And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of The Lord appeared to them, and the glory of The Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, The Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I am blogging today over at World Vision’s Women of Vision blog as part of their Lenten devotional series!
I began my journey with World Vision just over a year ago when I was hired to work with our supporters to educate and encourage around our work in the Holy Land. Little did I know, that in one of the world’s most conflict ridden places, I would find an unexpected beauty in the welcome and hospitality of our staff, supporters, and children!
One of my first work responsibilities was to host a small group from our Orange County Women of Vision chapter – traveling with one of the champions of the faith, Angela Mason, former Chapter Advisor for Women of Vision. I had known Angela from my previous work in the local church in California. I admired her vitality, passion, and zest for responding to the needs of the world’s poor. For years, her work had captured my attention and my heart for children from Romania, to Lesotho, and all over the world. The idea of traveling with her to the Holy Land was thrilling! I consider it a great privilege that she asked me to lead the trip.
I was first introduced to Tony Campolo’s ministry when I was about 13 years old. I attended the Christian music festival – Creation – somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. I was mesmerized as Tony talked about our call as Christians to love and serve God… and also to respond to the needs of the world’s poor. Tony’s message might have been the first time I heard about how it is a critical part of our Christian walk to live out the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you do unto one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do unto me.” Other than the News Boys entering the main field by helicopter, Tony’s message is the one that I remember most.
A couple of years ago, I met Tony in Bethlehem at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. There I heard him speak a similar message of love, reconciliation, and forgiveness… and also a call to live out God’s heart for mercy and justice in the world. During the conference we ran into each other a couple of times. At one point, we were on the elevator and started to chat. I told him a little bit about my work and ministry… and he said something to the effect, “I know… I have your book on my desk.” I will carry those words with me forever! What a great and humbling privilege!
This past March, Tony was once again at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem. He gave a powerful message: “Using the Red Letters of the Bible as Guides to Peace and Reconciliation.” You can watch his message here:
What does it mean to be a Red Letter Christian?
The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. I consider it an honor to be friends with many others who share similar values and are committed to living out Jesus’ call to meet the needs of the poor. Visit the Red Letter Christian blog and website to learn more about this amazing community!
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the University of California – Santa Barbara’s Luce Project on Religion in Global Civil Society. The topic of discussion was “The Role of Religion in Global Society: A Focus on the Middle East and Africa.” The dialogue was very thought provoking and included questions about the significance of religion in international development.
Participants included academics, practitioners, and religious leaders from various cultural backgrounds and faiths.
Here is a brief response to one of the questions I was asked:
Role of Religion on World Visions’s work in the Middle East:
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization providing hope and assistance to tens of millions of people in nearly 100 countries around the world. Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, World Vision serves alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender. We seek to honor God in all that we do; to honor our donors and the public by being transparent about our motivation; and to honor those we serve as well as our colleagues in the field. Our passion is for the world’s poorest children. The ability of these children to reach their God-given potential depends on the physical, social, and spiritual strength of their families and communities. To help secure a better future for each child, we focus on lasting, community-based transformation. We partner with individuals and communities, empowering them to develop sustainable access to clean water, food supplies, health care, education, and economic opportunities. World Vision works in several regions of the Middle East including Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. Throughout the years World Vision has been involved in the Middle East, serious conflicts throughout the region have had profound impact on the lives of children. As a Christian organization, World Vision affirms that all people have the right to life, food, liberty, security, education, and adequate health care. These rights also have been enshrined in such international agreements as the UN International Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), highlighting the responsibility we all have to ensure these rights are protected for all children throughout the Middle East.
Please note: While the above paragraph speaks to World Vision’s work in the ME, this blog is personal and the views here represent exclusively the owner of this blog.
I have now been back in the U.S. after spending a month in the Middle East… first in Egypt… and then in Israel/Palestine. I wanted to write almost everyday that I was on the ground, but found myself caught up in activities of work, ministry, and life. Nonetheless, I am committed to writing about some of the things I saw and experienced.
