As a child growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I was always excited to see my parents bring out the Advent wreath and place it in the center of our dinner table. With its arrival, I knew that Christmas was coming soon. Set with four candles, three purple and one pink, to be lit in a particular order, one for each Sunday leading up to Christmas, I understood that the Advent Season is a special time of waiting and preparing for the coming birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
My parents made sure I also understood that Christian families around the world were gathering in their homes, just like my family, to light candles on their Advent wreaths and read the same Scripture passages about hope, peace, joy, and love. The spirit of unity and solidarity made a deep impression on my heart.
Noor Society is a group of mothers of children with developmental disabilities advocating for each other and their children in Aida Camp, a refugee camp of over 5,000 people started in 1948 after the Nakba. To raise money for the care of their children, the women of Noor offer tourists homestays, teach cooking classes, and have a small gift shop. Noor is just nine years old, but its founders and volunteers have seen a dramatic increase of children with developmental disabilities over the past 15 years, from 15 or 20 in the mid-2000s to over 300 children now.
Multiple mothers at Noor told me that when pregnant women are exposed to tear gas, their children are significantly more likely to have disabilities. I have yet to find a scientific study that shows this, but it has been noted that little to no research on tear gas considers its long term effects. A recent study by UC-Berkeley interviewed over 200 hundred residents of Aida Camp and found that 100% of them were exposed to tear gas in the past year. In fact, Aida Camp has been declared the “tear gas capital of the world,” so it isn’t surprising that some of its residents would be noticing the long term effects of tear gas.
Beit Yusef is a home in Beit Sahour, just south of Bethlehem, for children with profound developmental disabilities. Their mission is to find the children with the most profound disabilities and least access to resources (mostly in impoverished families) and to show them and their families God’s love; this takes them traveling all over the West Bank, where such services are sparse. In the past, they hosted a respite care center where children with profound disabilities could come to stay roughly four days of the month. Children come in small groups to ensure they receive plenty of individual attention.
This key marks the entrance to Aida camp and symbolizes the Palestinians’ belief in their right to return home, which is Jerusalem for many in Aida camp.
Recently, however, the founders of this organization were denied visas to return to Israel-Palestine for unclear reasons. Due to lack of staffing and lack of funds, Beit Yusef has had to stop their respite care program and focus on doing home visits. One assistant at Beit Yusef told me that during such home visits, they routinely find children with developmental disabilities living outside, with animals or even in cages. One of Beit Yusef’s goals is to show families various ways of incorporating their child into their family and to see their child as a gift from God.
They wish they could continue giving a multi-day break to children from their difficult home lives and to families from caring for their children. For now, though, these breaks are limited to just a few hours, and the children remain at their homes. Beit Yusef’s beautiful, recently renovated facility gets minimal use during this time of transition.
House of Hope is a Christian ministry for children with special needs and blind people. It was beautiful to see “the blind leading the blind,” and blind teachers teaching children. One woman, Sarah, grew up in the Bethlehem area and became blind when she was 9. She has since studied English literature and now teaches English to the children of House of Hope. House of Hope accepts children from all over the West Bank and always has a waitlist. They have a beautiful home in the heart of Bethlehem, but not enough volunteers to support all the work they are already doing and would like to continue doing. Classes are crowded and curricula sparse; many children have simply outgrown House of Hope, but have nowhere else to go. Some of them start working in House of Hope’s workshop, but there isn’t enough demand for their goods to employ everyone, and not everyone is able to work with the machinery.
Despite economic and political adversity, the employees, volunteers, and children at each of those organizations live lives of hope and joy. Being together one day at a time is enough cause for celebration, enough cause for hope for a more free future.
God of mercy and justice, we ask that you bless the work of each of these organizations in Bethlehem. Bless Noor with increased medical aid and connections with more doctors in Jerusalem. Allow the staff of Beit Yusef to quickly and peacefully return to their work, and may they find new donors to support their important work. Would you inspire more volunteers to join House of Hope, short-term and long-term, and help them to continue to find partners abroad to support their work financially. May we all be agents of peace in a world marked by war. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Kevin Vollrath is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, writing his dissertation on how the Israeli occupation of Palestine affects people with disabilities. He is excited to be CMEP’s 2020-2021 Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow (AWCF)!
CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Romans 14:19
Last night, like many of you and millions of people in the US and around the world, I watched as results streamed-in for the 2020 US Presidential Election. As we await the final official results, the question that is certain to emerge is: Where do we go from here? Will the nation be able to come together despite such deep partisan divides? While many questions remain, we at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) want to make clear that regardless of who is in the White House or Congress, we are committed to working for peace and justice for all in the Middle East.
