Among the rich experiences of a travel/study trip to the Middle East this spring are two encounters—both of them painful, both a mix of hope and sorrow. Israel and Palestine and the Middle East in general are not places we associate with hope. It takes only a cursory glance at the evening news to know that this cauldron of fear and anger, injustice and hopelessness continues to boil over—Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya—in addition to the land we call holy.
It’s true that we visited many of the places where Jesus’ ministry took place and we had multiple conversations about politics and religion, geography and history. But it’s really hard—I would say impossible—to feel a sense of optimism and hopefulness in this ravaged part of the world.
The deep roots of injustice have imbedded themselves in the very fabric of the land. The effects of despair and desperation are evident everywhere one looks. Again and again, the people in our group would say to us, “I had no idea what it means to live in the West Bank. I had no idea of such injustice for the Palestinian people. I had no idea. I had no idea.” And then, “Why is our American take on the Middle East so one-sided? Why does the news media NOT report the confiscation of land? The effects of the wall? The destruction of villages? The humiliation of a people? Where is hope? What can we—as Christians, as Americans—do?”
So we took the time to meet with several people whose lives and work embody hope and God’s presence in so many ways. Not hope as optimism or hope as an experience of expectation or a way of feeling good. No, the hope we heard about is excruciatingly hard work:
• unrelenting faith in the light of the risen Christ
• an ability to see Christ in the children, in the suffering, in the day to day work of bearing Christ to one another
• and a stubborn persistence to find ways to affirm life and what it means to be made in Christ’s image
Our visit to Mar Elias Educational Institution in the Galilean village of Ibillin was a first stop. We visited Father Elias Chacour—Abuna they call him, the man who founded this coeducational school for Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, and Christians. The original high school, begun in the early 1980’s, now includes a primary school and a community college—nearly 5,000 students are enrolled—again, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Druze, learning and living and playing side by side.
Now 77 years old and an archbishop, Chacour came to Ibillin as a young seminary graduate. As a young child (seven years old), his family together with thousands of other Palestinian people became refugees when Zionist forces took their land and way of life. Father Chacour describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli.” This minister of reconciliation is an advocate of non-violence and in 2001, he was named “Man of the Year” in Israel.
Elias Chacour is a man of unrelenting hope. His work to bring about reconciliation in a land of strife and injustice is well-known. He showed us a picture of the real meaning of hope: the hard work for which we all bear responsibility—building bridges of acceptance and respect, knocking down walls that humiliate and divide, accepting difference and refusing to tolerate injustice. He speaks bluntly: “You who claim to be Christian: speak up, learn about the plight of so many in this world for whom there is no hope. Act! Raise some hell in your churches so that others may have hope!”
A few days later we met with Dr. Mitri Raheb, director of the International Lutheran Center and pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Mitri Raheb speaks bluntly as well. He has watched the annihilation of his people, the confiscation of their land, the destruction of their way of life. He speaks about hope but not optimism. Watching the systematic oppression and suffering of his people, he is no longer able to be optimistic.
But at the International Lutheran Center, he too focuses on one day at a time, finding ways to affirm life and build self-esteem. There are programs to help children and young adults, women and the elderly. An expanding sports program builds a sense of identity and pride in youth as they compete even outside the West Bank. Opportunities for craft and textile making provide work for people who have no other means of support. There is a health and wellness center, a media and communication center. There are opportunities for intercultural experiences. The ILC supports a school and a college. There are conferences and meetings to help educate and connect.
When asked what he’d do if the world were to end tomorrow, Raheb quotes Martin Luther (with a Palestinian twist): “If the world were coming to an end tomorrow, I’d still go out and plant an olive tree.” Mitri Raheb does what needs to be done to give people a sense of purpose, affirmation, a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live.
Mitri Raheb and Elias Chacour are two prophets—two “little Christ’s”—in a land where there is very little hope. They know the hard work of bringing hope to a part of the world riddled by despair and they know unbearable suffering. Most of all, they know that true hope comes only when we affirm life in the midst of death and light in the middle of darkness. With tenacity and persistence and uncommon courage, they help scatter the darkness and capture glimmers of hope for all God’s people.
In this season of Lent, when we gather each week to sing “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world; the light no darkness can overcome” and when our warbly voices pray for peace between nations and peace between peoples, may each of us be willing to expand our understanding of the injustices that surround us. May we be willing to learn, to say “I had no idea”, to spend time studying about the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, settlements, and refugee camps. May we be instruments of hope. May we raise a little hell so that God’s visions of justice and peace aren’t just words but actions that require hard work and life-long commitments. Let our prayers rise up and our actions behind them. Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world . . . let your light scatter the darkness, and shine within your people here.