Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Find God in the Darkness
Based on a sermon given at West Hills Friends, Portland Oregon

Lately, I've realized that very few people actually understand what
people like me are doing working in Palestine. Certainly there are
many people who've never heard of organizations like Christian
Peacemaker Teams or the International Solidarity Movement, but that's
not what worries me. It's the way our friends and supporters and
often the way we ourselves describe our work that's begun to disturb
me. Often people like me who work supporting Palestinian nonviolent
resistance are described as "active peacemakers" or "people standing
in the way of violence." They say that we're "standing in solidarity
with the oppressed" or "shining God's light in the darkness" or, my
personal favorite, "trying to save the world."

I suppose all of that is true, to some degree, and I find it deeply
flattering. But I think these descriptions are also very convenient.
They make the work we do seem difficult and that in turn allows people
to react to it in one of two ways: first, these descriptions makes it
very easy for the listener to say, "why, I could never do something
like that." Secondly, and this is what concerns me more, these
descriptions make our work seem very important and even gallant. They
create a dangerous potential for nobility and self-righteousness.
They also shield us from the questions that the Israeli military
occupation of Palestine poses and make it easier for us to avoid
questioning ourselves. They also prevent us from fully confronting
the despair always present in situations of oppression.

So, let me tell you what we, the people who serve in organizations
like Christian Peacemaker Teams, really do. I think that you'll find
in the reality is less gallant and more humble that we might wish for.

We let Palestinians feed us. We accept gifts from people who cannot
afford to give them. We meet people and try not to mispronounce their
names. We explain to many people that we don't know President Bush
personally, but we'll tell everyone we do know their story. Most
importantly of all, we act in a way that allows people to preserve
their dignity.

We participate in the daily realities of the oppressed – in this case
the Palestinians – as much as outsiders of varying degrees of
privilege ever can. Sometimes we stand in line at checkpoints for
hours. We try to convince soldiers to let people go home or to the
grocery store. We sweat. We grumble (at least I do). We look for
that of God in other people.

We spend money in places that no one else goes. We smile at people
whose lives are hellish. We play soccer with children.

We are a presence. We care. And it's hard to know if we're doing a
lot of good, but we find it difficult to stop or to do anything else.

Over this summer, I set aside time to study Arabic so that my work in
Palestine might be more effective and more respectful. On a typical
day, I might have found myself traveling to Jerusalem on an errand.
I'd probably be in a bit of a hurry, but I'd visit my friend Mahjadee who
owns a dying tourist shop on Manger Street. Talking would turn to
drinking coffee, which would turn into an Arabic lesson and buying a
present from my mom. An hour later, I might finally leave Bethlehem
for Jerusalem. I'd try my best to act human-ly to the Israeli
soldiers who check my ID at the checkpoint, though I'm not sure how
one does that when a glass window and a wall of silence separates us.
I'd run my errands in Jerusalem and then I might buy prayer beads for
my friend Marwan, who always smiled sadly whenever I told him I was
going to Jerusalem. I'd find a shop and choose a piece of Jerusalem
to bring back to Marwan, who hasn't been able to travel to his holy
city, only 5 miles from his home in Bethlehem, for 12 years. I'd let
the shop owner rip me off, to the degree I could afford. Then I'd get
back on the bus, show my ID again at the checkpoint and go home to my
host family. What did I accomplish? I'm still not sure.

Or maybe, on a day I was feeling strong and resilient, I might visit
my friend who has the misfortunate to work next to a holy site for
Christians, Muslims, and Jews: Rachel Tomb. Because of its proximity
to the tomb of Rachel, Jacob's wife, the Israeli army has surrounded
his shop with the 25ft high cement Annexation Wall. The Wall snakes
inside Bethlehem to swallow up the tiny shop and all of his business
with it. His shop is dying now and when I would come to visit he
would tell me his problems and cry because the situation had stripped
him of everything and is now chipping away at his last possession: his
dignity. I would drink tea, say hello, and try to make him let me pay
my bill. All I could do was let him know that I knew he was there and
give him a few more shekels to scrape together to feed his family.

Sometimes, usually even, our work seems more direct. Christian
Peacemaker Teams volunteers accompany children on their way to school.
CPTers stand in the way when settlers throw rocks at them. We try
to find ways to support the Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance
movement. We sometimes serve as a bridge between Israeli and
Palestinians activists and we attend demonstrations against the
Israeli Annexation Wall. On what might be called an "exciting" day
(and those are the days one learns to fear) international activists
might grab or pile on top of Palestinian activists to un-arrest them.
When we are successful, we know we've helped to make sure a mother or
father or beloved child will go home safely, instead of off to spend
years in an Israeli jail. Like all activists, we have many projects:
we create documentaries, reports, and activist resources. We write
letters, paint signs, and work very hard. Always, we are writing
about what we see. We're always trying to say whatever we need to say
to help our friends understand what is happening, to make them care,
and insight to them to do something.

In my experience, these simple actions are what comprise the reality
of what we are doing when we work in solidarity with Palestinians. I
think, though, that in all of this, while we may want desperately to
believe we are changing the world, and I still have faith that we are,
we are also looking for God in the dark places. We may like to think
of ourselves as peacemakers Jesus called blessed, but we have also
become blessed because we are poor in spirit and blessed because we

When I returned to Palestine this summer, my prayer was that I would
see God in the soldiers and Israeli officials I came in contact with.
As I stepped off the plane and tried to steady my nerves for the trip
through Israeli security, my prayers were immediately answered. The
girl behind the glass was about my age and pretty. It was easy to see
God in her. I didn't expect to continue to see God in the eyes of
Israeli soldiers, but I did. And the truth is, I still don't know
what to do with the piece of God I saw so clearly in those young
soldiers. Would Jesus carry a gun? I still don't think so. But I
saw him doing just that.

What do we do with experiences like this? It's hard to see clearly in
the dark. But sometimes it is in the dark that I am finally able to
see God.

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