This spring Centre for Christian Studies student Lynn McGrath traveled to Israel and Palestine as part of a “Come and See” trip organized by the United Church of Canada and BC Conference. (CCS diaconal ministry students are required to engage in a Global Perspectives experience as part of their program.) The trip was led by retired minister Rev. Marianna Harris, and while there, participants connected with UCC partners such as Sabeel, Wi’am, Defence for Children International and Ecumenical Accompaniers.
Here are Lynn’s reflections on the experience:
In April I joined eleven United Church people with curiosity and a sense of adventure for a tour of the Holy Land. I soon discovered I wasn’t just a tourist; I was a witness to the challenges that people of this land face in their daily lives. I had no prior perceptions of the Israeli or Palestinian people, but by the second day I discovered definite divisions between the two.
As we traveled on Jewish roads in our comfortable air conditioned bus, I felt solidarity among the privileged. Turning onto a road used by Palestinians, I became aware that I had traveled through an unfamiliar dimension. I felt as though I was living in a backwards Wizard of Oz scene, where Dorothy is standing in her tumbled house after the tornado. In the movie, everything is in black and white until she opens the door to a lovely garden filled with red, orange and yellow flowers; a perfect setting in a sun filled day. What I was seeing was nothing like the Land of Oz.
As we crossed over there were dull, colorless streets with plastic bags, empty bottles, clothing and other garbage strewn about. I was now traveling on the road of oppression. On our visits to Palestinians, we listened as they explained their many daily inconveniences. With an identification card in hand, they are subject to scrutiny and intimidation at checkpoints just to get to work or school. Israeli soldiers avoid eye contact and are mostly gruff in their demeanor. I wondered about the gun-toting soldiers who stood guard at check points and in towers at the wall. They were young, in their twenties. What did they know about the history of the people of Israel? Had they been taught to hate Palestinians?
Our group visited a variety of places of oppression and listened to speakers who challenge authorities in non-violent resistance. The Palestinians we met showed their vulnerable selves where their spirits have been downtrodden and hurt. Young people are discouraged, many do not return once they’ve been educated in other countries. In the West Bank, places of residence and business are surrounded by walls and fences. Their culture and traditions are threatened.
We were fortunate to have United Church partners accompany us to places of advocacy and transformation. I not only witnessed the sad hurting places, but I also discovered places of hope. One such place was in Bethlehem. Amongst the rubble, cement walls, and garbage of Aida refugee camp in the West Bank, we witnessed the work of kind individuals trying to make the most of a bad situation. Under the hard stone tower where gun toting guards watched, children played in the street. We visited Lajee Centre which offers a place for children and youth opportunities to develop their creative skills, get help with schoolwork, develop computer skills and to learn to play musical instruments. Lajee has a large playground and sports field where recently a net has been installed after guards from the nearby tower threw tear gas canisters where children play. I sensed our guide’s unease while touring the refugee camp. She constantly watched the tower as we walked around.
One innovative young woman started a rooftop greenhouse project where children and elders from the camp grow vegetables. The elders who were farmers before their displacement now feel a sense of purpose by bringing their knowledge to the young people. They have even used discarded tear can canisters to grow herbs in the greenhouse!
Our tour also included visiting holy sites where Jesus and his disciples had walked. We went to the Sea of Galilee, Tabgha, Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Garden of Gethsemane to name a few. These places where Jesus had preached and taught were a welcomed respite from what I witnessed in the West Bank. We engaged in scripture while lingering in places where Jesus fed and wept and prayed with his followers. I will forever have a picture in my mind of these sacred places as I read scripture.
I would highly recommend this tour as a Global Perspective Experience for CCS students and anyone else wanting to bear witness to the people of Israel/Palestine. With eyes opened wide you will get a true sense of their struggles and resilience and their hope for a better future.