Greetings from Chemnitz, Germany!

I am breaking my radio silence from Germany in order to say that I have no idea what to say. Transitions are exhausting and at times, consuming. Then, suddenly, I realized it’s actually been almost a month and in the midst of what felt like doing nothing except finding my way around, I have actually experienced many things.

Many scattered things, perhaps. This work (which is more an endeavor than actual work) is a new adventure for almost all parties involved. So my schedule has not been set and most of my work so far has been making contacts. It has been frustrating on a level of wanting to be helpful while also navigating cultural differences and enlightening as I come to better understand the routes of refugees and the process of Asylum.

I often visit a center for refugees operated by volunteers from several Chemnitz churches called the Bridge. Five days a week refugees come and learn German. These refugees are mostly from Afghanistan, speaking different dialects of Persian. A few have come in the last days from Syria, Libya, and Morocco.

I also frequently visit one of the refugee camps in Chemnitz for Christian prayer on Sunday nights and to help in the preschool once a week. Here the refugees and migrants are held in former army barracks from the time of the German Democratic Republic (Soviet years). The people come from Syria, Georgia, Serbia, and Kosovo. Many children pick up German quickly, translating for parents and others from their countries but many people have no common language.

You can imagine the cacophony of languages. Dialects of Persian and Arabic mixing with Serbian, German, and English. Desperate attempts to translate force conversations through many languages. In the preschool the only mutually understood word is often a resounding “Nein!” from either teachers or small children.

In the coming weeks I will visit the nearby towns of Halle, Zwickau, Needledorf, and Dresden in order to experience the programs these congregations have for refugees and help them develop them further.

Around the world attacks continue to happen. There remain reasons to flee and daily, new obstacles to reaching safety. Those in positions of power continue to decide the fates of those without.

Yet, as we celebrate Easter and Christ’s Resurrection we are reminded that death and despair are not the end of the story. I have been reflecting on the glimpses of compassion and shared humanity I have witnessed and experienced. The budding friendship with an Afghani woman who recognizes that I am also alone in a country that is not my own. The patient joy of conversations full of comradery yet halting in a myriad of broken languages. The joy of child who laughs at your Arabic but is kind enough to say “You speak very well”.  Such moments sometimes seem to be the only thing we have against the lies that doom will prevail. Yet we must not underestimate the power in such encounters for they dispel a variety of myths and affirm our shared humanity.

Christmas in Bethlehem, Then and Now

Christmas in Bethlehem. It’s probably a dream of many. When I speak of my Christmas plans, the very fact that it will be spent in Bethlehem is met with expressed envy.

Yet, so many aspects of Christmas in Bethlehem are bemusing in that they are so far removed from images of a Bethlehem Christmas. This year was my second Christmas in Bethlehem and the giant inflatable Santas and snowmen everywhere still made me chuckle and shake my head. The people dressed as skinny Santas with terrifying aggressively Caucasian Santa masks on still unnerved me.

My congregational Christmas Party at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem included a fancy meal and dancing to Arab pop music and a few favorites from around the world. On Christmas Eve, Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity, is filled with people dressed up as cartoon characters, vendors selling Santa masks and Dora the Explorer balloons. Everyone is waiting for the parade of scout troops all playing the bag pipes.

Poster calling for the end of the Separation Barrier and a bundle of balloons being sold in Manger Square.

Poster calling for the end of the Separation Barrier and a bundle of balloons being sold in Manger Square.

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People enjoying a concert at the Christmas Concert Stage outside the Church of the Nativity.

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Scouts marching in the Christmas Parade on Christmas Eve.

And Christmas certainly does not stop on the 26th. In Bethlehem, the celebration continues for weeks. Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 6th and 7th and we celebrate again on January 18th and 19th for Armenian Christmas. Every night there are performances and celebrations on Manger Square. On Orthodox Christmas Eve, I went to the Nativity to witness hundreds of East African Christians celebrating the Holy Night with dancing and drumming.

African Christians celebrating Orthodox Christmas Manger Square.

African Christians celebrating Orthodox Christmas, Manger Square.

So many things have changed since that first Christmas in Bethlehem. But the Christmas story also highlights some of the ways that, in fact, nothing has changed in this land. Bethlehem and its inhabitants are still ruled by a foreign force dictating their lives and face daily injustices and oppression.

Life under occupation has, in many ways, illuminated the Christmas story for me. Every element of the Christmas narrative must be understood in the context of empire. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem under decree from the emperor to participate in a census and taxes. The average individual lived in poverty in the rural areas while Rome and the elite who collaborated with the Roman occupation lived in wealth and comfort. Yet, Christ was not born in the halls of a palace nor in any symbol of power. Rather, he was born to completely insignificant parents from the middle of nowhere in a dirty manger. He was not visited first by high state officials or religious leaders but rather lowly, rowdy shepherds.

Darkness, injustice, and oppression are not unique to this land. Systems of power privilege oppress and marginalize people all over the world. Christ’s coming under such circumstances means that his life and ministry shows a different way to live and how to resist and survive the oppression of this world. Indeed the Christmas narrative completely revolutionizes our understandings of power. This tiny new-born, the very image of weakness and vulnerability, came to save the world not only from our own sin and darkness but to bring justice and liberation to all peoples of this earth. Even before Christ’s birth, Mary embodies the subversion of the Christmas narrative against the empire. We often speak of Mary’s obedience but she had another, perhaps even more important, characteristic that equipped and enabled her to be obedient in the plan. She had imagination. She could envision a world that was promised but not yet tangible – a world where the hungry were fed and captives liberated.

The Christmas season is ending but the cries for justice and liberation continue to echo across this land and the whole world. God calls to be involved in the recreation of the world, just as those in the Christmas narrative were called. May we respond throughout the year with humility, obedience, and most of all, imagination.

This post was originally written for The Book of Fellows blog which features reflections and stories from Global Mission Fellows around the world. You can find it at thebookoffellows.wordpress.com.

Hiroshima Reflections

“Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of the plants intact; it had stimulated them.”

I was 14 or 15 when I read these words in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Something about the strong contrast between life and death, creation and destruction packed into this short passage drew me to Hiroshima. I decided that I must one day travel to the Japanese city and witness the life that persists after such destruction.

When they announced that the Global Mission Fellow’s midterm regrouping would be held in Osaka, Japan, I saw my opportunity to finally visit Hiroshima. I came a few days early and my friend placed in Japan, Meg, and I spent a few days in Hiroshima.

Our first stop in Hiroshima was the Peace Park. This was the reason I had come. The Peace Park is a public park with many monuments and memorials set in the area that once served as the city center. After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the area was leveled, creating an open field.

As we walked around to the different memorials, I felt a real sense of sadness and heaviness – the sheer loss of human life, the pain inflicted on those that survived, the sense of chaos that must have ruled that day, the earth entering a new age it did not, and still does not, truly want or know how to handle.

And yet, it’s green – grass and trees. Coming from Palestine, the amount of green was almost shocking. There were school children all over the park, playing and clearly working on assignments for their field trip. There was a school group conducting a ceremony by the Children’s Memorial. All this sang of life. It was just as the quote from Hiroshima had drawn me in years ago – life and death, chaos and order, destruction and creation.

While reflecting on my time in Hiroshima, I was reminded of other moments that reveal this paradox and have drawn me in in the same way. It’s similar to what I felt in Cuba at age 16 when struck by the beauty and the tragedy of the Bay of Pigs. Or at 20 while celebrating Communion at the Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation. These moments are ingrained in my memory and are strong parts of my journey. They are sacred moments as they embody the paradox between life and death, sadness and hope, creation and destruction. Perhaps, such paradoxes define our lives and our experiences in this world the best.

Chains of origami cranes, symbols of good luck, happiness, and peace.

Chains of origami cranes, symbols of good luck, happiness, and peace.

 

The Atomic Bomb Dome, the closest standing building to the hypocenter. It was left as a reminder of the destruction the bomb.

The Atomic Bomb Dome, the closest standing building to the hypocenter. It was left as a reminder of the destruction the bomb.

The Plaque by the Bell of Peace.

The Plaque by the Bell of Peace.

A model in the Peace Museum of the destruction after the bomb and the fireball created by the bomb's explosion.

A model in the Peace Museum of the destruction after the bomb and the fireball created by the bomb’s explosion.

The Liminality Soundtrack

The concept of “liminality” is one of my favorite lessons from college. It comes from the Latin word, limen, for threshold. It’s an anthropological term referring to the state of a given entity in the middle of a ritual. In a literal sense it is the state of ambiguity when the participant in the ritual no longer holds their former identity and has not yet received their new identity. Gone is their understood role in the community or the structuring of one’s world, and yet, the new structure, order, and perspective are not yet in place.

While liminality refers to a specific moment within a ritual, it is certainly applicable to the proceedings of our lives. Our lives and our world are full of rituals, momentary or sustained, that we are often blind to as everyday participants. But I think we often find ourselves in liminal stages as we go through the transition and changes of our lives.

A year ago today I boarded a plane to Israel and Palestine – terrified, unsure of the future, and excited.  Those 7 hours spent crossing the Atlantic from New York to Tel Aviv were certainly a liminal stage filled to the brim with ambiguity – fear, excitement, uncertainty, anticipating the future, and already longing for the comfort of what I was leaving behind. Yet, within our day-to-day lives, the boundaries of the liminality are not as defined. When does one truly, completely pass into their new identity and perspective?

So now a whole year has passed – a year filled with surprises, joys, challenges, and plenty of liminal stages. I moved into another apartment this past weekend. This was Moving Day No. 6 in the past 6 months. I hope and pray that this is the last one until I leave for the US in April. After all these moves and subsequent obligatory packing and cleaning, I have an iTunes playlist aptly named, “Cleaning and Packing.” As I’ve listened to the songs on it many times in the past year, I have reflected often on the lyrics. Whether I was aware of this or not, many of the songs reflect the ambiguity and confusion of a liminal stage.

Rivers and Roads by the Head and the Heart: A year from now we’ll all be gone/ Our friends will move away/ They’re going to better places/ Our friends will be gone away/ Nothing is as it has been/ And I miss your face like hell/ I guess it’s just as well/ But I miss your face like hell/ Been talking about the way things change/ My family lives in a different state/ If you don’t know what to make of this then we will not relate

Shake it Out by Florence + the Machines: It’s always darkest before the dawn

Landslide by Fleetwood Mac: Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?/ Can I handle the seasons of my life?/ Well, I’ve been afraid of changing/ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you/ But time makes you bolder/ Even children get older/ And I’m getting older too

Life is Life by Noah and the Whale: He used to be somebody and now he’s someone else/ Took apart his old life/ Left it on his shelve/ Sick of being someone he did not admire/ He took apart his old things and set ’em all on fire/ He’s going to change, change his ways/ And it feels like his new life could start/ and it feels like heaven

The New World from Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown: It’s about one moment/ That moment you think you know where you stand/ And in that one moment/ The things that you’re sure of slip from your hand/ And you’ve got one second to try to be clear, to try to stand tall/ But nothing’s the same/ And the wind starts to blow/ And you’re suddenly a stranger/ In some completely different land/ And you thought you knew/ But you didn’t have a clue/ That the surface sometimes cracks/ To reveal the tracks/ To a new world

Keep Breathing by Ingrid Michaelson: All that I know is I’m breathing/ All you can do is keep breathing

No More from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim: Running away? Go to it./ Where did you have in mind?/ Have to take care/ Unless there’s a “where,”/ You’ll only be wandering blind./ Just more questions, different kind./ Where are we to go?/ Where are we ever to go?/ Running away? We’ll do it./ Why sit around, resigned?/ Trouble is, son/ The farther you run, the more you feel undefined/ For what you’ve left undone/ And, more, what you’ve left behind.

And lastly, more than any other, I feel this song so accurately describes the past year of my life.

Hymn #76 by Joe Pug – To meet me is to dare into the darkness/ If you are devoted to a dream/ Go and light the lantern, Leave your family abandoned…To ask me is to love with hesitation/ My answer is the same that it has been/ Here is my affection/ No condition and no questions…To trust me is to travel past the towers/ Those that make it back from here are few/ It takes all of your devotion to have courage for a moment/ The world has bested better men than you … To curse me for the life we left behind us/ Is to misremember what was God’s…

Summer and the Changing of the Seasons

I interrupt this series of very heavy posts for a lighter one.

In the midst of all the violence and tension, it was summer, which meant more free time, warm weather, and lots of daylight. I in no way want to minimize the suffering of the people here in the past several months, but this alternate timeline of events also occurred where people did their best to celebrate holidays, spend time with others, and enjoy the summer. This is human nature and the brilliancy of human resilience.

My summer was filled with new experiences, old and new friends, and enjoying being back in Palestine and Israel. I continue to work at Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center and have also started to work with the Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees once a week. It is exciting to be continuing the  “intro class of sorts”  in refugee issues that I had in Jordan while focusing more specifically on Palestinian refugees.

I had several friends visit me this summer – one of the other Global Mission Fellows and a volunteer from Mafraq, Jordan. It was wonderful to see them and gave me an excuse to do all the touristy things in Jerusalem in Bethlehem, some of which I had never thoroughly explored.

Candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Rebecca, my volunteer friend and roommate in Jordan, and I in the Old City of Bethlehem

Rebecca, my volunteer friend and roommate in Jordan, and I in the Old City of Bethlehem

Andy, another Global Mission Fellow, and I in the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock in the background.

Andy, another Global Mission Fellow, and I in the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock in the background.

I took a long weekend and visited Haifa, a coastal city in northern Israel with a 10% Arab population. It was a much needed respite away from the stress and tension of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Cliche, obligatory picture at the beach in Haifa

Cliche, obligatory picture at the beach at the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa

I also got to explore Jaffa, an ancient port city that is supposedly of the oldest cities in the world. It is said to be where Perseus rescued Andromeda in Greek mythology. It was once an important sea port in historic Palestine and now, 4.2% of its population is Arab.

A church, a mosque, and the beach in Jaffa.

A church, a mosque, and the beach in Jaffa.

There were moments throughout the summer when it felt like a completely normal summer, removed from the violence and the stress. I think most people here are clinging to such moments, depending on them to maintain sanity. They do not negate the deep sadness of this summer but serve as a reminder that sadness is not the only story.

But summer is ending and things are starting again for the fall. In a way that feels strangely normal, you can sense the return to school and structured days, the coming end to the oppressive heat, and the sense of benevolent change in the air as much as you can sense the desperation and tension.

Fall brings exciting new adventures for me as well. I am now playing and helping with the bell choir at Christmas Lutheran Church as well as leading the choir at Dar Al-Kalima, the Lutheran elementary school in Bethlehem. I am also working to start some new projects at Wi’am, which I promise to write about another day.

So summer is over, fall is upon us, and my one year anniversary of moving to Bethlehem is only a few days away. It’s been an intense season and, for better or worse, an incredible year.

 

Questioning “normal,” Questioning “strange”

It has been an intense summer, one that is difficult to process and analyze as the violence continues. Palestine and Israel have experienced kidnappings and murders, nationalist hate crimes, racist mobs, riots, rockets, military operations in both the West Bank and Gaza, all totaling a death toll over 2,o00. The hatred, tension, and desperation in the air feel as oppressive as the hot summer sun.

Yet, life does go on. I still must get up and go to work every morning. Months  into this madness and productivity is rising again. What can the news tell us that it didn’t report yesterday – more casualties? Another failed cease-fire? I go to the gym after work or spend time with friends. People continue to celebrate birthdays and holidays.

But it is different. Somedays, as I walk to work, the stench of the skunk water from the clashes between the Palestinian demonstrators and armed IDF soldiers is overwhelming. The tear gas has built up and can still make your eyes water hours later. This of course is nothing compared to what it would have been last night.

I am struck by the relationship between what should be normal and should be strange in daily life here. They simultaneously are in conflict with each other and seem to depend upon each other. They twist and turn and work together so that you are never sure what is “normal” and what is not. A commute to work should not involve a checkpoint, a concrete barrier, and sneezing and watery eyes from left over tear gas, yet it does.