It was a great privilege for me to participate in this year’s Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem (March 2012). The first conference was hosted in 2010 by Bethlehem Bible College, an evangelical organization committed to spreading the light of Christ through Biblical education and training. There is a great book available which highlights some of the talks from the first conference called Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace. I wrote one of the chapters.
This year’s event was the second conference and it was amazing to notice many of the differences. It seemed twice as many people attended. The tone of the conference was intentionally focused on empowering and encouraging the Palestinian church, creating a platform for open dialogue and engagement for evangelicals, and motivating participants to become advocates of reconciliation… while also calling attention to the reality of daily life for Palestinians, particularly those in the Christian community. While I don’t agree with everything that was discussed at the conference, I do believe the platform is a critical one from which the Palestinian evangelical community can use their voice and engage in the public sphere. Biblical scholars and Christian leaders from around the world came to talk about the Scriptures, the people of Israel in a theological context, the land, and God’s heart for righteousness and justice. I was one of the “speakers” and led an hour panel discussion of Palestinian women leaders. Here is a video of the panel that I facilitated:
The participants on the panel were Diana Simaan, Grace Al-Zoughbi, Dina Katanacho, and Shadia Qubti. A brief biography of each of these women is provided below. They are amazing leaders who are doing great work on behalf of the kingdom!
Diana Simaan: Diana is the program director of the Palestinian Bible Society. She is currently involved in a project dealing with the building of Palestinian families by developing communication skills within the family. Diana has a M.A. in Health Administration from Tel Aviv University. She oversees other projects that involve empowering youth.
Grace Al-Zoughbi: A Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem, Grace serves as a teacher at Bethlehem Bible College. Grace was an undergraduate student at the college and finished her M.A. in the Theology of Transformation: Church, Scripture and World from the London School of Theology in 2010. Her dissertation entitled: “A Study of Six Influential Women: Evaluating their Personal Impact in Old Testament Times and in Palestine Today,” sought to explore the idea of the dignity of women and ways in which women can seek to defend and promote values that are associated with this idea, specifically within strong patriarchal contexts. In addition to her teaching position, Grace takes part in leading a varity of programmes through her local church in Bethlehem.
Dina Katanacho: Dina Katanacho is a Palestinian Arab Israeli leader. She has earned her B.Ed. at David Yallin College (an Israeli college) and is finishing up her M.A. in Christian Ministry at Bethlehem Bible College (a Palestinian college). Dina works now as the director of the Arab Israeli Bible Society. She has led many projects empowering women to serve God and advocating family oriented ministries in which both men and women are advocating the Kingdom of God. Dina is responsible to make the Bible available for 1.5 million Palestinian Arab Israeli Citizens. She is married and has three boys.
Shadia Qubti: Shadia Qubti is a Christian Palestinian living in the Galilee, Israel. Qubti works with Musalaha, a faith-based organization that promotes reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. She was born and raised in Nazareth. She finished her undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in International Relations and English Language, and her postgraduate degree in Conflict Resolution and Nonviolent Action in Trinity College University in Dublin, Ireland. In her free time, she is a member of Alphateam, a worship team that produces and composes local Palestinian Arabic songs (www.alphateam.org.).
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to get to know a Muslim named Mohammad from the Old City of Jerusalem. He is the proprietor of a new hotel in Jericho who graciously gave me a ride back to Beit Hanina in Jerusalem.
The ride from Jericho to Jerusalem is one of my favorites. It is through the Judean wilderness – the desert. Every time I travel along that road the mountains of sand, rock, and stuble are different. Depending on the time of day, the light reflects different colors across the miles of wilderness. The desert of Judea is where John the Baptist preached and cried out “Make way for the Lord.” The mountains surrounding the city of Jericho are where Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. And somewhere along that same road is where the story of the Good Samaritan took place. What remarkable history.
