Sunday, May 24, 2009

Heaven or Hell?

It's difficult to imagine a more holy - or a more hellish - place than the West Bank of Palestine. Our group got more than a full share of both faces of this muddled region today.

We started things off on a "heavenly" note; our visit to Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem was a beautiful experience for everyone, I think. It struck an extra chord with me personally: the hymns, the litergy, the organ, the German influence, the stain-glass windows, the "coffee and fellowship to follow" ... nearly everything about the church connected me to my Lutheran roots. I might as well have been sitting at my home church in New Berlin, WI for all I could tell (though, the Arabic cued me into the fact that this wasn't quite what I had grown up with). At any rate, I felt a deep sense of solidarity with the members of the congregation. In a city where everything feels a bit foreign and unfamiliar, it reminded me that there didn't have to be layers upon layers of cultural and political barriers between us. It reminded me that, in the end, we're all just people, members of the same human family, seeking after love and grace and new beginnings and a sense of belonging as we try to make sense of a world gone seriously mad.

Our heavenly experiences continued, as we moved on to visit some of the holiest sites of the city: the alleged birthplace of Jesus, the ancient churches heralding this site, the fields and caves of the shepherds who sought after the Christchild, and the winding streets of the Old City, where Mary and Joseph might have wandered with their newborn son. It was a remarkable experience to journey to the same places that millions of people over thousands of years have flocked to in order to come to grasp this man's place and time in history.

However, with just a few winding turns on the hilly roads of Bethlehem, we soon met our hell, coming face to face with one of the most isolating structures think I have ever seen. The Wall. For those of who you don't know, the nation of Israel is currently constructing a 40 foot high concrete wall separating Palestinan land from Israeli land. Some call it a security fence, some say it marks out borders, but whatever the theory behind the wall is, the reality is that it is segregating two people groups from each other, making any understanding, communication, or peaceful resolution difficult indeed.

On one side of the wall lies illegal Israeli settlements. These are newly constructed communities with all the important stuff: parks, swimming pools (in a desert?), and strip malls. On the other side of the part of the wall that we visited lies a Palestinian refugee camp. However, this enormous barrier isn't that nice and neat, separating only the two warring parties. Sometimes, the wall runs right through Palestinian villages. What if your family is on one side of the wall, and you are on the other? That means you won't visit them. Or what if you need to cross through the other side to get to another town? That means you won't go - or at least not without incredible blockades of visas, permits, checkpoints, etc. etc. etc. Not only does this strangle the economy of the Palestinian villages that this wall runs through, but it cuts off people's freedom of movement and limits community and family relationships.

So, we got up close and personal to this wall today. We had hired a guide, Isa, to take us through the holy sites, but upon request, he took us to the wall himself. When we stepped out of our bus, we landed in the closest I have ever come to hell. Along this huge, obtrusive barrier are mounds of rubble, piles of garbage, even decaying animal carcasses, shocked from the electric fence. The site was a wasteland, and enough to bring many to tears.

Isa, who told us he doesn't discuss politics with the groups that he leads, relayed to us how he has been affected by this wall. For him, this wall is the true tragedy of the conflict. For many Palestinians, their struggle is not even over the land anymore. So many have raised the white flag on that issue. What is important to them now is their access to basic human necessities, their right to movement, and their right to dignity. Overcome by emotion, this grown man wept in front of a group of total strangers as he spoke about the future. Because of this barrier, children will never be able to know who lives on "the other side." Israeli childern will not learn Arabic; Arab children will not learn Hebrew. On both sides, the Other will simply be known as the Enemy. This segregation will never lead to understanding, but only to increased fear and mistrust. How can children be raised to love each other if they never have the opportunity to interact with each other?

The experience was jarring. I hadn't known how much this barrier had affected people's daily lives until I witnessed it for myself, and it was an image I won't be forgetting soon.

Our emotional exhaustion was only exasperated when met with a man from the church named Daher, who owns a vast amount of farmland outside Bethlehem's city limits. Israeli soldiers have attempted to take this land from him on countless occasions, despite the fact that it has been in his family for generations. He is now surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements (on Palestinian land) on all sides, and has to go to court once a month to fight for the right to keep living on his own property. Even with that, he is not allowed to build anything else on the land. As soon as he does, soldiers come and rip it down, right down to the very fences he built to keep his animals in.

In the midst of this further reminder of hell on earth, this man holds heaven in his heart. He was one of the most hopeful and joy-filled people I have ever met. He has turned his farm into a camp type place called "Tent of the Nations." He welcomes all people who wish to relax in God's own country to his land. His only rule? No guns. (He said that once 10 armed soliders came to his property. He welcomed them in for tea, if only they would set their guns down.) From this ancient land, hundreds of students and volunteers haved camped out, held campfires, sang songs, and pray - the chapel is a cave, in case you were wondering. We gathered there and raised up prayers of peace for this land.

As I watched the sun set over the moutainous terrain, I gleaned a new appreciation for why they call this the Holy Land. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever set foot on. I could almost hear God whispering in my ear as I recalled the thousands of people who have journeyed to this land in search of a home, seeking out the closest thing to heaven on earth. No matter what happens down below, the sun still rises out here. It rises over the evil and the just, to give everyone another chance at reconciliation. We might witness hell again tomorow, yet we continue to hope. So here's to another day - may there always be a little slice of heaven in it.