Accounting for our Hope
by Susan and Michael Thomas (September / October 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 5)
The mission of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, an English-speaking congregation set in the Old City of Jerusalem, focuses on hope.
A parishioner — at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer English-speaking congregation in the Old City of Jerusalem who is a reporter — recently mentioned that he was dealing with odd things like his car.
"What happened to your car?" we asked.
"I watched it being driven over by an Israeli tank in Bethlehem last week."
"Are you joking? Where was it parked?"
"Oh, it was legally parked in a line of journalists' cars," he laughed.
"So they intended to do this?"
"Well, it's difficult to know what motivates people in these situations," he responded. "Meanwhile, I have days and days of bureaucracy to go through — the Israeli Defense Force, the licensing, the insurance. I finally got it out of Bethlehem yesterday. It was completely stripped by that time, of course," and we could hear the ironic smile in his voice, "so at least the Palestinians got something out of the whole thing. Fortunately, a woman called me who somehow had gotten the papers for the car, so I have the documents."
This reporter, at the beginning of the Al Aqseh Intifada two years ago, had been trampled during a conflict near the Dome of the Rock in the Old City, resulting in a fractured shoulder. What does he think when he hears Paul's words, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair..." (2 Cor. 4:8-9)? His time here began with affliction and is ending a bit too dramatically with crushing: the affliction of his body and the crushing of his car.
As pastors of this Jerusalem congregation, we don't usually tend crushed cars, but crushed spirits. Despair sometimes creeps up on us, masked as irony or cynicism or absurdity or even realism. We find, nevertheless, that our pastoral task is to take the bizarre and perplexing juxtapositions in our lives that are sometimes laughable and sometimes crushing, and to offer them up to God.
This ministry, working in accompaniment with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jerusalem (serving in Palestine, Jordan, and Israel — ELCJ — is staffed with ELCA pastors through the Division for Global Mission. Most of those who come to this church for worship and other ministries are English-speaking foreigners, living in this part of the world for anywhere from three weeks to an average of three years.
Some parishioners stay for a longer term. They often work with development or humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the West Bank and Gaza. Still others are diplomats, students, journalists, teachers, and their accompanying spouses.
The Christian Peacemaker Team, made up mostly of North American Christians who are dedicated to nonviolent conflict resolution, has also had a significant witness within our congregation and often now — due to roadblocks and closures — must travel two or more hours each way from Hebron to attend worship, which they do regularly.
"Always be ready to give account of the hope that is within you, but do so with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15)
Interpreting the Holy Land
Since the congregation's beginning in 1968, the pastors at Redeemer sometimes have served as interpreters of the Holy Land experience for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. We connect them with local Christians, particularly Palestinian Lutherans, so that they not only see holy sites or ancient churches but meet with those who are part of active Christian communities-the "living stones" of the Holy Land.
Since the fall of 2000, our ministry is still involved with interpretation. But we also try to intentionally interpret "the situation" to people who live outside the Holy Land, encouraging them to speak for justice as well as for peace in this land when they return to their homes.
The task of interpreting God's Word for people living here who find their faith under fire is increasingly challenging, but also significant. Starting a year ago this fall, we realized that many internationals living in the Bethlehem area (which is adjacent to Jerusalem) were unable to cross roadblocks into Jerusalem on Sunday mornings. So we began a semi-monthly English- language worship service on Friday at Christmas Lutheran Church, often meeting in a cave under the church.
The chosen text in Redeemer's congregational brochure is "Always be ready to give account of the hope that is within you, but do so with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). In this land, we are painfully aware of the deep need for treating others with gentleness and respect. Too often we observe just the opposite in encounters between Israelis and Palestinians.
Witnessing to Hope Within
At the same time, we have seen remarkable witnessing to "the hope within" Christians. This occurs among members of the ELCJ and other local Christians when the facts of their lives are utterly discouraging, as well as among members of our own congregation.
Recently in the almost completely Muslim West Bank city of Hebron (with the exception of the contested presence of Israeli Jewish settlements), a young boy handed two members of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) a brochure from Redeemer. Perhaps he'd found it on the street and assumed that since they were the only Christians he knew of, it must belong to them.
This struck us as very appropriate, for the 1 Peter text in the brochure is certainly descriptive of CPT's significant nonviolent minority Christian presence in the midst of great conflict. The church is privileged to have CPT as the normative measure of "Christian" in that city.
Likewise, we have witnesses of normative Islam in Jerusalem. Well into the April 2002 Israeli military incursion of West Bank towns, we prepared to join a Christian relief convoy into Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. In addition to the donated food, we had 100 shekels (about $20) from a congregation member to purchase some food for particular people.
So we visited the Palestinian Muslim grocer in our Mount of Olives neighborhood. What fresh fruits and vegetables would he recommend for a large Christian family living in Bethlehem and for the Lutheran Boys' Home in Beit Jala? we asked. He suggested numerous things and gathered up our order. Then he continued to empty bin after bin of cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, melons, and apples into bags, multiplying the gift many times over.
We were silent before his generosity — for business is very bad for Palestinians even in Jerusalem — and as we left he continued to offer more advice about where to get rice and milk and large amounts of flatbread very cheaply. He was also always thinking of the children: "They'll like this fruit." When we thanked him he simply replied, "They have no food."
Expatriate Christians do not live with the same kind of risk and uncertainty here as do Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians) and Israelis (Jews, Muslims, and Christians). But we nonetheless are called upon daily to give account of the hope that is within us in seemingly hopeless circumstances and not to be crushed by bitter cynicism. We also must push ourselves and others continually to "cross over" the barriers set up between people-the literal barriers of roadblocks and curfews and closures and the more insidious barriers of fear and discouragement and bitterness.
Just as a trip to Bethlehem now takes on some of the aspects of an expedition, meeting intentionally with Israeli Jews requires an effort.
When the siege was lifted on May 10 in Bethlehem, Bishop Munib Younananon, of the ELCJ, invited three members of Rabbis for Human Rights to accompany him from Jerusalem to the first Sunday worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in five weeks — and they came. It was a small but powerful sign of the hope that yet dwells within people of faith here.
"They were willing," the Bishop commented at the service, "to make enemies into neighbors rather than neighbors into enemies."
We have never before been called upon so dramatically to help lay a foundation for and to accompany Christians, both local and expatriate, who exhibit steadfast courage in the daily accounting for their hope. When this happens, we find hope being called forth from others living here, as well. Such accounting calls people forth from their tombs.
And there is no place more in need of tomb opening — of faith in God's mercy and action to bring forth life and hope when we've reached a dead end. For this is the land of dead ends — and of the Resurrection.
Susan and Michael Thomas are ELCA pastors/missionaries with the Division for Global Mission of the ELCA, serving in the Old City of Jerusalem at the English-language Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.