As we were traveling, Mohammad and I started to talk about Jerusalem. He grew up in the Old City and told me stories of what things used to be like when he was young. He told me some stories that he had heard from his grandparents about the way things were during the early 20th century. More than a hundred years ago… Jerusalem used to be a city where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side in peace. Mohammad’s family lived in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. They had neighbors who were Arab Christians. When his great-grandfather was a baby, his mother was very close to her Christian neighbor who had a baby around the same time. Mohammad told me that the two little boys were brought up together. Their families were so close that the Muslim little boy was fed milk from the Christian mother’s breast. Just as the Christian little boy was fed by Mohammad’s great-great-grandmother. As Mohammad told me this story, I was a bit incredulous. When I asked if he was speaking literally, he affirmed that the story was true. Because both Mohammad’s great-grandfather and his Christian neighbor were raised in this way, taking milk from each other’s mother, they are brothers. Such was the way things used to be in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Similarly in regard to their Jewish neighbors… Mohammad’s grandmother had a Jewish neighbor with whom they were very close. So much so that his grandmother learned Yiddish (pronounced ee-dish in Arabic). Every week during Shabbat, the Jewish family could not light the oil for their lamps because it would be a violation of the Sabbath. Thus, Mohammad’s grandmother – week by week by week – had the role of bringing light to the Jewish family who were her neighbors. Such was the way things used to be in the Old City of Jerusalem.
As Mohammad was telling me these stories, I must confess, I was a bit enraptured. The images he created gave me a glimpse of what things might have been like generations ago in this Holy City. One of the final stories that I heard from Mohammad is a sort of fable… I am surprised that I had never heard it before. It is about the land:
There once was a man who lived in a village. He was Jewish. The Jewish man believed that the four corners of the land belonged to him. There was another man who lived in the same village who was an Arab. The Arab believed the same four corners of land belonged to him. Because the men were fighting over the land, they decided to bring a wise man to settle their dispute. The wise man could have been a sheik or a priest or a rabbi. The wise man came and met with the two men. The Arab man told the wise man, “This land belongs to me.” The Jewish man told the wise man, “No. This land belongs to me.” The wise man was very gifted. He could hear quiet whispers of truth and knew how to interpret the whispers of creation around him. The wise man told the two men – enough of your fighting about the land. Let us hear what the land has to say about all of this. The wise man then went to the center of the four corners of the land. He laid himself down on the earth and put his ear to the ground. He lay their quietly for a long period of time. The two men began to become impatient and they said, “Who does the land say it belongs to?” The wise man told them to be quiet… that he needed to hear the whispering of the land. After even more time had passed the wise man got up from the ground. The Jewish man said “Does the land say it belongs to me?” And the Arab man said “Does the land say it belongs to me?” The wise man responded… “No. The land says that you both belong to it.”
As I have lived here in the land for the past five or so months… I am starting to feel like I too belong to the land. The land is holy. Holy for Jews. Holy for Muslims. Holy for Christians.
Holidays in the Holy Land are both inspiring and depressing. Today I had the opportunity to go to the Old City of Jerusalem for Holy Saturday. In the Orthodox tradition, this day is full of celebration in anticipation of Easter morning. I am told in years past that thousands of local Christian communities with international pilgrims from around the world would gather in the Old City for worship and celebration. Processionals with dozens of different bands and Boy Scout troops (with boys and girls) would lead the way in preparation for Easter. Today is particularly special because it is the only day of the year when the sacred light or “Holy Fire” – the fire that lights the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – comes out into the world. The fire from the tomb is spread from candle to candle all over the church and throughout the streets of the Old City – a symbol of the way that Christ’s light is spread into the world. However, holidays in the Holy Land are also stark reminders of the reality of military occupation and the darkside of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Signs of the fortress… open conflict between the army and Christians attempting to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to worship. One elderly woman was weeping as she attempted and was unable to pass through the barrier on her way to the church.
