Part 2 of my recent trip. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is in my head.
I hated “picking teams” in grade school. With the exception of one glorious fifth grade kickball season, I was never the first player chosen for a team. “Mennonite Molly” claimed that title. A leggy blonde a whole year older than the rest of us; she was terror in a denim skirt.
It begins in our bones and stays there until something breaks. That dualism. The US vs THEM mentality.
Last month I had the opportunity to visit people in Palestine and Israel, which unexpectedly broke me into pieces. What I saw in real life isn’t what TV and the Internet told me I’d see.
I learned things I didn’t know about the Palestinian way of life, living under occupation, the things hidden from news stories and Facebook feeds.
Like a pendulum, my emotions swung from trying to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to outright hostility toward Israel. This surprised me. I did not expect this trip to yank at me emotionally, tugging at the thread of injustice from both sides.
I’ve learned about Israel ever since my first Sunday School teacher slapped a White Moses on the flannel graph board in 1980 and declared the Israelites God’s chosen people. I have a college degree in Bible and Theology. I know the characters, places and events like family.
What I was never taught was that in Bethlehem there is a Christian Palestinian mother with six daughters. She runs a little bakery that serves feta-rosemary bread. If you ask, she’ll heat it for you in the wood stove so the cheese melts in your mouth.
Upon hearing I lived in South Africa, she said, “I’d like to travel. But, I’m not allowed to leave the West Bank. My daughter, she wants to travel. She met a guy from the USA. He’s from a place called Grand Rapids, Michigan. Do you know it?”
“Yes, I know Grand Rapids.”
“Is it like here? Hot?”
“No, its green and it gets very cold in the winter. It snows.”
“It snows?! That would be glorious, to see snow.”
Or what of the teenager who works afternoons in his uncle’s grocery store-his arm wrapped in a cast, the result of a basketball game. He’s studying. He wants to be a doctor. He doesn’t allow me to purchase the hummus I bring to the counter but instead offers his top recommendation.
“Let me ask you something. When you go back to the US, what will you tell them about us?” From the graffiti artwork on the Separation Wall, it’s clear he already knows what the world says about them.
When I peeled back the covering, I saw. Real people, with pain and fear. Families, babies, celebrations, and that one auntie who sends irritating Candy Crush requests. I saw the refugee camps, meant for 10 days. It’s now been 60 years.
I rode the bus everyday from Bethlehem into Jerusalem in the shadow of the Separation Wall. I fumbled for my passport at every checkpoint in the presence of an impatient guard and his machine gun. It unnerved me every time.
While dropping us at our apartment one day, our taxi driver mentioned the death toll in Gaza. I noticed before he turned away the faint glisten of a tear and the glitch in his voice.
I can feel the claustrophobic frustration. Before the trip, I couldn’t tell you that West Bank has a different government than Gaza. I assumed they were all some shade of Hamas. Heck, I didn’t even know that Bethlehem is in the West Bank, although, I did know that Judea and Samaria are the West Bank so, go figure. After what I’ve seen and heard, quite frankly, I would be tempted to throw rocks too.
But then I spent time in Jerusalem.
I sat in a row of white plastic chairs in the heat of the mid-day sun while I closed my eyes and listened to the prayers and cries of the women of Israel as they gently tapped their heads against the giant stone wall. I wrote my own prayers on the slips of paper, folded them and placed them with countless others, in the cracks of the great wall.
The rise of the women’s cries give way to the agonizing, oak-like strength of the men’s prayer. Although separate, the two sounds twist together and fade back into the wall itself.
My chest feels physical pain when I hear a little boy ask his father, “Daddy, is Iron Dome working today?” “Yes, it’s working my boy.” Only pieces of innocence remain where a whole child should have stood.
I hear the air raid sirens, I hear the bombs and gunshots. A piece of me cringes, at death’s ugly sound. I’ve only listened for a few weeks. I can’t imagine what is left of a person when they hear the sound of death without end.
Both sides of the story pull, taking pieces, leaving me torn. I knelt in the church, the site where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I stood in the garden tomb, where Jesus rose from the dead. I walked the Old City streets, the Via Dolorosa. My Sunday School teacher would be proud. I’m here, in flesh and blood, not a one-dimensional character on a flannel graph board.
But I feel like I’m living in halves; divided.
Archbishop Elias Chacour tells pilgrims to both Israel and Palestine, “If you’ve come to take a side, for Israel or for Palestine, don’t come back. You will leave us in pieces. But if you come to love Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and to learn about the situation, you are welcome because you bring peace.”
2 Corinthians 5:18 says, “But all things are from God, Who through Jesus Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation [that by word and deed we might aim to bring others into harmony with Him].”
Can we choose teams and still be in the business of reconciliation?
Every few weeks the older sixth grade class would call ”permanent teams.” Predictably, the presence of BobbyRay always incited this powerful kickball alliance. A vision in Wrangler jeans, BobbyRay was a hefty farm boy whom puberty visited often and early. His mere shadow at home plate induced panic in the outfield.
“Permanent teams” only ever lasted for a few days. Us fifth graders would appeal to the recess monitor to forcibly break up the unjust pact. Ms. Smith would charge onto the field in her high-wasted elastic pants and chunky necklace made of wood blocks. She smelled like apples and cats. But she always divided the permanent teams and leveled the playing field so it was still a fair fight, no matter which team picked BillyRay.
At what age can we stop choosing teams and invoking permanent team rules? At what age do we take Jesus’ words seriously and actually LOVE our neighbors like ourselves?
There is life and wonder on either side. If we are reconcilers, that role mandates that we know each side. We can’t see accurately if we only see from one perspective.
The Kingdom is a kaleidoscope. Every color and shape forms together, tumbling and shifting together to form infinite creativity.
What if instead of broken glass to be avoided, we see each other like colors in a kaleidoscope? Design upon design, the colors link and overlap; they appreciate and build upon one another.
The only permanence is the continuous Light which beams through the lens and a Creator who peers through the dark tunnel into the masterpiece and says, “Now they’ve got it. Finally, they understand.”
Yeah, let’s play that way.
We love because God first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. I John 4:17-21