I’ll call her “Leila.” That’s not her real name, but given possible security repercussion we’ll leave it at that. She was the first person to come to mind when hearing the asinine and pandering response given by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. She came to mind because it was difficult to think of her—her people, her culture, her history, and her family—as simply “invented.” I had the incredible honour of meeting Leila and participating alongside her in a delegation of Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church members as well as a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the group Christian Peacemaker Teams or CPT following Easter of 2010. CPT is a faith based organization founded by the historic peace churches—Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren—but now made up of Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds including Mainline and evangelical Protestants and Catholics who attempt to live out answering the question, “what would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?” In places where violence is too often the norm, their motto has become “getting in the way” being an active presence for peace.
So there we were, our delegation of twelve people traipsing across various locations around the Occupied Territories of the West Bank hearing story after story, testimony upon testimony of those persons both Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Christian and Muslim sharing their reality with us of what it meant to exist in a state of militarization, of fear and violence. And at times in very small ways our delegation could also “get in the way” and be a visible presence of peace. But mostly, we heard stories.
The story that probably most profoundly affected our group, and certainly myself, was that which was shared by Leila. She participated with our delegation, however, unlike the rest of us who were North Americans, she was a Jerusalemite by birth. Born into the reality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, she had experienced first hand the injustice of being a people under occupation and has suffered for it. Also, in contrast to the rest of our delegation and to the norm for CPT, Leila was the first non-Christian to be part of CPT as she is a practicing Muslim. The profound aspect of her story, however, was not the sad or the maddening as it related to her struggles as a Palestinian woman under occupation. Rather it was the exquisite grace, strength, and resilience that she demonstrated. Each of us in the delegation experienced that from her.
One day during our travels we were given the task of serving as lookouts in the south Hebron hills as local shepherds watched their sheep. Our job was to watch out for miscreants from the illegal Israeli settlement who would harass the shepherds. Sitting on the hillside Leila and I learned that we shared a commonality regarding our families and circumstances in our life. From that moment on we grew to value one another such that we refer to each other as habibi and habibti (Arabic for beloved) brother and sister.
Certainly, in a post like this I intend to touch upon issues of peace and justice and subsequently, the political aspects related to it, both here in the US and in the Middle East. I’m appreciative of the work that the RCA has done relating to theological concerns, particularly critiquing Christian Zionism. Furthermore, I’m proud that my denomination is connected and involved in other avenues of peace and justice in the Middle East. But I suppose primarily, this post is personal. Or about the personal. About the person. It seems so easy to lump any group of people together and view the whole—view them—as an “issue.” Maybe that is politically more expedient. (Just as present in church politics as in national politics.)
Yet there is something about the personal, and about the person, that is not only needed and important in our lives, but downright necessary. So I am thankful for Leila and her testimony and the role it plays in helping me understand and view the world differently. And frankly, I value her story over Newt’s anyday.