South-Central Wisconsin Synod's Trip
16 day trip - Israel-Palestine, led and arranged by Bishop Bruce Burnside
Reflections on the trip from Christine Gantz, A.I.M.:
Other experiences in my life that I have called “life-changing” pale in comparison with this trip to the Holy Land. There were so many surprises: the geography, the people, the spirit of hope and determination in a time of occupation and oppression. Do you know how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem? It’s a lot like driving through Chicago suburbs that blend together. You would never notice crossing into Bethlehem from Jerusalem – that is, you wouldn’t notice if it weren’t for the Separation Barrier. Twenty-five feet of concrete, topped with razor wire, heavily guarded on both sides by Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles. Elaborate graffiti-art tells a story of fear, subjugation and pain. Even in rural areas where it really is made of fencing material, it exceeds what you would expect to find around a prison. Wall or fence, it’s much more than a minor inconvenience. It slices through neighborhoods, and cuts Palestinians off from roads, relatives, work places, fields, olive groves, healthcare and their own homes.
It is amazing that even under these conditions, the Palestinian people are warm, gracious and generous full of hospitality and concern for others. Like anyone else they have families, businesses, farms. They value education highly, and have hope for peace and dreams for the future of their children. And when asked how they persevere, they say, “What we can do? This is our life. This is our home.”
The events of this trip were unique and gave us an experience of Palestinian life most travelers never have. We devoted two days to picking olives with a family in a West Bank village and heard stories of beatings and unjust imprisonment. In town, we watched the production of olive oil and were given a taste of the oil fresh from the press. The olives come in from the village groves and are then processed and bottled in large yellow jugs ready for shipping. We were invited to lunch at a Women’s Savings and Credit Association where rural women develop their productive/economic role and skills through projects and education. We heard how the association has grown and saw samples of their handiwork.
We spent an afternoon walking the streets of Nablus where Jacob’s Well still exists today. We drew water from the well and shared a drink in the very place where Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman. We met with an Islamic Qadi (judge) and were privileged to have conversation with the Samaritan High Priest in his living room. We spent an anxious hour and a half standing outside in drizzle at the checkpoint between Nablus and the Samaritan village, detained for no apparent reason by heavily armed soldiers.
On a tour of the Lutheran Schools, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” with children, watched them run and play in a playground surrounded by razor wire, heard from high school youth about their hopes for the future, and learned about environmental concerns that are being addressed with education and innovative ideas. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land (ELCJHL) has four K-12 schools enrolling about 2,100 Christian and Muslim boys and girls. Students receive an excellent academic education in an atmosphere that teaches peacemaking and bridge building. More than half receive financial aid from the ELCJHL. It was heartbreaking to hear a bright and articulate 10th grade girl talk about losing her scholarship for next year. She was given no explanation. “These things happen,” she said matter-of-factly.
Near Hebron, we visited families whose homes had been demolished by the Israeli government just days before because an illegal settlement established nearby wants to push them out. They are now living in tents amidst the rubble of their homes, among them an elderly man experiencing seizures and a young mother recovering after recently giving birth by cesarean. No water, no plumbing, no refrigeration. The children who played in the dust and rocks pointed proudly to their school on the hill a short distance away. “What are you studying?” we asked. “English!” they replied.
We met with a settler in his home to hear and understand the Israeli point of view. Bob is a native New Yorker and alumni of the University of Wisconsin so we had some common ground. He showed us maps and explained how the land where settlements are established has been unoccupied and creates no problem for nearby villages. He seems to have forgotten that settlements are built around an area’s water supply to control it; that the land was being used by shepherds before the settlements were built; that existing roads are taken over and access is denied to Palestinians who have lived in the area for generations; that sewage and garbage are dumped outside the settlements and allowed to pollute Palestinian land and water. We had so many questions, but he did not give us the opportunity to ask them.
Everywhere we went we asked our new Palestinian friends what we could do to help. They did not ask for money, or donations of clothes and food, or farming equipment, or healthcare workers, or missionaries. They simply asked us to tell their story; to let everyone know the truth about this occupation and the hardships, humiliation and desperation it has caused. And so we will show our pictures and tell of our experiences and pray that the truth will be heard.