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Holy Ground, Holy Relationships

Holy Ground A year ago I had the opportunity to see for myself the difference a Quaker witness can make in the West Bank of Palestine. My going itself was a surprise. Over the years as Di and I had opportunities to visit the “Holy Land,” I had been reluctant. Most official tours even when led by qualified guides did not seem designed to address the pain in the region. I feared being frustrated more than being inspired by visiting historical Biblical sites without serious reference to their contemporary relevance. I was, however, very interested in the Middle East and soon after we came to Newberg became a member of our Quaker Middle East Committee. Still I had little interest in visiting our ministry there. Besides I had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer with surgery scheduled in a few weeks.

Then one night as I was preparing to preach on the Quaker Peace testimony using some material from the woman in our church currently serving in the West Bank, suddenly the words came into my mind, “You must go to Palestine.” The next day the Global Outreach Director of our regional Quaker office, who knew nothing of my new-found calling, phoned and asked if I wanted to go to Palestine.

“If you had only known what would bring you peace…”. These words of Jesus echoed in our ears as we entered Jerusalem on the night of Feb 4, 2015. Four of us from the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Quakers had just arrived from the U.S. to help two “Friends Serving Abroad” discern their next steps in their work at the Quaker school in Ramallah.

Discern the sacred, don’t fixate on the messes

For days in the middle part of our team’s time in the West Bank it was easy to question the wisdom of investing in a Christian Quaker witness in Palestine. So many doors were closed. For me this changed early one morning as I walked alone along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the place where Jesus called his first disciples. I was looking down on a mass of garbage left by careless vacationers and thinking, “what an apt image for the mess both Jews and Muslims have made of Jesus’ message.” And then I looked up and saw a beautiful flock of birds soar through the sky.  Almost immediately these words came, “Discern the sacred, don’t fixate on the messes.” My perspective changed. I now focused on the doors that had been opened. And there were many.

Transformative teachers

Let me introduce a beautiful Christian woman who teaches Physical education at the Friends high school in Ramallah. Elizabeth Sherwood, a member of our team, Elizabeth Todd, the woman from our church working there, and I met with the woman to learn about the “Seeds for Peace” program her two daughters had attended. She spoke highly of the program, which brought Palestinian and Israeli teens together to nurture mutual understanding. But her face turned sad as she reported that the girls had been criticized by peers who were convinced that such programs softened the resolve of Palestinians who need to remain as determined to defeat the Israelis as the Israelis were to defeat the Palestinians. But then she also shared in halting yet heartfelt English how her friendship with Elizabeth Todd had given her great joy and hope.

At the end of our meeting the two Elizabeths, smiling broadly, took hold of this dear teacher’s hand and prayed for her, reassuring her of God’s love and power to do more than we can ask or imagine.  As we parted affectionately it was clear that Elizabeth Todd’s friendship had  touched her heart and was renewing her faith.

This same story was repeated as we met with a creative, charismatic conflict resolution teacher at the elementary school…and a deeply committed, loving special education teacher…a creative Literature teacher who brought peacemaking into the study of Romeo and Juliet…and a vivacious 5th grade teacher who inspired her students and welcomed Elizabeth Todd into her home and life with rare hospitality.

Teachers, administrators and students all spoke highly of the sometimes thankless work Elizabeth and others from our Quaker Meeting had done monitoring the playgrounds and publicizing the schools on Facebook. More importantly their words of gratitude showed they genuinely loved and respected these servants from the US. In the words of Eugene Peterson, the “everyday ordinary lives” of these followers of Jesus, “placed before God as an offering” (Romans 12:1-2) were making a real difference in the life of schools in danger of losing their original Christian Quaker identity.

Love, a reason for hope

Finally, I must tell you about a thoughtful Palestinian Christian who works for an NGO committed to serving the victims of injustice. He believes strongly in the Palestinians’ right to the land and identifies deeply with his peoples’ pain. He is a man with a tender heart. For most of one afternoon as we visited holy places— the birthplace of Jesus and the tombs of Abraham and Sarah and unholy places—refugee camps and gated Jewish settlements designed to squeeze Palestinians out of their homes, I listened to him share his life story and calling. He has traveled all over the world representing the Palestinian cause.

I empathized with him as he shared stories of human suffering. We talked politics and war. We talked religion and culture. Just before parting, after I had learned how meeting with Sam (another Quaker worker) and Elizabeth had encouraged him and nurtured his faith, I mustered the courage to ask, if as a Christian he felt he needed to learn to love his enemies. He turned toward me and with a very sober look on his face, indicated, yes he knew he should but wasn’t there yet.  What I saw in his eyes was sadness… and hope.

In our final two days of prayerful discernment we concluded: (1) God sent his son to a very troubled area of the world and Jesus called his disciples in a very dangerous time. Today’s Christians should be in Palestine, maybe especially Quakers who stand for peace in the fullest sense of the word, and (2) the essence of God’s power is love.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong and a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I have to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.  —1 Corinthians 13

Two truths follow: (1) where there is no love there is not the power to bring real change, (2) where there is love anything is possible. Sharing hospitality and offering hope in the name of Jesus and seeking the heart of Jesus for a people in conflict—this is the ministry in Ramallah, a small but a growing mustard seed, being watered by gifted women and men of God.

There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in   extraordinary ways. —Mother Teresa