Prayers4Peace: I was protesting for sure. Was I also praying? I hope so

I was protesting for sure. Was I also praying? I hope so

By: Rev. Kathy Donley

It was late on an overcast November afternoon. I was lying on my back on Dove Street. The sheet over my face cut off my sense of sight, but I was very aware of the cold asphalt underneath me, the presence of a crowd of people, some of whom were milling around near my head, and the sounds of motors and sirens on nearby streets.

Her voice amplified by a microphone, a woman slowly recited the names and ages of Palestinian children who have died in the current war between Israel and Hamas. The children’s ages began at one year old. Names and ages were read for 12 minutes, maybe longer. “One-year-old, one-year-old, one-year-old, three-years-old, three-years-old.” She kept going. I could hear open weeping from two people close by. Anguish. Personal grief. Heartbreak. The woman kept speaking into the microphone. When she got to the names of the fourteen-year-olds, her voice began to quaver. She was also weeping. She kept reading through the sixteen-year-olds.

An older male voice took over. I listened to the names of middle-aged and older people. For 15 minutes, he read “fifty-two years old, fifty-seven years old, seventy-three years old . . .” The oldest age I heard was 91 years. “This is just a small fraction of the names of the dead,” they said. They kept reading.

One more reader stepped up to the microphone. He started with the young adults, ages 19 and up. He read only 6 names and then stopped. He said “I am Palestinian. I can’t do this. These are my family names. I thought I could, but I can’t. I’m sorry.” Another young man took over for him. When he reached “thirty-six years old” he paused. “That is my age,” he said. Another 15 minutes went by as the names went on and on.

Someone touched my knee through the sheet. I uncovered my eyes to see a child who was laying flowers on each body in the street. I smiled at her and went back to being dead. After her flower task was done, she came back to stand near me with a woman who might have been her mother or her aunt. Every so often, she would ask “Why can’t we touch her?” or “What is she doing?” I strained to hear the whispered answer. Sometimes it was “She is protesting.” One time, the adult said, “She is praying.” And I wondered if there was another “She” under discussion, someone who I couldn’t see who was in a more traditional posture of prayer.

What was I doing? Good question. I was part of a vigil and “die-in” at Representative Paul Tonko’s office. The group was there to encourage Mr. Tonko to support a congressional call for a ceasefire in Gaza. I believe that a ceasefire must happen now to halt the slaughter of innocent people. It is a necessary step if there is ever to be lasting peace in that region. So I was there to demonstrate the importance of a ceasefire, in an attempt to persuade an elected official to exercise his power in support of it.

But, the little girl kept asking “What is she doing?” When I accepted the sheet, I didn’t know how long I would lie there. I was dressed in thermal layers, but had forgotten my gloves and hat. Yes, I was protesting, on multiple levels. I lay on the street in a posture of death to protest the death and destruction raining down on Gaza, but after the first half-hour, my body was protesting the cold to which I was subjecting it.

I was protesting for sure. Was I also praying? I hope so. I was lamenting unspeakable violence and heartbreak, expressing to God my absolute outrage. I was also numb, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering in a far-off place and the never-ending list of unfamiliar names. Perhaps I had entered that space described in Romans 8, that place of sighs too deep for words.

This is the threshold of Advent, the liminal space of lament and hope. We protest all that is wrong and unjust. We trouble heaven with our own deep pain and in solidarity with others who are suffering. Paradoxically, lament is also an expression of hope. It would be futile to protest that which cannot possibly change. Lament is therefore an act of faithful resistance.

This season we return to ancient Palestine, to remember the story of a people who were resisting occupation and longing for peace, even as we watch a contemporary version of that story playing out in our time. May we be those who actively hope, those who dream, even those who engage God’s dreams for the world.

O God, at times we are like strangers on this earth, taken aback by all the violence, the harsh oppositions.  Like a gentle breeze, you breathe upon us the Spirit of peace. Transfigure the deserts of our doubts, and so prepare us to be bearers of reconciliation wherever you place us, until the day when a hope of peace dawns in our world.

                                             –Brother Roger of Taize

Photos courtesy of Jon Flanders (Troy, NY)

About the Author: The Rev. Kathy Donley is the head pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY, which is a member of both the American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists. She has served at Emmanuel Baptist since 2010. Previously, Rev. Donley has served churches in Kansas, Indiana and Illinois, where she has enjoyed relating to people of all ages and has served in many roles — youth minister, campus minister, associate pastor, solo pastor and interim pastor, among them. She holds a degree in psychology from Baylor University and an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Released today:
Uniting Women For Change

And Still We Rise: Uniting Women for Change, is a six-episode podcast series by Churches for Middle East Peace. Meet your podcast hosts Destiny and Tamar! Look out for the first episode release on January 7th, for Orthodox Christmas!

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).

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