An Easter Never to Forget By Susan Nchubiri, Ecumenical Accompanier in Jerusalem
“Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees who were telling him to admonish his disciples to keep quiet. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,“ He replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:37-40).
On April 5, 2022, our first full day at the EAPPI placement house in East Jerusalem, we went to a parish in Beit Hanina to meet with the Palestinian youth and scouts leader. He gave us a rundown of the upcoming two Holy Week services. The youth and scouts were charged with organizing the processions. At this meeting, Rafi, the youth and scout leader, quoted these words, “if they keep silent, the living stones will shout out.” He added, “the Israeli authorities want to silence the Palestinian Christians, but we won’t be silenced. We have hope in the Risen Savior”. I heard the same words again on Palm Sunday, the EAPPI Handover Service (between Team 82 and my team), and Holy Thursday. I have heard these words proclaimed at Mass several times, but never did they have a similar impact on me as they do now. These words struck me deeply when a young woman speaking to the Church leadership and the faithful gathered at Bethpage at the start of the Catholic (Western Churches’) Holy Week. She said, “If they keep silent, the living stones will shout out, the living stones will speak…. We are the living stones; we shall speak for us and for Palestine, we shall uphold our faith, and we shall speak for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. We want you (Church) to include us.”
On Palm Sunday, as thousands of worshippers processed down the hill waving palm and tree branches, national flags, and singing “Hosanna,” occasional groups broke into dance and shouts of jubilation. I kept thinking of the many Palestinian Christians who had wanted to enter Jerusalem that day to celebrate this special day in their faith tradition. They could not because the Israeli authorities denied their permits to enter Jerusalem. I watched as flags from different countries of Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia waved above heads, pilgrim groups’ flags, scarves, etc., contributing to the colorful procession. BUT not a single Palestinian flag, scarf, or lapel pin bearing the Palestinian flag colors. They had been ordered not to bring their flags or even wear a scarf or a lapel pin with their flag colors. Should one be found to break this order, the procession would be stopped. Israeli authorities usually apply collective punishment. When a single Palestinian violates a law, the punishment extends to their family and sometimes the whole village. One example is a parent or a sibling related to anyone in jail will be denied entry into Jerusalem. Another example is from the Jenin refugee camp, where after a young man from a nearby village attacked people in Tel Aviv, the Israeli military went on raids in the camp.
With all the joy and jubilation around me, I felt sad. I kept hearing the words, “if they are silent, the living stones will shout out.” Indeed, at this Palm Sunday procession, the living stones were shouting out. And when at an entrance to the Old City, New Gate, the police officers started blocking the scout procession to St. Savior Church, the faithful stood their ground. They would not let the police change the route because this might set a precedent.
Israel not only denies the Palestinians access to fundamental human rights but also the right to self-determination. For this, Israel has received a lot of condemnation from the international community, but nothing has changed.
Jerusalem is claimed by three Abrahamic faith traditions (Christians, Jews, Muslims) as their inheritance and hence their holy city. The Christian faith has two large divisions: Eastern and Western Churches, and each starts its liturgical calendars at different times; therefore, Jerusalem ends up with two Holy Weeks for Easter. For Muslims, the schedule for Ramadan is guided by a lunar calendar, and for Jews, the timing of Pesach is somewhat consistent. Every 30 years or so, Easter, Pesach, and Ramadan overlap. The weekend of Friday, April 14 through Sunday, April 17 marked this rare overlap.
Initially, I had assumed that this would be a spectacularly memorable weekend in a positive way but listening to the news, reading social media, and receiving information from our security and field officer, my assumptions and aspirations of a special holy weekend were dashed. It was clear that tensions were high leading into this period. We braced for the worst and prayed for the best. Some Israeli ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers had planned on entering the Al Aqsa compound (Islam’s third holiest site) during Pesach (April 14-22) to perform a ritual animal sacrifice, which is illegal according to the status quo agreements and a provocative act. The Muslim community had vowed to protect their sacred space. On April 14, during the dawn prayers, heavily armed Israeli security officers stormed the Al Aqsa compound chasing away worshippers. The Israeli authorities allowed the afternoon prayers to go on as usual but then disrupted them again the following morning. The Catholic Way of the Cross celebration went on without any harassment from the Israeli security forces, although there were many of them along the path.
The Catholic and the Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendars being different meant that the Orthodox Church was celebrating Palm Sunday when Catholics celebrated Easter Sunday. Both celebrations were taking place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I was designated to monitor access to worship at this site while also participating in the service. However, due to the two groups having their services simultaneously, the church was overcrowded and extremely noisy, so I felt I could not pray. I checked with my fellow accompaniers, and they told me that there were clashes at one of the gates to Al Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif. I decided to join them to monitor the situation.
I had left the chaotic but joyful “noise” at the Holy Sepulcher Church and its safety for the deafening sounds of stun/sound and lights bombs, gunshots, pushing and shoving, shouting, screaming, and ambulance sirens. Instead of celebrating Easter, new life, and the resurrection with joy, reverence, and jubilation, I was amid violence, pain, anger, and frustration. Several injured people were brought out on stretchers to the Red Crescent ambulances. Was this the reason why Jesus had cried when he entered Jerusalem? As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).
