Late last year,, I embarked upon a journey calculated to change life - mine and othersThere are moments in life, seminal moments. Points of time signaling divergence, a change from the way things were to the way things will never be again. Some we choose and enter. Some sneak upon us, whisking away the life we used to lead. I chose a moment and returned to another. From the personal to the communal and back again. Change spiralled into change.
On December 26th, 2019, I embarked upon a journey calculated to change life, mine and others - to Palestine to serve as a human rights witness for the World Council of Churches. A chosen servant of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. Called by Christians in Palestine to provide a thoughtful ‘International’ presence in Palestinian cities, towns, villages and pasturelands. To witness interactions between forces of Occupation and Palestinian citizens of the Occupied Territories. I was placed in Bethlehem.
It was a surreal experience. Living and praying and serving in the Holy Land. Settings of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. To kneel at Nativity’s altar where once the manger stood. Prostrate at the foot of the cross on Golgotha, entering the tomb for a moment’s reflection, pausing to brush hands and cross on the stone that held his body for anointing. Where they wrapped him in the linens of the grave. To walk the Mount of Olives, kneel in Gethsemane. Wandering narrow streets, thick with sellers and buyers, tracing Via Dolorosa, stopping to worship where Simon of Cyrene took up the cross from frail, shaking hands.
Jerusalem, where Christ’s friends and relations could not practice their faith without the permission of a harsh and cruel oppressor. Where folk coming to worship were arrested and denied right of access. Where an indigenous resident of that occupied territory could be stopped and commanded by a soldier of the empire. Where peasants, robbed of their ancestor’s land learned to be grateful for employment building cities for the empire’s elites. Ancient roads and aqueducts testifying to resource reallocation from the many to the few.
Wandering arid hills and valleys around Bethlehem. David’s memories echoing everywhere in the twenty third psalm. Where shepherds guard sheep from ancient marauders wearing new justifications. Where boys learned what stones and slings were for and used them well. Where invasion’s armies razed entire cities to the ground, overplanting them with forests, denying rootless refugees even a glimpse of home. 2000 years ago. And yesterday. And today. And tomorrow.
Then came “Corona”.
Bethlehem was the first to be sequestered. Quarantined by Israel after 4 cases surfaced. Pulled out 5 hours ahead of the closure, two weeks ahead of our planned departure, I found myself returned to a home far removed from the one I’d left. Unable to embrace friends and church I spent hours wandering old rail beds. Considering all I’d seen and heard, witnessed, reported, lived, despaired. Ancient stories renewed again and again and again. In Palestine. In Canada. In life, in death. In life beyond death?
I went to Palestine and Israel to be changed. By the sites of my ancestors in faith. By the people I met, Palestinian and Israeli, Christian, Muslim and Jew. By events witnessed, by the stories I carry. I thought I would come home to offer witness and change in the world I’d left.
I arrived to a world besieged. Dislocated, relocated. Witnessing ancient pandemonium in modern venues. Left separate and united. Estranged and familiar. From what we were to what we might. Birthed in possibility, praying in the garden, lost on Golgotha. Resurrected in…grace?
Keith Simmonds is in ministry at Duncan United Church, where folk are engaged in seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with the Creator. He blogs at faithfulwitness.xyz
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday. May 23rd 2020