By Eric C. Shafer
On a February Sunday several years ago I was traveling with a group of U.S. Lutherans in the West Bank, the area of biblical Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967. We were scheduled to worship at Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala, a town near Bethlehem. But that Sunday the entire area was under an Israeli army curfew. Since we were accompanied by the Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (and now President of the Lutheran World Federation), we were able to get through the military checkpoint from Jerusalem.
This was a surreal experience — our two Lutheran World Federation (LWF) vans following Bishop Younan’s car into the Beit Jala area. Our three vehicles, with hazard lights blinking, were the only ones on the road that morning. All businesses, schools and homes were closed up, even boarded up. Normally on a Sunday morning, a work day for the majority Muslim population, the streets would have been teeming with people. Not this day. The streets and sidewalks were completely vacant and quiet except for an occasional stray dog. The Israeli curfew kept everyone at home and off the streets. Those who ventured out risked arrest and prison.
The church bells were ringing when we approached Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala. We wondered if anyone would be there. As we entered the church grounds, there were hundreds of people waiting for the bishop and for worship. Surprised by their bravery, bravery I thought might be foolhardy, I asked one of our hosts why he had violated the curfew and risked imprisonment to come to worship that day. “If God calls us, we are coming,” was all he needed to say.
I have just returned from my fourth visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The purpose of this trip was to produce a video Bible study on the “Stations of the Cross,” taping on the Mount of Olives and in the Old City of Jerusalem. (The “Stations of the Cross” trace the route traditionally assumed taken by Jesus of Nazareth from the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, the route Jesus walked from his betrayal and capture through his crucifixion, death and resurrection). While there, my friend, videographer Tim Frakes, and I offered to record video stories for the Lutheran World Federation/Jerusalem and for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
I wish I could tell you that the situation for ordinary Palestinians (and many Israelis) has improved since my last visit, but, alas, it has not. Palestinians still must face difficult daily lives — finding employment and housing, getting through internal check points to work and church and family, violent flare ups followed by violent response, Palestinian home destruction and expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory — and that list, unfortunately, could continue.
However, despite all of these “road blocks” to Palestinian daily life, road blocks literal and figurative, what I saw and experienced during my most recent visit in late January was steady survival and even hope, hope in the midst of difficult times.
In the midst of these tough times:
* The Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives continues, as it has for more than 65 years, to serve the Palestinian people, a Christian hospital serving all people of all faiths. That vision along with high quality health care has only been strengthened in recent years. Augusta Victoria is the first and only hospital in the Palestinian territories to provide radiation therapy for cancer patients and is the only medical facility in the West Bank offering pediatric kidney dialysis, making it distinct among the few hospitals which serve the millions of Palestinian people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
* The Lutheran World Federation’s Vocational Training Center in East Jerusalem provides excellent vocational training for high school age young people, both women and men. While the unemployment among Palestinian young adults is very high, 40% or more, those graduating from the LWF Vocational Center have a 90% chance of finding work!
* The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) sponsors outstanding elementary and secondary schools for Palestinian children, both Christian and Muslim, in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, and Ramallah, schools focusing on education which teaches, even emphasizes, peace-building and interfaith understanding while still being unashamedly Christian as well as holding up the church’s commitment to the environment and environmental education in the midst of occupation and continued political unrest.
I had a chance to visit the hospital, the vocational training center and three of these schools, plus the church’s environmental education center. I found all of these places full of dedicated staff, serious students, appreciative parents and patients, with the staff providing outstanding instruction and service and care, all despite the troubles of daily life in the occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Yes, life in the Holy Land is difficult for many, but the people we met not only go on, but many burst forth with amazing lives of witness and service in spite of these difficulties. I think we can all see hope in that. I know I do.
The Rev. Eric C. Shafer, the Senior Pastor of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, was in Jerusalem and the West Bank in late January. Read more about the trip on his blog at www.ericcshafer.org.