When we sensed the clashes escalating, we moved away and returned later and stood at a safe distance, and when that space got unsafe, we moved again. While the Palestinian Muslims were being denied entry to Al Aqsa/Haram al-Sharif, my companions who went to monitor access at the site found around 30 or more Israeli Jews walking freely into the same compound. On April 15, more than 150 Palestinian worshippers were injured, and more than 400 others were arrested. This is only a little glimpse of how discriminatory the Israeli authorities are toward the Palestinian people. These words hit me again: “if they are quiet, the stones will cry out.” The Palestinian Muslim community wanted to go to the Mosque to pray, but they were constantly harassed and denied access. The gates are guarded by heavily armed police all the time.
On Holy Fire Saturday, the Orthodox Church’s celebrated day before the Orthodox Easter, brought another awakening of how arbitrarily the Israeli authorities apply their laws against the Palestinian people. Palestinian Christians from the West Bank were denied permits to attend this holy feast. A great majority of Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem were denied access to the Old City. My teammate and I arrived at the Old City at 7:30 am to make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the celebration of Holy Fire was taking place. We found every alley/street leading to the Christian quarter and the Church barricaded with metal bars and hundreds of police officers. We tried to access the Christian Quarter and Church compound from 7:30 am until 4:00 pm. Although the police brutality was not as pronounced as with the Muslims, there were a few violent beatings and arrests of worshippers trying to go to Church. The Orthodox Christians were trying to go to their holy place to worship in communion with each other. The Christians trying to get to Church and the Muslims trying to get to the Mosques are not criminals. Why do the Israeli security officers use excessive and brutal force to stop them? Why criminalize a people? “If they should be quiet, the stones will speak, will cry out.”
The Holy Fire Day was the only day that my movement in and out of the Old City of Jerusalem was restricted. Why was I so frustrated? The Palestinians go through these horrible experiences every day. They can’t move freely in their own land, and they can’t access their places of worship, education, medical care, work, etc., without permits. Reflecting on this experience brought tears to my eyes, not because of my own frustrations but the heightened awareness that this was the “normal” life for the Palestinians under the occupation. How can this inhumane living be normal? Talking with a teammate who had previously tried hard not to get angry or sad about the Palestinian situation, she acknowledged that Holy Fire Saturday experience had put her over the edge. She felt anger, despair, and sadness. Experiencing the restrictions and violence against us made the reality hit home. It is one thing to be in solidarity, empathize with another person, and have a different reality when one experiences those things, not by choice. One cannot adequately understand or feel the pain of another person. You can only feel your own. On this day, when we were denied access to worship and a police officer pushed me, I felt very sad. If this is repeatedly happening, how will I shield myself from being sensitized into accepting it as “normal” life under occupation?
Are you the stone being called to cry out, shout out the injustice the Palestinians are suffering under the occupation laws? Are you willing to speak to the forces that give Israel such liberty and power to oppress a people?
Susan Nchubiri is serving with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. If you would like to learn more about the EAPPI program, please visit their website.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
“Is This Really for Me?” by Rev. Rick Sides The Moravian Church
Since 1867 the worldwide Moravian Church has been involved in ministries of care, support, and advocacy for those in need in the Holy Land. The work began with founding a home in Jerusalem for persons with leprosy. Located in the Kidron Valley, not far from the Jaffa Gate outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, the home was named JESUSHILFE (the help of Jesus). By the 1880s, there were over 60 residents of the home, each receiving a place to live, medical treatment, and the loving support of a community grounded in acceptance and grace rather than banishment and fear.
By the time the nation of Israel was formed in 1948, the residents of the home included both Arab and Jewish patients. Still, the work of the home (which was physically located in the West Bank of what was then Jordan) became increasingly difficult. In 1957, the Moravian Church purchased a twenty-acre tract of land outside of Jerusalem near Ramallah, in the village of Abu Qash, to build an entirely new residential community. The new home was named Star Mountain. The new facilities opened in 1960, patients moved in, and over 7,000 trees were planted on the location, mainly through the efforts of Sister Johanna Larsen, a Danish Moravian nurse and administrator who had come to lead the work.
By the 1970s, mainly due to the advances in medical treatments for the disease of leprosy, the Moravian Church refocused the work of the mission at Star Mountain to support Palestinian girls with mental disabilities. By the 1980s, the work included a residential school and growing support for families in the surrounding villages who had children challenged by intellectual disabilities.
Today the Star Mountain Rehabilitation Center – Moravian Church continues its significant work in Palestine. Currently, the center provides education, training, and rehabilitation for around 100 persons with intellectual disabilities whose ages range from three months to 40 years. A highly qualified ecumenical staff serves with outstanding commitment and pride to help secure a life of dignity for persons with intellectual disabilities. The vision of Star Mountain is that all persons with disabilities in Palestine shall have equal rights, the same as non-disabled persons, especially the right to education, social and economic integration, access to health care services, and protection from all kinds of abuse. The Moravian Church continues to feel privileged to serve there and share this vision. With this vision, Star Mountain continues to shine a bright light on the dream of a life of peace, justice, and equality for all people in the region.
On one of the early trips I led to the Holy Land in the late 1990s, our Moravian group was able to visit Star Mountain. During the visit, members of our group were sitting on the school floor, interacting with some of the young children who had welcomed us with Danish cookies and hot tea (it was a cold January day!). Some members of our group had brought the students small gifts, which were enjoyed with great excitement and joy. One young boy with a gift in hand turned to one of our group and asked him a question in Arabic. A Star Mountain teacher nearby smiled and translated. The teacher said the boy had asked, “Is this really for me?”
Is this really for me? I have thought many times about how profound and vital this question is. It is a question of faith, a question of grace, and a question of blessing. It is a question that continues to invite and inspire our witness to the gifts of Christ’s love, reconciliation, and healing work in the world, at places like Star Mountain and many more. Are these gifts for everyone? They certainly are! And as a Moravian, I am thankful that the light, dedication, and hard work of a small, faithful community on a beautiful, wooded hill north of Ramallah keeps that hope alive every day.
Gracious God, grant special measures of your grace and strength this day to all those who serve the needs of people with intellectual disabilities. Where there is darkness, may their faithfulness bring light; where there is confusion, may their skills bring clarity and calm; where there is fear, may their empathy and compassion bring trust; and where there is exhaustion and desperation, may their love bring new hope and sustaining joy.
We pray in the name of the One of Palestine who said, “Let the little children come unto me,” even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen
Rev. Rick Sides formerly served as the representative for the Moravians to the Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) board. He was also the pastor of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. To find out more about the Moravian Church, visit their website.
by Subdeacon Peter Samore Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
The word “peace” appears no fewer than 33 times throughout the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. The first words of the deacon in the “litany of peace” are “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” He goes on to pray for the gift of peace for God’s churches and His world. When blessing the people, the bishop or priest exclaims, “Peace be to all.” The people respond, “And to your spirit.” They are asking God for His peace upon the leaders of His church.
It’s no coincidence that the children of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (based in Damascus, Syria) and her archdioceses in the Middle East and around the world – like the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America – constantly beg God for this blessing. Peace is abundant from Him, but a rare commodity in this world, including in the Middle East.
Right after persistent prayer for peace, Antiochian Orthodox Christians are called to abstain from anything non-peaceful and unprofitable. The leader of our Archdiocese, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, often tells his church about the example set by his mentor and spiritual father, His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV (1920-2012). “During the chaos of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), he distinguished himself from the other religious leaders of the region by rising above the disastrous sectarianism that was raging and stoking violence at the time. He was the one that all sides knew could be trusted because his only allegiance was to Christ.”
The incumbent of the Church of Antioch, His Beatitude Patriarch John X, constantly calls upon leaders of the regional governments to put aside sectarian differences and political interests to stabilize the region so that their people – Christians, Muslims, and others – can have peace and stability not only to build up their nations but their own places of worship.
Right after setting an example, Orthodox Christians with the spiritual heritage of Antioch – where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26) – then work to achieve peace. They do this by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting and healing the sick (Matthew 25:35-36). The Church of Antioch’s archdiocese in Beirut, Lebanon, owns and operates the famed St. George Hospital, which set up emergency beds in its parking lot to treat victims who were badly hurt by the explosion on August 4, 2020. Doctors and nurses worked ceaselessly to care for them, even as their own hospital suffered severe damage. The Antiochian Archdiocese of North America raised more than $1 million to help with ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts.
The Patriarchate of Antioch owns and operates a hospital in El-Hosn, Syria, in the area known as the “Valley of the Christians.” It constantly cared for victims during the senseless war over the last decade. Our archdiocese assists the Patriarchate’s Department of Ecumenical Relationships and Development with humanitarian efforts to rebuild churches, schools, and homes, as well as providing food and medical care.
Palestinian Orthodox Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have their own sets of struggles living in occupation. Those that immigrate to the U.S. and Canada attend our churches, so we are very sensitive to their needs. Our archdiocese has helped them in many ways, including financially, over the years.
Since its inception in 1895, the Antiochian Archdiocese has welcomed tens of thousands of Orthodox Christian immigrants from the Middle East, helping them set up homes and livelihoods. They, in turn, built our first churches; their descendants and the Americans and Canadians who have converted to the Orthodox Faith build our churches and institutions today. These communities then send money and resources “back home” to their families and churches in Lebanon, Syria, and other lands. The Archdiocese provides liturgical texts for worship in English – and in Arabic for the newcomers and refugees – so that they can all pray for precious peace in their native tongues.
Of course, we must all pray for peace in North America, the Middle East, and the entire world. Then, we must act. This action includes connecting with charitable groups here (like International Orthodox Christian Charities) and abroad (like St. George Hospital of Beirut) to send our lifesaving aid to our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. We must also learn more about the complexities of the Middle East so that we can teach against misperceptions. Some Americans do not realize that Christians still live in the Middle East – indigenous Christians have lived there continually since the time of Christ – and they need our attention and support. Seek out the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Middle East Christians who have crossed onto our shores for their stories, perspectives, and expertise. Finally, we must be peacemakers in our own churches and society, solving problems and focusing on our Lord himself so that he can call us his children (Matthew 5:9).
Subdeacon Peter Samore is the Director of Communications for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. To learn more about the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in North American, please visit their website.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) offers a unique fellowship experience focused on advocacy, based in the US as well as the Middle East. The fellowship lasts between 6-12 months and includes a few months (remote) work from the United States and three months on the ground in the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area of Israel/Palestine. Applicants will have the opportunity to live and work in Israel/Palestine, acquire deeper exposure to the realities on the ground, develop relationships with local religious leaders and organizations working towards a just peace to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and make meaningful contributions to CMEP’s advocacy efforts. Fellows are essential to our work and receive mentoring and valuable experience through their service.
Advocacy Experience: During the CMEP Middle East Fellowship, you will have the opportunity to learn about US based advocacy related to Israel/Palestine and gain the necessary tools and knowledge to continue grassroots and legislative advocacy in the United States. You will also have the chance to develop relationships with CMEP connections and partners in the region.
Regional Experience: By living and working in the region you will experience the lived daily realities for people there, while developing personal relationships and a better understanding of Palestinian and Israeli cultures. You will also develop relationships with the Palestinian Christian community in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and be exposed to Arabic and Hebrew language, though many in the region speak English. Immersing yourself and being a witness to the circumstances will not only provide solidarity with the local communities and Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders, but will also create a platform in which you will be able to elevate their voices and advocate from personal experience.
Fellowship Timeline: The Fellowship is 6-12 months in length, divided into three parts (with some flexibility):
Initial six weeks working from the Washington D.C. office or remotely from your home in the US
Three month period based in Bethlehem
Final six weeks working from the Washington D.C. office or remotely from your home in the US
Note: The specific timeline of the fellowship will be coordinated once applicants are accepted into the program.
Applicants strongly preferred to:
Have traveled or lived in Israel/Palestine previously or at least have a basic familiarity with the region
Be a graduate student in a master’s degree program or be enrolled in a graduate level program
Prayers for Lebanon by Rev. Elmarie Parker PCUSA Regional Liaison to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon
For Lebanon, the past two plus years have held numerous catastrophes including the August 4, 2020 Beirut explosion and the ongoing devastating economic crisis. Partners in Lebanon communicate that the current reality is unlike anything our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and partners in Lebanon have ever experienced…economically worse even than any period during their 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. This report is from ministry partners on the ground in Lebanon.
Lebanon is collectively enduring the country’s catastrophic economic and banking collapse (one of the three worst such collapses in the past 150 years of global history) with all of its crippling and debasing impacts especially affecting the most vulnerable around us. No one ever dreamed that more than two years ago all they had worked for would be stripped away. A recent UN investigation reports that nearly 80% of the Lebanese population currently lives below the poverty line. Another report from the United Nations reveals that multi-dimensional poverty impacts 82% of the population with reduced or no access to health care, education, or public utilities and meager to zero income. This same report highlights how inflation soared 281% between June 2019 and June 2021, and the situation has only grown worse since then with collapsing fuel subsidies and the Lira still losing value. The value of the Lira currently fluctuates between 19,000LL to the USD and 34,000LL to the USD, making it extremely challenging to conduct business of any kind, let alone figure out basic household expenses like food, fuel, generator subscription prices, medications, etc.
For example, our neighbor is a teacher who used to earn the equivalent of $1,000 USD per month. She now brings home the same salary, but it is worth only $65 USD. At the same time, the propane tank she buys for cooking that used to cost 17,500LL now costs her over 400,000LL. A tank of gas for her car has escalated at the same rate. Her food costs have risen 500%. In the meantime, she must hunt all over the city for a pharmacy that still has medications available. Basic medicines like aspirin are almost impossible to find, let alone medications for treating chronic conditions. Public utilities provide only 1-2 hours of electricity a day, so if funds aren’t available for the now very expensive generator subscriptions. It is impossible to keep one’s refrigerator going, let alone all the other life tasks that demand electricity.
During Lebanon’s very cold winter this year, this also means people aren’t able to heat their homes. We are hearing reports from partners that people are burning clothes, wood, and anything else they can find to stay warm. While people begging on the streets in past months and years have been mostly from among the Syrian refugee population, now there are more and more Lebanese begging or going through the trash bins looking for whatever might be edible. Meat and chicken has pretty much dropped out of people’s meal plans, and even beans, because they use too much propane time to cook. Lentils, rice, oil, and vegetables are the basic foodstuffs making up relief packages these days. You can see why the middle class has become impoverished and the impoverished have become destitute.
Anyone who had a bank account has long been locked out from freely accessing it. Only very limited withdrawals are possible, and those withdrawals come at very unfavorable exchange rates. Accounting has become a very complex process for any business as they work with multiple exchange rate realities every day. Much more can be said about this dynamic.
The persistent refusal of those with governing authority to act for the good of all in Lebanon is leaving most of those in Lebanon feeling deeply discouraged and angry. The not yet healed physical, emotional, and spiritual wound left by the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion in August 2020 still lays raw. And then there is the covid19 pandemic which has just amplified all the above. Though it must be said that the Health Ministry and remaining medical community have provided excellent care and communication throughout the pandemic—from lock-down and/or masking & temperature-taking protocols, to an effective and efficient vaccination platform, to exceptional testing capacity (a full lab PCR test taken in the morning has results sent out by SMS by the afternoon), to comprehensive contact tracing.
Our partners, including both Palestinian and Syrian refugees, are living and feeling the pain of all the above in their own lives, the lives of their families, and in the lives of those they seek to accompany and serve in the midst of these multiple disasters. Most of the focus is on simple relief aid—food security work, vouchers for fuel or rent or medicines or medical care, school scholarships. Several partners are also providing mental health care/trauma resiliency efforts. And several are helping families whose homes were damaged in the blast, repair those homes (or businesses). Our partners need the wider church body to weep with them, and stand with them through both prayer and financial grants that are needed now more than ever.
Please join Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) in praying for Lebanon. You can leave your prayers in the comments section of this blog. If you would like to support ministries of the PCUSA church you can make a donation here with “relief support” on the comments line. Or you can send a check to:
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) P.O. Box 643700 Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700 Memo/Comments Line: E864355—Relief Support
To learn more about the economic crisis in Lebanon, see this Do Justice Blogwritten by CMEP’s executive director Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon (September 17, 2021).
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
Regarding modern Israel, I was once like so many American Christians. Born into a post-Holocaust world and raised in a politically and religiously conservative home and church, I was a reader who had imbibed Leon Uris’s Exodus and its inspiring story by the time of the Six-Day War in 1967. Although only 14, I remember Walter Cronkite’s somber voice as he reported on the outbreak of war, my awareness of potential calamity for the young Jewish state, and my joyful disbelief at Israel’s lightning victory. As I grew older and delved more deeply into the Old Testament and into Jewish history, my admiration for this ancient faith, with its rich and beautiful traditions, its bedrock principles of justice and mercy, and its survival despite diaspora and persecution deepened.
My admiration for modern Israel was also deep, though uninformed. I had little understanding of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, but that didn’t interfere with my certainties. Fault, I was sure, did not lie with the Israelis, who were besieged and brave and valorous and wanted only peace. And besides, hadn’t God given this contested land to the Jews?
In 2016, my admiration led me to visit Israel. My husband and I didn’t go there as part of a typical group pilgrimage, visiting the holy sites in an air-conditioned bus with an Israeli tour guide and a carefully scripted Christian-friendly itinerary. Instead, we traveled independently, following an itinerary I’d planned myself.
Israel didn’t disappoint, but I was as troubled as I was entranced by what I saw there. Although we touched only the margins of all that Israel would prefer remain hidden to her tourists, I saw enough.
I hired a tour guide to spend a day with us in Jerusalem’s Old City, and then to take us to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. Our guide’s name was Sam, and he was a Palestinian and a Christian. Sam had no interest in offending his American clients with his political views, but he answered my questions honestly, and I had plenty of them. It was on that day in Bethlehem, which lies within the West Bank, that my one-dimensional beliefs about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict began to modulate and mature. I passed through the separation barrier that seals off the West Bank, saw it up close, with its checkpoints and guard towers, observed the contrast between Israeli prosperity and Palestinian poverty, and absorbed Sam’s answers to my questions about the ways in which Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the West Bank confines and constricts Palestinian life.
I returned home with eyes newly opened. My admiration for Judaism was undimmed, but my love affair with modern Israel was over.
In early 2018, after much thought and prayer, I returned to Israel to serve a three-month term with a World Council of Churches program that places international observers in Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank. I lived in Bethlehem with Swiss and German teammates, each of us an everyday witness to the effects of the occupation on ordinary Palestinians: the detention and incarceration of children, the home demolitions, the precious olive trees destroyed and livestock killed by Israeli settlers, the insufficient medical facilities, the checkpoints and curfews, the inadequate water supplies in Palestinian villages while nearby Israeli settlers filled their swimming pools and watered their lawns, the separate and unequal legal systems for Palestinians and for settlers, the trauma felt by children who each morning must pass within feet of the battle-ready Israeli soldiers positioned outside their schools, their military jeeps idling nearby.
We regularly monitored one of those schools. It was in Tekoa, a small town located about six miles from Bethlehem. Tekoa is the hometown of the prophet Amos. Amos prophesied at a time when ancient Israel was politically secure and spiritually smug. He fiercely condemned injustice and oppression. To me, Amos 5:24 is one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible: But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
I saw no justice or righteousness in the West Bank.
One morning in April 2018, I sat down with a well-known Palestinian Christian activist in the town of Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is the location of the Shepherds’ Field, where the Bible tells us the angels announced Jesus’s birth. The situation in Palestine, this man told me, “is in the hands of American Christians.” His words burned, for I knew they were true: our naïve support for modern Israel is responsible for the loss and hardship and suffering I witnessed every day of my three months in Bethlehem. “The church is a strategic institution, not a prophetic one,” he went on. Rather than leading those of us in the pews to challenge Zionist orthodoxy, too many churches surrender to an appealing narrative: that of plucky little Israel, surrounded and outnumbered by enemies but triumphant and deserving of our support. According to this narrative, the God that we worship ordains Israel’s success. The God that we worship will bless us if we bless Israel.
But shouldn’t we listen first to the voices of those Christians who live and suffer under Israeli occupation? Shouldn’t we elevate those voices over those of America’s Christian Zionists, so far from the everyday reality of occupation, so comfortable in their beliefs, so confident of their muscle in Washington’s halls of power?
In his book, Chosen: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (page 38), theologian Walter Brueggemann writes “…the state of Israel … has opted to be a military power engaged in power politics along with the other nation-states of the world … the state of Israel can, like any other nation-state, make its legitimate political claims and insist upon legitimate security. But appeal to the ancient faith traditions about land promise in order to justify its claims carries little conviction except for those who innocently and uncritically accept the authority of that ancient story.”
Like so many others, I once uncritically accepted that story. But not anymore. After three months in Bethlehem, I can no longer be both a Christian and a Zionist.
Susan Brogden is a lifelong member of Disciples of Christ congregations and an active participant in congregational life. She is retired from a career in higher education and non-profit administration, including twelve years with CISV, Inc., an international organization dedicated to peace and cross-cultural friendship among children. In early 2018, she served a three-month term with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). She currently serves as a Regional Coordinator for Churches for Middle East Peace, working in her local community to broaden Americans’ understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Her hope is for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. A graduate of Purdue University and Miami University, she lives in southwest Ohio with her husband.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
Lent is a season of transition. A time of reflection, examination, repentance, and confession. As we transition from the season of Lent to Easter we recognize this is not a time for simply turning from but also an act of turning toward. Turning from decay, injustice, and death to fruitfulness, justice, and abundant life. Reading Luke 24:1-12 we see in the story of Easter – everything changed.
That morning, the women went to the tomb, with spices as was the custom. Jesus had been crucified. Upon his death, the next task at hand was to turn toward his burial and all that needed to be done according to custom. During the course of the women’s actions to carry out their burial duties, they came upon the unexpected!
The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty except for the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus. Terrified, grief-stricken, and perplexed they encounter “two men in dazzling clothes” who ask why they are looking for the living among the dead. The men told them Jesus was not there but had risen.
Upon the reminder of Jesus’ teaching, the women then turned toward home. They carried a secret that must be told! Instead of permitting their grief, doubt, and incomprehension to win, they turned in faith and ran toward the disciples to tell them about what they had learned.
Praise God for the faith of these women. In spite of all that they had endured, they trusted Jesus at his word and ran to share the good news. Turning toward belief and hope they hurried to share the good news.
Though not all the apostles believed the women’s word, some did. Peter – upon hearing the news – ran toward the tomb.
He ran to seek the truth, the man who denied knowing Jesus just days before RAN toward life and redemption. Amazed at what had happened, he returned home and I presume he shared the thrilling news with the others.
It is true, at times the path ahead may seem too daunting, peace, justice, and reconciliation inconceivable, or downright impossible, however, it’s never too late to move from a state of lament and grief to turn toward God, going out into all the world sharing the good news that Christ is risen from the grave and we are redeemed!
What does this good news mean for our work in the Middle East? Daily we hear discouraging news of people suffering, violent conflicts, and ongoing hostilities. It is easy to be discouraged as we learn about ongoing challenges and realities in the Middle East. May the glorious news of this Easter morning remind us that desolation and despair are not the end of the story. Rather, Christ has triumphed over death. While we celebrate this spiritual victory, we also know brokenness in this world will not triumph.
This Easter we hold onto the hope that peace in the Middle East is possible, we turn toward God. Praying for equality where all people in the Middle East might have hope for a prosperous future.
May we turn toward the morning, the light of a new day. Praying for justice in which goodness and righteousness will prevail.
May we turn toward our neighbors, friends, and enemies and participate in sharing the good news. Praying for reconciliation and building relationships, holding tight to the gifts of redemption and reconciliation through the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
As we turn toward God, may we be compelled to seek justice, righteousness, wholeness, and shalom in our lives, communities, the Middle East, and our world. May we turn toward peace where armed conflict will cease and violence will not be pursued as a means of rectification.
God, we rejoice in the wonder of your resurrection, O Christ, but then tend to sink back into our old ways of thinking, heaving, and responding to people’s needs. We can rejoice with the angels and all humankind on Easter Sunday, but the tumult and strife of the days following the Day of Resurrection cause us to slip back into apathy and despair. Forgive us when we so easily become distracted by our own cares and worries that we ignore the needs of others around us. Forgive us when we forget your power and love for us. May you remind us of your call and call us back toward you and your service. Give us a spirit for rejoicing, willing hears and hands for helping, and voices for praising you forever. Amen.
Written by Rev. Aune M. Carlson, Director of Operations for CMEP. Aune earned her Masters of Divinity and Masters of Nonprofit Administration and graduate certificates from North Park Theological Seminary and School of Business and Nonprofit Administration. Ordained by The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Luke 23: 50-56)
Eight years ago today, I crammed my body into a crowded building filled with lit candles and singing and billowing incense. The faces of pilgrims and priests intermixed with those of saints in the form of icons watching over all who gathered to wait. And wait is what we did–hundreds of us curious souls–on the eve of Easter, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Over the course of that night, I felt a strange calm sweep over me and a deep contentment inhabit my body. I had never experienced a collective ritual so magical, nor had I ever been more sure that I both knew exactly what I was waiting for and simultaneously hadn’t the slightest idea. This mystery is an element of a number of diverse Holy Saturday, or Saturday of Light, traditions which range from baptism renewal, to fasting and repentance, to a passing of Holy Fire.
This mystery is something we might resonate with as we reflect on a season of seeds planted, and dwell in the space of unknowing–that which is in between death and new life. Holy Saturday is an in-between time—a space that invokes pause, reflection, mourning, and dare I say, cultivating hope.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Holy Saturday 2013
In her book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo writes of Holy Saturday as a “time of remaining,” a space where trauma dwells in the aftermath of death. Rambo insists that with the resurrection narrative, it is easy to “gloss over difficulty, casting it within a larger framework in which the new replaces the old, and in which good inevitably wins out over evil” (Rambo 2010, 6). Holy Saturday, for Rambo, is a space where the experience of death and trauma persists, where clear demarcations between death and life erode. Rambo’s concern regarding theological tendencies to approach suffering and trauma from a binary framework (i.e. death vs. life; good vs. evil; suffering vs. healed) adds important nuance to our Lenten reflections on working towards peace and justice in the Middle East.
In our work at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), we are always navigating a Holy Saturday kind of tension. The realities of our partners and friends on the ground in the Middle East are all too often in “time of remaining”–in the wake of death and trauma. And we at CMEP join with our Muslim, Jewish, and Christian siblings in the Middle East in mourning, in prayer, in waiting. And we advocate for them—knowing that the space between tragedy and new life cannot be held alone.
Personally, I find reflecting in spaces of unknowing as a practice that is both challenging and nourishing to my faith. However, I know that dwelling in thoughtful tension is surely not a spiritual practice for everyone!
Nonetheless, I invite you to join me this Holy Saturday in waiting in the in-between space and perhaps imagining those whose daily realities might resemble that of Holy Saturday. Let us spend time in reflection or prayer about how we might better embrace the mangled relationship of death and hope in our peacebuilding and advocacy efforts, and better advocate for all lives in the Middle East.
Scripture does not reveal much about what might have occurred on the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection. While many who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion likely went home confused, scared, disappointed, or ashamed, it appears there were a few who were faithfully waiting, remaining. Joseph of Arimathea lovingly claimed and provided refuge for Christ’s brutalized body. The women who traveled with Jesus made preparations to properly bury his body. And then, it was the Sabbath. Before the women encountered Jesus alive in his own tomb and before the disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, there was a time in-between. And in that space of unknowing, trauma, and grief, they remained.
In our reflections, we might ask:
In our work towards peace and justice, what might it look like for us to embrace this road of uncertainty, one that very tangibly links death and the journey towards resurrection?
Could resurrection be something that is both waited for and cultivated?
Might we embrace such a mindset as we continue to walk alongside our siblings in the Middle East and advocate for justice and peace among them?
Holy Saturday is indeed a space of holy mystery. So too is the life and hope that are cultivated in its midst.
God of mystery, we lift up our hurting hearts to you. Fill us with your divine comfort. Waiting God, we are comforted in knowing that you are in the in-between space. Nourish us with your presence, and let us draw from you a radical hope to remain in the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East.
Jennifer Maidrand is the Outreach Manager for CMEP. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Bible and Cultures at Drew University, where she also earned her M.A. Her research focuses on how biblical interpretation and archeology have shaped the contemporary land of Palestine-Israel and its geo-politics. She is a member of the UCC Church and is committed to fostering interfaith and intercultural community education and dialogue around sacred texts, the earth, and politics. Jennifer is grateful to have the opportunity to utilize and grow these passions, previously as a fellow and now as a staff member with CMEP.
Cited Rambo, Shelly. Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Good Friday: The Dark Night of the Soul Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E′lo-i, E′lo-i, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34)
Today – Good Friday – marks the crucifixion of Christ. His brutal death included crying out to God and asking “why have you forsaken me?” After suffering the pain of crucifixion, the Gospel of John confirms Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” (19:30).
In Christian tradition, the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning are known as the Triduum. Three days committed to prayer – a reminder to all that for a time darkness triumphed. The three days of Paschal Triduum are committed to prayer, a willingness to spiritually enter into the darkness, and reflection about the saving acts of grace extended to humanity through Christ’s death on the cross.
For many spiritual saints – this darkness – the finality of death and separation from God – can seem a regular part of religious life. St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul about his own spiritual crisis and his experience of separation from God. The Christian world was rocked in 2003 when word began to circulate a few years after Mother Teresa’s death that she too had a dark night that lasted almost 50 years over the course of her ministry in Calcutta and around the world.
What might we have to learn from this darkness? Mother Teresa prayed that God would allow her to “drink from the chalice” of his pain in order to better understand his suffering. And yet her writings and letters found in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light tell of how she cried out to God, “Father, I want to tell you how – how my soul longs for God – for him alone, how painful it is to be without Him.”
Some students and scholars of Mother Teresa assert that her great love and the power of her ministry were compelled by the struggles of her inner darkness. She entered into the most painful of earthly places and sought to bring refuge, comfort, and love. Many may not be familiar with Mother Teresa’s work in the Middle East in that regard.
