Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Busy Day 7

by Dave Urban

Wow, Day 7, one full day to go, and then the long slog home on Saturday.

Two parts to today. I will do them in reverse order. The second item of the day was to spend several hours at Sabeel, an Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem that Don Wagner is now employed at (in the US).  For those of you who immediately think of South American Liberation Theology which has been described by some as having some  influence of Marxism in it, this Liberation Theology is a completely different strain - more of an indigenous ecumenical Palestinian Theology. The founder Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest, is trying to develop a spirituality among all Christians in the region "based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation." (For more information see Sabeel Don Wagner was treated as a rock star.

Don Wagner with Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek and Omar Sabari (sp?)  one of the staff. Omar had a great story of being  of a Eastern (Greek)  Orthodox  family whose Christian  history can be traced back to Pentecost, and  yet losing his faith when an American teaching in his school kept telling them that the Jews were destined to take over the holy land as Gods' will. He spent time in prison protesting Israeli policies and eventually came back to faith because he wanted to use the bible to counter some stuff the Jerusalem Patriarch was doing with the Isreali's. As a result he sat down and read through 3 of the Gospels in one night and was struck by the message of Jesus. He has been with Sabeel for about 7 years now. 
We showed up at noon for a mass and then lunch and discussion. A couple of CPT (Christian Peacemaker Team) folks were there from Hebron (see my earlier post on that) and I had a very good time talking with them. One of them Inga (from Sweden) was a retired lady who has spent the last 4 or 5 years at Hebron as CPT- 3 months on and 3 months off. Another Tom, was a former Catholic priest who has spent the last 10-12 years at Hebron 4 to 6 months out of the year. Clearly a dedicated bunch of folks.  

Now to the first part of the day. Brian Cox, of our group, has been commissioned by the Missions Committee to produce a documentary about our sister church and our trip. Brian, Jeanne (the Forbes friend from New Jersey who is with us) , and took a taxi this morning up to the wall to shoot some video for the documentary. The main thing I want to do with the rest of the post is to show you pictures -- I do not think I can say anything else. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Busy Day in Bethlehem

by Peg Forbes

Today was an amazing day. It began with the whole group's first look at the new Dar al Kalima College building, a very impressive and in many ways state of the art institution for applied and performance arts. Our guide was one of the students Jim and I met the last time we were here, 20 year old Wala, a 2nd year Authentic Tourism major.  She was very poised and patient as we oohed over the art on the walls and asked her questions. She led us through the art studios where we got to see students working on ceramics and jewelry making, by offices and the library, and the open second floor central space for large meetings and convocations, where the dedication ceremony took place. We posed by the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston plaque at the Reception Area door and Brian Cox, our videographer got lots of pictures, including Caryl turning over the dozen cameras FPCE members donated to the college along with several music CDs.  The highlight for me was seeing the brand new state of the art 187seat theater now completed.  It is beautiful and Dave Urban says their sound system is top notch as well. 
    Then we were on the bus to Hebron to meet with Art, a member of the Christian Peacekeeping Team there. We got to hear his stories and ask him questions (go to their website to get the big picture). We visited the mosque said to be built over the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Neat experience. Also got in some shopping for ceramics and scarves. 

    Back to Bethlehem mid afternoon and then an amazing hour with Munther Isaac, Palestinian Christian instructor at the Bethlehem Bible College and director of the very successful Christ at the Checkpoint conference this past March, bringing together Christian leaders and speakers from many nations to talk and workshop about what Christ would think and say and do about the current situation in Israel and Palestine. See for videos of the workshops.
    On to what was for me the most challenging and exciting presentation of the day...hearing Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust tell his story of growing up under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and his gradual transformation from anger to non-violence to taking Christ's words to "Love your neighbor" to an even higher place of healing, coexistence and transformation.  I have four pages of notes for anyone who's interested. Go to

As we walked through Hebron, we encountered friendly salesmen and women who loved not only sales, but photos!

 Enough for tonight....

Visiting the Birthplace of Jesus

by Dave Urban

"We want to hold on to John 10:10- "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!""  was the introduction to the Diyar Consortium- a umbrella ministry of the Christmas Lutheran Church, our sister church in Palestine. [The best way to get an overview is the Wikipedia Article on Dr. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the church (] This small Palestinian church is why I am in Bethlehem today. They are trying to live out the gospel in Palestine and give hope and life to those who are suffering. Over the last couple of years, this small church has leveraged donations and hope in the future into a series of cradle to grave ministries in Bethlehem, from health centers, school, art college, and senior programs. I can't begin to cover the depth of the programs. Some of the work is self funding and much relies on donations from overseas. It is amazing to see how much the European churches and governments give to this area, and this ministry.  Today it was a relief to tour a school full of kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, with everyone saying "hello" and full of smiles. Kids do bring out the goodness of innocence. 

This bumper sticker was on the director of the aging program's door. It was a good sign. She told us that in Palestine there is no health care or social security, and that retirement age is 65, so many people feel like they just are waiting to die after that age. She has started groups which have created plays and books to tell the stories of the old days. They are building computer literacy- which is so key because of the diaspora has caused families to often live in many countries, and the mail system to/from Palestine to the rest of the world is very unreliable.  

After lunch, we had a break and I took some personal space time and went off alone to Manger Square to see the "birthplace."  We were in the main Greek Orthodox church the other day and the adjacent Franciscan church, but did not go into the grotto underneath the alter due to the crowds. After a long wait I got down to it.  Below is the official spot where Jesus was born; many bent down to kiss it (I did not).

Later that day we took a tour with a man named Amal Nasser, one of the members of Christmas Lutheran. He is an elderly, spry gentleman who is an Arabic calligrapher and does beautiful art. I am sorry I don't have an example of his work to show you. He showed us around Bethlehem to tell us about the old city. We went into a Syrian Orthodox church, who uses Aramaic (the language Jesus actually used in day to day conversation) in their worship.
Finally we had dinner with a mother and daughter which Don Wagner knows. The daughter is actually a professor at St. Xavier college in Chicago, and has a research agreement with the Oriental Institute of U of C. She is an anthropologist and an archeologist and is doing work both in Jericho and in Qatar. Her mother (Maha Saca)  has spent her life collecting the story of Palestinian culture through the dresses of Palestine. Evidently each village in Palestine has its own pattern of embroidery and in the old days one worked through ones childhood: embroidering panels for your wedding dresses (of which there are 6 for different times during the pre- wedding, wedding, and post wedding). The pattens remind me a little of quilt patterns and are all very distinctive. This woman has been a one person cultural heritage wonder, and has pushed the Palestinian identity all over the world. We spent some time in her office/ museum after dinner.

I spent some time talking to Maha's husband and daughter. Both once again told stories of the difficulty in living in the Palestinian territories. On the way back to the hotel I asked Peg Forbes, who has been here at least 4 times, partially because she and Jim sponsor a scholarship for the college, on what they saw that we needed to do here. In some ways we are just hanging out and visiting people. Are we suppose to do more? Peg said that what people seem to need is to be heard, to know that some one outside of the difficult situation knows that they (the people we visit) are there, and that we care. So maybe just hanging out and visiting is the mission, that we are visiting those in prison. I am struck again by the hope these folk tied to such pain and suffering as they are dying a slow death by strangulation by Israeli policy, and slow taking over the land one hill at a time. Amal pointed out across the hills at one point while walking around Bethlehem and remembered when each one had been taken over by the Israelis to build illegal (UN term ) settlements.  Yet they also keep pointing to the abundant life that they believe that Christ calls them to. It is  humbling to be with such saints.  

"As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people."

by Caryl Weinberg

We can hardly believe it is Monday night. We are halfway through our journey, though it feels as if we've been busy enough to fill three weeks. Our hearts and minds are spinning with the stories we've heard, the people we've met, the meals we've shared, cups of coffee and tea sipped, and words of immense hope, faith, courage and encouragement we've heard again and again from our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers. This is an amazing part of the world where God is clearly active in the lives of people who love Christ and their neighbor.

