A Place Where Jesus Weeps – Guest Blogger, Melanee Hamilton

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Graffiti on the Palestinian side of a partition wall

My first trip to the Holy Land was one year and five months ago. It was a trip that absolutely enthralled me. When I returned home, I knew I had to go back. From February through May of this year, I lived with a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem. I came away more captivated by the region than I had thought possible.

You see, Palestine has a distinctive way of enchanting those willing to expose themselves to the tragic and beautiful reality that is the Holy Land. She is warm and welcoming, but at times remarkably tense to one unaccustomed to perpetual hostility. The stunning sight of the rolling hills of Bethlehem and the sharp, stony mountains of Wadi Qelt near Jericho are enough to mesmerize even those oblivious to the convolution of the region. The true exceptionality of Palestine, however, is found in the beauty and complexity of those living in Bethlehem, Jericho and the rest of Palestine.

The too-short experience I had in Bethlehem was humbling. It required me to forego the place of comfort I had the privilege of enjoying in the United States. At once, this distant region I had been reading about in books and hearing about in podcasts became familiar as I grew to love the family who hosted and cared for me. Palestine was no longer made up simply of statistics and newscasts. The stories of Palestinians’ homes being raided in the early mornings had, overnight, become stories of my neighbors. When something like this happens, staying removed from the raw realities of people’s lives becomes impossible.

A young girl swings in Bethlehem

I could spend this short space listing the statistics of life under occupation in Palestine, but it seems better spent painting a picture of the people I lived among in Bethlehem (although I highly recommend that you take a look at Human Rights Watch: Israel/ Palestine and UNICEF- State of
Palestine for information regarding the occupation). As a seminarian, this picture is painted unashamedly in light of my theological perspective as a follower of Jesus.

Days before boarding the plane to Tel Aviv, I began to feel anxious about my quickly approaching adventure. I prepared to leave for a place whose native language I did not know, to live with a family I had never met, and to navigate a culture with strict guidelines for women. But I knew all of these anxieties had to be confronted. Not because I needed to prove to myself that I could do it (well, maybe that was part of it), but because the convictions I had as a Christian compelled me to take this step of faith. If I believe that the crucifixion and suffering of Christ is an invitation for us to stand opposed to suffering, then how could I not expose myself to the oppressive realities in which people live?

About a month into my stay in Bethlehem, I witnessed my first protest. The Wi’am Center where I was interning is located beside an Israeli watchtower and the separation wall. The Center had decided to close early because of the protest. I stayed back to observe part of it with my friend, a young Palestinian woman. Within a moment, the peaceful protest erupted with tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and rocks. My friend grabbed my arm and told me to run. I followed her down a side road into a shoe shop. After attempting to leave the shop only to rush back in the building when the armored truck came plummeting down the road greeting us with more tear gas, the shop owner graciously offered to give us a ride up the street where things were calmer. When we were outside the range of chaos, my friend and I hopped out of the car. Without a second thought, my beautiful Palestinian friend looked at me said, “I’m hungry. Let’s get shawarma!” Despite my entire body trembling from what I had just witnessed, I had to laugh at how utterly unmoved she was by the entire experience—by the tear gas and bullets being shot at us moments before.

Irish Palestinian Solidarity

Later that day my Palestinian brother and sister got a good laugh out of how severe I found the protest: “On a scale of one to ten, that protest was a two,” they said. It was—and is—jarring for me to consider how drastically different our lives are, despite being so close in age. The reality, however, is that this is their life. Palestinians are strong and resilient, though. They laugh, play, sing, and dance—despite most being trapped by a wall and checkpoints.

Since being home, I have struggled with feeling angry at how Western Christianity has largely overlooked the plight of those living in the land where our God was crucified. I watched as thousands of Christians from around the world joined the Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem. I watched them turn their faces away from the Palestinians in the procession being harassed and arrested. With heads turned, they sang “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

As I processed this event, I pictured Jesus standing with those Palestinians being harassed—weeping with the child whose uncle was arrested, standing firmly with the priests trying to help their parishioners. Jesus weeps over these events. And he weeps every time his people turn their faces away.

Visiting the Holy Land is more than just seeing where Jesus walked 2000 years ago. To truly experience Jesus in the Holy Land is to be with the people in the region. It’s to sit and listen to their stories, to laugh with them and to cry with them.

