Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hebroni Gratitude

If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't poetry. -William Carlos Williams

My director of novices, Leo rock used to say, "God created us - because He thought we'd enjoy it." We try to find a way, then, to hold our fingertips gently to the pulse of God. We watch as our hearts begin to beat as one with the One who delights in our being. Then what do we do? We exhale that same spirit of delight into the world and hope for poetry.  
- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heat

When I started writing this in mid-afternoon, it had been raining nearly nonstop since last night. Yesterday it rained on and off all day and the night before it rained heavily.  When we passed by shops yesterday morning, some shopkeepers were pushing out or mopping up water and mud from their floors. Thankfully, the rain has subsided and tomorrow is supposed to be sunny.

This morning we had a meeting with members of two other monitoring NGOs.  They arrived at our apartment very wet and very cold.  It seems our apartment is the best of the lot. Our space heater is an object of envy. After the meeting, in an effort to get things done before the Old City flooded (rain was forecast for the entire day), I accompanied a teammate to run errands. She's also American and wanted to make a Thanksgiving dinner.  All the Americans on team right now are vegetarian.  She needed supplies to make cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a sweet potato souffle for dessert.

As we left our house, it was raining, but the streets of the Old City were fine. We passed through and out to Bab i Zaweyya (a commercial area), where we bought phone cards and a few other things.  On our way back towards the Old City, we picked up what she needed for dinner. As I stood at a fruit stand, a boy came along, pinched my cheeks, and said something in Arabic that I didn't understand.  The young man selling the fruit, whose face was scratched and bruised from who-knows-what and who I'd bought fruit from yesterday, chastised the boy, who went on his way.

When we returned to the Old City, we saw that the flooding had begun.  From the drains water was spurting up and out. This is what happens in the Old City because 1) it is in a valley and 2) street closures where metal doors or large concrete walls have been places by the Israelis, mean the water doesn't have as many places to flow out of the Old City.  During winter (aka the rainy season) flooding is a common occurrence.

As my teammate in knee-high rain boots and I in my very wet jeans that covered my ankle-high hiking boots assessed the situation, Palestinian boys indicated to us that she was OK to walk through the water and I was not because of the depth of the water. However, I was determined to get home; walking through the water, whatever that might mean, was the only way to do so. We stepped into the flood.  The boys and a man walked ahead of us, showing us where to step, where the shallower water was. The stream through which we waded reached about ankle-high.  My jeans, ankles, and sock tops were wet, but my as-yet-untested hiking boots proved their waterproof-ness: my feet remained warm and dry. We reached the higher ground by our house, walked the staircase up to our apartment, and huddled around the space heater.

I soon went back out with my camera.  The water had receded a little. As I surveyed the flood, a Palestinian man said, "Go in and I'll take your picture." I declined the offer, pointing to my already wet clothes. An older man said, "Come to my shop. Have some tea." Pointing again to my wet clothes, I told him I wanted to go back to the house to change. "I have fire. You can sit and drink tea." I tried to decline again, but his insistence won me over.

I hadn't been to or seen his shop before and it isn't a place from which I'll ever buy anything. I'm not even sure what he sells, maybe coffee pots? He pointed me to a plastic chair and then aimed his small space heater, a sprig of sage attached, towards my legs. I leaned over to warm my hands as he put a teaspoon of sugar and then steaming hot tea into a paper cup. He stirred it and handed it to me. As the the heater and the tea warmed me, he told me in broken English about his 22 children, his 3 wives, and his 16 grandchildren. He handed me a paper which listed all his children's names (in Arabic) and birth dates (not in Arabic).  His oldest children (twins, it seems) were born in 1970, his youngest in 2005. He told me how he used to get lots of business, but that he lost it when the street was blocked on one end with tall concrete panels because of the Israeli settlement on the other side; now he rarely sells anything. He told me about the CPTers that he used to know and asked me about my family.  When he asked about my father, he told me his age, 5 years younger than my dad.  I was surprised, as I'd have guessed him older. He showed me a map of Palestine, written in English.  He can't read English. Another man came while we were talking, so my host switched from English to Arabic as he talked to both of us. When I finished my tea and bid farewell, he invited me to come again anytime and to bring friends.  This kind of hospitality is the norm here.

I came back to the house, put on dry pants, and have been basking in gratitude since then.  Actually I've been basking since I woke up.

Life is not meant to be a burden. Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a blessing to be celebrated. Every dimension of life, its gains and its losses, are reasons for celebration because each of them brings us closer to wisdom and fullness of understanding.        – Joan Chittister

Today I am thankful for my hiking boots, dry clothes, space heaters, and the boys who navigated the Old City river. I am grateful for the fruit seller with the scratched up face and the old man with the "fire." I am grateful that we did not get any calls about arrests or other common problems of the Israeli Occupation. I am grateful for a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful for the walk I took once the rain had stopped.

Every day I am thankful for the myriad ways in which I am supported and loved while I am here: for the notes I open each day from my colleagues, who are really friends I happen to work with, at JustFaith; for Facebook messages, emails, and texts from friends and family. I am grateful for the folks who are taking care of my cats and my house while I'm away; for the many people who believe in me and in the work of CPT who were able to make a donation so that I could come work here; and for the people who pray for me, for our team, and most importantly for an abiding peace in this place.  I am grateful for my teammates who support me and challenge me in the very best sense of the word, who show me how to live compassionately and how to embody humility by recognizing that our work is not our own, but the result of our letting God work through us. I am grateful that I am beginning to recognize my privilege; I hope that I will continue to learn, to use my privilege for good when I can, and to work so that all people are treated with equal dignity and respect.

I am grateful for the Palestinians who show me what perseverance, courage, patience, and hospitality look like. I am grateful for short conversations in English with children, for their sometimes shy, sometimes bold, sometimes mischievous smiles and laughter. I am grateful for the times I can interact with Israeli soldiers in a way that feels human. I am grateful to be here, though I hope someday my presence will be unnecessary.

I am thankful for the days I see brilliant blue when I look up and I grateful for days like today that seem to cool not only the air, but tempers that might otherwise flare. 

I am grateful that communication with loved ones is easy and that I have the freedom of movement to return to them soon.  I am grateful that when I leave them, their loves travels with me.  

I am grateful that what I've written is only a short list that could be much longer.  

I pray that you, your friends and family, that those with whom you agree and disagree, that strangers, that all people everywhere have as much to be thankful for as I do.

I pray that we express our gratitude daily. 

Knowing that there is much suffering, much injustice, much work yet to be done, 
I pray that we may live in a way that gives other people reason to be thankful, 
that we exhale a spirit of delight into the world, 
that we live as poetry. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where Are You Standing?

Being in Hebron, this question enters my brain all too often: Am I doing any good? I try not to entertain the question, because the answer that screams at me is a resounding NO!

Have soldiers stopped teargassing children on a regular basis? No.

Have random detentions and searches of men and boys stopped? No.

Have home demolitions stopped? No.

Has the Israeli Occupation ended? No.

People who have more years of experience here than I will tell you that nothing has changed here or that the situation is getting worse.  Certainly since the summer, tensions have been high, anger easily boiling into violence, and there seems to be a sentiment that things will get worse before they get better. In the absence of any evidence that the balance is tipping towards equality between Palestinians and Israelis, why am I here?

We are not called to be successful, but faithful.  - Mother Teresa

This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the ebb and flow of three steps forward and five steps backwards. For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful...
                                                                                       - Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

I am here because I am trying to be faithful. I am trying to be faithful to the gospel message I profess to believe. I am trying to be faithful to the call that led me here, even though I too often feel wildly inadequate for the work I am supposed to be doing.  So often we have to make on-the-spot judgment calls when we aren't fully aware of all the dynamics into which we've walked and don't know the language(s) well enough to get all the information we'd like. Thankfully, more often than not, the decisions are as simple as staying or going, and/or calling others to monitor with us. Too often, we cannot intervene in a way that helps in any immediate sense, but we can stand as witnesses.  We can offer words of support. We can tell the stories that we've seen unfold. My hope is that even with the dearth of skills I feel  I have to offer, God is somehow using me to do good, because I said, albeit reluctantly, "Yes."

