Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blessed are the peacemakers

[Come hear Pastor Mitri for his last presentation in Denver, tonight, Thursday, 7 pm, at the Doubletree Hotel in the Denver Tech Center, 7801 E Orchard Rd, Greenwood Village.]

While many Americans are encouraged by the the resumption of talks between President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, is not optimistic.

There are now 635 checkpoints in the West Bank.

Before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, there were no checkpoints in Bethlehem.

Although there has been a lot of talking about peace, there is no peace on the ground. “Talking peace will change nothing at home,” Pastor Mitri tells us in Denver.

Then he reminds us that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Not, “Blessed are the peaceTALKERS.”

So, while Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Americans are talking peace at a resort on the Red Sea, Pastor Mitri is making peace—creating institutions in Bethlehem that train young people to lead. This week he is in Denver, meeting with Bright Stars of Bethlehem volunteers to raise funds for a Lutheran college in Bethlehem.

Pastor Mitri believes that God is calling his people, not to engage in the politics, but to care for the polis, the city, the people. The Diyar Consortium, the umbrella organization for all the ministries, now includes a K-12 school (with half Christian, Half Muslim students); a senior center; a wellness center with a swimming pool for the community; a community center with an auditorium for music, theater, film and dance performances—and now Dar al-Kalima College, a two-year college which has graduated three classes of students and will dedicate its building in November. This is the first Lutheran college in the Middle East, and offers degrees in the arts and communication. Diyar is the third largest employer in Bethlehem, employing more than 100 people, supporting the economic development of the region. Watch a short video about the college.

Describing the West Bank as a Swiss cheese, Pastor Mitri describes Israel as the cheese and Palestine as the holes (see map). He sees nothing in the peace process to make him optimistic, but he notes that the Messiah came 2000 years ago, “as we know because he came to our town.” He is not waiting for a new messiah to fix what is broken. Instead, Pastor Mitri follows in the tradition of Martin Luther, who said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” So Pastor Mitri plants olive trees in his land, the Holy Land, knowing that these trees will provide shade for the children to play in, branches to wave when Jesus comes again, and oil to heal the wounds of the conflict.

What can we do to join in?

  • Pray for the ministries
  • Make a personal visit to the Holy Land, visit Bethlehem, meet the people who are planting trees for the future
  • Pick a project and support the “tree-planting”
    Read more about these ministries:

[ed. Note: In fact, the Oslo Accords, by dividing the West Bank into three areas of conrol—Israel, Palestinian and joint control—legitimized Israel’s illegal occupation and encouraged an explosion of settlement-building that continues today. While you read this, cranes tower over the settlements in the West Bank, workers are digging foundations, pouring concrete, hanging drywall and building sewage systems for more housing for Israelis. Bethlehem is now surrounded on three sides by Israeli settlements, cutting it off from other Arab towns and villages—and workers are extending Israel’s security wall around Bethlehem to “protect” these settlements. watch a 2-minute video of how the land became Swiss cheese]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Soaking Up Hope in Palestine

At the end of May I traveled to Israel and Palestine for the fifth time….in as many years. Having heard about the region on the nightly news, people might assume that I go to help people who are suffering. Now, make no mistake—there is great suffering behind Israel’s security wall, but I cannot fix what is broken there (or anywhere).

I keep returning to this troubled part of the planet because I want to soak up some of the radical hospitality, reconciliation and hope I experience every time I visit. If you know me well, you know that I love the sun! When everyone else is standing under the trees, I’m fidgeting toward the edge of the shade to let the warmth soak into my muscles and down to my bones. Now, in Israel/Palestine I get plenty of this physical comfort, sometimes way too much! But, like the soothing warmth of the sun, easing tired muscles, the hope I soak up while I hang out with these courageous Palestinians feeds my spirit.

In a world groaning with pain and suffering, I need to rub shoulders with the hope of the Palestinian people. Their joy and hope for the future in contagious; they have something I desperately need. It is not a hope that depends on the success of the peace talks between Prime Minister Abbas and President Netanyahu in Sharm el-Sheikh this week. Their hope does not depend on ending the occupation, lifting travel restrictions or keeping Israeli soldiers out of their towns.

For both Christians and Muslim Palestinians, the hope they carry is grounded in their faith—in a good and gracious God who cares about their suffering. Children may be dying of gunshot wounds, brothers may be languishing in Israeli prisons; there may be no permits for visits to the hospital……but Palestinians know God’s promises. In God’s Holy Land, they trust that God, who has promised good things, will be faithful to them. Photos are from the wall in Bethlehem

Next week, September 21-24, Pastor Mitri Raheb will be in Denver and there will be three opportunities to hear his story of hope from behind the 24-foot high wall that surrounds Bethlehem, stories of a people who resist their occupation by living rich and fruitful lives in the lands of their ancestors. I hope you can come hear him and catch some of the hope:
• Tuesday evening, September 21, 7:00 pm - community and interfaith gathering, open to the public, at Montview Presbyterian Church, 1980 Dahlia St (at Montview Blvd).
• Thursday evening, September 23, 7:00 pm - presentation of all the ministries of the Dyar Consortium, including the building of Dar al-Kalima College, the first Lutheran College in Palestine at the Doubletree Hotel DTC, 7801 E Orchard Rd, Greenwood Village.
On Wednesday morning September 22, 9 am, he will lead a discussion of a letter from Palestinian Christians to the churches, “Kairos Palestine, A Moment of Truth.” The letter calls on churches in the international community to address the suffering of Palestinians. The discussion, especially significant for pastors and other church leaders, will be at Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 E. Hampden Ave., Cherry Hills Village.

If you’ve read this Sunday’s gospel (Luke 16.1-13—read it!), you know it is quite a puzzlement and a challenge. This is no gospel of good and evil, dividing holy from unholy. Pastor Mitri has learned well the lesson Jesus teaches. He does not let battles between “good” and “evil,” “Us” vs. “Them,” stand in the way of God’s good news for all the people of the earth. Jesus came to break down walls of separation, and the work of the Lutherans in Bethlehem carries on Jesus’ work—dismantling barriers of religion, nationalism and political loyalties. Come hear Pastor Mitri’s witness to the gospel!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rabbis for Human Rights Help Palestinian Farmers

There are courageous and dedicated Israelis who are working for justice for Palestinians. Rabbis for Human Rights works for human rights for all, “giving voice to the Zionist ideal and the Jewish religious tradition of human rights.” I cringe when I hear people refer to the situation as “so complicated.” What is complicated about the situation in Israel/Palestine is not how to create justice for all parties—there have been many good plans offered for this—what is complicated is understanding the people and what is happening on the ground. What is complicated is that we Americans want to put everyone in categories, label them good or evil, and be done with it (or, worse, send in the guns and tanks). In Israel/Palestine, like everywhere, the actions of individuals are as diverse as the people

In the Palestinian village of Awarta near Nablus in the northern West Bank, Rabbis for Human Rights has been working to make life easier for farmers—showing up to accompany the farmers, who are subject to attack by settlers living in the Palestinian area. IDF soldiers are inclined to protect settlers and often disregard the rights of the farmers to work their land. in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff does a good story on one such encounter:

This is one action by one Jewish Israeli organization—there are many more stories like this one……hope for peace in these days of negotiations at Sharm el Sheikh.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Healing Our Ignorance

The convergence taking place in these early days of September, 2010, is making my head spin! 1.5 billion Muslims around the world are ending their month of fasting, Ramadan, with a three-day feast, Eid al-Fiter. Americans are remembering our dead in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and pondering our own vulnerability. A group of American Muslims are planning an Islamic center for the people of New York near the site of the attacks. A Christian pastor in Gainesville, Florida, has captured the attention of the American media and our government officials with his plan to burn a Qu’ran tomorrow, on the anniversary of the attacks. Not to mention the thousands of people evacuated from their homes in the foothills a few miles from where I am sitting, and the young man I met last night who lost all his possessions when the house he was renting in Four-Mile Canyon was burned to the ground.

No wonder our hearts are a jumble of emotions—this is a lot to take in for one week. Unbelievable. Too much for our poor, tired brains to make sense of.

Tragedy, natural and human; loss and grief; terror and rising above it; faithfulness and catastrophic foolishness. The best and the worst of “religion,” snuggling together.

One of my new-found favorite places in the Holy Land is the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem, next to the chocolate shop. In June I bought a gift there for my husband Gale for our anniversary, which we were celebrating on opposite sides of the globe. It’s a book of Arab poetry, The Wisdom of the Arabs, complied by Suheil Bushrui. Here are two gems from the book for us to ponder in today’s confusion, to ground us in the cacophany:

For Ramadan, Eid, and to help heal my ignorance of Islam—

Fasting is an armour with which one protects oneself; so let not him (who fasts) utter immodest (or foul) speech, nor let him act in an ignorant manner; and if a man quarrels with him or abuses him, he should say twice, I am fasting.
—from the Hadith (a collection of writings on the life and words of the prophet Muhammad, assembled in the 8th and 9th centuries)

Those who believe (in the Qur’an),
Those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Sabians and the Christians, —
Any who believe in God
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness, —
On them shall be no fear,
Nor shall they grieve.
—Qur’an 5:72

Falsehood hath so corrupted all the world
That wrangling sects each other’s gospel chide;
But were not hate Man’s natural element,
Churches and mosques had risen side by side.
—a poem by Al-Ma’arri

Photo: drummers at the weekly demonstration against evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem