Information overload in the Holy Land

I personally had a day of discovery for myself; I realized that during our tour and presentation today with UNOCHA, a lot of information available about the Palestinians, and the Israeli settlements contained negative statistics and data. For me, this information was just “pouring salt into an open wound.”

I came away with the hope despite the salt. I think something stood out to me during this day, and during our trip; I noticed the cultural differences between my culture and the Palestinian people that we met. Perhaps this is Israel as a whole, but during our meals a dessert that Is served at almost every meal is watermelon. This unique and impressionable tradition has become an expectation of our group during every meal we eat.

Recently, a member of our group told us about how salt and watermelon combined together make a very tasty treat… And I complete agree!

Although the day carried a lot of bitter salt, I learned today, and on this trip that bitter can be better when you take it with a slice of Watermelon.


Holy Saturday

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers: go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. —Matthew 27:62-66

​These are the only words the Gospels give us about Holy Saturday, that day in-between Jesus’ death and his Resurrection. There is no description about the disciples and their experience in-between grief and surprise. There is no sign that they believed what Jesus said, and truly believed that something greater was to come. They spend the day in hiding. In fact, the writer of Matthew seems to think that the imperial powers of the world put more weight on Jesus’ prophecies than his own disciples. It is the political and religious powers that spend this in-between day in frantic, fear-driven anxiety about what may happen the next day, and do all they can to prevent it from happening. So they post soldiers, figures of war and violence, outside of the tomb of the Prince of Peace.

​My time so far in Israel and Palestine feels a little bit like Holy Saturday. I have seen the death and destruction of God’s people. I have seen the Wall that seeks to cut off and separate, scattering would-be voices of hope into hiding. I have seen soldiers posted at the door, put there by forces who do not want the Good News of new life to get out.

​Holy Saturday can be a difficult and hopeless place to be. I certainly look at the current political situation in the land where Jesus walked and cannot fathom how it will get better. I do not know how God’s vision for a world reconciled will come to fruition. I feel the grief and anger I imagine the disciples must have felt, and I feel a little let down that God’s vision is not coming together in the ways and times I think it should.

​Yet, in my time here I have also seen the empty tomb. I know that the soldiers placed there 2,000 years ago were not able to stop the Risen One. I have seen Christ’s church as it proclaims the reality of Risen Life, even if that reality is not yet tangible to our human senses. So I put my faith that the soldiers here will not stop the Good News. I put my hope in a God who brings us out of hiding and separation, who rolls away stones and breaks down walls. And I remember that those witnesses of the Resurrection did not keep quiet for long, and I cannot keep quiet now.

Erin Armstrong

M.Div. Class of 2016

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

Politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner

“People eat politics for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. There is too much religion and not enough faith. We need culture. ”

Today we had a chance to meet with some incredible Lutheran Palestinians in Bethlehem. First was Mitri Raheb who is an influential/activist/awesome pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church. He explained some of the efforts that he has done in creating educational programs in the community for both youth and adults that focus on building culture. He and his students have hosted several regional and international events that feature the arts and humanities coming together, and this is all part of a greater project to have people more invested in and studying Palestinian culture. I have identified with this because of my Indian background. There is such a huge focus on academics rather than a balance of culture and academics. I’m not concerned about Indian culture sinking away anytime soon, and I support the community initiatives that a few organizations have implemented in order to retain and spread Palestinian culture.

Later in the day, we met with two local Palestinian young adults named Elias and Salam who were able to share more about their life in a city outside of Bethlehem. It was so fun to talk with them about what they do as activists in their own community. We also talked about things like Instagram, love for maqluba and Bollywood films, and appreciation for those who can identify good falafel. These young adults are so educated about the world. I think they represent and example of the hope and the future for the Palestinian people and their culture. I am so thankful to be connected with them, and I can’t wait to hear about the great things they will do in the world!


True and False

When Pastor Mitri Raheb talked about the importance of culture and the humanities, I enthusiastically nodded my head. As an English major in an era of business and engineering degrees, I often find myself defending the importance of the arts. I was happy to hear that Pastor Raheb agreed that culture can play an important part in shifting the narrative of a people and place. As so many have pointed out, our stories and art often allow us to tell a truer story than the one we see in a barrage of statistics.

Later that afternoon we met with two young Palestinians named Elias and Salam. They told us their stories about getting permits, waiting for hours at checkpoints, and other moments from life in the West Bank. We craned our necks and tried not to shift in our chairs, listening to every word.

At dinner we joked about what divides true hummus from imposters. We talked about Elias’ university plans. But the conversation that stands out was our talk about favorite novels and short stories. Because it seems everyone in the world read The Hunger Games, we found common ground there and agreed that we loved them all–movies and books. Elias took it a step further and said, smirk hanging on his lips, “When I see District 12, I see home.” We laughed, embarrassed, and Elias laughed at the absurdity of life. He placed his own stories and the truth he pulled from fiction out on the table, and we listened, in awe at the bravery of both.


Hebron: The Chicken Market

Welcome to the chicken market of Hebron.