On Sunday we worshipped at our sister church, the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Pastor Mitri Raheb preached from 1 Peter 5 (in Arabic), about the need for Elders to shepherd the flocks they've been given charge of, with humility and love. Susan Colten read Scripture and we sang and prayed, some each in English and Arabic. Don and Linda had arrived in Bethlehem during the service. So it was good to finally be all together.

Later on, we visited a Palestian family farm just outside of Bethlehem. Our guide, Alam, (meaning hope), told us of her family which has been Christian since the time of Christ. A member of the Christmas Lutheran Church, she expressed a deep faith through her words of hope and love, and her stories of perseverance and action. Her family farm, theirs since 1916, is now on the Israeli demolition list and is being decided in the courts right now. When Israeli soldiers attempted to overtake their land nearly 20 years ago, as a family they stood for 2 weeks in front of their gates. Through an amazing set of circumstances the Army relented. Alam's father then committed their farm to be a place where people of every race, faith and nation might come to learn about peace and reconciliation. He named the farm the "Tent of Nations".  Today the landscape has changed around the farm as they are surrounded on every hilltop by settlements.  Settlements have running water and electricity, as well as access to good roads free of road blocks. Only eight months ago, electricity was installed on Alam's, after their 98 years of living there. They still have only water in cisterns and are not free to drive from the road up to their home. Despite the difficulties, Alam speaks of the life in abundance that comes through Christ, and the hope that they have for Palestinians and Israelis to one day live in peace. "We are all humans. We are told to know and love our neighbors. The tent of Nations is here to help us do that."

Monday began with a tour of the International Center where we're staying. Angie, who first learned to play the bells as a young girl when the group from FPCE visited some years ago, led us around and told of all the incredible works going on through the ministries of Diyar Consortium of our sister church.  From there we toured several of the ministries located a short distance away. Visiting the Health and Wellness Center, we heard about many ministries including the Parish Nursing program which serves over 1,000 people with one nurse and several community workers. We learned about the older adults ministry and saw the clinics for endocrinology, audiology, psychotherapy, and more. And we met with the principal of the primary and secondary school (all in one), and toured some of the classrooms.

The theme throughout was hope. Whether talking about the need for hope for young Palestinians, or for those over 60, the dynamic, joyful staff and leaders spoke of their commitments to faith, their belief in God though Christ, their love for their homeland of Palestine and for all the people they serve. What we didn't hear were complaints or words of despair or hatred, rather a longing to live in peace and in freedom where everyone has the chance to thrive.

Switching gears, I will say that we just heard the news of Alan Borg's death this morning and were all very sad. We talked and spent some time in prayer for Joan, Peter, Alison and Stephen and all their family. We wish we could be with Joan now....But we trust that many are caring for her.

One thought as I think about the Palestinian situation and even the Borg's right now. Psalm 126 says "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people." We trust that the same Lord surrounds the Palestinians as well as Joan, even now.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bethlehem - Day 3

by Dave Urban

Today started with the incongruity of sitting in a totally German Lutheran church worshiping in Arabic. Christmas Lutheran Church was founded by the German Lutherans in the mid 1800s and in the late 1800's built the church. The stained glass (which is beautiful- and has survived both the 1967 war and two Intefadas) has German looking angels, Jesus and other biblical characters and verses in German. The only thing is the local congregation has painted some beautiful Arabic calligraphy in certain parts. I did  not take pictures of the inside, because I was coming to worship.

We hung out at coffee hour (sweet Arabic coffee in little mugs- definitely sipping stuff and VERY good) and talked to a bunch of folk. I got the impression that many folks had been there for generations. Once again the difference between a group of people tied to a place verses us Americans really stood out to me. Once again I heard stories of how Israel is making life difficult to travel, to repair stuff, to maintain a sense of living. I was also struck by the double minority status of these folks- Palestinian in a land in which Israel is working to get them out, and Christian in a Muslim community. Life on the street was a normal life- It is easy to tell the Muslim women from the Christian women, in that the Muslims wear headscarfs. The ratio of Muslim to Christians is easily 100:1 if not greater. 

