those who are like us and don’t take time to see ourselves the way others do. Sometimes we need to break free from things that anchor us in place.

We do that when we only listen to views that agree with us and don’t exercise the mental muscles that prevent us from stagnating with one point of view.

One of the reasons I appreciate social media is because it exposes me to perspectives that may not be my own from people I respect. I often disagree with them, but I have the opportunity to see through different eyes. To hear the pain that often drives the actions that make no sense to me helps me gain a different perspective.

That’s why it makes me sad when someone unfriends me because I have a different worldview than them. Because how can we live in peace with the world if we refuse to hear the words of friends, Facebook or otherwise, who are expressing them without malice or cruelty. If we just circle the wagons and listen only to those who agree with us.

One of the reasons I love to travel and why I enjoy reading is because it helps me see the world from a different angle, one that is not my own. And it helps me look in a mirror to see how others might view me.

I remember reading a powerful book a couple of years ago, “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. It was about Palestine, and it gave me a new perspective on the lives of those who become terrorists. When I finished it, I certainly did not agree with or support terrorism. I continue to find it abhorrent. But I saw things from a new angle. And I believe that perspective helps me be a more compassionate person with those with whom I do not agree.

I can’t understand what it is like to be black or brown America — where the color of my skin affects how people see and respond to me. But when I read books, I can learn and perhaps become more empathetic. I am not tied in place — figuring my way is the right way. I use my mental mobility to expand my mind and how I view the world.

By untying my tongue, I released a great deal of tension in my life. I felt freer and looser. But I would never have known that was possible until I took the risk and cut the membrane that kept me in one place.

I keep feeling like when we settle into our tribes, we become tongue-tied, too. And perhaps if more of us cut the ties that keep us in one place, and increased our mental mobility, the world might be less tense, too.