“Living stones” in a sacred land
Editor’s note: Christina Baik, a first-year M.A.R. student concentrating in religion and literature, was the student representative on Yale Divinity School’s March 4-17 travel seminar to Israel-Palestine, “Sacred Land: Common Ground?” A 2008 graduate of Swarthmore College’s Honors Program with a degree in English literature and sociology/anthropology, her participation in the travel seminar was made possible through the Yale Divinity School Travel Fellowship Fund. Following are her reflections on the trip. A blog from the trip with text and photos can be accessed at http://divtravelseminar.yale.edu/
Do you remember when we were on Mt. Carmel and all shared the Eucharist? Leo said afterwards that he had expected to see where the saints had walked and talked, but not to meet them. When I came back from our trip, I felt as Leo did, that I had been in the midst of so great a cloud of witnesses.
So starts a recent email from Betsy Peterson, a Sunday school teacher/catechist from Chicago and one of 33 fellow pilgrims on a trip to Israel-Palestine that has left me reeling with gratitude, heartache, and inspired hope. Betsy, I feel the same way. As much as I gasped in awe at the opportunity to explore the immensity of Masada, stand so close to the caves at Qumran after seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in person, sail on the dear waters of the sea of Galilee, enter the stunningly worshipful Dome of the Rock, wedge prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall, meditatively walk down Palm Sunday Road with the Old City ahead, and pray along the Via Dolorosa, I returned most profoundly affected by the stories we heard from “so great a cloud of witnesses” in this sacred land.
We listened to stories of families split up by the wall and workers leaving their West Bank homes at 4am in order to make it through the checkpoints to their jobs in Jerusalem by 8am. And we learned how one can distinguish Palestinian communities from Jewish settlements by the black water tanks on their rooftops. Our guide in Jerusalem, human rights lawyer Daniel Seidemann, explained that the water supply is under Israeli control, so that Palestinians are not guaranteed water every day.
Fellow traveler Bob Massie ’82 M.Div., an author, environmental leader, and Episcopal priest from Somerville, MA, summed up sentiments nicely: “We came to understand that it is hard for many people—including many Israelis and Palestinians—to reconcile these actions with the deep tradition of social justice embedded in Jewish scriptures and the strong democratic values of modern Israel.” When we asked students at Bethlehem University how they would like us to respond to the hardships we witnessed, they requested that we simply share what we see. The PLO representative we met in Ramallah said the same thing. Their day-to-day reality was testimony enough; they had no scripted message for us to take back home with us.
We also learned about the incredible ways in which Palestinian Christians are responding to their communities’ needs. To briefly share a few:
The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb of Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem founded several institutions that focus their services on the needs of women, youth, and the elderly in the Bethlehem area. To address the high unemployment rate and the fact that over half the Palestinian population is under 19 years old, Raheb founded the Dar al-Kalima College to help prepare youth for the job market. The attached Dar al-Kalima Health and Wellness Center takes a holistic approach to alleviating its members’ pent-up stress and provides positive female role models through sponsorship of an exceptional women’s soccer team. Many of the team members also play on the Palestinian women’s national soccer team!
The Lutheran World Federation established Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mt. of Olives after the 1948 war to provide medical services for Palestinian refugees. Today, Dr. Tawfiq Nasser is CEO over an impressive set of medical specialties that range from otolaryngology (ear, nose, throat) to oncology. The hospital also hosts a variety of educational initiatives, including a residency program and clinical training for nursing students. Recently, our U.S. tax dollars contributed towards the addition of a medical linear accelerator, which doubles the capacity of the hospital’s Radiology Unit. I was moved by Nasser’s loving attention to detail in designing the cancer treatment space: The patient walks down a hallway lit by an overhead light that mimics a view of the blue sky through cherry blossom trees. At the end of the hall is a window to a screen playing a sunset on a beach, with the soft sound of waves rolling to and from the shore. To do his work, Nasser needs five different identification cards.
And then there was the unforgettable Abuna Elias Chacour, who described himself as a Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli. In 1965, he was sent as a priest to a one-room church in Ibillin, near the Golan Heights. He started his career by sleeping in his car for lack of a home and collecting used books and hosting summer camps for the neighborhood kids. When he arrived, just 90 of the 8,000 children in the village had gone to high school; eight of the 90 were girls. He took it upon himself to start a high school. Since the Israeli government would not give him building permits for his project, he traveled to D.C. to knock on then-Secretary of State James Baker’s door to ask for help. Long (and fascinating) story short, he and the Bakers grew very close, and the Israeli prime minister was convinced to grant him a building permit to expand his school. What started with 20 students and four teachers has now grown to 4,500 students spanning kindergarten to college and 200 teachers (half of them with doctorates). The Mar Elias Educational Institutions are intentionally interfaith, with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish students studying together and creating bridges among otherwise segregated communities.
How can we not be inspired by these stories? To Carol and George Bauer of Wilton, CT, whose Bauer Foundation supports programs for underprivileged children, health care and education, “meeting [these] people… has left an indelible impression. It is simply that we must do all we can to bring peace to this part of the world.” For Bonita Grubbs '84 M.A.R. '85 M.P.H., executive director of the faith-based, anti-poverty Christian Community Action in New Haven, CT, these stories “reinforce the importance [of] respecting people who are different from me. They also help me to redouble my efforts to read and understand more about the world around me.”
Abuna Chacour called his students, and by extension all partners in efforts towards peace, the “living stones” of this sacred land. [“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:5 (NRSV)] Their struggles, resilience, and hope flood me with inspiration and a greater sense of urgency in my own pursuit of faith in action. As a Christian writing this during Holy Week, I am left reflecting on these first two verses from Hebrews 12 (NRSV):
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.