Spending so much time with the Palestinian neighbors I am accompanying, I lose sight of the impact of western views of the Palestinian people and the minute stereotypes that are held about the place that has been my home for the past six months. During Holy Saturday, some fellow YAGM volunteers and I were going out to dinner for some relaxation and fellowship during a very busy week of Holy Week meditation and worship. The days before we had spent time considering the meal Jesus shared with his decuples, and walking as he did to Gethsemane. The next morning, we walked with the Lutheran and Anglican congregations on the Via Dolorosa, following the stations of the cross on Good Friday. Saturday was more or less a free day for us volunteers.IMG_2561

That night, we decided to go to a local Chinese restaurant near our Country Coordinators house in Beit Safafa. We love the place. Good food, and not a far walk away from the house. When we got there it was slow, but there was a large group of American tourists eating in the corner of the restaurant. We were seated a couple of tables away from the group, and started looking at the menu. Before we started ordering our meal, one person from the group at the other table said, “I can’t believe that we are in Israel, in an Arab Chinese restaurant.” All of us volunteers looked at each other in amazement at what we just heard. Yes, we were in a Chinese restaurant, but that’s where the facts really ended.

The part of Beit Safafa that we were in was a part of occupied East Jerusalem. Before the war in 1967, this part of Jerusalem, and all of the eastern portion of Jerusalem was a part of Jordan. After the war, the West bank and East Jerusalem came under Israeli Occupation. Unlike the rest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem was annexed from the West Bank, and its Palestinian residents were given residency, not citizenship to Israel. Their second class citizens. East Jerusalem is peppered with Israeli settlements, and Palestinian communities are continuing to shrink due to house demolitions, and rampant poverty. Beit Zafafa is hugged by two large Israeli settlements, Gilo, and Har Homa. It sits near the Separation Wall with the West Bank, and only seconds from Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the West Bank.

Yes, we were annoyed by the ignorance by these tourists, but we let it go (for the most part), and got to enjoying our amazing meal. We were wrapping up our meal when the server brought out our complementary pot of Chinese tea, and fried bananas. The Palestinian server apologized that they didn’t have ice-cream, because he recognized us from our previous visits. When he brought over the same things to the other table, he told them the tea and bananas were on the house. One person in the group said very loudly in front of the server that they “were not really on the house,” and that they were going to have to pay for the extra food. Us Volunteers were embarrassed by their behavior.  This was not some tourist trap restaurant in the Old City of Jerusalem, but a small eating establishment in thshanghai-chinese-restaurante heart of a Palestinian neighborhood.

As we were wrapping up our fried bananas, the server wonderfully kept filling up our pot of tea. We kept thanking him for his generosity, and kindness. As we tried to leave, we got up and went to the counter to pay our bill. We paid him, left him a nice tip, and were ready to leave when he said, “sit down, I’m making you some coffee.” This gesture reminds me of the times when I walk into the home of a Palestinian family and it is never okay until you have some co
ffee and tea. We sat and drank tea and coffee for another hour and a half. We tried to pay him and he refused.

PALESTINIAN HOSPITALITY STRIKES AGAIN! I wish to see a newspaper read someday. Gestures like this are the hallmark of the Palestinian community, not bombings and hatred. I think about how during Maundy Thursday Jesus opens his table to “taste and see” God’s presence in our lives. On this day, us volunteers, and the American tourists were brought into this restaurant to taste the stir-fry that fulfills our hunger. marigold_embrace_flowering_tea-product_1x-1403632743We than drink the tea that fulfills our thirst. Jesus’s table is a radicle hospitality, that brings us together in a shared humanity. We must eat. We must drink. These earthly elements show us our common humanity, in relationship. Jesus calls us that we must then “do this always.” We must bring this hospitality to all of those around us. I’d have to say that the Palestinian people have been practicing this call for a long time.


Advent and the Christmas Season

christmas tree
The Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Bethlehem. December 5, 2015.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here”

It was not until recently that I really came to appreciate Advent. I guess that it is part to do with growing up, and I think it also has to do with recently becoming a member of a church who takes the liturgy and the Christian calendar seriously. Advent is a time of contemplation, not so different from Lent. Growing up, Advent seemed like the time that we spent before Christmas. Kind of a supplementary religious time for the festive holiday season, but Advent is not supposed to be festive, its supposed to be sad. its supposed to be a season that reminds us that we cannot save ourselves with our own will. We are in exile. We need saving. We need to be reconciled.

Israelis and Palestinians are people of exile in need of saving. (I am going to pause here and say that this saving does not mean Jesus/Christianity.) Israeli Jews see themselves as a people who have been exiled from their home for nearly 2000 years, and faced the most inhuman discrimination imaginable. Even here where they established a home in their “ancestral homeland” they struggle do find a “home.” The Palestinians has also been here. This land is their home, but over the past 100 years they have been forced out of their homes and denied recognition.

This exile narrative reminds me of the Advent hymn above O come O come Emmanuel. its a lament. It reminds us of the ancient Israelites who were in exile from their home. ” And ransom captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here.” Like the Palestinians the ancient Israelites had their home ripped out from under them. It feels as if the whole world has given up on them, even God. 

On the first weekend of December, Bethlehem had its Christmas tree lighting. Before the festivities I was poking around the shops in Bethlehem when I happened upon a couple of friends who work at the Lutheran World Federation. While we were looking at traditional scarves, the shop keeper told us that the festivities this year had raised a bit of a controversy. This fall has been tough. Several young men and boys from the area have been killed by Israeli forces in clashes in Palestinian territory. Also many more have been injured. Some argued that the Christmas Tree lighting festivities should be cancelled because  they are in a state of morning. Why should we be celebrating? But in the end, the celebrations happened and it was beautiful. This local controversy taps into one of the key insights of the Advent season. How dare we celebrate, when we are so lost, in so much pain?

I think that the Advent season is a time to remind ourselves how absurd the whole world is, and that we need saving. We need some grace. We need something to live for. In this hymn we are reminded that for Christians, we are awaiting our Savior, the Son of God, Emmanuel (God with us), Jesus.

Advent is not all lament though. We are mended of this hope, our light in the darkness that is the absurdity of this world, or wilderness. For Christians, this season reminds us why we need Jesus, and why Christmas is such a celebration.

“Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”


DSC01071Spending some time here in Palestine/Israel has given me even more perspective on the recent events. Recently us YAGM Volunteers went on a retreat to the Galilee. It is a place of beauty, but also this retreat was filled with striking news from back home. A couple of weeks before our retreat a brutal act of violence has struck the city of Paris, leading to further calls for military action in Syria. This has also sparked a debate over the millions of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing their homes to seek safety. During the retreat we heard news about a shooting at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Minneapolis. The next day a video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago Police Officer surfaced, revealing a vast cover-up by the City of Chicago. And just after we arrived back an armed man entered a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, killing three, and injuring nine others. (Something to note here: The suspect of the Colorado Springs Shooting case was not killed but taken into custody).


In all of these events, many others including myself have considered how we use the word terrorismTerrorism is a word that carries a lot of weight. In recent decades, the word has been used as a way to describe the violent acts of a purely evil force. We have moved away from the definition of the term, in favor of the political weight of the term (ironic isn’t it). I have been thinking about the place where I am currently living. Many in the Israeli press have called Palestinians terrorists. A people who have been living under violent military occupation. A people who lack the ability to truly express their wishes for freedom, and if they try they will be violently pushed back. A very small minority of these people are committing violent crime against the Israelis. But these are not the people being called terrorists, the word is being used to characterize all of those speaking out and demonstrating.

In the case of the shooter in Colorado Springs, he is being called perpetrator and suspect. Is not the shooting of a Planned Parenthood facility politically motivated? Wasn’t this shooter trying to bring terror to those who need the womens’ health services offered by Planned Parenthood? So why isn’t he being called a terrorist? The same can be said of those who shot at innocent protesters in Minneapolis. Were they not inflicting terror? In Chicago, and cities all across the United States, many of our brothers and sisters of color live in fear of those who have sworn to serve and protect us. Living in a state of terror.


I would like to challenge the use of this word, because it is being used by people of power and privilege, to demonize and otherize. It’s too messy. Terror was inflicted on the city of Paris. But it also has in Beirut, Baghdad, Aleppo, Homs, and Tunis. It is to be said that the Colorado Springs shooter was a terrorist. And sometimes cities, nations, soldiers, and police officers can be terrorists. Let’s stop using the word, its woefully problematic.



Too Much Pain: A Reflection on Matthew 18:21-35, The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Bethlehem skyline from Beit Jala
Bethlehem skyline from Beit Jala

Conflict has been the theme here, since beginning of October. Demonstrations, clashes, confrontations, and frustration has been the tone. Violence is not new to this place, and I knew that when I came. It is hard to hear the pain and tiredness in the voices of the people that I work with every day. I serve two communities in the Bethlehem area. A Lutheran School, and a church, in a neighboring village. This area has been specifically hit by this conflict recently.
Clashes between Israeli Flagsoldiers and Palestinian demonstrators, this past Tuesday, resulted in the death of a 27-year-old Palestinian, and a couple of weeks earlier a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed in the chest by soldiers at a demonstration in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. These deaths have struck the community quite hard. I often hear the pained voices of the teachers that I work with saying, “they were just boys!”

They were just boys. What about all of the other boys and girls in the Bethlehem area? It could have easily been one of them. The occupation has been slapped in the face of the young people of Bethlehem. This past Thursday I attended the Youth Group meeting of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala. Beit Jala rests on a hill just east of Bethlehem. Many of the youth of this congregation, either go to schools in, or around Bethlehem. They walk the same streets as those that were killed. In church that Thursday night, a what seemed like typical group of teenagers, between 16 and 20 arrived, chit chatting, and socializing. You could have dropped them anywhere, and they would have filled the teenage stereotype. I think like many young adults, “youth group” might seem a bit “un-cool” for this group. The Pastor finally brought the group together in his office, and started talking about current events.

The Luther Rose at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala
The Luther Rose at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala

This perked their ears. Even though I can barely speak Arabic, I knew that they were engaged. They were furious, frustrated, angry. About fifteen minutes went by when, the Pastor pivoted the conversation to the Bible reading for the day. It was the Parable of the Unforgiving servant in the Gospel of Matthew. Peter asks Jesus how many times “I should forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven.” Jesus then descends into a parable about how a king forgives his servant a debt of ten-thousand bags of gold, because his servant pleads with his king, promising that he will one day pay him back. Soon this same servant meets up with one of his fellow servants, who owes him one hundred coins. This second servant asks for the same mercy and forgiveness that the first servant asked of the king. But he does not. Instead he sends him to jail for his debts. Word gets to the king about the servant’s actions, and he calls for his servant and says, “shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” The king sends for the guard that takes care of prisoners, and punishes him until he can pay his debt. At the end of this parable Jesus says “My Heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is not what the young people of the youth group wanted to hear. They erupted into a fury of conversation, barley giving time for each other to speak. I could imagine their conversations revolving around questions like this:

What?  They must first forgive those who cause so much pain? They must forgive those who have been relentlessly occupying? Don’t they have a right, a duty for fight first, make up later?

Jesus call for forgiveness was infuriating.  In this parable we are told that like the king, we are forgiven by God. Not for some menial debt like one hundred coins, but a debt that would seem just as great or grater than ten-thousand bags of gold. If God can forgive us for all of the things that we do that separate ourselves from God’s vision of the world, we must be able to forgive our neighbors, for their faults. I am sure God is still not very happy with us messing up this world. We cause too much pain, too much destruction:

Too many young Palestinian boys are killed by soldiers. Too many Israelis are being stabbed in the streets of Jerusalem. Too many young black men are shot and killed in the United States. Human beings are destroying the only planet we have with deadly carbon emissions and pollution.

 God’s intention for this world is to have a world with none of these things. But God first forgives. We human beings are in no way deserving of this forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the reconciling acts of God. It brings us human beings closer together, and closer to God’s intention for this world. From forgiveness, can come justice. We can’t solve some of the worlds biggest problems, like the death of young Palestinian boys, the lives of young black men in America, or climate change, if we are still mad as hell about it. If we can’t in our heart of hearts, in, with, and under our being, bring ourselves to the same level as those who cause our pain; we cannot begin to work on bridging those divides, and healing this world. We must realize that we too have the same potential as those causing our pain. At this point we can begin to reconcile.

That Thursday evening I saw that these young men and women were challenged by Jesus’s call to forgiveness. But probably the most powerful moment in that Youth Group meeting was at the end, when we all stood up bowed our head and prayed, and concluded with singing the Lords Prayer in Arabic, and departed in peace. God forgives our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And even God’s power of forgiveness is there even when we can’t.


A post I recently made on Facebook:

The last month of accompanying these amazing people in this place has made the truths in this video a even more evident. Often when I introduce myself to people, either at the church I am attending, or the school I work at; I often hear the words, “you are welcome here.” I often answer this with, “thank you.” My western/American sensibilities, tell me that these people are trying to be nice, and that it is just a pleasantry like we might say to someone new “back home.” But often what I hear after I say “thank you” is “no, I mean it, you ARE welcome here.” One day on the drive after school, the English teacher who drives me, told me that if I needed anything, just call and her or her husband would be there, and once again after I thanked her, she said, “no, I mean it, JUST give us a call.” As a whole human being, without apparent suspicion, I am immediately brought into the community with arms wide open. I think we need a little more of that, and a little bit less suspicion of the other. I am so grateful for the community and relationships I am building in this place, and so happy for the months to come.