We are standing in front of a cement barrier two stories high. The resemblance to the Berlin Wall is unmistakeable; the new wall could be the younger, hipper niece of the iconic separator. This wall bears a depiction of the coming of the Messiah, the return of the Jewish Temple. It was painted by Israeli settlers on this wall between buildings holding homes and shops. Or what used to be homes and shops. Now the wall bars entrance to the street, and the once-bustling chicken market — like many other streets and markets in Hebron — is silent. A ghost town.

The power to destroy economies and self-determination is the power to destroy the very threads of society. Worshippers can revert to secret gatherings when repressed. Families with means can escape occupation. But without the basic ability to trade, barter and support one’s family through a stable marketplace, a city falls apart.

The abandoned chicken market is one of many stories we saw yesterday in Hebron as we toured the once-busy city center, which today is a patchwork of buffer zones and checkpoints to protect Israeli settlers who are expanding their presence in the city. Ownership and origination issues aside, the Hebron of today is a broken place. As a fellow trip member said so eloquently yesterday, “we saw a lot of cramped hearts today.” My heart hurts for both groups vying for a place in this city of their ancestors — but it beats in time with the protestations of the Palestinian people who, here, are subject to double standards and military law and an unpredictable, violent daily existence under occupation. “If you are looking for logic, look somewhere else” said our tour guide, a former Israeli soldier who served in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Whatever you do, don’t look at the children running around with guns.


Today we visited Hebron.
Hebron is a city of great significance to both the Palestinians who have lived here for generations, and to Jewish settlers who strongly believe that the land belongs to them, as they read God’s promises to Abraham as promises that also include them today. Now the harsh reality is that the Palestinians can no longer live or move freely in Hebron.

We had a guide from Break the Silence, which is an Israeli organization of former military members who now speak up against the occupation.

Our guide did his time in the Israeli army, and is now advocating against the illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories. He is not a pacifist, he loves his country, and he believes that loving Israel also means to speak up against its current military policies. It was a painful day, in many ways.

I have been to the Holy land before, and there is nothing new under the sun: our Palestinian sisters and brothers are still hurting under the power of the empire, and it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart to see kids growing up fearing that they will be the next targets for a random military drill, to see Palestinian parents desperately trying to sell us things at the checkpoint, knowing that they will only have our attention for a brief moment before we enter a city that used to be their home, which they no longer can access. It breaks my heart to hear the Israeli military guard who says “I hate having to be here, carrying this gun. I should be out having fun with my buddies. I’m 21 and this is awful.”

Later in the day, we went back to Jerusalem. As I was sitting outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was overwhelmed with sadness, and right now my heart is too full of impressions to go into more details of what we have seen today. Instead, I will share a piece that I wrote as I was journaling to process the day:

“I laid my head, scarf and hands on the stone where Jesus, according to tradition, was anointed after his death. Today, I need to remember this part of my faith: even when all seems lost, when death has come, the women came to bless and anoint Jesus, creating beauty where there was none.

A place of death became a place of deep care. Not to erase death or suffering, but to find ways to live with it. To still choose goodness and beauty after an act of violence and after having seen the grim face of death in the eyes, refusing to let it blind them. They were still going to anoint and bless.

The women who anointed Jesus did not know that their acts of love would be remembered, and they definitely did not know that Jesus would rise from the dead. And they did it anyway.

I find myself asking if my faith and actions reflect the same love? And do they reflect the end of the story; that after suffering, death and grief, God makes new life?
I want to live out from this faith. I want to trust that the darkness of the world, the evil that our Palestinian sisters and brothers are facing, will end. And in the meantime, we can anoint and bless one another. We can use the gifts that we have been given to look death and evil in the eyes saying: you have no power over me.”
Annette Dreyer

Taybeh and Ramallah

Today was our first full day in the Holy Land. We spent the morning at the first brewery in Palestine call Taybeh Brewery in the town of Taybeh. This is a family owned brewery started by a father and his two sons. Being the first brewery in Palestine came with it’s share of challenges from not being able to find any investors to having to worry about the amount of water they use vs. the amount provided to them. The business today has expanded to a hotel and winery proving that were there is a will there is a way. The wife of one of the son’s shared with us her frustration at the situation and her hope that there one day would be a free Palestine she said that “sometimes it feels as though the whole world is pressing down on us.”

In the afternoon we visited The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope- Ramallah, and spoke with the Pastor there. The Church of Hope also serves as a school that both Christian and Muslim children attend. They learn side by side and there is hope that this mentality of peaceful co-existence is one that will carry on, to future generations. The Pastor spoke to us about how it is getting harder to encourage the student to come back to live in Ramallah after they have completed university. Without there return some of the work of peaceful co habitation maybe lost.

As an American in a foreign land it was most shocking to me to go through a checkpoint when traveling back into Jerusalem from Ramallah. There were military men and women with AK47s (or something to that effect) milling around stoping cars checking for…who really knows. I can not imagine a life where armored guards become a daily part of life and a “norm.” Unfortunately there are many men, women, and children that have been forced to deal with this type of security their entire life’s. I beginning to discover that what we Americans see on the news is a very very small portion of what is really going.