The heartrending violence in the Holy Land over the past month has brought to mind a smuggling operation in the region I was involved with over 30 years ago.
I was in the Middle East for the summer of 1992 taking part in an archaeological dig in the Negev desert in southern Israel (see previous post). During the week we’d excavate a Bronze Age temple and on weekends – Friday and Saturday – my friends and I would catch a bus into Jerusalem and put up at the Ecce Homo hostel in the Old City. I was a student in seminary at the time and wanted to take in as much of this storied land as I could during my stay there.
If the bus made good time I would head straight down to Hagar Square to join a vigil of Jewish mothers and grandmothers called the Women in Black. Dressed in black these women gathered every Friday at noon to protest the war and mourn all victims of the ongoing conflict between their people and the Palestineans.
One Friday as the vigil was ending I was approached by one of the women who asked if I would be willing to help get some supplies across the border into Gaza. At twenty-something I had little to lose and jumped at the opportunity to see the occupied territory for myself.
I was in the front seat when we drove up to the heavily-patrolled checkpoint with its coiled barbed wire. An Israeli soldier wearing the standard issue bullet proof vest and machine gun strapped to his back stuck his head through the window, asked a few questions, then waved us through.
“Thanks to your Canadian passport they didn’t search the car,” said the driver.
“What are they looking for?”
“Guns and ammunition, mostly” she said. “But they’ll confiscate anything if you don’t have the paperwork.”
We drove on through the pedestrian-packed streets and sun-bleached buildings of Gaza. A group of Palestinian women welcomed us outside our destination, crowding around the car with clapping and song. After the giving and receiving of kisses to the cheeks, Alhamdulillahs, and introductions of new friends, everyone worked together to carry 4 or 5 crates from the trunk of the car into an empty, paint-chipped room.
My curiosity was fully piqued. What sort of covert operation had I signed up for?
Our hosts seated us on plastic stools and served the customary chai and biscuits while a child was sent to find a crowbar.
The requested tool finally appeared, the crates were pried open and their contents revealed.
What was inside?
Dozens and dozens of them in Arabic, most for children and youth, both educational and story-filled, some for adults on everything from women’s health to best practices in running a small business to classics in world literature.
In the seventh of eight beatitudes, Jesus called peacemakers “children of God”. Here were a roomful of them. Israeli women and Palestinian women, meeting across a political chasm to build a library in Gaza.
One story guild season, years later, I attempted to stage the beatitudes with 30+ participants ranging in age from 5-17. We quickly ran into a challenge: these eight enigmatic statements of Jesus that lie at the heart of the gospel were hard to enact for the obvious reason that they didn’t come in story form.
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” And so on.
We learned that abstract sayings are hard to comprehend, let alone dramatize.
Yet it was precisely this challenge that led the kids to their most profound insight that season. Namely that lived experience is the key to unlock the truths stored inside the beatitudes. Shared stories of peacemaking, spiritual poverty, grieving, persecution, and gentleness are the way in – both their own stories and stories of praying people across the ages.
As the Dominican theologican Timothy Radcliffe observes, “Our encounter with the infinite always passes through the finite.”
Watching people sift through the ruins of their neighbourhoods on the evening news in the aftermath of war I often wonder if they ever come across vestiges of a once fully-embodied dream now buried under a mountain of debris? And if they do, how does one go about picking out of the rubble something that no longer has a context to give it meaning?
The black American poet, Langsten Hughes, called these “dreams deferred.” What happens to a dream deferred? he asks in a poem called Harlem.
Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–/And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–/like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Thirty years have passed since I made that first trip into Gaza. I don’t know if the women I met that day stayed in touch over the years. Nor do I know what became of the little book-lined room in that out-of-the-way neighbourhood.
But what I can do is hope that my memory of those mothers and grandmothers, and their dream of a different world for their children to grow up in, is its own act of resistance.
Our priest speaks of the beatitudes as deep magic. The subversive subtext of the Kingdom of God. I like that. I think the story guild kids would too.
*Photo credit: Freepik