I wish that I had the time and energy to cobble together all of these experiences into some kind of narrative or argument, but for now all I’ve got for you is more or less a recording of what happened today. That should suffice for now, and I’ll work on something more substantial. Things are still cooking upstairs, but here’s a list of the ingredients!
Today it was rise-and-shine at 7:30 AM, which, as many of you know, is way before my preferred wakeup time. Breakfast was corn flakes (no sugar . . .), lukewarm milk, and pastries with butter and jam. And pita bread. Pita bread is everywhere here.
Shortly afterward we head to the Garden of Gethsemane for worship. We cut through the Old City, leave from St. Stephen’s Gate—where Stephen was martyred in the Book of Acts—and head down the hill toward the Mount of Olives. Luckily we don’t have to go all the way to the top, as it is very steep.
When Jesus was in Jerusalem he made the trip all the way from the Mount of Olives to the Temple every day. Maybe he used a donkey?
We had worship in the Garden of Gethsemane, which still exists and has trees that are more than 3,000 years old. These are the same trees that Jesus walked among just before he was arrested. It was here that he prayed alone while his disciples slept, and here that Judas Iscariot showed up with the Romans soldiers some 2,000 years ago. These trees have seen some action.
The sermon is by Rev. Naim Ateek, who founded Sabeel—the group putting on this conference—20 years ago. Sabeel, if you’re wondering, means “the Way” in Arabic. Ateek is the Palestinian Liberation Theologian. I’ve read his work, and while I may disagree with some of his methodology, I can tell you from meeting him that Dr. Ateek is a kind, kind man. His sermon was entitled “From the Belly of the Whale”, about, naturally, enough, the book of Jonah. Really solid interpretation, in my opinion—not that I’m any position to judge! Jonah is a story that challenges tribal and nationalistic conceptions of who God is and the boundaries of God’s people.
Next, a tour of the Old City. First stop is at the church in the garden which commemorates where Jesus was comforted by the angels in his distress. Then we walk back up toward St. Stephen’s Gate and walk the Via Dolorosa all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, visiting each of the fourteen stations of the cross. Some of them may or may not have been made up by the Crusaders. Also, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is incredible.
For lunch we go to a Palestinian cultural center. One of the myths that Israelis and the British advanced as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel is that there is (or was) no real “Palestinian” identity—that the Palestinians did not think of themselves as a distinct people group. By this logic, relocation to Jordan or Lebanon was perfectly logical, as this could still be “Palestine”. The cultural center is quite new, but it has many photos of life in Jerusalem before WWII, among other things. Lunch is incredible: chicken, rice, salad, all Palestinian-style. I’ve had food in other Arab countries, and there is definitely a distinct Palestinian flavor . . . not sure what they do, but it’s good.
Afterwards we have a few hours to ourselves in the city, so I head out with a group of fifteen or so, which quickly becomes more like 6 as people peel off or get stuck talking to shopkeepers. We visit the Western Wall. I go into the synagogue in the corner, which is all men, and watch the Hasidim there pray for the reconstruction of the Temple. Later I write my own prayer and stick it in the cracks of the Wall, as is tradition.
Then, it’s back to the Casa Nova Hotel for a movie entitled, “Occupation 101”. I am going to get a copy of this so you folks can watch it. It’s basically an hour-and-a-half introduction to the conflict in all of its history and current dimensions. Essential vocab: 1948, 1967, occupation, separation wall, intifada, the Oslo Accords, and so on. You learn the basics, like how much money America gives to Israel every day (6 to 7 million dollars . . . that’s per day), the amount of land Palestinians have lost, the casualties on both sides, media coverage, home demolitions . . . it’s pretty incredible.
One image that will stick with me: a video clip from one of the intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings. The Israeli response to the Intifada was, self-admittedly, disproportionately violent. This is an intentional policy of the Israeli government toward both Palestinians and any external threats to the country. During the Intifada, this became known as the “break the bone policy”. The clip? Two Israeli soldiers holding down a Palestinian man, pulling his arms behind his head, grabbing a big rock, and breaking his arms. They have to hammer at his upper arm four or five times before the bone actually breaks.
After the film we have time for questions. I was prepared for the film but some had less knowledge of the issue and were, rightfully, emotionally outraged. Some angry discussion and a lot of hard questions.
Time for dinner.
I am eating so well here, I love it. After dinner it’s back downstairs for more icebreakers. We were asked to bring a personal item from our luggage and explain it to the group. I bring a picture of my SMCs from two years ago that a dear friend of mine let me borrow for the trip. So glad she did. Finally, we get into small groups for an end-of-the-day discussion, which I guess we’ll be having every night. We tell our stories about how we got to this conference. Then, finally, bed.
I am exhausted.