Response: December 2015 Issue

Hopes and Fears in Bethlehem

As we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, we work to make the birthplace of Peace a place of peace.

Hopes and Fears in Bethlehem
A message to celebrate The Just Sharing Fellowship, a group of young Palestinian women partnering with young United Methodist Women members.

I come from a long line of active United Methodist Women. I attended United Methodist Women meetings as an infant with my mother, and my grandmother first subscribed me to response when I was 12 years old. At the age of 13, I worked with five other young women in my congregation to start our own teen circle of the United Methodist Women. We were inspired by the United Methodist Women members at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church in Mt. Lebanon, Penn., who were fiercely committed to making change in our community and around the world.

We called our circle "Dames in Action." In many ways, it began as time and space to fellowship, grow in faith and serve our community together. Over time, however, our teen circle became a lesson in social justice and action. We learned about important justice issues around the world and how to respond. Throughout my early involvement in the United Methodist Women I learned and experienced that the Christian life is love in action. United Methodist Women was one of the most formative life experiences that led me to serve as a Global Mission Fellow through United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. I served for 20 months in Bethlehem, the West Bank of Palestine/Israel, with the Wi'am Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center, a United Methodist Advance project that seeks to create a local and global society of diversity, nonviolence and justice. Organized and directed by Palestinian Christians, the Wi'am Center offers free conflict- mediation services to the Bethlehem community as well as empowerment and nonviolence courses for youth and young adults, women's groups and after-school and summer programs for young children.

Barriers to peace

Every year at Christmastime, millions of people sing of Bethlehem, "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie … the hope and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Still today, Bethlehem embodies these hopes and fears.

Every day on my way to work, I passed the Church of the Nativity, the church built over the place marked as the site of Christ's birth. It is not only a holy site that draws pilgrims and tourists from around the world but it is also an active church with daily services and a living Roman Catholic congregation. This church celebrates the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, reminding us of the presence and workings of God in our midst. God's incarnation gives us the hope of real salvation from the brokenness of our world.

Yet every day at the Wi'am Center my colleagues and I worked in the shadow of an 8 meter tall cement barrier and a military watchtower. This barrier was built by Israel to separate Palestine and Israel. However, in reality, this barrier separates Palestine from Palestine, keeping farmers from their land, families from families and Christians and Muslims from their holiest sites in Jerusalem.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, within the Bethlehem governorate alone 56 kilometers of the barrier's route is not on the internationally recognized border but cuts within the West Bank. If the barrier is completed as planned, 12 communities will be physically separated from the rest of the Bethlehem governorate, separating them from centers of life and important civic services. Daily this barrier reminded me of the divisions we humans build between ourselves and what we do not understand, perpetuating fear and pain.

Just Sharing

At the Wi'am Center, I worked primarily with a group of young women in the Just Sharing Fellowship, a narrative sharing project hosted by Wi'am in conjunction with Unstoppable, a young women's movement within the United Methodist Women of Western Pennsylvania. This project created space for young women to share their stories of personal experiences across cultural divides and chasms of misunderstanding. Through a series of workshops, development of a blog and pen pal partnerships, these young women empowered one another's voices and stories, discussed shared humanity and joint struggle and ultimately used storytelling as advocacy and listening as an act of love.

Each participant, both in Western Pennsylvania and in Bethlehem, was encouraged to write two stories featuring a true experience from their life. These narratives were compiled onto a public blog online. The stories of the young women in Palestine reveal a different truth of life in Palestine than the one that is often held and shared in mainstream media and society. These were stories of normalcy and oppression, of the joy at the birth of a nephew or the terror of the Israeli military occupying one's home.

Throughout the Just Sharing Fellowship, we often wrestled with the fears associated with life in Bethlehem. We were repeatedly forced to reschedule and relocate our workshops as the young women were afraid to come to our office because of its location. Situated near a watchtower and a gate opening to an Israeli military base, the corner outside of Wi'am was a flashpoint. Wi'am was often affected by rubber bullets, tear gas and skunk water fired by the Israeli military. Furthermore, Israel grants permits and controls all borders, and while the young women boldly shared their stories, some were hesitant to have their name published with their story out of fear of restriction of movement or other consequences.

Mary's vision

While working with these young women in Bethlehem I was often reminded of Mary, mother of Jesus. Much like these participants, she was not only a young women whose society and situation often silenced her voice, but she also lived in a land under military occupation. She too wrestled with great uncertainty. Yet in the midst of this she responded with not only obedience to the will of God but also with vision and imagination. She sings of a world that is better and proclaims a different image of might, saying "[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:51-53). Mary embodied the courage necessary to envision a more fully just reality.

One of the most meaningful days of my time in Bethlehem was celebrating International Women's Day 2015 with the Just Sharing Fellowship participants. People around the world were encouraged to use the phrase #MakeItHappen" on social media, seeking to share and accomplish visions of gender equality in 2015. At our celebration in Bethlehem we made signs with our vision of justice and equality and included #MakeItHappen. The participants photographed one another holding their signs in order to share their dreams on social media outlets. These signs presented a vision of a better future and steps to achieve justice, such as "Peace," "Freedom," "Women as peacemakers" and "Help one an other."

On that first Christmas night that we sing about fondly, it was in that meeting of the "hopes and fears of all the years" that God entered our world to live and work among us. In the same way, when our hopes and fears meet through recognizing the brokenness of a current reality while looking with faith toward a better one, God breaks into our world. This divine entrance can comfort and empower us, inspire us to action and draw us into meaningful relationships with God and those around us.

I find often that the first step toward creating justice and reconciliation is a greater understanding of reality and of its pain and fear. Books, documentaries and news sources can offer a wealth of relevant information. The United Methodist Women Reading Program featured President Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2011. Works that give voice to the Palestinian experience have especially opened my eyes to the daily reality of oppression in the West Bank and Gaza, such as Archbishop Elias Chacour's Blood Brothers, or the Kairos Document, a cry from the Palestinian Christians to the Church worldwide. However, learning, dreaming and listening are only the beginning. They must be followed by action.

Make justice happen

Shortly after International Women's Day, a small remembrance of our celebration was painted on the graffiti-covered Separation Barrier outside of the Wi'am Center. "Justice #MakeItHappen" now proclaims a dream of a better future against the backdrop of oppression. This was a symbolic act, speaking to the fact that we must not let the mechanisms of oppression go untouched by our visions of justice and liberation. We are called to mark the systems and structures of our world with justice and hope. We must pray for peace and justice in the Middle East and everywhere. We must familiarize ourselves with the ways The United Methodist Church is wrestling with the situation in Palestine and Israel and pray that our church takes wise and prophetic action. We must also pray with our actions by participating in the ways The United Methodist Church is working toward a just peace . United Methodist Women and The United Methodist Church support and partner with several organizations in Palestine and Israel. I encourage you to explore the work of these organizations in order to further understand the needs of the community.

Furthermore, any individual can boycott products manufactured in illegal Israeli settlements as affirmed by General Conference 2012. Contact your representatives and urge them to support a just peace. Join an advocacy network, such as United Methodist Kairos Response, in order to receive news of when specific actions are taking place in Congress. As General Conference 2016 approaches, it is important to be aware and involved in the relevant conversations and resolutions, including the movement for United Methodist responsible investment and divestment from corporations involved in the Occupation so that the church may not benefit from oppression. Travel to Palestine and Israel on an alternative tourism journey or serve as an ecumenical accompanier with the World Council of Church's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. As we work for peace with justice in Palestine and Israel and internationally may we have the courage to counter fear with hope, revealing God in our broken world.

Grace Killian is a United Methodist Women member at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. She just finished her term as Global Mission Fellow with the Board of Global Ministries.

Posted or updated: 12/1/2015 11:00:00 PM

November 2015 cover of response

Single Issues Available

Link opens in a new window. Digital: $2.50   Link opens in a new window. Print: $2.75 + Shipping