Again I woke up early, around 5 am, though not as early as yesterday. I find that I really appreciate this time in the morning to sit by myself to read and pray. I have a poor habit back home of slowly waking up in the morning and not having such a good schedule. I think the discipline of this working in community has been healthy for me.
We packed our bags and had a brief meeting to brief for the day’s agenda. Our plan is to attend a session at Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, then take a bus out to Hebron.
We took a light rail train to Sabeel, where we joined a session with a delegation from Europe connected with the Friends church. Several folks were from Scandinavian countries and a few from Spain and Belgium. There was a presentation by Cedar, one of the founders of Sabeel, which is an ecumenical theology center, focused on Liberation Theology, the study of how theology can speak specifically to the oppressed and the need for liberation and hope here on Earth, not simply waiting for it to be given in Heaven.
Cedar told us the story of her childhood in Haifa, and how originally the different groups of Palestinians lived there in peace. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living in community until the Israeli government pushed them out in some of the early ethnic cleansing, forcing them out of their homes with violence. They then moved to Nazareth as refugees, but were again harassed by the military. She told us about how the “Naqba,” (which again means “Catastrophe” or “Calamity”) affected them not only with the loss of life and the assault on their psyche, but also how it was an assault on their theology. Cedar and her family were Palestinian Christians, and they struggled with being told that the Old Testament called for their punishment as the just result of God choosing Jews to live in Israel and that they as Palestinians had no right to live there. Part of the mission of Sabeel, which she helped found, was to correct this misunderstanding of the Scriptures.
After Cedar’s presentation, we shared Communion. Communion has always been special to me, I think because it has been so de emphasized in the religious community I grew up in. Typically we celebrated Communion once a month, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be skipped. This has continued to be the practice at the church I’m at currently. When we do. celebrate communion, it’s a highly individual affair. You take the cup and the bread, usually from a table set up off to the side while music is playing, then you return to your seat and take it silently by yourself. Instead, at Sabeel, it was shared as the cup was passed between each of us, one person serving and blessing the person next to them. I sat between two people from some of the other groups, one from Sweden and one from Belgium, and while it was incredibly awkward to work out a religious ceremony I had so little familiarity with the format of while also having a language barrier, it was also incredibly touching. The communion was part of a larger liturgy service led by Naim Ateek, a Palestinian theologian I’d heard about, but hadn’t been able to get ahold of any of his books previously. The service was powerful itself as he led the prayers in Arabic and they were recited back by all of us in our own language. I stopped praying at various times to just simply listen as the gathered voices responded. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Acts chapter two, when the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room to pray and began to speak in a variety of languages. The blessing of God was demonstrated not by how solidified they were as a group, but by splitting them off and showing they were supposed to be reaching out to the rest of the world.
After the service, we shared a meal together, and had some general time of conversation. When finished, we took the train back to our hostel in the old city. As I’m writing a few days later, I’m trying to remember if the next bit happened on this trip or if it was while we were traveling through Jerusalem the day before.
As we were crossing the street, an Israeli guard post was situated next to the crosswalk. An Israeli soldier was sitting there with an assault rifle pointed directly at the crosswalk, so anyone crossing the street would have the barrel pointed either at their back or their chest as they walked. This was as women, children, and elderly people walked by. I couldn’t decide what was worse, walking knowing it was pointed at your back or walking towards the post, staring down the barrel the entire time. This was the first time I had a gun pointed at me while here, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
We finally got back to the hostel to pack up and catch a bus out to Hebron. Because of the travel restrictions, we first took the bus to Bethlehem, then caught a Palestinian shared taxi from there to Hebron. There are other busses that will take a more direct route, but they will not allow Palestinians to ride, and as part of the solidarity mission, we do not make use of any service that is refused to them. Hebron is where we will be working for the next week, in the old city. Arriving at night was an experience in itself. Hebron itself is a large sprawling city, complete with skyscrapers and gigantic neon signs. But when we cross into the old city district, we find buildings that are over a thousand years old, looking very much like something from a movie set in the Roman Empire. Also known as Al Khalil, this is one of the hotspots of strife, with Israeli settlements built literally on top of Palestinian neighborhoods. Multiple checkpoints are required to be passed just to walk around the old city, and we’ll see plenty of tension in the coming week