This message I bring home: To those able to visit Palestine, go! Experience the beautiful and heartbreaking place that she is – and listen. Bring back your own stories to share with the world. And to those unable to go, listen the stories of people who have been there. Don’t just hear what they have to say. Truly listen because the memories of those who have been there will undoubtedly overflow with incredible passion.

Originally from Ohio, Melanee Hamilton currently lives in Massachusetts where she studies Religion and Conflict Transformation at Boston University School of Theology. While in school, Melanee, a Brethren PK (pastor’s kid) interned with On Earth Peace, a CoB affiliated nonprofit organization, where she revised the Matthew 18 Workshop on congregational conflict and reconciliation.

Image Credits: Melanee Hamilton

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Wading in the Water Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/08/08/wading-in-the-water-pt-i-guest-blogger-sarah-ullom-minnich/. What follows is a continuation of Sarah’s story about her experience studying abroad in Ecuador.

My washing complete, I slip back into the welcoming water. I swim out several meters and try to hold my own while swimming against the current. I manage it for a few minutes, but then begin to tire and make my way back into the shallower water. My feet find purchase on the sandy bottom of the river. I close my eyes and let myself feel the rush of the chill water against my arms and legs.

The Church of the Brethren, my community, has a particular historical connection with resistance against a hegemonic system and a river. The story of the original brethren entering the Eder River to be baptized, undertaking a resistance against what they felt was a moral injustice as a community, is one with which I have grown up. The church has a rich heritage of resistance to injustice, and living in Tzawata has helped me feel that heritage more present within me. But it has its ties to racist and colonial systems, ties that here are impossible for me to ignore. I feel a calling in Tzawata, a place very different from my community, to reconnect with the Brethren idea of radical justice – the life courageously lived in the example of the radical love of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together. It is easy back home to let my modern, United States, middle-class, materialistic lifestyle make me comfortable. But living on this side of the bridge, where there are only a few hours of generator electricity and no clean running water (the government has done its best to discourage human habitation here), provides the opportunity to see beyond it.

A couple of small girls swim out to me and hold on to my back. I swim around with them for a while, and we all laugh when one of them lets go briefly to slip under the water, then pops up again and grabs on tight. They, like all the children here, speak in Spanish to one another.

Even as the adults of Tzawata continue a long legal battle against the government and the mining company, their youth are coming of age in a globalized world. One in which speaking Kichwa is looked down upon, and in which the language of power is Spanish, or even English. These youth have their struggles, that of managing their identity in a changing world, without losing their connection to their culture and community. Many leave to study in big cities or find work on the other side of the country. Some become ashamed to speak Kichwa, even with their families. Others invest themselves in preserving their language and culture. All have to negotiate a complicated relationship with the community they have grown up in and the hegemonic culture that pervades their world. When I think about growing up as a Brethren youth, I feel a resonance between our experiences. We live in complicated worlds, affected by complicated systems. Like the toxic laundry soap seeping into the beautiful river we hope to protect, there are parts of our identity that conflict with other parts, parts of the culture we live in, breathe in, that are oppressive, and that seek to smother our less-mainstream values.

The gathering place where the Rehearsing Change cohort meets for classes. About 100m beyond it is the Anzu River.

I check my watch and realize that it is almost time for class. Today we will be working on some of the theater pieces we have been creating in small groups that deal with the struggles faced by Tzawata. Our final presentations are coming up, where our group of local and international students will have the opportunity to share all that we have been working on this semester. I take one last dip to say goodbye to the river, then gather my things and carefully climb back up the rocky bank. The heat of the Amazonian sun on my skin already makes me miss the cool, clear water behind me.

The community of Tzawata will continue their struggle and their negotiation of the many cultural pressures they face. While I have had the opportunity to learn alongside them for half a semester, I will be only a tiny part of the story of their struggle, and they of mine. But if there is anything that I have learned from this semester, it is the power of story to empower and transform our identity. And just as we as a class have been working with the story of Tzawata, the story of Tzawata has been calling to my own story. The story of how the church of the Brethren negotiates a changing world is one with significantly lower stakes. We are not at risk of losing lives, of losing thousands of years of culture, of losing a language, or of losing our homes. But our stories are interconnected, because “Peacefully, Simply, Together,” also calls for resistance against a system that seeks to assign everything a dollar value, including life itself. Our shared humanity interconnects them, and our desire to see a juster world. And for me, they are also now interconnected by human relationships, by friendships and shared experiences.

I finish hanging up my clothes and walk to the roofed area where we have class. One by one, international students and local counterparts trickle in. Around me float the sounds of jokes and laughter, of the giggles of children as they chase one another in and around our group of 13, and of the barks of excited dogs as they romp around the perimeter. As class starts, I feel a twinge of excitement as we split into our groups to rehearse and prepare to reimagine our stories, to reimagine our realities, together.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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Wading in the Water Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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<Hola amigo, como está el agua?> <Mojado!>

 

Class exercises in movement and group cohesion.

The typical response still makes me smile even after five weeks of living in the community of Tzawata. I pick my way down the rocky bank towards the wide Rio Anzu. We’re lucky today, it didn’t rain yesterday, and the river is a clear green-blue. The friend I had greeted is out about twenty feet, swimming against the current. On the rock about 30 feet away, in the middle of the river, three children are perched, enjoying the sun. Another woman is washing her clothes down the bank from me, in a rocky area. The slap of the shirt she swings persistently against a rock punctuates the clear sound of a sunny day. Another group of children upstream has seen me coming to the river and is now letting the current bring them down to say hello. I slowly step into the water up to my knees. Despite the heat of the day, the cold still makes me shiver. With a deep breath, I throw myself into the water, taking the plunge all at once.

The Rio Anzu, and the large, old, metal bridge that connects us to the other side, are two of the most iconic parts of Tzawata’s identity for me. An indigenous community of Kichwa Quijos, Tzawata has a long and harrowing story since the time of colonization. Their ancestors had lived around this river for thousands of years, but upon the arrival of the Spanish they were forced to move up into the mountains and made to work as slaves on their ancestral land. The deed to their land eventually made its way into the hands of a Canadian mining company, where it legally remains to this day. Several years ago, when the company briefly had to leave the country for legal reasons, some of the women of made the decision to journey down the mountain and take back their land. They left Tzawata Alta, as the mountainous part of the community is called, and formed what is now Tzawata Baja, which we refer to simply as Tzawata. Since then, the community has engaged in an often ugly struggle against the company and the government branches whose cooperation it has been able to buy. At one point, the police entered and burned down all of the wooden houses. Many community members lost everything they owned, but they refused to move back up the mountain. In a particularly iconic encounter, the police attempted to cross the bridge to forcibly evict the population. The entire community of Tzawata met them on the narrow bridge, blocking the way. Women and children stood at the front and the men in the back with spears. After a long and tense standoff, the police turned back.

Class response to the instruction: create an image of “power” with your bodies.

After the initial plunge, the icy cold of the water is refreshing. I wade back to the bank for my sack of dirty, smelly clothes and laundry soap. I wet the first shirt in the river and begin to lather it with soap. It’s the same kind of non-biodegradable soap that everyone in the area uses to wash their clothes in the river, but still, I feel the familiar twinge of guilt as I watch the suds disappear downstream.

The community of Tzawata articulates their struggle in many different ways, but the most common ones include their desire to protect their identity and their land. They still cultivate in the traditional way, with many different crops sharing the land, rather than raising one specific crop to sell, which would objectively be more profitable. They also wish to protect the land, and the river which is home to the fish and so much other life, from the inevitable destruction and pollution brought on by mining. They live out this philosophy on top of a literal gold mine.

Presenting a movement piece on the banks of the Anzu River as part of a final project.

I make my way through the shirts and move on to socks. The children splash in the water around me, calling to one another and me. Some ask me to watch them playing in the river; others just want to talk to me, to have me ask them about themselves. A few run up the bank and throw themselves recklessly off the edge of the bridge, whooping during the 20-foot drop into the water, and surface triumphant, excited for another round.

The international students, often affectionately referred to as “las gringas,” though not all of us technically fit into that category, are always a huge source of entertainment and attention for the children. That is one of the reasons the community has continued to invite back the “fair trade study abroad” program Rehearsing Change, which brings in international students to take classes alongside community members, around subjects that are useful to the community. No matter how much we make an effort to put all of us on an even playing field, however, the hegemonic structures of globalization never really disappear. Those of us with a little blue book that has our picture in it have access to privileges and resources that the members of this community will most likely never have access to independent of outside assistance. Those of us with light skin, hair, or eyes have access to cultural resources and preferential treatment, in and outside of Ecuador, which our local counterparts never will. To the best of its ability, Rehearsing Change strives to put these advantages at the disposal of the community, giving them the decision-making power to decide how our presence can be used to further their goals – to use the system’s problems against it. But even on this side of the river, across the bridge, there is no fully escaping a white western hegemony. There can only be a consciousness of it, and an effort to resist.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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