Leaving home today, I was told that we may not be able to enter into the Old City. In the past several years, military presence has been so strong that only a few hundred people have been allowed to enter. The city is surrounded by Israeli police and military and there are checkpoints at every entrance…
Today the gates of the Old City were blocked by guards and police who restricted entrance to the Sacred City. When we arrived at the New Gate there were several dozen people pushing toward the gated entrance – many (if not most) of whom were told that entry was not possible. Absolutely no foreigners were allowed. Most of the people trying to get in were local Palestinians. I was with two Jerusalemites – who graciously told me to be quiet and not speak any English. Fortunately, they (and thus me) were allowed entrance through the throng. I heard stories today of people who traveled around the world to be able to be a part of the Festival of Holy Fire – only to be turned away at the gates. One woman, a Syrian Arab living in Australia, has been rejected three years in a row. It is her dream to be able to worship on Holy Saturday in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. I was privileged to be one of the few who made it into the Old City even though we were restricted by several checkpoints along the way. We were not able to go to the church, but we were able to see some of the days celebrations. As we were waiting for the parade to come by the section where we were standing, I was overcome by the reality of “force” present with the military. Why are people not allowed to travel freely to worship? Today is one of the most holy days for Christian Arabs who live in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. And the pressure put upon them, limiting their movements – even their worship, is difficult to describe. The military presence was only in the city from early morning until 2 p.m. – the military presence begins during the specific hours when worship is scheduled and ends when all of the parades and celebrations are supposed to have finished. A friend described the scene as a military fortress – a terribly accurate description. I have never quite seen anything like it…
However, I saw a glimpse of what things might have been like a decade ago… I saw young boys and girls wearing beautiful Boy Scout uniforms smiling while having their pictures taken with their parents. I saw young and strong men and women playing the bagpipes and shouting over and over again “Sabt el Noor, Ou Ayyadna, Ou Ayyadna Issael Masih” which means “Saturday of Lights & the holiday, the holiday of Jesus the Messiah.” I saw the Holy Fire – taken from the sacred space at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre passed along candle by candle through the crowds… a beautiful image… Light in the midst of darkness… May the Light of Christ truly come to the Holy City…
Participants sharing the Holy Fire as the Light is spread
throughout the Old City of Jerusalem.
I saw many things today. I was reminded once again of the fortitude of the Palestinian people… a people removed from their homeland who have been displaced since the 1948 war… Many of the residents of the Holy City of Jerusalem do not have any nationality; no status of citizenship. Most do not hold passports – they are not Jordanian – they are not Israeli – they are Palestinian. Yet the world has still not yet recognized the degree to which they have sacrificed… and the degree to which – day by day – they continue to sacrifice. Today, as I saw the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem gather for worship… I am reminded of the great hope that Easter represents. As the sun breaks forth upon Easter morning, we are reminded “He is Risen”… Christ was not defeated on the cross… the worldly powers did not have their way… injustice will not reign for ever… there is hope on the horizon… May it be so for the Holy City of Jerusalem… and may it be so for the people of Israel and Palestine.
Frequently in conversation about the conflict here in the Middle East, language will be used about the “Arab problem.” Most countries in the Middle East did not have a strong national identity until the mid-to-late twentieth century as they emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and the period of the British and French mandates. This does not, however, deny the people of an origin or identity – it just means they didn’t identify themselves in terms of a nation or a “state”. Nonetheless, notions of Palestinian identity, has been around for centuries and millennia and may be better understood by looking more closely at the cultural and sociological identification of the Semitic people living in the land of Palestine, some of whom were of Jewish origin. I wish that I had the time to delve more deeply into this question of identity – because it is an important one! In regard to Palestinian identity, even in the 21st century, the State of Israel often uses language of “Arab” – a more general term that denies the unique connection of the Palestinian people to the land.
As far as I have been able to determine, there are several different categories that are used to apply to the citizenship (or lack thereof) of Palestinians living within the State of Israel or under their occupation.
Arab Israelis (or Palestinians with an Israeli passport). Many of these Israeli citizens prefer to be called “Palestinian citizens of Israel” rather than “Arab Israelis”. They are members of families who remained in Israel after the 1948 war and in 2008 “Arab citizens of Israel” made up about 20 percent of the Israeli population. In 1948, approximately 150,000 Palestinian residents of the land became citizens of Israel after the establishment of the state.
Jerusalemites. Arabs who lived in Israel (Jerusalem) after the 6 Day War, they previously held Jordanian passports… they do not have a passport from any country, but have a “Jerusalem ID”. They have less privileges than Arab Israelis, but more privileges (at least in regard to traveling) than Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. They, with harassment, can travel through check-points between Israel and the West Bank. I have read some reports that claimed they rejected Israeli citizenship, but many of the Palestinian Jerusalem families I know have told them it was never offered.
Palestinians Living in the Occupied Territories (West Bank/Gaza). Again, most of this population has no passports. They have West Bank/Gaza ID’s. Some West Bankers have Jordanian passports, but are not considered “citizens” of Jordan – they were issued the passports as travel documents. West Bank and Gazans must obtain travel visas to cross check-points. For example, Ramallah is only 6 miles from Jerusalem, but Palestinians living in Ramallah cannot travel through the checkpoint to Jerusalem without special permission. This permission is very difficult to obtain. This has been the case since the second intifada and the building of the separation barrier.
Palestinian Diaspora. Palestinians living around the world (e.g. U.S., etc.). I have heard there are more Palestinians living in Chile than in the West Bank.
Palestinian Refugees. In the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt… these Palestinians have official “refugee designation” status from the UN. They are people or descendents of those who were displaced by what they call Nakba or the catastrophe of the 1948 war with Israel. Again, this population has no passport. Palestinian Refugees are not absorbed into the regions where they are living because they are maintaining the “right to return” to their homes and lands that were confiscated during the 1948 war. Many refugee families still have property deeds and the keys to their homes in Israel. Refugees are often the poorest of the Palestinians. Palestinian refugees constitute the largest refugee population in the world – now more than 5 million.
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend the day with one of the leaders at Holy Land Trust (HLT) who has been involved in building houses for Palestinian families who have lost their homes because of house demolitions. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) there have been at least 24,813 homes demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza since 1967. During the 2009 Gaza bombing, more than 4,000 homes were destroyed (UN). The question is often asked, “Why are Palestinian homes being destroyed?” Most of the time, the Israeli government sites “administrative reasons” for the destruction of these house – the most common reason being that the houses are built without a permit. However, according to ICAHD, “permits are almost impossible to obtain by Palestinians living under occupation.”
One of the families I met in the West Bank are living in a community called Al-Walaja. This small community outside of Beit Jala and Bethlehem has almost been entirely surrounded by the wall. The community is not only isolated from Israel but also from East Jerusalem and other West Bank towns that are within walking distance. Residents of Al-Walaja have one entrance and exit point by which they may enter their community. The family with whom we met are now living in a new home that was built jointly by Holy Land Trust and a British advocacy organization called Amos Trust. A few years ago, they received a notice from the Israeli government indicating that their home would be demolished because the wall was going to be built on their property. Often Palestinian families are given less than an hour’s notice for these demolitions so they do not have the opportunity to remove personal items, household good, and valuables from their homes before it is destroyed. Even when an demolition order is issued there is often a lack of clarity of when it might occur – so families live in trepidation of when the order might be executed. This family’s home was destroyed shortly after having received the notice. They then learned that the demolition was unnecessary because the wall was rerouted – thus it did not go through their property as had been intended. Over a period of a couple of years from the first demolition and the support of the community the family’s home was rebuilt. It was less than a year later when the family received a second notice that their home would be destroyed. I did not get the details of the reason for the second demolition order, but I saw the evidence – the crumbled up stones, wires, and ruined foundation – that the order had been carried out. For a second time, this family had lost their home. This is when Holy Land Trust and Amos Trust became involved. In an act of peaceful non-violent resistance Palestinian families and communities are standing firm while being surrounded by oppressive circumstances. According to the 4th Geneva Convention, occupying powers are prohibited from destroying Palestinian property or employing collective punishment. According to ICAHD, “under this provision the practice of demolishing Palestinian houses is banned” – and yet, it continues to persist. We experienced the hospitality of the Palestinians as we drank Arabic coffee and tea and were told of their dilemma these past several years in Al-Walaja. The family is now living in a simple home that has been built for the third time as they attempt to piece their lives back together again. However, just last week they received a third order from the district of Jerusalem that their home is on the list of homes to be demolished in the future.
Here is Marwan Fararjeh from Holy Land Trust telling another story of a family in Al-Walaja with similar circumstances: