What can and does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem do as it faces the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
As I climbed the stairs of a three-level building in Al-Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah in April 2002, I stepped on thousands of shards of broken glass. I crunched my way upstairs to an apartment that had been severely damaged by Israeli soldiers, where the whole family, including a new baby, had been sequestered in the kitchen for many hours. It was the day after the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) had withdrawn to the edge of town.
Ramallah, located just north of Jerusalem, had been under IDF siege and 24-hour curfew for 24 days. Bishop Dr. Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem (ELCJ) had brought his staff to visit the Rev. Ramez Ansara, the Lutheran Church and School of Hope, and family and friends in Ramallah.
Everywhere we saw damage and destruction: crushed cars, metal doors broken and twisted, bullet and missile holes in buildings, rock walls toppled and windows shattered. This was the result of tank and helicopter attacks and the systematic damage by heavily armed soldiers. These pastoral visits are important because they help support the people of the community, knowing they are cared for and are remembered after such fear and isolation.
Later the next month in May, my shoes were again crunching glass in Bethlehem as I walked through the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church compound. It was easy to see where all the glass had been. Almost every window was broken and most doors had been smashed during the 40 days of occupation and curfew.
How do Palestinian Christians face and cope with the direct attacks and the indirect ripples and consequences of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? How do they endure the 35-year-old Israeli military presence? What do they do to be salt, leaven, and light in such grave and dangerous circumstances? How do they overcome the very human temptations to hate the enemy and seek revenge?
"The 40 days of IDF curfew from Easter Monday to Ascension Thursday...seemed to us like 40 years in the desert and were so far the most difficult in our lives," wrote the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, in a report to companion churches.
"Our struggle is not over yet. The worst might still come. We have learned to take every single day thankfully from the hand of the Lord as if it were the last in our life.
"Yet, we continue to plan as if we had the whole future open for us. We will never give up on our town and community. We will continue to build and rebuild, to train and educate, to empower and to create life in the midst of death, to proclaim Easter in the midst of death. We will continue to call for reconciliation in the midst of rising hate, revenge, and retaliation."
Church as Reconciler
In Beit Jala, a town adjoining Bethlehem to the west, there is a special place of reconciliation called Abraham's Herberge (Abraham's House). It is a project of the ELCJ through the Lutheran Church of the Reformation and is intended to bring the children of Abraham together-Jews, Muslims and Christians. Part of the three-story building is completed and is already used by Christian and Muslim youth from the congregation, the church's boys' home, and the community.
Connections have also been made with youth in Israel, Germany, Sweden, and Finland. In recent years, women from Israel and Palestine have gathered for discussion and the sharing of life stories.
The Rev. Jadallah Shehadeh, pastor of the congregation, has noted that Jewish friends in the peace movements in Israel who previously visited Beit Jala are continuing to telephone during the incursions and curfews. "They ask how we are and how we are feeling. They give us courage and often say they are so sorry about what is happening, that they are ashamed of how Israel is treating the Palestinians." Pastor Shehadeh believes that only when people begin to know each other and the teachings of their religions will there be the opportunity to understand each other and be reconciled.
Help for boys in difficult social situations is provided by the Lutheran Boys' Home on the Beit Jala church compound. It is the only boys' home of its kind in the West Bank. This church also provides an important social program, serving families and individuals with health and social assistance.
During the summer camp in 2001 at the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah, the older children, ages 9-12, developed a play using the summer camp's theme, "Love and Peace." The children presented the original drama to their families during the closing program and art exhibition.
The Rev. Ramez Ansara described the play: "The children portrayed a situation where a mother and father were having a conflict with two neighbors. As the play developed, the children in the family spoke to their parents about how to resolve the conflict, convincing them to work it out."
The result of the drama, of course, was a peaceful resolution of the neighborhood conflict and the reconciliation of all the people. Pastor Ansara emphasizes the fact that violence breeds violence and that the Christians have a special role in being reconcilers, as in the children's play.
Church as Prophetic
While stressing the fact that Christians are ministers of reconciliation, Bishop Younan also sees the role of the church as being prophetic.
"The Old Testament prophets taught us to swim against the waves," Bishop Younan has said. "We must condemn injustice and teach that God is not a tribal God, allowing us to say 'God is on our side' in order to justify racism and xenophobia. Our God created people equally, God saved people equally and wants to liberate them equally." The church is to speak up and work for a just and enduring peace.
|This is the God-given work of the Lutheran church in Palestine – to transform broken lives and a broken society into God's newness, giving fresh hope for the future. |
Calling the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land and people a sin against God and against humanity, the bishop joins other Christian leaders in calling for the international legitimacy for Palestinian people, involving these five issues:
(1) The end to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories;
(2) The removal of Israeli settlers in those same territories; finding good use for the remaining buildings;
(3) The establishment of a Palestinian state with secure borders and East Jerusalem as its capital;
(4) The recognition by Israel and the worldwide community of all Palestinian refugees, and an equitable solution found to their situation; and
(5) The equal sharing of water resources between Israel and Palestine.
Bishop Younan and the pastors of the ELCJ speak clearly and prophetically about these issues. The Lutheran church in Palestine is known for its articulation of human rights for all people in this land.
Care, Education, and Healing
Pastoral care of congregational members is also a high priority for the ELCJ churches in the midst of crisis and conflict. The Rev. Ibrahim Azar, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem, spends much of his time visiting the homes of families, listening to their experiences and troubles, and giving help when possible.
Evangelist Hani Odeh of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour also tries to help the congregation's families, many of them without work and income. "Our resources from the church budget are very limited," he states, "but we share what we have with people who were poor before the Israeli incursions began and are poorer now."
Pastor Raheb points out that Palestine does not have oil or other valuable resources. Its greatest resource is its people. Through its schools, vocational training, and universities, this resource must be developed and trained.
The ELCJ currently operates five schools. The Dar al-Kalima (House of the Word) Lutheran School in Bethlehem is providing primary and secondary education with an emphasis on non-violence, peacemaking, and reconciliation in all its work. The new Dar al-Kalima Academy providing higher education and leadership training will open in the fall of 2002.
The Lutheran school in Beit Sahour provides vocational training during art classes for students in grades 7 through 11, helping them learn carpentry, olive wood carving, candlemaking, painting, and ceramics.
At Talitha Kumi Lutheran School in Beit Jala, the students also learn skills related to tourism, including hotel management.
At the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah there is an emphasis on culture, accounting, and banking.
A Lutheran kindergarten is offered to small children on the Mount of Olives.
Scheduled to open this fall is the new Martin Luther Community Education Center in the Old City of Jerusalem, which will offer education to women, high school drop outs, and others ages 16-35 who need new skills to enter the job market.
Help, hope, and healing are offered through the ELCJ congregations and schools, and also through the ministry of Augusta Victoria Hospital, one of the Lutheran World Federation projects in Jerusalem. With a 52-year history of serving Palestinian refugees, Augusta Victoria Hospital works with other Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem. The Lutheran hospital now specializes in ear, nose, and throat; kidney dialysis, especially for children; and surgery and internal medicine. A new treatment center for cancer patients is under construction. During the Israeli incursions of Palestinian towns last spring, Augusta Victoria Hospital was able to remove by ambulance more than 40 dialysis patients from the towns under curfew and get the patients back into treatment. These people would have died without regular dialysis.
Back in the artists' workshop in Bethlehem, Pastor Raheb displayed ceramic, mosaic, and glass artwork created by people from the town and the refugee camps. Much of the work had been destroyed, adding to the broken glass underfoot. But like beating swords into plowshares, the artists had already begun to develop a new art form, using the broken pieces of glass destined for the trash heap, to create mosaics and hanging "suncatchers" in the form of Bethlehem stars and Christmas trees.
"Instead of throwing the glass away, we are transforming the broken pieces into beautiful wholeness," Pastor Raheb said.
This is the God-given work of the Lutheran church in Palestine-to transform broken lives and a broken society into God's newness, giving fresh hope for the future. As Bishop Younan says, "This is part and parcel of the process of reconciliation."
Dr. Mary E. Jensen, an ELCA pastor and missionary working under the Division for Global Mission, is the communications assistant for Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem (serving in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel).
Focus on Augusta Victoria Hospital
In the current chapter of its 52-year history, Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) is providing urgently needed health care to Palestinians in crisis. Perched on the Mount of Olives on Jerusalem's West Bank, AVH is operated by the Lutheran World Federation.
In cooperation with the United Nations, the hospital offers health care to Palestinian refugees, families who are too poor to pay for services, those who are unemployed or are unable to access their fields or property because of the crisis, those who have been forced to relocate because their homes have been damaged or destroyed, as well as to all others who seek urgent and ongoing medical care.
Supported by gifts to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal and contributions from Lutherans all over the world, this hospital is the principle health care provider for many Palestinians in the area, both Muslim and Christian.
The AVH faces many difficulties in this crisis situation. A new threat of increased taxation by the Israeli government could imperil the hospital's future. Palestinian staff often cannot get to their jobs at the hospital because of travel restrictions. These same travel impediments pose a serious risk to patients who are ill-including those with chronic conditions who need dialysis and other ongoing treatment.
Since these patients can't get to the hospital, AVH recently launched "Go and Serve" clinics to bring desperately needed health care to the villages around Jerusalem.
The ELCA's International Disaster Response assists Palestinians affected by the violence. Write checks to the "ELCA International Disaster Response" (add to the notation line either "Middle East Crisis" (emergency aid) or "Augusta Victoria Hospital" (medical care). Send all checks to P.O. Box 70764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764.—Lita Brusick Johnson is director of the ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal.