article I just wrote for my school’s publications///pilgrimage reflection

Pax Christi Conference &  Living Stones Pilgrimage
May 10-23rd, 2015- Palestine/Israel

As the rest of the Prep was finishing classes and preparing for final exams, Mr. Stephen Oldham, a faculty member of the Religious Studies Department, was participating in the 70th anniversary conference of the largest international Roman Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi, convening in Bethlehem on the West Bank of Palestine where representatives from forty countries enthusiastically presented papers on their particular strategies and actions inspired by the mission of this organization “to build the Reign of God on earth as it is in heaven- a Reign of peace with justice.” Inter-connected with the conference was a parallel exploration of the critical humanitarian, political, economic and spiritual realities present today in the “Holy” lands, especially through the lens of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), a Palestinian Christian organization whose mission is to protect and further the culture and human rights of the Palestinian Christian community. One of the educational programs, organized by the HCEF, is to offer these “Living Stones” pilgrimages to international groups. In their first letter to us, the mission was clear: “ God touches our lives in many ways and I assure you that through this journey God will change your life…..you will not only experience Biblical history, but you will also meet the Christians living in the Holy Land today- the Living Stones who are descended from the very first followers of Jesus. You will hear their stories and be part of their communities-experiences that will not only broaden awareness, but deepen faith.” This was a very ambitious statement which was fulfilled in the minds/hearts of my small community of twenty-eight pilgrims representing all the regions of the United States. We were not just tourists rushing to the various sacred sites of the Bible for a photo shoot; but were pilgrims seeing the sites, sharing prayer and Eucharistic liturgy,  listening to the words of the prophets/Jesus and the Palestinian Christian people suffering since 1948 under Israeli military occupation, reflecting on those words as they seared into our hearts and finally posing the challenging question echoed in the lives of the great saints and heroes of old: “What is God asking of me in response to these ‘ Living Stones’ testimonies as a Christian, educator, American and member of the human race?” The specific itineraries, experiences and pictures of this pilgrimage were diligently recorded by myself each evening in a Word Press blog which you can access any time at: pilgrimage74@wordpress.com. The discipline of writing this blog was demanding especially using a Kindle Fire keyboard with my tri-focal eyeglasses. I was the last person each evening to go to bed. Most nights working well after midnight. Now, I have been blessed with a detailed remembrance and challenging mandate from this life changing trip. Let me share a few highlights with accompanying pictures along with some suggestions for further exploration into the issues which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first impression from this trip was the tremendous sense of life, faith, hospitality and struggle intertwined in the lives of the Palestinian people that we met on this journey. Our enthusiastic tour guide, Yacoub, was a former high school science teacher. He lives in the traditionally Palestinian East Jerusalem that has slowly been under pressure by Israeli settlements and a series of unjust laws. Ever since the Six day War in 1967, Palestinians, living within the borders of Israel, must pass a Hebrew language test, profess an oath of loyalty to the State of Israel, give up other passports in order to obtain “permanent resident” status (similar to a green card in their own traditional lands) which can’t be passed on to their children. They are allowed to vote in local elections, but barred from national elections. Their schools are of lesser quality (similar to the separate but equal status of African American schools in the US before racial integration); they pay the required taxes but receive little of the social services. Trash collection in the Palestinian neighborhoods is irregular at best so many burn their trash which becomes a health and ecological issue.  It is next to impossible for Palestinians to get housing permits to renovate existing or build new homes. So, they renovate without permits which then renders them vulnerable to having their homes demolished by the state which can come unexpectedly at any moment once they receive a citation. Much of the land has been declared “green “ zones meaning they cannot be developed for housing which sounds ecologically responsible; but is really an Israeli ploy to halt economic development and building in East Jerusalem forcing Palestinians to flee elsewhere which allows the expansion of government subsidized housing/social services for Jewish Israeli citizens with the long rangeplan of having one, united Jewish Israeli capital of Jerusalem.  Given these conditions, no wonder Yacoub has an aggressive edge to his voice and ideas as we tour this un-wholy land.

At the Pax Christi conference we were treated to traditional Palestinian music and dance from the local cultural organizations. I was invited up to the stage to join the female choir clothed in the traditional dress of their villages. Walking along the streets of Bethlehem the economic hardships imposed by the Israeli military were obvious. There is a huge wall encircling the city with armed checkpoints. This wall is almost three times the size of the infamous Berlin Wall. It has been decorated with symbols of life and resistance by the famous street artist, Banksy, as well as, ordinary people appalled by this oppressive monstrosity. No longer can Bethlehem Palestinians travel freely to Jerusalem for work. Unemployment has sky rocketed and the town is under the total control of the Israeli government. Water and food stuffs has to be imported weekly. Since the government controls over 90 percent of the water supply, it can be used as a threat to deter any acts of resistance to occupation. Imagine being a youth growing up in this environment. Watching the daily humiliation of your parents in this legendary birthplace of the Christian Savior. No wonder there are moments of tense and violent outbursts rooted in frustration and rage. We experienced this one day as we were going to meet with the members of Wi’am, an organization located adjacent to the Wall which seeks to educate and promote non-violent strategic expressions of resistance and self-reliance especially among the youth.  As our bus approached the Wall, we saw a large gathering of mostly young males gathering rocks to obviously throw at the Israeli unit stationed above them inside protected guard posts invulnerable to this pitiful display. We had to veer away and meet with the Wi’am community in a safer location that day.

