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It’s been over a month since that terrible day on October 7 when Hamas militants broke through Israeli security and brutally killed over a thousand Israelis, taking a couple hundred men, women and children hostage.
Since then we’ve seen Israel’s fierce response and the escalation of violence and death. So much of Gaza is now decimated. A flood of refugees homeless. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, many of them children, in an effort to snuff out Hamas and ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
There’s been public debate, a deluge of podcasts and opinion essays, protests in cities and on college campuses, and an alarming spike in both antisemitism and Islamophobia.
It’s complicated, we’re told. Deep tensions fraught with a long history. No easy solution. I can accept that, I suppose. And I’m no expert in Middle Eastern history nor its modern politics.
But my heart has been wrecked, my stomach in knots these past six weeks (admittedly, from my privileged place of safety and security). Because all I can think about is the names and faces of those kids. Palestinian students my wife, Tammy, and I met at Shepherd’s High School in the West Bank. All I can think about is their families. Are they safe? How are they holding up amidst all this turmoil?
We first met them in July 2015 when a group from our church traveled to Israel/Palestine to put on a weeklong arts camp for the students of Shepherd’s High School in Beit-Sahour, a town nestled up against Bethlehem. We fell in love with these kids immediately. They’re smart and creative and resourceful and brave and resilient. Their families embraced us and blessed us with gospel hospitality.
We would return the next summer to do a similar kind of camp (although we made it a combination of arts and sports). Each time we got ready to leave and return to the States, through hugs and tears the students would ask us to bring back the same message:
“Tell Christians in the U.S. that we’re here. Please tell them not to forget us!”
Every time I promised I would. And I’ve carried these students, their families, their stories of heartache and triumph, in my soul. In recent weeks we’ve reached out to several of the students–now young adults–that we still keep in touch with. One of the young women sent my wife this text just a few days ago:
“Unfortunately…the situation is very dangerous as we were unable to go to the universities in the West Bank because of the settlers and the war….we are just praying that this nightmare will end.”
We are just praying that this nightmare will end.
Tammy and I have been praying, and yet we feel so helpless. What can we do? I’ve thought about this a lot and even sought wisdom from others who are much wiser than me on everything happening. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for now, I can do two things.
First, I can lament and share in the Spirit’s groaning for the brokenness and injustice of a world that is not the way its supposed to be (Romans 8). The first calling of the church, says Tom Wright, is to pray for and with the world at its place of deepest pain. I can do that. It doesn’t feel like enough, but I guess it’s something.
Second, I can make good on my promise to these students and their families. I can use my voice—as a preacher and a writer—to remind American Christians that we have brothers and sisters in places like the West Bank and Gaza (and yes, Israel too).
So let me tell you a story about some of these students and one way they’ve deeply impacted me. The fuller story can be read in the first blog I ever wrote for RJ. But let me retell a part of it here.
Come with me to Shepherd’s High School in Beit-Sahour. It’s the last day of the arts camp. The students put on a presentation for their parents and families in the morning, displaying their remarkable talent. Later that afternoon, once the blistering heat begins to let up, the students take us on a tour of their town.
They love their town. They are so proud of it. They lead us up and down winding sidewalks, pointing things out as we go, laughing and telling stories. The main place they want to show us is their church.
They bring us to a stunning Greek Orthodox building. We are ushered into silence, enraptured by the beauty of its architecture. The thunder of Israeli jets flying overhead shake the ground beneath us.
On the outside wall of the church are words written in Arabic. “What does that mean?” a member of our group asks, pointing to the inscription.
Reme, one of the oldest students (and a natural leader) translates. “The writing says, ‘You belong to Jesus, now I am sending you out like Jesus into the world.’”
Then she does something remarkable. She goes down the line, looking each of us in the eyes, and points. “That means you are Jesus, and you are Jesus, and you are Jesus…” She says it so confidently, so matter-of-factly, like she is the preacher and we are her congregation. As Henri Nouwen might say, the Christ in Reme recognized the Christ in us.
We had come here to pour into these kids, to encourage their hearts, to participate in the drama of God’s mission. But in this holy moment (that was one of many), it was we who were being poured into, our own hearts encouraged. It was we who were the recipients of God’s mission.
More often than not, it is among those to whom we’ve been sent that we more deeply discover our own “sent-ness.” Our own calling as disciples empowered and sent to join the Spirit’s work of “bringing about the wonder of new world” (Oscar Romero).
This happened to me in Beit-Sahour, beneath the roar of Israeli jets, in a town oppressed by a separation wall, among a group of Palestinian teenagers who looked us in the eyes and reminded us all of our baptism: “You are Jesus, and you are Jesus, and you are Jesus….”
So the poet Hopkins writes:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the feature of men’s faces.