Monday, November 29, 2010

The First Sunday of Advent in Ramallah, Palestine

I woke up yesterday morning and got ready to go to church at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah, one of the congregations in the ELCJHL. I needed to leave by 9:00 to make sure I was able to be there by 10:30 when the service started. Although Ramallah is only 17.5 miles from Jerusalem, it takes at least 1 hour to get there by bus, because the Palestinian buses are not allowed to drive on the Israeli roads once they leave the municipality of Jerusalem.

As I quickly checked my email, I found the following “poem”:

Twas the month before Chris tmas
When all through our land,
Not a Chris tian was praying
Nor taking a stand.
See the PC Police had taken away
The reason for Chris tmas - no one could say.
The children were told by their schools not to sing
About Shepherds and Wise Men and Angels and things.
It might hurt people's feelings, the teachers would say
December 25th is just a ' Holiday '.
Yet the shoppers were ready with cash, checks and credit
Pushing folks down to the floor just to get it!
CDs from Madonna, an X BOX, an I-Pod
Something was changing, something quite odd!
Retailers promoted Ramadan and Kwanzaa
In hopes to sell books by Franken & Fonda.
As Targets were hanging their trees upside down
At Lowe's the word Chris tmas - was no where to be found.
At K-Mart and Staples and Penny's and Sears
You won't hear the word Chris tmas; it won't touch your ears.
Inclusive, sensitive, Di-ver-si-ty
Are words that were used to intimidate me.
Now Daschle, Now Darden, Now Sharpton, Wolf Blitzen
On Boxer, on Rather, on Kerry, on Clinton !
At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter
To eliminate Jesus, in all public matter.
And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith
Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace
The true Gift of Chris tmas was exchanged and discarded
The reason for the season, stopped before it started.
So as you celebrate 'Winter Break' under your 'Dream Tree'
Sipping your Starbucks, listen to me.
Choose your words carefully, choose what you say
not Happy Holiday !
Please, all Chris tians join together and wish everyone you meet
Christ is The Reason for the Chris-tmas Season!
If you agree please forward, if not, simply delete.
(Spelling and division of words, e.g, Chris-tmas(?) in the original)

This poem stopped me dead in my tracks. As I sat at the table, I thought about the congregation I was going to go visit. A congregation of Christians that exists in a land where the government has decided which religion is the “right” religion, and it is not Christianity. I thought about the people in that congregation whose families have been Christians for 2000 years, the families who first became Christians when Christ actually walked here in Jerusalem. I thought about how those families can only travel to Jerusalem if they have the right color permit. I thought about how the members of that congregation can’t get to hospitals whenever they need to because they live on the wrong side of a 30 foot high concrete wall that was unilaterally built by a Government that has decided which religion is the “right” religion. Frankly, I wondered how Christians in my own country could truly advocate what is written in this poem, in the name of Christ. And so, I have composed the following response:

Nothing that is mentioned in this poem can take your faith away, - not the PC Police, not the Senate, not the courts, not schools, not authors and not retailers. Only you can allow any of these things to take your faith away.

If you believe that the reason for Christmas is lost, or the faith of children is undermined by the absence of singing about "shepherds and wise men and angels and things" in school, please spend more time singing these hymns with the children you know and bring them to worship each Sunday so their faith can be reinforced and strengthened. Please set an example for them by living out Christ every day by being as open, loving, and accepting as Christ was to everyone he encountered except to those who judged others. And, if you are offended by the materiality of Christmas, then opt out of the shopping madness and have a Christmas without gifts for anyone but the poor and the needy.

As for the idea that sensitive, inclusive and diversity are words that are used to intimidate, I can think of no one who better exemplified sensitivity, inclusivity and diversity than Christ did. Look at that rag-tag bunch of fellows he picked up to be his first disciples - talk about a diverse group. And even more so, his followers ALWAYS included sinners, outcasts and those that society deemed to be "those people", just as Muslims (Ramadan), African-Americans (Kwanzaa), and gays are considered to be "those people" by the people who, in this poem, lament the absence of the word "Christmas." I believe that Christ would be appalled by the complete absence of sensitivity, inclusivity, and I'd be willing to bet, diversity of the person or persons that wrote this poem.

Also, I cannot understand how requiring religious displays on civic property in December to represent all religions, not just Christianity, somehow constitutes taking away “the reason for Christmas” or "eliminating Jesus in all public matter." Jesus has not been eliminated by the inclusion of symbols or other religions, he has been added to. What a generosity of faith it shows to include others at a time when they have been historically excluded. What better way to demonstrate what it REALLY means to be a Christian than to lovingly and openly welcome those who look different, act different, talk different and YES, believe differently. If we are able to do this, then Jesus has not been eliminated from all public matter, he has been glorified, he has been exemplified and he has been worshipped in the most public of ways.

Let me also respond to the phrase, "they took away our faith, forbidden to speak of salvation and grace, the true gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded, the reason for the season stopped before it started." I believe that the beauty of salvation and grace is that they exist irrespective of whether they are not mentioned, they are whispered about in private places or they are shouted from the mountain tops. So even if we were forbidden to speak of them, which we are not, they would still exist for everyone. As for it taking away your faith, I repeat what I said at the beginning, no one can take your faith away unless YOU allow it to happen.

Finally, the true gift of Christmas is not a crèche on the lawn of City Hall, it is not a Christmas tree hung right side up, it is not children singing hymns in a public school, it is not even a church building or the institution of church. The true gift of Christmas is Christ himself who called us to justice, to kindness, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If each of us were able to do that, then whether we choose to call December 25th, Christmas or a holiday or something else, it will not matter because the Kingdom of Christ will have arrived and all these other differences will fall away and not matter.

As I attended church at Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah yesterday, the entire service was in Arabic and I understood not ONE word. Nevertheless, I still knew that I was among my Christian brothers and sisters. They are not concerned with whether December 25th is referred to as Christmas or a holiday, they are not concerned about stores and which way they hang their Christmas trees, they don’t spend time fretting over being able to include Nativity scenes on the lawns of City Hall. No, what the members of Lutheran Church of Hope are concerned about is the freedom to worship as they choose; they seek not to be disregarded by the “right” religion, as this poem seeks to disregard those who are not the “right” religion. They simply want the right to be regarded as God’s children, deserving of the same respect and dignity as those who belong to the “right” religion in Israel. And, I knew that this congregation understood the meaning of Advent, expectantly awaiting the coming of Christ, who welcomes all to his table.

Merry Christmas to you and Happy Holidays to those whose beliefs, although different from mine, are just as strong and important to them as yours are to you.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Today I intended to share a story with you about my last two mornings at Qalandiya, a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerualem. Yesterday, however, someone asked me what we do at checkpoints. As a result, in this posting, I’m simply going to describe Qalandiya and tell you what we do there. I will share my story about my last two mornings some other time.

We go to Qalandiya three mornings a week, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. We are there from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m. If the lines are moving smoothly, we may decide to leave early. If there are problems, we stay until the lines clear. Recently we were asked to monitor Qalandiya on a Friday morning and on a Saturday morning, so next week we will be at Qalandiya five times instead of three.

Unlike the last checkpoint I talked about, Qalyndiya is a checkpoint for both vehicles and pedestrians. We monitor only the pedestrian portion of the checkpoint. Also unlike the last checkpoint I talked about, Qalandiya is dirty and dark. The sun barely shines into Qalandiya, except along a narrow strip of floor by the concrete bunker in which the soldiers sit. The light comes from overhead fluorescent lights, many of which are burned out, leaving almost half of the place in darkness. Above and to the left is a picture I took at Qalandiya on November 14, at 4:30 a.m.

I took this picture to the right on November 2. The space quickly becomes crowded and noisy as the men wait to get through the lines to work. As the mornings go on, women who are also going to work, and schoolchildren who need to get to school join the men. At times there may be 200 to 300 people waiting in line for the turnstiles to open so they can pass through.

As you can see from these pictures, there are three metal chutes, enclosed on three sides by metal bars and wire. These chutes are roughly 30 feet long, and two feet wide. At the end of each chute is a turnstile. Border patrol soldiers operate the turnstiles, pushing buttons to open and close them. Beyond the turnstiles, there are five ID booths; each has a conveyor belt and a metal detector, similar to airport security. Once a person passes through the metal detector, they are required to show their permit allowing them to enter Jerusalem. If the permit is satisfactory they are allowed to go. If it is unsatisfactory they are turned back.

At no time do the people waiting in line have any personal contact with any of the border patrol. The soldiers who push the buttons for the turnstiles sit in the concrete bunker, pictured below, which is located behind both a metal fence and a separate wire fence. The soldiers at the ID booths are also behind concrete and metal walls, the glass is shatterproof and bulletproof.

How often the turnstiles open is random. Sometimes they open every couple of minutes, sometimes every ten minutes, sometimes even more time passes. How many people are allowed to pass at any one time, from 8 to 100, also seems to be completely random. This is one of the reasons there are so many people waiting to get through – there is simply no way to predict how long it may take to pass through the checkpoint on any given day. Workers will arrive at 5 in the morning to go through the checkpoint simply to insure that they are able to make it to work by 7 a.m. Students start to arrive at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. so they can make it through the checkpoint to get to school by 8:00 a.m. Waiting times of over an hour or longer to pass through both the turnstiles and the ID booths are not uncommon.

Off to the left side of the concrete bunker, just out of sight is a gate called the Humanitarian Gate. This line is supposed to be open for older people; people with physical limitations that make it difficult to pass through the turnstiles, those with medical permission to use the Humanitarian Gate and for schoolchildren who need to get to school. The gate is supposed to be open from 6:30 – 7:30 a.m. Often it does not open at all. I have been told that the Humanitarian Gate will only open when the lines at the turnstiles are backed up. The definition of “backed up” is difficult to ascertain, however, given the number of people waiting to go through the checkpoint. We have the phone number for the humanitarian hot line programmed into our phones so that we can call for assistance to have the gate opened if the need arises.

The Humanitarian Gate opens into an area that leads to a turnstile. Although there is no metal chute encasing the walkway to the turnstile, the people are still fenced in by metal bars and wire fences. After the turnstile, the people walk to the same ID booths as the people who passed through the other turnstiles.

To open the Humanitarian Gate, a specific procedure must be followed. Despite the fences, the ID booths, and the armed soldiers in the concrete bunker and behind the bulletproof glass, 3 additional people are needed to open the Humanitarian Gate. A border patrol soldier with an automatic weapon, because this soldier is responsible for the border; a police officer with an automatic weapon, because the police officer has the key to the gate; a private security guard with an automatic weapon, because he guards the armed soldier and the armed police officer. It is necessary to have all of these armed people to allow the elderly, the sick and the students to go to the ID booths along the route I just described.

When we arrive in the morning, we walk from the Jerusalem side of the Wall to the Ramallah side, basically going through the checkpoint the wrong way. As we go through, we note the number of ID booths that are open, the number of turnstiles that are open and how many people are waiting. After that we stand near the entrance to the turnstiles to count the number of people who pass in each 30 minute period. We separately count the men, women and children. It is not an exact science, since we cannot physically see every person who goes through the turnstiles. Sometimes one or more turnstile stops working and we don't always notice the exact time it happened. This is one of several factors which can affect the accuracy of the count.

We share the numbers we gather with the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Machsom Watch. On average, over 2000 people pass through the checkpoint in a three-hour period. We document when we call the humanitarian hot line, we document whether the problem is resolved, we document the actions of the people waiting and we document the general attitude of the soldiers. This is what we do at Qalandiya.

Qalandiya is dehumanizing. It is disrespectful. It is degrading. I hate going there.