Another day we ventured to a refugee camp not far from Bethlehem named Aida. It was established after the 1948 ‘Nakba’ expulsions whereby approximately 450 Palestinian villages were threatened and forced to leave their homes and most belongings by armed militia groups with the establishment of a new nation-state-Israel. The Palestinians call this “Nakba’, the time of anguish and suffering. The Israelis celebrate this time each year joyously as Independence Day. So, inside the refugee camp, we were given a tour by one of the leaders. It is under the auspices of the United Nations. It is a pitiful place. Bullet holes everywhere testifying to the two ‘Intifada’ uprisings of the Palestinians against the occupation. The school building no longer has windows for security in case the military decides to invade the camp as they do periodically for intimidation and harassment effects. Food and water are scarce resources. Little medical services exist. Education is minimal. The camp has received some outside funding to create a center for youth education, technology skills, and recreation. There is little space for the children to play since the building of the Wall in 2002. The Wall is literally next to a narrow road that divides them from Israeli settlements. As we were given the tour, I saw a gathering of youth on the street near the Wall and then suddenly a Blast and a smoke cloud arose…tear gas was shot from the other side of the wall to intimidate the kids. With the wind, our group was enveloped with the sting and choking of the gas. We were given a small sampling of what the camp faces every day.

So, these stories were repeated wherever we travelled among the Palestinian people mixed with the Pax Christi conference workshops and the usual touring of the sacred sites on the Mount of Olives, inside the old city of Jerusalem praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall and walking around the Temple Mount in the shadow of the awesome Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques, visiting the Tombs of the great Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Dead Sea Scroll caves and Essene ruins in Qumran, the wading of the Jordan River, the floating on the Dead Sea lake, the boat trip across the Sea of Galilee, touching the legendary places of Jesus birth and death, inside the synagogue church where legend speaks that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah demanding freedom of the captives and justice for the oppressed which infuriated the leaders of that day and today, the Beautiful setting of the Church of the Beatitudes-“Blessed are the Peacemakers”, the Nazareth locations for the grotto dwellings of Mary, Joseph and the Holy family.  This rendered me speechless, boggled my mind and caused great unrest of my heart. How could such injustices continue with such a wonderful history for the three Book religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam? When will we learn as a human race that oppression causes more oppression, violence creates more violence, security must be balanced with freedom/human rights and never solves the root causes of any conflict and unrest? This was echoed by Israeli peace groups we visited: Rabbis for Peace, Combatants for Peace and the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions, as well as, the Palestinian Peace groups: Wi’am, the Tent of Nations and the our sponsoring group, HCEF. . All these groups can be accessed via the Internet.

To conclude, let me offer a few resources to enable you, the reader, to further explore and hopefully respond to the crisis present in this un-holy land. A few books I read on the trip which gave personal testimony to the issues: I shall not Hate by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor raised in a refugee camp on the Gaza Strip which is still under strict quarantine by the Israeli military and a humanitarian disaster; The General’s Son by Miko Peled, the Israeli son of a very famous Israeli general turned peace activist; and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Phyllis Bennis, an American Jewish analyst from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D. C.  A few movies to watch: Omar, The Other Son, Five Broken Cameras, Walk on Water and Paradise Now. If you can see only one, I suggest Five Broken Cameras which is a first-hand video account filmed by a Palestinian villager of Bil’in over a five year period in which slowly an Israeli settlement encroaches upon the land and livelihood of this traditional place that depend on the olive trees for economic and spiritual sustenance. Despite the military repression, this film documents the resilience, non-violence and pro-life stance of this beleaguered people.

Beyond reading books and my blog, watching films and reflecting on these resources, what can one do? I suggest finding organizations promoting justice and peace in Palestine in your area, writing letters to the editor of your newspapers, asking your Congressional representatives why the US keeps spending approximately $3-4 billion dollars in military and economic aid to Israel per year(which is over half of all the foreign aid the US spends worldwide)  as they continue this occupation of Palestine which violates the international resolutions of the United Nations and the Fourth Geneva Convention and dooms millions of our brothers and sisters to lives lacking basic dignity and respect. I am reminded of the recent statement by Pope Francis, spoken as I was in Palestine, recognizing the State of Palestine and calling the efforts of Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to be an “angel of peace.” This occurred at the Vatican during the recent canonization celebration of two 19th century Palestinian nuns.

One additional challenge would be to join the international movement employing the tactics of BDS- boycott, divestment and sanctions- that were utilized by the world community in resistance to the South African apartheid system. The non-violent apostle of that time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, visited the West Bank. In 2014 he wrote an article published by the Huffington Post: “ The sustainability of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people has always been dependent on its ability to deliver justice for the Palestinians. I know firsthand that Israel created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.” He urged putting pressure on Israel through these economic means. One simple action being suggested is not to buy SABRA and TRIBAL brands of hummus and then writing a letter or email to the companies stating the motivations for the boycott. A local Philadelphia site for further information is:

http://www.makehummusnotwar.com/characters_21.html.

I wish to thank the Prep administration and faculty for their support of this wonderful journey. The people, places, sights, sounds, food, challenges, human cries and struggles will forever be part of my life. Let us pray and work together for a just peace in this trouble and blessed land.

By Stephen Oldham, June, 8, 2015

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