Occasionally I can see how my presence makes a difference.  Last Saturday, as hundreds of Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists paraded through the Old City, with dozens of Israeli soldiers along the route, two of us turned a corner and saw soldiers in the faces of Palestinian boys, trying to back them away from the tourists, who were angrily yelling at the boys (who were also yelling). Without even thinking, we placed ourselves between the soldiers and the boys, causing both sides to back away from each other. It took no words. Only presence. The soldiers then turned their attention to calming the shouting tourists. (Later we learned that the escalation began when the tourists started yelling obscenities at the boys.) I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't arrived at that moment. I fear that the situation would have ended with boys either injured or arrested.

A few days ago, I got to be in "teacher mode" when three Palestinian girls whipped out an English book when they saw me on their way home from school. That mini-lesson did nothing to change the state of affairs here, but it brought joy to my heart and, I think, to theirs, too. This was the best I can do.

The next day, in a 2-hour period, we witnessed 29, twenty-nine, teargas canisters get shot towards school children.  The children were throwing rocks. I am not a big fan of the rock-throwing, I'll admit, but 29 canisters of teargas? At children? All we could do was observe. No way to stop it. At least we ran to escort one little girl who was running away from it. That was the best we could do that day.

All Jesus asks is, "Where are you standing?" And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, "Are you still standing there?"           -Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

I am standing with Palestinians as best I can. This means "success" may remain elusive. This means I may never see "results" in any tangible sense from my presence here.

On her way to school, past soldiers, towards teargas.  She came
running back a few minutes later, shaking.  
If we choose to stand in the right place, God, through us, creates a community of resistance without our even realizing it. To embrace the strategy of Jesus is to be engaged in what Dean Brackley calls "downward mobility." Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest...The powers bent on waging war against the poor and the young and the "other" will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude. 
                                                                                 - Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart  

If I am to be faithful, I must stand here. I must stand on the margins with the hope that my presence, that the presence of others, will expand the margins until there are no more margins left.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Being in the World Who God Is

On my flight to Israel, I had the pleasure of sitting in a row with an Orthodox Jewish man who was on his way home to Jerusalem. I had the window; he had the aisle; the seat between us was empty. I was intrigued when out of a bag, he pulled a hot pink Hello Kitty travel pillow and placed it on the empty seat. I don't remember if he started the conversation or I did, but I learned that he was originally from Texas and had a Mexican heritage; he'd been visiting his mom, and the Hello Kitty pillow belonged to one of his two daughters. He told me not to feel bad about asking him to get up so I could get out of the row; it would help him to make sure he moved. He even invited me to use the Hello Kitty pillow.

When he asked about my travel plans, I told him about the prayers I was carrying to the Western Wall for people and about the singing I'd planned to do in St. Anne's, my favorite church in Jerusalem. I didn't mention Christian Peacemaker Teams. Maybe I should have, but both my nervousness about getting into Israel and the genuine pleasure of our exchange kept me from doing so. I didn't want to risk changing the good energy between us.

 Women pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
We are all connected. In the 9 1/2-hour flight, I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the connection we'd made. I wanted to enjoy the kindness extended to me and offer the same in return.

The next day I stood at the Western Wall, many prayers in hand.  I read each one, prayed, "God, hear our prayer," folded the paper, and reached deep into the hole in the wall before me to plant the prayers. To my left a Jewish woman, head bowed, was praying, quietly chanting and rocking forward and back. To my right various women came and went as I prayed, folded, and planted.

We are all connected.  I have no idea what the women around me were praying for, but I believe that they were placing their deepest desires in God's hands, just as I was doing for others.  As I read the prayers of gratitude and those for healing, strength, love, happiness, forgiveness, I noticed that very few people gave me prayers for themselves.  The prayers were for loved ones and for people in places of turmoil. In the few prayers where writers wrote about themselves, they were, without exception, appeals made with the utmost humility. And all of the prayers, without exception, were about relationships - with God, self, or others. Nothing about more wealth or power. Nothing about harming people who had harmed them. All of the prayers were written with the hope for greater goodness emerging in our world.

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, "Just assume the answer to every question is compassion." 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Praying the prayers of others, I knew I was living in the world who God is. Every piece of paper I placed in the wall was a love letter. What a privilege to be immersed in the godliness of others. What a gift to witness compassion spilling from the crevices of sacredness.

If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow our compassion has to find its way to vastness.

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

The same day I went to the Western Wall, I visited St. Anne's...twice. The first time, as a courtesy, I stopped at the window in the courtyard where tourists pay to visit, simply to say I was there to pray and to listen. Having gone to St. Anne's many times, I no longer consider myself a tourist and have been told more than once that I don't have to pay. I told the sister at the window this; she replied that the people who had said it were wrong.  We went back and forth until she asked me where I was staying. I told her Ecce Homo Convent Guesthouse and she backed off.  "Oh, that's OK. You don't have to pay."

Our argument, combined with my still travel-weary spirit, had shrunk my sense of compassion. When I entered the church, a group was singing. The sound was beautiful and expansive, a stark contrast to the shriveling exchange I'd just experienced. I burst into tears. The tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to groups release their souls into this cavernous church. As the tears poured (deep emotion of any variety comes out my eyes and this was not the first time I'd cried in this place), the only thing that kept me from a full-out sob was the knowledge of the church's acoustics.  Choking breaths was not a sound I wanted echoed throughout.

Upon later reflection, I realized why the sister's insistence that I paid upset me so much: you shouldn't have to pay to get into your own home.  St. Anne's is a home to me; it is a place where I feel the vastness of God through the beauty of song. Whether I am singing or listening, it is a place where my heart grows and I leave feeling more open to whatever is to come.

When I went to St. Anne's later in the day, the church was empty.  I didn't stop at the window and no one stopped me from walking into the church.  It was empty, except for a priest and one visitor. Then they left. I placed myself on the spot where the acoustics are best and sang.  Dona Nobis Pacem. God, grant us peace.

When I was finished, I saw that the priest had reappeared. "Keep singing," he urged me, "it is beautiful." I sang the Ave Maria, eyes closed. When I opened them, the priest was on his knees on the stairs to the altar. He invited me to sing more and I did.

With each note, my body relaxed. I sank into the release of beauty that somehow was coming from me, the relief of the priest's encouragement, and the sheer joy that singing brings me. I was living in the world who God is.

As I've been re-reading Tattoos on the Heart, I am ever more aware that my task here in Israel/Palestine is to assume that the answer to every question is compassion. Here in this place where hatred, mistrust, and violence are common, I am called to be in the world who God is.  It's easy at the Western Wall.  It's easy in St. Anne's Church.  Hebron is another matter.

This evening at sundown, the Jewish commemoration of the burial of Abraham's wife Sarah began.  According to Genesis 23, this happened in Hebron. What that means on the ground is that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists descend upon Hebron. Today and tomorrow the mosque side of the building over the Cave of Machpelah (where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are said to be buired) is closed to Muslims, as are the checkpoints around it; the synagogue side is open and general revelry (read rowdiness) occurs - around the synagogue and along the roads where Palestinians are not even allowed to walk (even when it's not a holiday).  The closures mean that, for Palestinians, getting from one part of Hebron to another is much more difficult and time-consuming. In Hebron, Jewish holidays mean more restriction of Palestinian movement, more harassment of Palestinians, more detentions, more arrests, more violence.

One of our tasks on Friday nights is to monitor the roads that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists walk to reach the synagogue.  As they walk through Palestinian neighborhoods, they've been know to throw things at Palestinian homes or harass or sometimes do physical harm to Palestinians. Israeli soldiers are stationed along the roads to deter such action, but if it happens, they rarely intervene. Tonight as we observed the crowds of settlers (who thankfully kept to themselves), I knew that this was a place and time that I must consciously make an effort to be in the world who God is, to recognize my connectedness to the people I observed.
Prayers left in the Western Wall

As each group passed, I'd choose a person or maybe two, and silently wish them the knowledge, deep in their heart, of the expansive love of God for all people, of a compassion that had found its way to vastness. At some point. recognizing my own need for that same knowledge, I changed the pronoun I was using from "you" to "we."

It was not an easy exercise.  It was not easy to pray for the young men who walked to synagogue with semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders, particularly after "you" turned to "we." It was not easy as we listened to what sounded more like a football game than prayer.

However, I know that this must be my practice and my prayer while I am here. In situations like tonight, where I can claim connectedness without much interaction, the practice, while not easy, was manageable.  I will admit that I have no idea how to live this exercise in closer proximity, where interactions may be provocative and people may be hurt. God, guide me with strength, wisdom, and courage to the answer that is compassion.

Meeting the world with a loving heart will determine what we find there. We mistakenly place our trust, too often, in the righteousness of our wind, though we rarely get evidence that this ever transforms anything...Sooner or later, we all discover that kindness is the only strength there is. 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Smiling Faces in the Boxes

I stood in a long line at Passport Control. I was sweating, partly because the hall was filled with many people standing in many lines waiting to enter Israel and partly because, despite my best efforts to control my rapidly beating heart, I was nervous. What if I was pulled out of line for questioning? What if I was asked questions I wasn't prepared for? What if I was denied entry and sent back to the U.S.? I wasn't so worried about being sent home. I was worried about being pulled out of line for questioning.

As I had prepared for this stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), I generally diverted my thoughts when they headed towards Passport Control. Last year I'd worried a lot - in the month before my arrival, two CPTers had been denied entry. What if it happened to me? It would have been personally devastating and another hit to the team (later in the year two more CPTers, both full-timers, were denied entry; those absences took a toll on team morale). As my departure date approached and people told me they'd pray for me, I asked them to instead pray for the person who'd decide if I'd enter Israel (and then Palestine) or go home. The young blond woman I met last year only asked a few questions and sent me on my way. I was so relieved.

This year I made the same request - pray for the person I'd stand in front of at Passport Control. As I stood sweating, many persons deep in line, the people in the boxes ahead of me didn't look too chipper.  I breathed deeply.  I brought to mind what I'd just been reading from Fr. Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart: that God is vast, that God loves us, that it is up to us to accept that love and to share it. So I started channeling the love I'd received from God, via many many people in the form of hugs, reassuring words, and the prayers that people were sending in the very moments I stood waiting. I sent it to the people in the boxes.

Then a young man told us we could move to the "Israeli Passport" lines. I moved to a much shorter line and noticed that here the air was not so thick. In the boxes in front of me, I saw three young, olive-skinned, dark-haired women. The first to catch my attention belonged to the line to my left.  Round-faced with short curly hair, she smile as she spoke animatedly to the people she quickly processed. She looked like she was talking to her friends. When I turned my attention to the slender woman with long curly hair in my box, I noted that she looked not like a person intoxicated by the power of controlling someone's fate, but rather like someone genuinely interested in the people standing before her. She, too, smiled easily and often.  The straight-haired woman to her right also looked as though she enjoyed what she was doing. I couldn't help smiling as I watched all three. I'd never been in a Passport Control area (in Israel or anywhere else) where the workers seemed so happy. I felt at ease. I continued to channel love towards them, but it seemed clear that their hearts were already buoyant with all sorts of goodness.

When it was my turn, I walked up to the box, received a smile and three easy questions. With each question, the young woman looked me in the eyes, not with suspicion and readiness to condemn that I've seen and heard other times I've gone through this process, but with genuine interest. Then she handed me my 3-month visa.  Before I left her, I told her how nice it was to see her and women on each side of her smiling.  "I'm happy!" she exclaimed.

Reflecting on this later, I wondered: Was it all those prayers I'd requested, directed at the young woman, but so strong they spilled over to her colleagues? Was it those prayers that helped fill their hearts with joy, with a welcoming spirit, with love? My answer can only be yes. As a person who believes in the power of prayer, who believes that our energy, positive or negative, affects the energy of others, I must believe that all that positive energy traveled thousands of miles and found their way into Passport Control yesterday.

And I am grateful.  Knowing how many prayers continue to be sent this way, I look forward to seeing how they manifest themselves in other places, in places and people with much greater need than Passport Control and me.  Please keep praying. My prayer is that I may be not a container for your prayers, but a conduit, letting every bit of goodness I receive cleanse my soul and flow through me to do the same for others.