Later that day we went to the farm of the Nassar family. They have started something called Tent of Nations- www. Basically they are Palestinian Christians who have owned a farm outside of Bethlehem since 1916. They evidently have title papers and ownership records going continuously back to that time. Over the last 20 years they have been fighting in the Israeli courts to keep there land, as it is in a zone called the "C" zone, which evidently is a zone where Israel is confiscating (or forced payment for) Palestinian land. The land is surrounded on 3 sides by subsidized Israeli settlements ( the ones the UN has declared illegal) and the Israeli government is trying to have the Nassars leave. They have offered money, taken them to court, cut of the road, water and electricity to the farm, and at one time had it surrounded by bulldozers and tanks. It was only because a Danish film crew happened to come by that kept the bulldozers from tearing it apart. This Tent of Nations has become a  place where people from all over (primarily Europe- I met a German guy who was with the German version of  Mennonite Central committee) come and offer help to maintain the land while these folk work through the court system. This is not an isolated case, but is one of a bunch of actions all over the place. The thing I was most struck by was Amal Nassar kept talking about how she was making this a place of peace, and her big desire was to work for peace. She had amazing stories of peaceful encounters with soldiers and settlers, 

Once again I am struck by the land ethic. We are not rooted to the land, and in some ways I wonder if the rootedness to the land is a millstone about their neck. But it seems that somebody has to be rooted to the land, otherwise it gets misused. Looking at the settlements, it is clear that the settlement builders do not think about natural resources and how to husband them. What they are building is ultimately unsustainable. Since what I do for a profession is land stewardship I think I understand in a way why they are so tied to the land. I also see that they really have nothing else, and no where else to go to. That to me is one of the issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis- they both want the same pieces of land, and they both cant have it.

Later on I eat dinner with another member of Christmas Lutheran (the Nassars are members) who it turns out is actually Armenian and has a Jordanian passport and lives currently in Amman.  We got talking about this land ethic, and he says that he does not have the same feelings, that they are more like the ones I know, he has owned land and sold it, and moved around over time. But he once again pointed out how the Isreali's are squeezing the Palestinians in so many ways that they are dying inside, and that the Palestinians are seeking to preserve themselves in any way they can, and if they are landholders who are being threatened with eviction, they will fight on that front.  Overall I think I am pretty depressed about the whole situation, and don't feel like there is anything that can be done. 

Amal Nassar told a story about how she is trying to work with the local Palestinian Village which lies at the bottom of the hill, because the women there are traditional , ill educated, Muslim women who only make babies and take care of the house. The rates of depression and suicide among these women is huge, and she has been working to get them to talk to each other,to get them some education and to meet the folks who come to the farm so that they can work out their frustrations at the untenable situations in a different manner. 

Jeannie from our group and I were talking while walking back to the guest house about trying to understand what the Isreali's want and if there is a solution to this issue. We understand that all is not clean on both sides of the fence, and that the Palestinians have done aweful things to the Isreali's. But we also understand that when you get down to this level, we are talking about people- who are real and not abstract, and bad things are happening to them. They all seem so glad that we have come to learn what they are going through. I don't know what else to do right now.
This is the photo that I will leave you with. This sits at the gate of the Nassar's farm, and is a testament to their faith and their understanding of what Jesus calls them to be. May I be half as  able to be this grace filled. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tourists in Jerusalem

by Susan Colten

We were tourists today.  And if I do say so myself, my feet appreciate it if they do not have to do anymore work for the rest of the evening.  I might be speaking for all of us.

Today was a ‘free’ day; that means we had nothing scheduled, planned or promised. We decided together that we would go to Jerusalem.  To catch the bus we first had to go through the Apartheid Wall.  It was sobering to see: the wall painted with signs of protest, the cement partition separating people from the land, the barbed wire, the queue line, armed guards with bullet-proof vests, showing ‘credentials’ through the glass, watching the checking and recording of each Palestinian who passed through while we merely had to show the front cover of our US passports.  Through the gate we caught the #21 bus to Jerusalem.  Our stop—Jaffa Gate, Old City.

Not far inside the old city we were shoulder to shoulder with others from around the world making their own pilgrimage.  The Dome of the Rock was closed, but we did see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, walk Via Dolorosa, slip out the Lion’s Gate to see Mt of Olives and Basilica of Gethsemane, and contribute our prayers at the Wailing (Western) Wall.  And we did all that before lunch on a delightful rooftop restaurant in the center of it all.

In some way or another today we seemed to be struck with our humanity, or observations on what it means to be human.  For some of us that meant recognizing our different expressions of our faith and its traditions, like the Orthodox Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall.  For some it meant hearing the familiar language of a dear land, Ethiopia (ok, yes, that was Caryl),  and overhearing them ask the familiar question “Do you know where <so and so> is?” not wanting their friends to get separated from the group. For some of us, our humanity was shown when we women each sat with a local woman on the return bus sharing food, aspirations, conversation (even if they were deaf), or directions. 

For all of us in one way or another it was an appreciation of humanity in reflecting on the physicality of Jesus in his life and death. It was so even as we asked if that was really the stone/rock/cave/tree/road of one commemoration or another.  It was so even as we wondered, “Do I kiss/genuflect/stand in line/cry/sit silently?” in these same places.  These were the desires for the reality to be made more real.  These were our desires that our response be worthy.  And so we joined in with the busload after busload of pilgrims—Asian, European, American, African—in our attempt to find, perhaps, the origin of our faith. 

This evening, however, I am reminded of the words of Luke’s Easter story not to look for the living among the dead.  Jesus Christ is indeed alive—in the life of our congregation, in the life of our sister church in Bethlehem, in the life of all to whom this grace has been given.  In the relationships we are establishing here we shall see signs of the resurrection. 

On our way back from the bus stop this evening, Dave and I were passed by a pre-wedding processional.  We reached the church just in time to see the bride alight from her car and enter the church.  She was indeed beautiful.  And for me she represented life and love and hope in the future. 

Tomorrow we worship with our sister church, Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem.  I anticipate enjoying a fuller sense of what it means to be the body of Christ.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

First update from Bethlehem

Hi all, 
We all made it safely, on time and with no problems! It was a beautiful day, and we arrived at 9:30 AM after a "quick" 10 hour flight.  We weren't able to get much sleep on the plane.. it was a cultural immersion with animate conversation, prayer, and families.  At least it was entertaining.  We were met with a van and drove to Bethlehem.  A few of us them walked to Manger Square for lunch, overlooking the Church of the Nativity one one corner and the Friday prayers at a large mosque on the other.  Then we even shopped a little, having a tea break at one of the shops.  Peg, Jim, and Jeanne met wit the four students that Kim's scholarships have been given to these past years.  They were right at home coming back here.

Now we've had dinner with Nuha, the Dean of Dar al Kalima College. It's hard to believe the college now has 200 students. And they've started a new degree in Culinary Arts. They are hoping to have several of the programs move from diploma to a university level degree this year. I can't believe that 4 years ago when I was here they were just breaking ground on the college and had 20 some students.

We have a great group of people. It should be a wonderful week. We're at the International Center in Bethlehem which is quite nice.

Hope all is well there.. God has been so good to us here already.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Greetings from Newark airport!

We're on our way across the globe as we speak!

You've come to the right place.....

..... to read about our journey to Bethlehem, Israel and more! We are currently on our journey to visit friends and partners at our sister church (pictured, left), Christmas Lutheran Church

We will be grateful for your prayers and thoughts along the way. Perhaps praying from Psalm 121 might guide you and help you think of us. Just as this Psalm was written for the journey so many years before, we are on our journey too. Our group includes the following fellow travelers: Susan Colten, Brian Cox, Jeanne Easlie, Peg and Jim Forbes, Linda Kateeb, Dave Urban, Don Wagner and Caryl Weinberg. Thank you for going with us in spirit and prayer! Perhaps you'll be part of the journey in person, next time.

May the Lord watch over all of our comings and goings both now and always,
Your friends of Dar al Kalima