-sharing reflections on what I've heard and am hearing, learned and am learning,
from voices in the Holy Land, the USA, and Rwanda-

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

the rocks and stones themselves do sing

Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beit Sahour sent out its second newsletter.  I was asked to write an article describing my time with this community over the past year and thought to share it with you all as well here on my blog.  If you are interested in seeing the rest of the newsletter, you should be able to find it on the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land's website.  If not, email me and I'll forward you a copy. 

"In the Holy Land: Teaching, Learning, Struggling, and Growing"

When I learned I would be coming to Jerusalem/West Bank as a member of the Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer program, I was ecstatic. While called to serve as a missionary volunteer here working in Lutheran Schools, I have to admit that after majoring in Religious Studies in university, the thought of arriving in the heart of the Holy Land thrilled my intellectual mind. How easily I could walk through the streets so sacred to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. How amazing it would be to witness these three faiths up close and personal. How many stone churches and ruins I could visit and explore! Yet, I quickly learned that my religious experiences would have very little to do with the holy sites of Jerusalem or even Bethlehem. Rather, the faith I have witnessed and participated in has been with the people I live and serve alongside, not the stones that mark religious history. Within the space of relationships I have found the most holy ground.

Lutheran Scouts
I arrived in this land full of expectation—expecting to teach, expecting to learn, expecting to grow, and expecting to struggle. Little did I know how quickly and in what way I would find my expectations fulfilled. I was welcomed into the community of Beit Sahour as soon as I stepped foot into my flat. Beginning my volunteer placement at the Evangelical Lutheran School, I slowly immersed myself into a culture built upon this very sense of community. I soon found myself playing football with an emerging woman’s club team, marching alongside the youth of the Lutheran Scouts as a member of the brass band, and enjoying barbeques and meals with new friends and family. Within a matter of days, my expectations were replaced with actualizations of life in Palestine.

I soon found myself teaching, learning, growing, and struggling—but not as I expected. Yes, I began helping teach at the school, started learning Arabic, struggled finding my way around, and grew in relationship with my community, but as time went on, I experienced so much more. Instead of being independent, I had to teach myself how to rely on others to help guide me through the ins and outs of daily life here. Instead of just learning facts about the culture, I learned to take the time to listen to the pains and fears as well as the hopes and dreams of my colleagues, students, neighbors, and friends. I grew to realize that despite how vibrant Palestinian culture and life still is, my friends here suffer from injustices daily and find little outside support. I struggled to determine how I, myself, could have been so unaware of these struggles in Palestine prior to my staying here.

Where I had previously only known about the antiquities of the Holy Land—amazed by the structures scattered throughout the country marking thousands of years of history with stone facades and churches—until living here I had failed to consider the living stones that build the community of the Holy Land today, the very people I now call my friends. Beyond all expectation, I have witnessed a strength of spirit within this community that despite occupation attempts to live as we are called to live—loving one another.

As I continue my year with the YAGM program, walking alongside my brothers and sisters, I am especially grateful and blessed by the experiences that have opened my eyes to the here and now. The community of Beit Sahour, especially the Lutheran School and church, has greeted me with such genuine compassion. May we all as living stones continue to open our hearts and minds to greet each other with this same compassion. Together may we strive to build a greater community of hospitality, peace, and grace. In the Holy Land, as well as the rest of the world, we find in such a community the very thing we so often declare war over—holy ground. Lord, help let us let these living stones live.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

everybody loves bumper cars

"Everybody loves bumper cars," I commented to my friends as we stood in line waiting for our turn. 
We were on a school trip to a carnival theme park three hours north of our school for a day of fun and relaxation.  Despite the hot day, our spirits were high as we enjoyed such attractions as the "House of Horror", the "Crazy Dance", and the "Pirate Ship," taking occasional breaks to sit with other teachers and students who gathered to play cards or drum traditional rhythms on the tabla.  For students and teachers alike, this day was a welcome break to the routine of craziness that becomes the last month of school. 

For a few of us, our last stop before heading back to the buses was an undisputed classic: "Bumper Cars."  Waiting in line, I looked at the faces of everyone currently driving around--they were all so keen on plowing  into each other, throwing their heads back and laughing every time they were jeered off course.  The only ones who appeared unsatisfied were the people who got stuck for one reason or another and were losing precious time in their allotted rampage.  In line we were being pushed and prodded as people shoved to the front, hoping to get in on the next go of reckless driving.  Needless to say--everybody loves bumper cars.

Whether it's a stretch or not, I couldn't help but think how similar bumper cars are to human relationships.  Of course, the opening to the movie Crash came to mind--

"It's the sense of touch... Any real city, you walk, you know?  You brush past people.  People bump into you.  In L.A., nobody touches you.  We're always behind this metal and glass.  I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something."  (Crash 2005)

Unlike this description of L.A., I can say that the sense of touch is very important to all cultures represented in Israel and Palestine.  Yet there is a sense of touch that is missing in the overlap of these cultures, partially because there is very little overlap.  For one reason or another, violent clashes are often considered (in the public's eye) the only interface that occurs.  To some extent, this is the case.  I have seen frustration and pain in the eyes of those who have been "stuck" behind different walls not having opportunities to build any kind of relationship with their neighbors because interface is restricted. 

I know that an important part of relationships is being willing and, more importantly, able to bump into each other, spring back, reflect, and enjoy the moment for what it's worth.  If we bump into each other--one-on-one, face-to-face, person-to-person--we have the chance to learn so many different stories and to tell our own.  I have not found many people who have disliked that chance to listen and share--I pray that people will find those constructive moments more and more.

Still, not all relationships are as simple as ramming into a friend to share a laugh during bumper cars.  In fact, many relationships are challenging--only sustained by a mutual willingness to honor the other person and yourself at the same time, even in the midst of disagreement.  Yet, we must continue to bump into each other as much as we can with open hearts and minds.  In these moments, even when they are uncomfortable or painful, we must be thankful and joyful that we have the opportunity to touch the soul of another person for however brief or extended a period of time.  Tough stuff, yes, but I realize more and more the importance of these moments, and am grieved that in this place those moments are few and far between across the cultural divide.  I pray that one day everyone will love bumping into each other just as much in personal relationships as in bumper cars--enjoying time together as seperate entities gathered into one joyful mess of reckless abandon.

As for now, I continue enjoying the moments when I get "bump" into my friends and neighbors within my community.  What was the most joyful "bumping into" experience?  Walking towards my volunteer site yesterday, I ran into my landlord's mother.  While she speaks almost no English, we have become friends over many meals and evenings together with her family.  She had been walking home after attending a mass for St. George's feastday.  After greeting her with two kisses on the cheeks and asking how she was, in which she replied, "Mabsuta! (Happy!)," her first instinct was to reach into her bag and break off a piece of bread to give to me.  I recognized immediately that it was the bread from her church--in the middle of the street, she shared with me what I could only consider a moment of holy communion.  Church tradition and institution forgotten, I thanked God for the brief moment where I got to 'bump' into someone and something so dear--a moment of pure and unspoken faith. 

Namaste--may the divine in me recognize, honor, (and bump into) the divine in you.