While uncertainty and divisions remain in the country, we pray for leaders from both sides of the aisle to work together to ensure there is a peaceful outcome–whether that be a transfer of power or a second term for the President. Our hope, whomever is in the highest office in our nation, is that the U.S. government and the Administration will play a constructive role in the Middle East. Our prayer? That U.S. Middle East foreign policy would be based on principles of equality, liberty, and human rights for all people.
The presidential election also accompanies changes in leadership within the US Congress. We will soon find ourselves needing to work with newly elected officials and will continue to engage with previous congressional members. In the coming year, CMEP will establish new relationships and strengthen previous ones to encourage US policies that actively promote peace, justice, and a comprehensive resolution to conflicts in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This work will only bear fruit if it is accompanied by your advocacy and we are eager to provide ways for you to feel confident in developing or expanding relationships with your congressional members in the year ahead.
In all of our work, CMEP will continue to encourage the vision and realization of a just peace throughout the entire Middle East. In Israel/Palestine, the facts on the ground remain grim. While annexation has not officially moved forward, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, home demolitions in the West Bank have increased. While the world has been in lock-down, the realities of the occupation persist. We must continue to raise our voices to push for a future in which all people in Israel/Palestine can flourish.This means ensuring that any peace proposals or processes focus not only on ending conflict but guarantee that Israelis and Palestinians receive the justice they deserve. A just peace is needed to support a durable peace and a future that involves upholding human dignity and cultivating thriving relationships among the people of the Holy Land.
We remain committed to advocating for justice throughout all of the Middle East. It is our hope that in the coming year the U.S. administration will affirm the bipartisan legislation Congress has already passed, and end U.S. support for the Saudi and Emirati led coalition in the Yemeni civil war. We will continue to work alongside partners in Lebanon still suffering from the explosion this summer as well as the ongoing economic crisis, to encourage U.S. policies that will help address both the immediate humanitarian needs and systemic challenges that have come from years of political and economic mismanagement.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, CMEP has been challenged to adapt to new ways of working in the service of our mission and vision. This has included developing more virtual content to help our members support our mutual dedication to peace and justice. In response to the possible official annexation of parts of the West Bank, we launched our Churches Against Annexation campaign, which included two educational webinars on the impact of annexation on the Christian community in Palestine, a letter to Congress we helped organize signed by 27 church leaders calling on Congress to respond with meaningful consequences should annexation proceed, and a public statement inviting our global network to add their names officially raise their voicesThe results of this election will once again challenge us to adapt to ensure that we respond effectively to changes in our government. In the days to come, CMEP will continue to provide more information about how we plan to move forward after the official election results and how we, as a community, can help advocate for justice and peace and continue to work against annexation and an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people.
I am so grateful for your ongoing support of our work. During these challenging times, I pray God’s peace surrounds you and those you love.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon Executive Director, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP)
God in heaven, as the world continues to reel with the effects of the coronavirus, be with all of those who are suffering. As we keep in mind those in need in the Middle East, provide for their material and spiritual needs. Bring your divine comfort and empower those in leadership to bring an end to systems of oppression, ongoing war and violence, and to dismantle injustices. Strengthen courageous actors working toward justice and peace in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Elevate the voices of reason and moderation who are responding to the economic crisis in Lebanon. Bring peace and a resolution to the violence that is causing such devastation in Yemen. Provide physical shelter and provision for the families who have been displaced throughout the region. And be with us in the United States as we seek to move forward as a united nation with policies and government actions that contribute not only to our own wellbeing, but are also in the best interest of our neighbors around the world. Go before us, we pray. In the name of Christ. Amen.
“Can we take a moment to realize where we are and appreciate how we got here?”
At the end of my question the eight of us quietly split, each finding a spot to reflect. Peering through the dark, I notice a place at the base of a nearby dune and amble over to it, feeling my feet displace the sand beneath them with each step. Here, at the base of the dune, I remind myself of where I am– on top of a phenomenally massive mound of sand, at night, in the middle of Oman. As I stand, I hear grains of sand blow along the surface of the dune, carried by the cool nighttime breeze, and I wonder if ripples are forming around my feet. Am I becoming part of the desert? Read more
My recent vacation travels took me to northern England, where a friend and I walked a substantial portion of the route of Hadrian’s Wall, and then on to Berlin, where the Berlin Wall lives on – in spite of having been torn down 30 years ago. Both experiences awakened memories of the time I spent in Palestine, looking at the “Separation Barrier” from a number of different perspectives, passing through its numerous checkpoints and monitoring those same checkpoints as a human rights observer.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered his soldiers to build a wall, intended to keep the “marauding barbarians” from the north from invading Roman-occupied Britain in the south. Construction on the Wall was begun in 122 AD, and it was completed some seven years later. It stretches just over 70 miles (we walked about 50 of those miles on our week’s visit!), and was a masterpiece of engineering. Parts of the Wall were as high as 20 feet (including ramparts) and the route also included lookout towers (every 1/3 mile), mile castles (every mile!) and Roman forts (about every five miles). Read more
Have you ever walked into a place and immediately became aware of its sacredness? I remember standing outside Seville Cathedral in Spain a year ago; it was nine in the morning and I was waiting to enter the doors amongst a mass of people. The city was alive and buzzing around me as I stood. Thanks to a little luck and good planning, I was able to be one of the first people into the cathedral. The second I walked through the doors I could think, breathe, and be. My face turned towards the heavens, following the sound of my footfalls as they echoed up into the highest arches. I could smell the remnants of incense that had been carried through the grand halls, welcoming the Divine to this place. At this moment I understood why these places are called sanctuaries. I understood the desire to be shielded from the world in its strong walls, surrounded by reminders of the holy.
Yet, sanctuary, this sacred and peaceful word comes with baggage. It implies that these holy places are confined, restricted, and separate. I think this does a disservice to both our world and its Creator. I believe that holy spaces surround us… Read more
“I finally understand the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” – Mother Theresa
This is the hardest it has ever been for me to board a plane. I usually run towards the metal bird, eager to begin my journey, but this time my feet drag, slowed by the tear my heart furthered with every step… Step. Remember the bustling souq. Step. Remember the warmth of the hugs from Mom and Dad and Bubba. Step. Remember the depth of the conversations I had here. Step. Remember the laughter of friends in the States. Step. Remember the spontaneity of life in the Middle East. Step. Remember the joys of going to school at Calvin. Step. Remember the amazing smells of spices, incense, and perfumes. Step. Remember vegetables? Step. Remember the sheer class of the abaya and dishdasha. Step. Remember the comfort of jeans. Step. Remember the ways this place helped you grow. Step. Remember that learning is not limited to places or spaces; now it’s your turn to share what you learned with others. Step.
Our classroom is hot. It’s hard to focus. We’ve begun to notice the increasing temperatures outside that hint at the impending heat of summer. Our professor, Ustaadha Latifa, senses our drifting thoughts and makes her way across the whitewashed room and to the window. Her black abaya sways with each step, creating the illusion of floating, which, when paired with her petite frame, is easy to believe. She unlocks the window and allows fresh air into the room. As the breeze flows in, it brings with it the distant sound of the call for prayer, a welcome melody that has been too far from my hearing for too long. I close my eyes for a brief moment and simply listen. I feel the air involuntarily leave my lungs in a satisfied exhale, the kind that only happens in moments of deep contentment. This moment, hearing the call for prayer for the first time since I moved to Ibri, reminds me of our group’s week of prayer back in Muscat…
The sound of devoted believers raises me to consciousness. I don’t have to open my eyes to know it’s 5:30 am and dark outside. I am informed of these facts simply by listening to both my internal clock and the calls for prayer echoing throughout the city. What would it be like to be one of the devoted who wake up every day before 5:30 and make their way to the mosque; those who turn towards Mecca again at mid-morning, noon, mid-day, and sunset? Read more
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my time here, I have met many incredible individuals who face the impossible realities of occupation. Providing for their communities, families, and yearning for freedom, I am inspired by the power of the individual in the midst of this intractable conflict.
In this session, Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, CMEP’s executive director, speaks with His Eminence Archobishop Angaelos. On 18 November 2017, His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos was enthroned as the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London. He specializes in advocacy work and youth ministry and travels around the world to speak at youth conventions. He was conferred the honor of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty The Queen for ‘Services to International Religious Freedom.’
God of mercy and compassion, of grace and reconciliation, pour your power upon all your children in the Middle East: Jews, Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis. Let hatred be turned into love, fear to trust, despair to hope, oppression to freedom, occupation to liberation, that violent encounters may be replaced by loving embraces, and peace and justice could be experienced by all. – Reverend Said