calendar February 25, 2009 in News

Bishop reflects on Holy Land visit

By Bishop Claire S. Burkat

What started as a sincere desire for a global experience for the Academy of the Conference of Bishops, turned into a global drama when war broke out in Gaza, a week before our scheduled departure. The original goals of the Bishops’ pilgrimage were threefold; awareness, advocacy, and accompaniment with our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordon and the Holy Land (ELCJHL).

I was honored to take part in this most important trip with 40 other ELCA and ELCIC
(Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) bishops, churchwide staff, and spouses as we traveled into what we thought might be dangerous territory. Our first awareness came even before we left as many struggled with the choice of cancelling the trip because of the outbreak of war. We realized at the start that the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, and fragility of Middle East peace is a reality our Christian partners in the ELCJHL and the people of Israel and the West Bank of Palestine live with daily.

We became aware of the pain and suffering, the longing and prayers for the peace that is so elusive, and the miraculous resilience and courage of the people we encountered.  We returned as committed advocates for peace, justice and mercy for all people affected by the hatred and terror of the seemingly never-ending hostility that has infected the Holy Land.

The most important aspect of the trip, unrecognized before we left the USA, was the tremendous power of accompaniment. The Palestinian Lutherans wept and embraced us for travelling to be with them. They did not expect us to make changes in their present situation, but our prayers, love, support and our willingness to worship, listen and empathize with their plight was so appreciated that it was surprising to us the first few days.  Muslim leaders, Israeli officials and ordinary Israeli and Arab people alike were grateful beyond measure for our presence.

We travelled, listened and learned, fourteen hours a day for ten days.  There is not enough room in this report to say what I would like to say, only room to highlight some observations.
Just when we thought peace was unreachable and impossible, each day we witnessed signs of hope. For sure, many forces in the Middle East conspire to sap that most precious of commodities, our hope for a peace filled future.  Yet God gave us powerful and clear glimpses of hope.

We experienced them in meetings with leaders in government and civil society, and with leaders from Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith traditions. We experienced them in the voices of the Christian and Muslim youth who attend our Lutheran-supported schools in the West Bank, and with those who serve at the Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital. We heard them in the songs and prayers of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in the ELCJHL.

My most poignant experience was a truly miraculous story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Our meeting with Mazen Faraj, a Palestinian refugee from Bethlehem, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli citizen of Jerusalem, gave us hope for peace. Mazen is the son of a 62-year-old man who was shot to death one day at an Israeli military checkpoint. Rami is the father of a 14-year-old girl whose life was tragically ended by the attack of a suicide bomber. They are members of a group called the Parents Circle Family Forum, now 500 families strong; each has experienced the death of a family member through violence.

They spoke eloquently about the process of change that carried them from experiencing rage and hatred to seeking peace and reconciliation. They told us in very human terms what it means to go from referring to one another as enemy, oppressor and oppressed, to that of embracing one another as brother and partner in search of a common good. As you can imagine, there was not a dry eye in the house. There were tears of grief, tears of companionship, but mostly tears of profound inspiration. At the end of their sharing, we all surrounded Mazen and Rami with prayer and the laying on of all our hands as a blessing of accompaniment and support for their courageous witness. 

There were many other inspiring moments. Led by Bishop Younan of the ELCJHL and other Palestinian Lutheran leaders, we experienced and participated in extreme peace building — planting olives trees at the occupation wall, praying publicly for peace at a checkpoint guarded by machine gun bearing young soldiers, blessing the ministry of the Augusta Victoria Lutheran Hospital on the Mount of Olives, worshipping and praying for peace at a Shabbat service and celebrating the Eucharist at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the first time Protestant leaders were permitted to do so).

There is so much in our lives that can carry us into hopelessness and despair, cynicism and doubt. We do, however, have a choice. We can let ourselves fall victim to the way of doubt and despair. Or we can stand with those who seek to identify the signs of hope in our midst, no matter how elusive. We can seek ways of reflecting and magnifying their light and warmth. Or better still, we can choose to become embers of hope ourselves.