In the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1982, the Mother of the Calcutta slums went to Lebanon and rescued 100 orphans who were disabled and ill. Through prayer and determination, even in the midst of her own internal spiritual darkness, she was able to obtain a ceasefire and evacuate the children. In a conversation with a local priest in midst of the violence of the Lebanese Civil War, he exhorted her about how a rescue was not possible and this was her response:
“But Father, it is not an idea. I believe it is our duty. We must go and take the children one by one. Risking our lives is in the order of things. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. You see, I’ve always seen things in this light. A long time ago, when I picked up the first person (from a street in Calcutta), if I had not done it that first time, I would not have picked up 42,000 after that. One at a time, I think … “
Through prayer, faith, and negotiations led by Philip Habib, US Special Envoy to the Middle East sent by President Ronald Reagan, a ceasefire was brokered and 100 of Lebanon’s most vulnerable children were saved.
What might we learn from the darkness of Mother Teresa? Even in the midst of spiritual dryness, she continued to be faithful to the mission and God’s calling on her life. Her steadfast faithfulness and obedience in responding to the needs of the least of these never wavered in the darkness. This is my prayer for all of us at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Many times it feels like war rages all around us – from Ukraine to Syria. Humanitarian needs and economic devastation prevail from the streets of Lebanon to the shores of Gaza, to the famine in Yemen. We read about military campaigns and violence daily in the news coming out of the Middle East. In many ways, the world around us – including in the Middle East – is in the midst of a Dark Friday moment. Seemingly death has prevailed.
May we follow the lead of saints who have gone before us like Mother Teresa and maintain our steadfast commitment to doing good. Seeking out the presence of God even in the darkness where He cannot be found. May God go before us.
A prayer of Mother Teresa in the midst of the darkness:
I did not know that love could make one suffer so much… of pain human but caused by the divine. The more I want him, the less I am wanted. I want to love him as he has not been loved, and yet there is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.
They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God… In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if something will break in me one day. Heaven from every side is closed.
I feel like refusing God.
Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness.
The Washing of Feet and the Gospel of Peace Kevin Vollrath
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. John 13:1-17 (NIV)
Why not hands? A perfectly kind way and appropriate place to touch a friend. Pragmatic, too.
Why not faces? A gentle and intimate way to observe another’s visage.
The thought of few body parts other than feet evokes such vivid sensory memories for me. When I think of feet, I think of smells. Smells I’ve never smelt outside of locker rooms, shoe drives, and shoe stores. Nowadays many cover their feet with two layers of clothing– it may be that makes them smell worse than in Jesus’ time. Keeps the dirt off, and the smell in.
I know there’s something practical about washing feet that walk dirt roads. As Jesus put it, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” I would hate to be the one who skipped a bath that day.
Why does Jesus choose something so banal to teach his disciples as one of his final teachings before being taken away? Weren’t they all gathering regularly before this, and wouldn’t he have had many opportunities to wash his disciples’ feet? Was he in the habit already and the other gospel writers just forgot to mention it?
I wonder if when Jesus washed those feet, he wasn’t thinking about the dirt or the potential smell. I wonder if he was thinking about more than the cultural role he performed. I wonder what feet meant to Jesus.
Today’s feet often symbolize dirtiness. Muslims often remove shoes before entering a home or mosque as a sign of respect and to preserve the space’s cleanliness. Footwashing is part of the pre-prayer ablutions/ ritual cleaning. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) reportedly said that cleanliness/ purity is half of faith. Throughout much of the Middle East, showing the soles of one’s feet can be offensive.
One foot connotation in the Hebrew scriptures is authority. The psalmist praises the Lord for making humans “rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Ps 8:6); John also notes that “Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power” (John 13:2). In illustrating the authority of the Messiah, Jesus quoted Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” (Matthew 22:44). The author of Ephesians echoes this connotation when describing Jesus’ authority: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.” (Eph 1:22).
Jesus and his followers supplement another connotation for feet: peace. In sending out his disciples, Jesus instructs: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The Kingdom of God is near.’” (Luke 10:10-11). The letter to the Ephesians encourages believers to “stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15).
In this foot-washing, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love (John 13:1), and the scene appears to conclude with the words, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17). Jesus sent his disciples with his authority to bring peace to the world.
At CMEP we try to walk in this authority, speaking out against injustices to people in positions of power. We believe peace can be achieved if it becomes the world’s top priority (that’s why we advocate). We believe local churches and their denominations are uniquely obliged to seek peace because of the vision of God’s Kingdom the Hebrew Scriptures declared and which Jesus continued teaching (that’s why we educate our partners and elevate the voices of those working towards peace).
In washing, Jesus fitted his disciples’ feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, so they could continue to make level paths and bring peace wherever they went– wherever Jesus was to go next. He loved his disciples by commissioning them, letting them partake in the Kingdom of God, inviting them to join his lasting work. In this spirit, we pray these words from the Scriptures:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
May you also “burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9).May the peace that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as you declare Jerusalem’s redemption, even as we wait for its peace and redemption, “for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). Amen.
Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.