Yet it does not seem strange anymore. I walk through the checkpoint. The woman pays hardly any attention to me because she is eating what appears to be a particularly messy piece of watermelon. I no longer wonder at the fact I must cross through a checkpoint and show my passport on my daily commute. Instead, all I think is I could really go for some watermelon.

I walk along the Separation Barrier, walking in its shade rather than in the sun on the other side of the street. I notice when there is new graffiti that has appeared over night. The smell of skunk water is not as shocking anymore.

The curving path of the Separation Barrier which I walk to work

The curving path of the Separation Barrier which I walk to work

The gate in the Separation Barrier outside the Wi'am office through which the military comes through to disperse demonstrations

The gate in the Separation Barrier outside the Wi’am office through which the military comes through to disperse demonstrations

Yet, at the same time, it is necessary to remember that this is not normal. To accept these things normalizes oppression, allowing it to continue day after day, month after month, year after year. We must ask the right questions  in order to inform ourselves and simultaneously destabilize the  systems of power and privilege that depend on our ignorance to survive. Not one of us is excused from asking such questions. The answers are probably much closer to home than we guess.

Western Pennsylvania friends, did you know that the tear gas that pollutes the air of Bethlehem, sprayed at teenagers armed only with stones and sprayed in the close quarters of Aida Refugee Camp at all hours of the day, is manufactured in Jamestown, Pennsylvania? Only roughly an hour and a half outside of Pittsburgh. The use of this tear gas in Bethlehem is made possible through US military aid to Israel. Furthermore, this is the same tear gas being used in Ferguson, MO.

There is an endless list of things to question – US military aid to Israel, unequal distribution of resources in Palestine and Israel, economic inequality, etc.  But similar questions begged to be asked in our home countries as well. Have the last several weeks in Ferguson, MO not shown the United States the dangers of a racist system gone unquestioned by the masses?

These are the questions that need to resound in our homes, schools, places of worship, and government offices and halls. These are the discussions that must be had. I pray we all have the wisdom and courage to ask these questions.

 

 

Is it true what they say?

Times come when a song will express far better what I’m thinking and feeling than my own words. In recent days, I reach that point at least once a day. I had planned to write a quick blog about another song that I have been listening to often recently. However, plans change…
I have had many, many conversations in the past months speaking about the future of this region and the future of justice in our whole world. In almost all of these conversations, someone always essentially expresses, “I speak about the inevitable victory of a just peace all the time, but I am beginning to wonder if I actually believe it.” In full disclosure, I have been, at times, the person saying this.
As I read the news this evening from around the world tonight, I feel it. How can we believe that justice and righteousness will roll down like waters when oppressive systems guide our lives and erupts in violent acts and senseless killings? How can we maintain that peace will come to us when voices are silenced, tear gas fills our streets, and ridiculous justifications are used daily to legitimize the loss of human life?
So this is what I’m listening to tonight: “If It’s True“* Written by Anais Mitchell, performed by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)

If it’s true what they say
If there’s nothing to be done
If there’s no part to be played
If there’s no song to be sung
Take this voice, take these hands
I can’t use them anyway
Take this music and the memory
Of the muse from which it came
If it’s true what they say
I’ll be on my way
We can all be on our way
If it’s true what they say

But the ones who tell the lies
Are the solemnest to swear
And the ones who load the dice
Always say the toss is fair
And the ones who deal the cards
Are the ones who take the tricks
With their hands over their hearts
While we play the game they fix
And the ones who speak the words
Always say it is the last
And no answer will be heard
To the question no one asks
So I ask you as a brother
And I ask you as a friend
And I ask you as a lover
And I ask you once again
Is it true what they say?

The answer is no, it is not true what they say. There is always something to be done, a part to be played, a song to be sung. There is always a question that must be asked. May we not be overwhelmed by the system that makes us feel as if the game is already over and those running it have won. Let us remember that death and darkness, oppression and destruction,  are not the end of the story.

 

*Context, if you are interested: “If it’s True” is from the folk opera Hadestown by Anais Mitchell, which reinvisions the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This song is sung as Orpheus attempts to redeem Eurydice, his love, from Hades, or in this retelling, a subterranean mining town. Yes, it is obscure – brilliant, but obscure.