Coming Home “Out of It”
My Israel/Palestine/India Journal
by Chris Rice
On several occasions I’ve been priveleged to take international short term mission trips to India, Haiti, and China. Those trips all changed my perspective on the world–especially the first trip to India. Last year my dad asked me to go with him to India on a routine “fact finding” mission related to his ministry’s support there in Kakinada. As we got our visas and passports renewed, shots, etc., he had another idea to stop through Israel and Palestine for a week. It was a bit of a crazy idea. Friends were excited for me but also shook their heads in amazement at our apparent fool-hardiness. As the months rolled by America began planning a war on Iraq. I called dad at one point to tell him the US embassy was pulling all non-essential personnell out of Tel Aviv Israel. “Are we still going?” I asked. At what point are we going to call the trip off? He didn’t know. Those of you who know my dad, Larry Rice, director of New Life Evangelistic Center, know that he thrives on the adrenaline of doing something most people would shake their head at. The following is my journal of our trip.
Monday Feb. 17, 2003
Arrived at O’Hare. We found that our flight was rescheduled late last night due to heavy snow on the east coast. Flight through NY cancelled. Now flying through Milan Italy. We can’t actually check our bags until noon. I’m really tired as I got maybe three to four hours of sleep total last night. Just couldn’t calm my mind down. Nothing in particular going through it, just very excited I guess.
I reached Jennifer by phone in Jerusalem. She’s been seeing the city by day and been all over. She says the checkpoints all over are very real.
Overheard two Jewish guys talking, here are snips of their conversation:
“Third holiest site-yeah right!” “Excuse me, it’s your fault for killing me, I just happen to be in the way.”
Reminds me of the title of a book on Hendrickson Press “To Kill and Take Possession” which is a best-seller in Israel right now. There’s nothing political in the book, but as a publisher why tell the reader that a book by that title is a best seller in Israel right now!?
Waiting to board the plane. Dad went on a “power walk” for about a half hour down the terminal. When he got back he let me go. There’s this gallery down the length of the terminal of this photo project done in 1993-94 (I guess). They are of families from the world over. Each family is gathered near their home with all their worldly possessions around them. They are beautiful and make me so happy to be on this trip. I realize as I look at them that I do love people and I love God. I remember the old revivalist line “A Christian will pine for souls.” Is that what I’m feeling here? I feel a love for my fellow man (and woman,) all subsisting the best they can with what they have. As I view each picture I pray for these families. Ten years since the pictorial God only knows where (or if!) these people still are. There was a picture of a Russian family in Siberia and the caption read that at the time of the photos mounting the father was deceased.
It quickly becomes apparent that ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” That the items around the families are so representative of their lifestyle is telling. Most live with so little.
What do I need to be noticing in Israel and India? What small things can I learn well in both these places without new cultural immersion? How will I be changed? What can I do?
Note to self. Some personal questions:
1. Why is this land so important?
2. Gentrification and Blight in US compared to Israel.
3. Daily life in Israel (beyond the news).
4. What can I do?
5. Beyond the emotion-practical examples of the light of Christ at work in Israel.
We boarded the plane in Chicago. It was my first international flight in 13 years. This is one of those three row seaters and there’s a lot of people on board. The guy behind us offered to switch seats with dad so he could sit by me. Dad is now near the aisle and strikes up a conversation with the young lady on the other side of the aisle and the guy behind him. This was in mid flight so the plane was loud and I can only catch bits of the conversation. I gather that dad is talking with these two Jewish people about the current situation between Palestinians and Israelis. Dad turns to me to tell me what a great discussion it is. I don’t really want to participate. I’m interested in the way they see it, but not in the general dialogue. I feel very emotionally attached to the discussion. As I told my dad later in Newark, its like talking about the death of a loved one, but in this case we’re watching the two peoples locked in a death grip. To discuss this in detached political terms, especially with folks who are generally apolitical– just trivializes it. I guess I’m also just biased, but I think of the average Israeli citizen much like the average South African during Apartheid. I can’t fault them for trying to live life normally, but when that means believing the State propaganda to a complete deadening of your conscience-that’s wrong!
To their credit most of the Jewish people we met were progressively minded-our El Al security attendant in Newark even said he didn’t trust Ariel Sharon or Arafat. I wonder how many share that sentiment. Later Dr. Rishmawi in Beit Sahour told us “off the record” and after I’d stopped rolling the camera about the general Palestinian mistrust for their leadership. The new Prime Minister for instance gave up the Refugee Right of Return a long time ago for peace. But even progressive talk troubles me-maybe especially. What does it say of a soul that he/she has all the right talk but no intention to act? Action is what everyone concerned with the Middle East is short on. Paralysis has now stayed everyone’s hands it seems. Except for the hands holding guns and making explosives.
But that’s what this trip was all about. Finding the hands that were acting constructively.
Day 3 (Day two was spent in transition on planes and in Milan)
I haven’t written in a few days. Last night was my first real sleep since Saturday night before I left. Dad and I had a big shake up in Milan and were detained and questioned and searched for hours (at least 2 if not 3) by El Al Security. They could not understand our reason for journeying on to India and so said we could go on our flight but to leave the cameras. So I went on and left dad with the cameras in Milan. As soon as I left they let dad go with the bags and cameras! It seems they just didn’t want us together on the same flight!
Dad was rerouted through Switzerland that night and he arrived in Tel Aviv at 5am the following morning. After a great meeting with Abuna Chacour this morning and giving him $500 for West Bank work, dad slept the rest of the day.
Tomorrow we face the most dangerous leg of our journey (that I know of ). We are leaving for Jerusalem at 6am tomorrow. We’ve decided to stay in Jerusalem at the Austrian Hospice because of how far it is from Ibillin. Its sad we can’t stay longer. My love has deepened for the people here and I do pray that the plans for radio and maybe TV would really take off. Lord bring this dream to real fruition! Let your word be brought in this way all over Ibillin. I pray for an overwhelming response from donors in the US for greater support for the work here.
I don’t know what to expect tomorrow. We’ll be in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Somehow I never made the connection that Bethlehem was in the West Bank. Curfews, refugee camps, bombed out areas. Its all still so unreal here in Ibillin. Though this is an Arab village there aren’t soldiers here.
Why are we walking into hell? Because You are not just here in peaceful Ibillin. You are there in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Jesus it takes faith but I believe you that you have gone before us. Prepare our way O Lord! Grant us safety. Blessed be your will and way. Reveal. Let it be ours.
Our day around Abuna’s place
I’m always searching for a reference point. Theologically I’m trying over my life span to be immersed in a practical application of the Scriptures. My reference point has been in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and one of his mentors, Karl Barth. In looking at Israel and Palestine for someone who has Bonhoeffer’s sensibility to the presence of Jesus Christ in the present moment I’ve found Abuna Elias Chacour. I don’t know if Abuna would be comfortable with those parallels. He just wants to be a man of Galilee like Jesus. But when I think of Bonhoeffer’s quote:
“Who stands firm? Only the persons who are ready to sacrifice all�when they are called to obedient and responsible action”1 I can’t help but think of Abuna Chacour. In an interview with us for television Abuna described how 60% of the historic Christian population had already left and more were immigrating all the time. He said that Christians in Israel and Palestine are being put on the cross by extremists from both sides, but that he and they were staying because after the cross comes the resurrection.
Abuna’s life and work is all about solidarity with the oppressed. Bonhoeffer again, “Whoever from now on attacks the least of the people attacks Christ who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance.”2 Abuna was just a boy in Galilee when war broke out between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations. His whole story can be read in his book Blood Brothers3, but its important here to point out that Abuna’s life has been filled with pain. The pain of his early beatings by Israeli soldiers and the forced removal of his family from their homes. The pain of the knowledge that under Israeli law he can now be buried in his family village of Biram but can never return to live there.4
Most importantly, his pain is ongoing for the people of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. While he himself is an Israeli citizen in Galilee his ministry continues to support needy people in the West Bank who are suffering from malnutrition and a destroyed infrastructure. Head of an Israeli recognized school, the Mar Elias Educational Institute, he is also asked to travel to surrounding villages and mediate problems in other area schools. On the night my sister and I arrived in Galilee, over dinner Marie, Abuna’s Australian secretary, made mention that Abuna was doing this as we spoke. Marie is amazed by his seeming inexhaustible energy– even after a few years as his secretary. If he’s not overseeing new construction projects at the school, seeing student’s parents and local businessmen, he’s traveling all over the US speaking and raising support. He began touring again in the US shortly after we left.
I first saw Abuna speak in person at a church in Wheaton Illinois. The church was packed, with people even standing in the back, and the introduction given made me think the Dalai Lama himself was about to ascend the podium. (I don’t mean any disrespect, the love shown him was wonderful.) But as soon as this portly man with a fresh crew cut and a foot long ghoti got to the microphone the mood changed drastically-which enamored me more. He brushed all those accolades aside and got to work talking about his kids at MEEI and the practical work God had given him to do. It was like all these white-bread American Protestants were sitting at his feet waiting for him to say something profound about Reconciliation and he just rained on their parade by being so darned practical and nonesoteric. I loved that.
What I appreciate most about Abuna is his practical sense of Calling. He has a PhD. and is versed in politics and social relations but he maintains his focus as president of Mar Elias. When Marie brought us into Abuna’s office he immediately sat us down and began asking us about ourselves. He said he was open to doing a camera interview but wanted to know who we were, what we did. I remember he said something like “I want to make sure you’re not Bush-ites” behind a wry smile. My dad told him he’d just come from the meeting of National Religious Broadcasters but that when Bush arrived he left. Dad teases me incessantly that I voted for George W. Bush. I tell him “So Al Gore would now be our man of the hour? That thought’s not scary to you?”
Dad told Abuna about his work with the New Life Evangelistic Center in America and listed all the TV and radio stations that are a part of it. Abuna stopped him and said, “Don’t build any more in America. Build your next one here.” So dad agreed. MEEI already has a media department for students and they are being trained in Radio engineering. Later Marie and I talked to the college director who had just contacted Israel’s equivalent of the FCC and said the process for getting a license had begun. In our TV interview Abuna related the need for a Christian presence on the airwaves in Galilee. The only choices right now are Zionism or Islam. He wants to offer the love of Jesus and the message of forgiveness from the school.
Dad did two shows with Abuna. The first one was just introducing Abuna to our Midwest American audience. How often, I wondered, does Abuna have to introduce himself as an anomaly–a Palestinian Christian to our US audiences? That’s got to get old. But he does it with grace-seasoned with salt. Dad asked how to bring the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, together. Abuna answered that reconciliation depends on the narratives of both people. Each side must accept the other’s history and embrace their narratives as equally painful, and then realize that they must share the land together as people with a past. This is part of the Justice needed before Peace can take place. At one point dad said to him, “Much that comes across the media in America is that if these people [the Palestinians] weren’t around there’d be peace, but they’re feeding disast�. ” and immediately Abuna cut in,
“That’s very true my dear, if the Palestinians were not around, there would be peace in Israel. Yeh? because the Jews would be alone in the country. So what’s to do? Go and say to God, “You are silly you have created the Palestinians. We will eliminate them. If that’s what the solution is, let that be. But that would not be God’s will. And if we can say that—the contrary: If the Jews had not come to Palestine we are living in peace. But its all so silly. Its living in the wishful thinking. The Jews are here to stay and we, the Palestinians, are not here to disappear.”
The next show was about Abuna’s unique message of Forgiveness. To speak of forgiveness is one thing but to have to live it from Abuna’s shoes is something altogether different. He related his own story and his firm belief that without forgiveness, the only alternative is hate and death. He said that at one time he wanted to give up. He went to Switzerland for a lecture and while there told God, “I’m sick of this, why should I have to endure this. I quit!” But God drew him back to the land. He said that he’d been all over the world and told dad, “I’ve seen more of the US than you probably have. It’s a beautiful country. But its not my country.” For Abuna there is no other place in the world like Galilee. The parallels to Bonhoeffer on this point are obvious. He had to return to Germany, even when the government was evil. Even when death was immanent. To not represent Christ in that situation, for him, was to leave the faith. And so it is for Abuna. But, Abuna said, speaking in glowing terms about abstract concepts like Reconciliation and Forgiveness is inane to the Palestinian mindset. They live concrete lives. Thus the school. Abuna’s legacy is making waves in his society because they can see with their eyes and experience the hope offered through Mar Elias.
Then dad asked Abuna about George Bush and the war on Iraq. “You don’t feel Bush’s policies are going to bring about peace?” His comments caught me totally by surprise.
“Not only do I not feel he’s going to bring about peace— he’s a genius, he’s a unique President, the most powerful President in human history in instilling fear in the hearts of every human being. Unfortunately he will enter history as the President Par Excel lance who was able to frighten every human being-American as other. And you don’t need to be a saint to do that. Saints inspire confidence and trust. It is the others who are not saintly that can instill fear. I pray for President Bush. I pray a lot for him. He can destroy millions and millions of human beings. Of human lives. He has already destroyed so much in the human self esteem and trust. And that’s a very great pity. I knew President Bush the father. He was of another trend. He was of another thinking. He pursued justice in a right or less right way in the Gulf but the present one wants to settle accounts. My dear president Bush, let God settle accounts. You’re not God. Your just a Bush. “
While I guess I knew that somewhere in my head, but hearing Abuna, someone outside the US, specifically in the Middle East, the region most directly effected, was quite a jolt. Living in America I don’t think we realize how our policies and words effect the rest of the world. We’re afraid of extremists the world over, but can’t our own words and policies be reasonably understood as extremist? Is America in danger of becoming an extremist country?
After our interview with Abuna dad went up to the room to get some sleep and Jennifer and I went on a walk around the town just off the school campus. There’s something about foggy or rainy days. Something about being able to taste the air that makes you really feel alive. Kind of like actually being in Israel. Its different than viewing it through a TV or computer monitor. The people become real. An Arab becomes a mother and wife hanging clothes on her clothes line, smiling and waving as you pass. A teenager driving a van so fast you have to jump out of the way is just a young man testing his skills and not a potential threat to national security. Ibillin is a beautiful village and its always a pleasure to spend time with my little sister, four years younger than myself. Ibillin is quite hilly so our half-hour walk was a work out. While we didn’t see many people on our walk that morning, the people we did encounter were quite friendly, even happy to see us, despite the fact that as Americans our country is poised at war with Iraq. Its hard for me to just experience a place in the present. So as we walked I kept drawing comparisons between Ibillin and other places I’d been-India, China, Haiti, but none of them really fit.
Jen said, “You can’t really compare those to this.” She’s right. Barking dogs. Littered streets. Sparsely situated roads. But with a backdrop of rolling hills and land as far as you can see that can’t be described as anything but Israel. Situated on one of the hills is what looks like part of a medieval castle. We asked Marie about it and she said, “Oh its just a house. Everyone asks about that. It puts me in mind of the Crusades.” As we walked up a steep road just to find out where it led, we talked about wine. We were brought up in a dry household. Mom and Dad only imbibed on rare occasion. Mainly because we shared a communal ministry with recovering alcoholics. The effects of drink were so evident. I’ll never forget dad coming home with his clothes wreaking of alcohol because he helped to literally lift a homeless man out of the gutter. But here we were now all grown up. Jen talked about the great fellowship she had on occasion at her local pub. I couldn’t help being satirical. “Oh so you’re a sipping Saint now! Well, I guess we all have our vices.” It was light hearted conversation. I had missed my sister’s laugh, her smile. Though we had these light moments I could tell my sister’s concern for this country was a weight on her, perhaps heavier than my own. She’d spent a semester in Egypt her last year of college, studying the Middle East. While we were in Israel together she was dialoging Mark Ellis’ work in Jewish Liberation Theology with Naim Ateek’s voice on Palestinian Liberation Theology for a seminary class. Its so hard for me to read her face. She said I was often misreading it, but I could tell there was a tension there from being so close to these issues. I see it in myself too. There’s an aggravation just under the surface that comes out on occasion. An impending sense of helplessness for people you’ve come to care about. Most of all there’s a raw anger felt toward your own country and in particular toward fellow believers who can talk so right about God and yet aid and abet the oppression of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Somehow she is still able to be so open and loving. She and dad have a special relationship, one that I even envied. She shared a room in Jerusalem with two girls from Japan. On our way back through Jerusalem she caught up with one these girls. They stood almost toe to toe and held hands and talked. I had to wonder how does she have that kind of capacity for feeling? She can shoulder the weight of Middle East peace and still look closely in the eyes of someone she’s known for a week like she’s a sister. That’s beautiful.
It started raining on our way back to the school campus. Jen had on a raincoat/wind breaker but all I had was an insulated flannel shirt. So we hustled back. Good thing she was with me, because suddenly all the streets looked the same. Curse my poor sense of direction. Right before we turned onto the street leading up the school I noticed an Israeli school. The signs were in Hebrew so we had no idea at the time what kind of building it was. Jen got out her camera and focused on this broken child’s swing beside it. I reminded her of another swing picture she gave our friend Tammy back in Chicago. “What is it with you and swings? Is there something from your childhood that can be linked to your fascination with them?” “Let’s psychoanalyze that”, I said with a pitiful Freudian accent, and then laughed.
After lunch Marie took me around the school and I ran camera. The school campus is large enough to accommodate its current students, but is also in the process of expansion. The school currently facilitates grades K-12 and also has a building intended for use as a college. The college is currently in the accreditation process so K-12 are currently in the college building. Next to the guest rooms where we stayed, workers were daily laying rebar for another new building, in spite of the rainy conditions, for the grade school.
Abuna Chacour drove his little white car to the site and, greeted by two workers even before he left the car, began over seeing construction. As I watched him standing there before the construction project with the hills of Galilee as a backdrop I thought about his legacy and how visible it already is. Here’s a single man, who came to Ibillin when it was a small village and began his work from little ram shackled buildings and with neighbors who were all apathetic, even hostile. Forty years later he stands before this new lot under construction. While the world faces a War on Terror and Israel wages war on the West Bank and Gaza , this man’s legacy slowly continues to grow and fosters a unique stability in the land of Jesus. And the question returns to me, what am I doing? What will my legacy be?
“Come see the Living Stones.” That has been the tour motto for Christians in Israel. I know that Abuna’s real project is not that construction site. The Buildings are only shelter for the Living Stones. 1 Peter 2:4-5
“As you come to Him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (NIV)
Though my gifts and calling are different from Abuna’s, I see that the legacy I leave will be the same in that sense—I must foster living Stones. Though my work is in America I must do all I can to obey the Spirit of God and care for this work around the world. None of us can do it alone. We must all be used of God in His spiritual house.
Art is central to the Mar Elias school. Marie related to me that while Arab culture has given the world many things, particularly in the area of mathematics and language, the visual arts have not been typically as encouraged for youth. She took me down the hallways of the floor for kids with exceptional talents. I looked in amazement at bulletin boards filled with abstract paintings and drawings that I thought could have easily been done by adult artists. But these were the work of grade school kids. Its not surprising that at this school kids are being creative. Beautiful mosaics and murals adorn the walls of the courtyard, the chapel, even the gymnasium! I was able to see a magnificent mural in progress in the chapel. It was born of the pain and struggle of the local Arab community during the current Intifada. It honored a slain young man who was killed during a protest. But more than a memorial to this man, it was all about the reconciliation that took place in the aftermath of his death in Galilee, and the hope of a future in Israel for Jews and Palestinians.
The chapel was set up for celebration, even in its unfinished state. On the ground floor there was a display set up with pictures of the school from its first days up to the present. There were students from each era next to each stage of its construction and development. In the early days, Marie said, the school was very much like a family. Teachers and students took their meals together and worked together closely in various construction projects. Some of the students returned years later to become staff and teachers themselves. What is obvious is that this school has meant a lot to the town of Ibillin. Its been there fostering community through all of Ibillin’s own growth spurts. And its apparent that its gained the trust and respect of Ibillin. Now that MEEI has 3500 students, it could almost be considered a township itself. But I still felt a sense of “family” all over the grounds of the school. Dr. Elias Shakour’s gift to me of a full Arabic Bible, and his refusal to take payment. Lubna’s attendance to every message for us from home, and her genuine concern for our well-being when we described flight delays and tight security. Abuna’s desire just to know us before we started asking him questions. These are not common qualities found at just any school Mar Elias’ size. And I feel like the friendship continues. Since I’ve returned to the States, Marie and Abuna and Lubna have emailed me with this and that. Thanks, help with this journal. More than a school, Mar Elias is a charismatic family that sends everyone home with something from God. That’s cool.
While staying in the guest rooms Jen and I sat down to lunch with a woman from the United States. She was only one of two Americans I was to encounter on the entire trip. She’d been living at MEEI for a few months serving as a volunteer. She didn’t seem eager to discuss her past-or the United States. But she was cordial, and I think she was glad to see Americans again. If only for one night.
Stage 3 Touring Jerusalem with the Alternative Tour Group
We’ve arrived in Jerusalem and its raining. We left Ibillin this morning at 6am before light to arrive here by 9am for a meeting with the director of the NIDAL center as part of our Alternative Tour Group. Jen has gone out for falafel and Cokes for us before our next tour in a refugee camp. We stay in Beit Sahour tonight (in the West Bank). Things have been happening so fast (as I feared they would) that I hardly have time to collect my thoughts. The interviews have all been exceptional.
The NIDAL center was a youth activity center located in Jerusalem. Mahmoud Jiddah met us at the Damascus gate at 9am. I say he met us, but we actually passed him through the Damascus gate. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and thought, “Is that an African American standing there?” Our eyes met but didn’t connect. So Jen went up to the taxi stand. That’s how he knew it was us. He ran up and met her there and then we walked to the NIDAL center. It was pouring down rain at this time. Jen and I were sharing her small umbrella on the way to the Austrian Hostel. So I bought another one on the way to meet Mahmoud. We followed him in and through tiny alleys, dodging puddles and avoiding the rain run off. We moved quickly to get out of the rain. It was one of those experiences where you’re excited to be in a place new-like Jerusalem but you’re moving too quickly to enjoy it, all the while a little afraid you’d be lost if you stopped or looked the wrong way for a moment.
And to tell you the truth, we didn’t even know what NIDAL meant or that it was a Center for Community Development. It was just the first stop on our tour with the Alternative Tour Group, out of Beit Sahour. When we finally arrived at the NIDAL center, all but the parts of us that were directly under umbrellas was soaked. I hadn’t been in rain like that for a while.
The NIDAL center has been recently refurbished and is located down (what seemed like) a back alley in the Old city of Jerusalem. The facility looks quite modern with a tinted glass covering one wall and roof. We met in a little room in the back upstairs, and sat around this big board room table. We were offered tea and we gladly partook as we were shivering and wet. Mahmoud began telling us all about NIDAL but I think only dad was really hearing him. He was sitting on the other side of the table and it seemed to me that he was mumbling. He was talking very fast and of course with an accent so I was kind of frustrated. Dad asked if we could start filming and he obliged. So he and dad moved to behind his desk over by the wall on the right and I positioned myself in the chair to be able to hold the camera steady for at least a half hour. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking “Nobodies even gonna hear this guy! He’s not talking out loud and he’s talking too fast.” I couldn’t come right out and say that ‘cuz this guy didn’t even know me and I didn’t want to offend him. So I said “Wait a minute, I’ve got to adjust something here.” And I just looked at the camera kind of scared. After ten seconds dad said, “Ok are you ready.” I can’t remember what I said after that. Maybe I sort of said “Ok make sure you speak up.” But I don’t remember exactly. But after that it worked. I could hear him. He spoke clearly and slowly and it was a great story.
Here’s what he told us to the best of my memory:
Mahmoud was born in Jerusalem in the old city, though he doesn’t know exactly where. His dad was originally from the African country Chad but he never really knew his dad. He grew up in the Old city from the time he was very young, and after 1967 when Israel took control of all of Jerusalem he was a teenager. He got involved with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and was imprisoned. After being treated harshly with very little good food, clothes, or basic amenities, he was brought out of his cell and showered, dressed nicely fed a big meal and then brought in to meet with two government officials–one from France and the other Israeli. They told him they wanted to offer him a ticket and visa to any place of his choosing. “Do you want to go to the US? To France? Spain? We can settle you anywhere.” And then he asked, “What about back to my home in Jerusalem?” And then their faces changed and they said there was no way. He saw what they were trying to do. The choice was really imprisonment or deportation. So he said “You can take me back to prison because I’m not leaving my country.” So he finished his time and then he was released.
I don’t have many details about his life after that except that something happened there that gave him a resolve for Jerusalem. This city is in his blood and he is committed to the people, especially the youth there. It seems to me that what he understands as the Israeli desire to drive him away has strengthened his resolve all the more to keep the Jerusalem of his youth alive. I want to point out that Mahmoud cannot live in Jerusalem right now. He actually lives in a small town outside of the Jerusalem and treks into the old city bright and early every morning to work with the youth there.
Its so sad that someone like Mahmoud could be considered a threat to Israel’s security. The hatred he knew in prison has turned into a resolve to give back to his people. How many more Mahmouds are there in Jerusalem right now? Every night that we stayed in the Austrian Hospice there was an Israeli police jeep parked right at the steps of the building. After dark you’d see them standing there with their automatic rifles. Jennifer came back in one evening to report that she’d just seen a man spread-eagle over the jeep with his wife and kids looking on. Over a bridge just in sight of the roof of the Hospice there is a huge manora with an Israeli flag draping nearly down to the street. This is in the Arab quarter. These religious symbols are being used as power symbols, signs to remind who’s in charge. And this is daily life in Jerusalem. Are the soldiers always mean? No. They don’t have to be. They can actually be quite courteous. But there is still a tension in the air. The Peace is obviously peace by the gun. How would you feel if your local policeman was courteously pushing you over his jeep spread eagle and nicely checking all your documents just because of your ethnicity? Would you be grateful he was doing his job? I wouldn’t.
Stage 4 Bethlehem and Beit Sahour
Meeting Samer Kokaly was difficult for me at first. After crossing the border from Israel into Bethlehem on a very cold, wet afternoon for which the three of us were severely under-dressed, we were relieved to enter a building of any kind to get out of the weather. My sister, dad, Nanci our guide in Jerusalem and Samer all crowded into a 9’x9′ room and the list of atrocities began. Dad pulled out the video camera and just rolled with the questions. Jennifer, my sister and I, just sat there and chattered our teeth. Still no real heat in this building.
Samer wanted to brief us on the political situation immediately. I found out later that the ATG hadn’t seen a tour group since November and so was eager to share his story. Unlike Abuna Chacour he just shot from the hip as soon as the camera started rolling. My two years of study all started coming back to me and frankly all I could feel was beleaguered and depressed. Samer’s friend in the next room made Arabic coffee. That warmed me up a bit but my feet were still wet from walking through that six inch puddle at the border. During a lull in dad’s questioning I piped up to ask “Do you have a heater here or something I can lay my socks on?” At that point Samer jumped up and said, “Oh yeh, let me take you to my house.” Finally, maybe I’ll get to know this guy.
Samer lives with his wife and three girls, aged seven, six, and fourteen months in the lower level of a large cement square house that was recently built for his entire family-mom, dad, and others. As we walked down the steps we were greeted by his wife and girls in the living room. It’s a nice sparse apartment and though we didn’t see into the back I knew it wasn’t huge. Maybe two or three bedrooms. We sat on the two couches and watched his little girls wrestle and play on a rocking horse. I got out my digital camera and started taking pictures. Samer started opening up, I hope because we made him feel comfortable with us.
He started sharing about his family and the effects of the Israeli occupation: the curfews, the bullet through the window we faced from the couch. Snap, more pictures. There’s a hole in the screen window and a larger hole across the room where the tracer bullet lodged in the wall. “Why didn’t you take it out?” we asked. “Because I’d have had to tear up the wall. Better to just leave it there.” Besides he had a collection of bullets already. Camera ready, more pictures. He held the shell left from an Apache helicopter attack. I asked wryly “Does it say ‘Made In the USA’?” Samer smiled. We were going to get along fine.
“I’m actually packing my family up for the US.” He admitted. He called yesterday and began the immigration process. He’d just told his wife. They can’t take it anymore. For their middle daughters sake but also for their sanity they have to leave. How can I blame them? If it were me with my family would I stay? Not a chance. Its ironic. We had just come from a meeting with Abuna Chacour up in Ibillin Galilee where we discussed Christians leaving the Holy Land like it was an epidemic flood that had to be ebbed, even stopped. Up in Galilee its so easy to talk of staying. Samer has never been to Galilee, only an hour and a half away. Daily life for him is a completely different reality. Sitting next to that bullet hole put a totally different spin on immigration. Especially his little girls playing there before us.
“Do you really want to leave?” “No. This place is my whole life. My family lives here. A very large family. I don’t want to leave them. I’ve lived in other places-France, Greece, the US, for months at a time. No place in the world is like Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. I always take with me in my mind the houses the streets the neighborhood.”
“What if you could transplant all of that, even the Olive trees and rocks, to Southern California?” I couldn’t believe I was creating such a bizarre scenario, but I was trying to pick his brain for what it really meant to belong to the land.
“No, it still wouldn’t be the same. We’ve lived here for centuries.”
You can’t separate family from land. It just can’t be done.
I explained to him that I didn’t think people in America could relate to such an identification with the land. I’ve lived in different places all my life. Who cares whether its an apartment or a house, in Chicago, Missouri or Los Angeles? Most Americans over their life span usually move two or three times anyway.
But then again we’re not moving because tanks and bunkers are in the neighborhood. We’re not moving because a settlement named Gilo stands on the highest hill with Israeli only roads going in and out saying “Its only a matter of time ’til your homes are mine.” We wouldn’t be moving because our six year old daughter sleeps under her bed afraid of soldier’s tracer bullets.
Upon reentering the US through Newark another suicide bomber exploded a bus in Haifa. This often results in tightened closures in the West Bank. Samer says regarding the situation right now, “Regarding the situation [after the bombing], now we have no curfew, but we are under a very strict siege (Closure), and there are a lot of soldiers in the streets. People [here] are afraid of the coming war, we are sure that we will have a very hard curfew, and we are sure that the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) will make more attacks here as all Media will be focusing on IRAQ, so people are storing food. For two weeks we have not had gas for heat and cooking. This is really hard, not everybody has an alternative like a microwave or electrical cookers. Also we expect that the Israelis will cut the Electricity at any time.”
Please pray for Samer Kokaly and his family. Pray for justice. Their plan is to move to the United States until the IDF siege and curfews in Bethlehem are ended. Pray that that time comes soon. Six year old Christine Kokaly is suffering psychologically and is just a nervous wreck right now. Pray for peace in her heart and mind. I am so honored to know this Christian family in Bethlehem. I only hope to see them again under better circumstances.
[Update: 4/12/03; It seems the immigration process is harder now, perhaps because of the war. Samer and family are having second thoughts. Tragically, both Samer and his wife have had close relatives killed in the US! They’re not so sure they even want to move here. Do pray for them that God would grant wisdom regardless of their decision.]
In addition to meeting Samer and his family, we stayed the night with the Ishaqs, a Christian family in Beit Sahour. Shifa and her husband, Khalil, have two grown children. He is a retired teacher who stays home. He had an operation five years ago where they cut the upper part or his left lung. He’s on oxygen most of the time, as he suffers from emphysema. Shifa works as Principle of the Nursery school where Samer’s girls attend. Her son Basil, stays with the family and studies Hotel Managment in Bethlehem University. Her daughter Rana also lives at home and works as a teacher. They have a nice house. I liken it to many upper middle class homes I’ve known in the United States. A beautiful living room with matching furniture and nice paintings on the walls. It reminded me of a typical midwestern suburban home. Most of my relatives have homes like this. But there are also signs that the world has, as it were, stopped spinning. This lovely middle class family is trapped in the Beit Sahour/Bethlehem area under an Israeli Occupation that disallows freedom of movement and restrictions on many of the most basic necessities that we take for granted.
While I don’t want to presume to know people from one evening’s encounter, I felt I saw a severe strain on this family in their faces. No doubt, as with Samer, we were the first family from the US they had hosted in a long while. I felt immediately like an intruder. Like I was a witness to a very dark time in this family’s life. Like I’d walked in right after a funeral. And in a way the Closure in this area makes it feel like there is a heavy shroud hanging over the land. The constant reference heard is to prison. While we visited the Israeli army was imposing curfew intermitently both day and night. The effect on the family was devastating. How do you know when you can go out? The only public announcement is run on television on a little running caption run at the bottom of the screen. But mainly you find out by word of mouth. A friend calls and says its safe to go to work today. But then only for a few hours. Its not like a snow day at school or a tornado warning. Who gets a forty hour work week in anymore? Noone. Not even the self employed. The economy is devastated. The streets in town are torn up. How could this not have an effect on a family?
When we arrived we interviewed Shifa about what was going on. I was tired and felt very awkward about interviewing this woman right off without any chance to get acquainted. She probably had no idea we were going to pull out a video camera. But she quickly obliged. I led off the interview by saying we were in Israel. Her eyes quickly darted at me and she said very directly, “No, this is not Israel, you are in Palestine. There is a big difference.” I was very embarrassed. She smiled and said, “Maybe you’re just not educated on things here. That’s okay, I will help you.” Now I was even more embarrassed. I said, “No, it was a slip of the tongue, I know this is Palestine.” Hanna related to the television camera what was going on like only a working mom with a family to support could do. Her statement was emotional but controlled. Very matter of fact and very real. I was hearing all this again, but now for the first time. Its one thing to read about a woman’s life under the Occupation on the internet or in books, or to hear about it on the radio. Its quite another to sit right next to a woman in her living room with her ailing husband a few feet away in the kitchen and hear her pour out her heart for a few minutes. You can’t just think about something else. You can’t politely switch channels or click out of that window on your screen. Its like you’re sitting in the midst of a terrible tragedy. A very polite quiet tragedy. And the worst is that it seems these people are very alone. Like the whole world knows about it but stands by waiting to see what’s going to happen.
After the interview stopped Shifa instantly became hostess to us. She already had a hearty meal prepared. And there was a steady offering of tea and water and coffee anytime we needed it. That evening they were proud to show us the new American movie channel that had come to Beit Sahour. We relaxed on their very comfortable couch and watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Of all movies, I thought, why does it have to be this one? For my dad and sister it was a nice diversion. But for me, I’d just come through a two week night and day ritual of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with my children. My daughter loves the songs and so wants to see it over and over. The trouble is that all these very singable songs come back to haunt you later. So I actually had to get up and leave the room. I felt bad about that though, as everyone in the house was sitting there enjoying this American movie. So I went back and sat down to endure it, not wanting to be unhospitable. It was very hard to explain why I didn’t want to watch it. They’d never seen it, but I’d seen it too much. I soon fell asleep on the couch and about 8:30 or 9:00pm they woke me up and asked if I’d just like to go down and go to sleep.
I was so wiped out. They led us down to the basement where there was another apartment with three rooms. I quickly grabbed the couch in the one room and threw all my stuff down on it. They brought in blankets and I plopped down and quickly covered up and was out like a light. When I awoke in the morning I realized Shifa had moved the coffee table that was in front of the couch right up to the couch so that I wouldn’t fall off in the middle of the night. That little kindness made me feel like she really cared. Like she was looking out for me like I was one of her own children. In the morning we went back upstairs for breakfast. In the midst of preparing to go to work and seeing Rana off, she made a nice breakfast for us and her husband. She wanted us to eat everything and not be shy. We asked to pray and I said a little prayer of thanksgiving for their hospitality and for peace. . . .then I looked up at Shifa to find she had this look on her face that said something was missing. I bowed my head again and clarified: A Just Peace. Yes, she smiled and agreed heartily, a Just Peace. Language is such a frail thing. I said Israel when I meant Palestine. I prayed for peace when of course peace cannot truly come without justice. But both of these little slips of the tongue have huge ramifications. Israel succeeds in representing itself to the world as a sovereign nation with a bit of internal strife, and the question of who the Palestinians are or where they can live or whether they can have a recognized State of their own goes unanswered since 1967. Peace continues to be this polite virtue that everyone wants and can easily pray for, but when Justice enters into the prayer, it suddenly becomes much weightier and meaningful. For Shifa my words could not go unguided. We met in Palestine–not Israel, under the Occupation, where real peace was not the peace known under Curfew (which is jail) but with the Justice and dignity of full recognition and self rule.
Samer came to pick us up around 9am that morning to take us around the area. This was to be the fullest day of our time in the West Bank. He took us to Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity, to the police headquarters that were bombed, to a Christian family’s house that was mortered, the Dar Hesheih Refugee camp, and just generally described the destruction and death everywhere we went. We took video of the entire tour which I still have. Since returning home to the US I’ve tried several times to watch the three tapes. But each time I start them I can’t bear to keep watching. The reality of the destruction is so demoralizing, and I don’t even live there! I begin worrying about Samer and his wife and kids and Shifa and all the others there, and I just have to turn it off. So when I was actually there I kept trying to look past all the destruction, looking at the beautiful hillsides. Trying to keep the conversation as cordial as possible with Samer and his younger brother who was with us on this second day. And Samer was obliging. His ability to somehow stay upbeat and act as though all of this was somehow day to day normal life was amazing.
Before meeting Samer he called my sister Jennifer in Ibillin Galilee to ready us for our trip. At that time he told us it would not be possible for him to meet us at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Curfews were so strict at the time that he couldn’t chance being out on the streets with us. But later, on our second day there, he seemed more confident driving us around. Because he works for the Alternative Tour Group, Samer keeps close track of the news on television and from family and friends on what areas of the region are being patrolled. At one point, he took us by and showed us the army barracks on the edge of town where curfews are announced from command central. It was just all surreal, the way on the one hand the situation was so horrid and frightening, and on the other how Samer could show it to us as though it was just his neighborhood. I remember stopping at a large stone house that was riddled with very large bullet holes (from a tank gun). We stopped and marvelled that these shots weren’t being fired at any person in particular but just to frighten the residents in the area. And those kind of signs were everywhere. So much of the destruction is evidently meant to keep people afraid and locked up in their homes.
In the face of all this fear Samer and his brother demonstrated for me a stalwart ability to view this insane life with complete sanity. I confess that I was afraid most of the time I was there. Not quite jittery, but you know it was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to abide by the rule not to take pictures of army outposts. I didn’t want to get anywhere near them, but Samer took us to within a few hundred yards of the military outpost in Beit Sahour. As we drove closer and closer to the outpost and dad got out to blatantly take video I finally spoke out in protest. “This isn’t safe! We’re not supposed to be doing this!” Samer spoke calmly and reassuringly to me. “No, its okay. They know me. They know this vehicle and they leave me alone. I come out here all the time.” This sense of keeping cordial relations with “the enemy” was unnerving. He’s known nothing but the Israeli Occupation all his middle-aged life, and yet somehow he feels he can walk that line, seems to think he can read the soldiers and know when they’ll percieve him as a threat. I kept thinking,”How does he keep it together? Why is he doing this for us?” And when it came down to it, kindness and accomodation were the bottom line here. He was going the extra mile to show us the reality of the situation in Beit Sahour.
Checkpoints were an especially worrysome place to me because I sensed fear in Samer there. When we left he drove us up to about a hundred feet from the checkpoint and explained that if he got any closer they could shoot first and ask questions later. We discussed a plan for us to get a taxi and get back to Jerusalem. Vehicles with Palestinian plates weren’t allowed to cross the checkpoint. But Samer had a friend who had Israeli plates who could meet us on the other side of the checkpoint. While we sat and waited an ambulance pulled up to the checkpoint and could not pass. It sat there with its lights on until an ambulance came from the other side to retrieve the person inside. Amazing. Nothing is a “life and death” tragedy here. If that person sits dying in that ambulance and the one from the other side doesn’t arrive in time, well. . . . at least Israelis are more secure. But are they really? Dad was amazed by the young male soldiers at the checkpoints who were playing with their guns, swinging them around and cocking them like they were toys. “Those are really big guns they’re playing with” he said (or something like that).
After waiting for a while we made the decision for my dad and sister and I to go ahead and cross through the checkpoint and look for a taxi on the other side. Samer and his brother waited in the truck to see if a taxi would show up. If it didn’t we would come back and then he’d call again. He didn’t want to leave us stranded. So we walked up and presented our passports and crossed through without them checking our bags or anything. The young woman just looked at them and waved us through without any facial expression. We waited on the other side for a while in the cold looking for a taxi and then when it was clear one wasn’t coming we crossed back through the checkpoint and got back in the ATG truck. Samer called again for a taxi. Then, unexpectedly, he got out of the truck and walked with us up to the checkpoint. I was really surprised by this and worried for him. He just walked right up to the checkpoint and gave the woman there his papers. He explained to her with a big smile that he was going to help us get a taxi and then come back through. Two or three of the guards were there with their M16s (or whatever they were they carry) and they all had a good look at his green documents. They agreed to let him come with us to the other side only to hail us a taxi and then return. In the meantime he would have no identification. I was really shocked by this. And in thinking back on this I’m even more shocked as I realize that for that time period he put himself in serious harms way. He was trusting that they weren’t going to keep his papers or grab him for being on the wrong side of the checkpoint without papers. (I’ve read so many stories of like incidents.) And he did all this in a very natural sort of way like it was no big deal.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have grown up in Beit Sahour as Samer has and to daily walk that line of sanity between fear and security that he does. How can such a life be lived with a degree of normalicy? But as a human being you strive for that, for yourself, your wife, your children, your family. The importance of the family for keeping it together is so real around Samer. Before we left we sat in a diner owned by a relative of Samer’s and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Everyone in there, whether blood relative or not was introduced like family. We laughed and joked and talked about ourselves in an atmosphere that was as tight as any I know of. Everyone knew the other like brothers and sisters. Dad asked to use a phone and Samer asked someone there nearby and they gladly obliged. When dad returned he payed Samer for that phone call generously, continuing that spirit of generosity we were then experiencing. The food was outstanding and it just kept coming. We were not Americans, but distant relatives. I will never eat another green olive with much enjoyment here in the US. Not after having olives grown from trees in that neighborhood and spiced by that family. It was as though I was tasting olives for the first and last time. I’ve got to go back just to experience that diner again.
Stage 5 Back in Jerusalem
“We made it through the ATG two day tour without a hitch. Saw a lot of destruction and made some new friends. We collected lots of business cards and I think they had a good time with us. Samer was our tour guide. He’s quite a guy. I don’t know if I can write what he’s like. Thin and wiry with glasses. Very outspoken politically. Very eager to show us the destruction, the settlements, and tell about the killings. But he’s also kind, friendly and open. A good sense of humor. “
Let me try now to recount what actually happened heading into India. We hung around the Austrian Hospice most of the day before we took a taxi to Tel Aviv. We sat in the lobby and watched the BBC or any english channel we could find to hear news of the imminent War. At the time it was all negotiations and stalemates in the UN. Our flight wasn’t leaving until midnight that night and we wanted to spend as little time hanging out at Ben Gurion airport as possible, especially since on the way back from India our itinerary called for nearly 24 hours there! I met these two Swedish Christians who were working there for the Austrian Hospice through their volunteer/room and board program. It was neat the way I bumped into them. I came downstairs to ask for directions from the girl at the front desk and she was on the phone or talking to somebody, and in the background I’m hearing a very familiar voice singing a very familiar song. I couldn’t believe my ears. I did quite a double take and then listened closer. Sure enough she was playing “Behold the Lamb of God” sung by my friend and pastor Glenn Kaiser!
Now I’ve heard this album maybe a thousand times over the years since it first came out. (Glenn’s first worship album “All My Days”) mainly by virtue of living here at JPUSA. Its like the standard morning album ritual for some people. But we also sing those songs in morning worship too. So it was like I was back in Chicago for a second. I asked her if she knew of Glenn Kaiser and she hadn’t. It was actually her friends album (I wish I could remember his name). And then she introduced me to him. I’ll call him Sammy just so I have a name. She and Sammy were both believers and they fellowshiped with other Christians there in the Old City.
Anyway, we spent that last afternoon talking with Sammy about our faith about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, about where it places us as Christians. At first I didn’t want to discuss it with him but I came away feeling like he had some really solid ideas. Sammy offered to help us carry all our bags (about six of them) all the way up to the street from the hospice. That was quite an offer because its a ways uphill over big slick stones through puddles and such and we were quite grateful. But we got to the bottom of the hospice steps and there was a taxi waiting for us. Its amazing how cars can drive up into the Old city that way. There’s only enough room on the streets for one car going one way. And then they can only come as far as the hospice and then have to turn around and go back the way they came in.
So we made it to Tel Aviv and there was a huge line leading up to Security.
More later. . .
Stage 6 To India
Sometime the following morning or afternoon (I couldn’t tell which) we arrived in Mumbai India (formerly called Bombay). It was so different from Ben Gurion airport. The first I noticed was the damp cool feeling of the environment. Like the A/C unit in the building couldn’t quite compete with the outside air, or maybe there were big doors open. There were lots of mosquitos around which made me immediately think to find my deep woods Off. Mosquitos in India are known to be malaria carriers and that was drilled into me by the clinic I visited where I got my shots before coming. Maybe I was a little paranoid. The other obvious thing was that it was like somebody had just pulled the Heightened Security switch off. Nobody was scrambling to get through the lines first. Some guy had just left his bag there in the line and nobody was looking at it. It sat there long after the rest of us passed by and I never once saw a policeman look at it. All the uniformed security standing by rarely moved and had this glossy look in their eyes. I scrambled around looking for my yellow medical log. I just knew they were going to ask for it in customs. Its what happened to me before (13 years earlier). I also thought they’d want to write in our cameras. They asked about neither and just stamped us and waved us on.
We sat down in a little waiting area for transits until they called us outside to get on the bus. So we filed out to get on the bus, but it was already half full. The bus is taking off and this Israeli business man jumps right in front of the bus and pounds on the hood. “Is there room for just two more?” he demanded. And they let him on. For the next half hour I cursed that guy under my breath and myself for not being as aggressive. I guess I was jealous. “If I was that forthright I wouldn’t be still standing here right now in the heat,” I reasoned. “But I hate aggressive personalities.” We must have waited for that next bus for an hour. And once we did board the bus I never really watched the route between terminals. Something I would regret on the trip back through when we took a taxi “to save time.” After a few hours in the next terminal we boarded a plane for Hyderabad. I don’t remember much about that flight so it must have been a good one. I read Indian english newspapers the whole way. A relatively short flight.
We arrived in Hyderabad in the afternoon and were met by Paparao and his two oldest sons, Inosh and Anoush, or as we called them Sonny and Pinku. The last time I’d seen them they were three feet tall. Now they were six feet! Go to Stage 7 for more personal info on Paparao and Family. We all piled into to tiny three wheeled taxis with our luggage on our laps and headed to a hotel just to hang out until the evening when our train would leave. While at the hotel Pinku brought me up to speed on his life over the last thirteen years since I’d last seen him. Sonny went and spent time with friends he’d made while living and studying here in Hyderabad. While New Life Evangelistic Center is stationed in Kakinada here in India, Paparao moved his family to Hyderabad while they were seeking medical treatment for his wife Sunitha for terminal cancer. Sunitha’s family also lives in Hyderabad.
After hanging out in the lobby of this four star hotel all afternoon we piled back into the little taxis to go to the train station. It was after dark when we arrived and the train platform was not well lit. Paparao, dad, Sonny, Pinku and I all crossed a big cement bridge onto the platform and began looking for the right train car. Without really discussing what we were going to do dad and Paparao headed one way and Sonny and Pinku and I went the other in pursuit of the right car. I’m carrying this forty to fifty pound suitcase now on my shoulder, now on my head, and people are finding that funny and smiling at me. I’m getting very tired quickly. After twenty minutes we came back from the other side of the platform and dad and Paparao were nowhere in site. Thinking we’d passed them we retraced our steps. I’m starting to get irritated ‘cuz this bag is really heavy. Sonny told us to stay put while he went to a pay phone to call Paparao’s cell phone. He came back. No answer. A tinge of worry hits my mind. Fifteen minutes later I’m more than a little worried. I should’ve never read those State Dept. reports on India. I started thinking, “This unlit train platform is the perfect scene for a mugging or a picked pocket.” I checked my pocket for my wallet. Still there. The platform is full of people in rags. Kids wearing what look like potato sacks. One guy is putting water from a pump on the platform into those little water bottles you buy in the stores. I thought it was kind of funny and I asked Pinku if that was the real source for India’s bottled water. He got serious and assured me it was not. That was nasty water.
Sonny finally reached Paparao on the phone and we caught up with them on the other far end of the platform (another quarter of a mile away). When we got on board and found our little bunk sleepers (6’X9′) areas that slept four people. We were quite happy with them because Paparao said he’d reserved them for just us four. So we’re getting comfortable. Bags go under the bunks and shoes start coming off. And then the neighbors show up. It turns out it wasn’t private anymore. They showed us their tickets and sure enough somebody had booked them with us. So it was a little less comfortable, a little less talk went on. Sleeping on these bunks was like sleeping on a surf board covered with blue pleather, chained up on the wall. My feet stuck out into the hallway through the curtain and people woke me up in the night brushing them as they walked by. But other than that it was great. At least I was sleeping through the night, unlike on the airplanes. At least I was horizontal.
After we arrived in Kakinada, here’s what I managed to write:
“I haven’t written in perhaps three days so now I have to try and catch up. Yesterday was our first full day in Kakinada. Before that we were on planes and a train and in taxis for days. Traveling totally saps any desire I have to write. All I want to do is get where I’m going and then relax! How do people like Clive Calver of World Relief do this full time? Its crazy! Anyway, I borrowed Anoush’s (Pinku) guitar and Paparao bough new strings and picks yesterday so I’m all set and I played a couple songs for last night’s meeting. “Stotra Mo” is a telegu song that amazingly, I remembered after 13 years! So I played this two chord song with them. That went well. Then I did an English song, “Lord I lift your name on high” and the band backed me up. It flopped. The keyboardist (who is otherwise very good!) couldn’t stay with me and kept playing something else which was very distracting. No one but me seemed to notice. How could they not?! Any way, dad preached on the resurrection and many came forward for prayer and blessing afterward. I just kept touching heads and praying God’s blessing. Dad was really getting into it. “Be healed!” and “Be gone Satan!” But I was happy to touch heads, especially the children and babies. I don’t know why my face and skin color mean blessing. If they only knew my lifestyle compared to Benny Hinn’s. I observe in this culture a desire for happiness. They love bright and flashy colors, flowers, trinkets that I would consider gaudy. But the warmth I feel in front of the TV is the same.
Its interesting that I’m comfortable in Pentecostal circles here. The experiential nature of what so absorbs the crowd seems to fit in this Hindu culture. Many in the crowd keep all their Hindu markings. I wonder how many really know or care what is going on? That’s OK with me. Pentecostalism is stripped of many of Christianity’s trappings and lends itself to simple understanding of God’s word. I’m comfortable with it when removed from America. It sickens me there. It has no counterpoint. Its all homogeneity and rich culture. Its not about the poor. God help us all.
I haven’t been keeping up with my malaria pills. The traveling throws my time off and I can’t tell when to take them. I thought about them all day yesterday but forget to take them because I debated over the times to take them. I took it this morning. I’m trying.”
4/15/03 I wrote this in my journal about what I was feeling at the time. Let me clarify some things. I attended a Pentecostal college for nearly four years (switched majors then dropped out) and in that time I met a lot of decent Pentecostals. My wife’s parents are Pentecostal foreign missionaries. I was raised in a charismatic interdenominational family and I think my mom prefers a Pentecostal church. That said I still hold to my criticisms of Mainstream Pentecostalism in the United States across denominational boundaries. I feel this way not just about Pentecostals but about America’s Evangelical expression. Its still very removed from the Church around the world and very self-centered. I might sound haughty, holier than thou, or any other number of ways by saying that but I’m talking about the expression as a whole and not about individuals or even individual churches. I know many Pentecostals and charismatics who would agree with me.
Paparao Yelchuri is director of NLEC India and father of three boys and one girl. He’s not a tall man and neither does he have a large presence, but his leadership skills are good enough to maintain a private school system for thousands of students from kindergarten to college grades, regular food and water programs, medical clinics, and a large shelter for homeless people. He’s a very busy man, but also finds time for his family. A few years ago Paparao lost his beloved wife of many years, Sunitha, to cancer. Sunitha had quite a battle with the cancer that lasted quite a long time, and Paparao and the NLEC staff spent hours and days in prayer for her healing and recovery. Paparao went to great lengths seeking medical treatment for the cancer, moving his family to Hyderabad for a time and even flying Sunitha to the US at one point, but in the end she still passed away. I first met Paparao in 1991 when the family was just him, Sunitha, and the two oldest boys. Penny was born shortly after my trip and named after my mom.
When I first visited NLEC was still in its fledgling stage. Paparao related to me on this trip how it was after my visit that things started growing so rapidly. I told him I couldn’t take credit for that and he said he knew but that the Lord used that time. I could agree with that. He sure changed my life during that trip. Looking back to that time, everything seemed so bright and alive and new on that trip. I’d never really been out of the US and here I was seventeen eager to experience life outside of Mid-Missouri.
Education is a huge need here. Thus the emphasis on schools at New Life. Paparao has set up 24 schools! I see ads for them around town. “Recognized by the AP government.” Paparao says (and I believe him) that without an education a child will not survive. Many go hungry and homeless because of illiteracy. They cannot function in today’s world so they live like previous generations. But they must enter today to subsist. There is much I don’t understand but that I want to learn.
The Lord is using this trip to strengthen me in service. I confess I look at all the talented people around me at JPUSA and ask what do I have that’s of any use? So I sit on my hands. But I realize I can play and sing when I’m doing it here. That’s amazing to me. That God can use something that I really enjoy doing for his glory. I played with the worship band last night and played and sang for the children in the orphanage today. Then they sang for me. I was with them for maybe two and a half hours trading songs. It was so wonderful! Then I requested that Cokes be bought for the children. At first their house parent told me it was too much and said biscuits (cookies) instead. But an hour or so later they showed up in the truck with cases of soda! The kids got so excited! They were smacking glasses with me going “Cheers!” I’ll venture a guess that they don’t get cokes much. Then we toasted in the air saying “Thank you Jesus!” Then I led them in a prayer for Peace, I prayed for No War and that the hands of war be stopped. And we prayed a blessing on India. I believe God answers the prayers of children.
It has now been one year since my trip to Israel, Palestine, and India. I have kept in contact with Samer Kokaly, Abuna Chacour and Paparao Yelchuri. My dad’s ministry has been giving monthly support to MEEI for the last year and they now have enough to really begin work on the Communications department at the college. Samer has not left Beit Sahour and in fact now has no plans to. I just learned that he and his wife are expecting another baby! From my last communique with him he just had another tour group come through. He’s had several over the last year. I’ve gotten some emails from Paparao in India as well. They’re doing well and God is blessing their ministry. My mom’s article “Hidden Treasure” is being translated into Telegu and put into tract form and they’re excited about that.
So what am I left with now a year later? How were my eyes opened by this trip? Well, Israel, Palestine, and India are perhaps more a mystery to me now than ever before. I can’t understand how Christians can live in such unsafe, unhealthy environments and still live, what are for them, “normal” lives. I have brought back some heavy burdens from this trip. And I know I’ll never be the same. My faith has taken on an entirely new meaning. What does “God loves me and Jesus loves you” mean now? Now that I know I’m not a VIP Christian and that I have friends on the other side of the world who live in REAL fear and know REAL hurt and psychological torture and that God loves them as much as he loves me, I just can’t feel comfortable anymore in what I’ve known as my faith. What does this mean? Maybe I’m adopting a theology of crisis to fit what I percieve as the current world situation. The crucial question is: Where is Jesus leading us? Where is Jesus now? What are his concerns? WWJD? Well it should be obvious I don’t know where this journey is heading, only He does. All I do know is that radical Christianity is about obeying Jesus nomatter the cost. And so much of American Christianity comes without cost. Especially with an Evangelical government in power now.
Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict my eyes have been opened so that I do not hate. That is what I recieved on this trip. I love Israel. I love Palestine. Both people have the right to exist. It should never be either/or. Many here in America feel it has to be. There is now a proposal by Sharon’s government to depopulate Gaza of settlements and move them all to the West Bank. I’ve seen the developments in Beit Sahour. I know this will be Samer’s backyard and yes that concerns me. Such plans involve either/or. Who will inhabit Bethlehem? Palestinians or Israelis? To me, that’s what this plan involves. I have mentally disfellowshipped myself from that form of Evangelical Christianity that would make the Holy Land either/or in much the same way that my Mainline Protestant brothers and sisters are disfellowshipping over the homosexual debate. We may be part of the same church but we are not of the same faith. The Jesus I love has no either/or plan for the Holy Land. So do I hate Tim Lahaye and Jerry Falwell and the others? No. Like the whites involved in the Civil Rights struggle I cannot crawl out of my skin. But neither will I let these men be my voice to the world, and neither will my Christian expression be the same.
Regarding the famine issues in the democracy of India I fear my eyes have become dim. The country, once again, has swallowed me up just as it did in 1990 on my first visit. I still cannot relate to what I encountered there. Bear in mind I have known poverty all my life. But not like this. I’ve never made over $7,000 a year but I’ve never known hunger. I have no fear of leprosy. I cannot hear the news of G4 summits the same way. The knowledge that I dispose of more food on a daily basis than many I encountered see in a day is more than I can grasp. We’ve started supporting an orphan my son’s age now. But how can I live knowing that “normal” life for me is a decadent life? And “normal” life for millions is sustainance. I can never say “I’m starved” again before a meal. But mine is the generation that grew up with the “We Are the World” campaign. The eighties were the decade when we were going to abolish hunger. Twenty years later, its worse than ever and mine is the generation that can see starving children on TV and not be effected.
Overall this trip was a devastating tour-de-force. Gloriously wonderful and psychologically devastating at the same time, if you can understand that. I’m humbled by the REAL kind of faith folks in Israel, Palestine, and India maintain. And now here I am back at home raising three small kids who are just learning about the world, and running a small publishing house that seeks to simply express Christian truth in all its forms. In that way I’m full of a lot of hope that God is in control. God is in control. Wow that’s never meant that before. Cool. But in all honestly, I never want to do this again–packing a trip like this into two weeks. God willing I’d love to go back and spend more time in each place separately.
–Thanks for reading, Chris
1The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 93.
2 Ibid, p. 92.
4The story of the village of Biram continues. You can read about this village at these websites:
Here’s an update on MEEI as of 4/13/03: