Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A New Set of Eyes and Ears

American mainline churches and peace churches have had a presence in the Middle East since the mid-19th century. Although American Churches did found a small number of Protestant congregations throughout the Middle East, these denominations made a larger impact in the region through the founding of schools (like the American University in Beirut and the Friends' Girls School in Ramallah) and hospitals, through the continued involvement of their mission workers in ministries of social service and through ecumenical cooperation with indigenous Middle Eastern Churches.

The impact of American Mission Workers in the Middle East has not only come from what they have given, but from what they have received -- not only from the talents they have invested but also from what they have learned and experienced through living in Middle Eastern societies. Some of the most reliable information American Christians get about the situation in the occupied territories comes not through the Mainstream Media, but through the reports of their Mission Workers who not only observe, but experience the day to day realities of Palestinians. It is not unusual to hear from a United Methodist mission worker who is serving as principal of a school or a Mennonite Mission Worker who is working with Palestinian environmental groups. While many mission workers bring years of experience in congregational ministry, in social service or in study of Middle Eastern and Interreligious history, others bring the enthusiasm and energy of youth. In fact, a few denominations, like the PC(USA) and the UMC, have programs geared especially toward young adults, where they place recent college grads in mission with partner churches or NGOs in various parts of the world.

A regular feature of this blog will be to share some of the reflections of American Mission workers in Israel and Palestine. The first report I am highlighting is from one of these younger mission workers, "long-term volunteer" Shannon O'Donnell. She has been serving since October 2006 as a Webmaster and an information technology specialist in the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Sabeel is a mission partner of the PC(USA) which describes its mission thus:

Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, this liberation theology seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians, to promote unity among them toward social action. Sabeel strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities. The word "Sabeel" is Arabic for ‘the way‘ and also a ‘channel‘ or ‘spring‘ of life-giving water.

Sabeel also works to promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns. It encourages individuals and groups from around the world to work for a just, comprehensive and enduring peace informed by truth and empowered by prayer and action.

In one of her first reflections, Shannon says:

Slowly, I am learning the underlying rules of this land, and the consequences for all of the people they impact. There is a saying that if you come to this land for a week, then you will leave and write a book; if you come for a month, you will write an article; if you stay for a year, you will write nothing. The situation is complex, like a snowflake. The closer you look at it, the more intricate it appears, and the more difficult it is to explain.

I am learning more about the history behind the conflict here and now I am familiar with words like “Nakba” and “Occupied Territories.” Everyone knows about the Holocaust, but few in the West seem to have heard about Nabka. I find that there is a whole lot more to history than I was ever taught. There is a whole other side of the story that is never talked about.
Every day I watch them construct the separation wall, one of the biggest obstacles to a possible future state of Palestine. It’s getting difficult to see hope for a two-state solution, because there’s a big grey wall blocking my view.
My biggest asset to keeping a hopeful outlook has been the people with whom I live and work. The Christians I have met, those from Sabeel, those who come to visit what they call the “Holy Land” and also include what we call “Palestine” in their visit to Israel. I now read the Bible with a new set of eyes and ears that have become especially attuned to the perspective of the oppressed, to the words of Christ. But I still have so much more to learn. I look forward to learning from all the people I encounter, no matter what side of the wall they live on."

Whether our Mission Workers have been in the Holy Land for a week, a year or a lifetime, by sharing what they experience with their eyes and ears, each becomes the voice of the voiceless whose stories do not make the evening news. Let those who have an ear, hear.

No comments: