19 December 2019

Praying without ceasing in Hebron

Ten days after the end of my three-month service with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine, I still struggle with conflicting urgencies in choosing what to report.

I want to report accurately about how, day after day, you can unexpectedly run into squads of soldiers with their fingers near their triggers, or clouds of tear gas, or someone being searched from head to toes, or checkpoints closed with no explanation. At the same time, you can expect daily encounters with playful children, helpful strangers, cries of "welcome to Hebron" on all sides, delicious food, parties with fireworks nearly every evening,

In other words, I want to convey a situation that is, all at once, both outrageously abnormal (the conditions of occupation) and persistently normal (the life that the people of Hebron make for themselves despite the occupation). Whatever I say, I don't want to discourage you from visiting this lively and friendly city, and seeing for yourself.

Furthermore, I want to report in my own voice -- that's my sole channel, and I want to draw on whatever credibility and connection with readers that I might already have. At the same time, I don't want to exaggerate my voice or my role. Every day CPT observers, and others in similar teams, are on the streets monitoring the interactions of citizens and soldiers, documenting irregularities, and sending our observations to a variety of agencies ... but it would be hard to prove that we have made a huge difference.

In any case, CPT's writers are encouraged to keep in mind a "balancing act between humility and presence." CPT and others are there in common cause with Palestinians working nonviolently for justice rather than claiming superior knowledge or attempting to be freelance heroes.

Personally, I didn't go to Palestine with any heroic illusions. All I hoped to do was to learn more about praying without ceasing. In that sense my three months were a success.

On most days, I woke up at 5 a.m. to have time for prayer, Bible reading, and a brief video chat with Judy before beginning the day's activities. Usually we started the day with an hour at each of two checkpoints through which hundreds of people pass during that one hour -- including around two hundred children. Two of us monitored each checkpoint.

The checkpoints were for me a perfect occasion for prayer. For example, I used a counter app on my mobile phone to keep track of people passing through the checkpoints in both directions. Each click of the counter prompted me to pray a blessing on that person ... although when they were coming through in larger bunches, I would fall behind and miss some blessings. I doubt this practice would measure up to the great Christian mystics, but it reminded me frequently of my commitment to pray without ceasing.

Breakfast and a team meeting followed the school arrival hour. During the team meeting, we took turns providing a devotional reflection before we reviewed plans for the rest of the day. We also made sure that people were signed up to take care of dinner and dishes. Our practice of checking in with each other about how we were doing also helped me stay oriented to prayer.

In the afternoon, I was often one member of the pairs assigned to accompany the kindergarten children whose path home was parallel to a path used by Israeli settlers. It was a very natural exercise to pray a blessing on their path home. On my last day on duty, I made a video of this walk, to remind myself of the experience and honor of accompanying those children.

There were other regular occasions of street monitoring -- some weekly, some annually. Each Friday we watched as Palestinians passed through checkpoints (at least two) to worship at the Ibrahimi mosque. On Saturdays, Israeli settlers often toured sites in the Old City. Each tour group was guarded by several squads of Israeli soldiers, and their passage through the markets and passageways of the Old City put them in immediate contact with Palestinian shopkeepers, customers, and pedestrians.

Annually, such events as Sukkot and Sarah's Day brought thousands of visiting Israelis to these same crowded streets, along with additional soldiers to provide security for the visitors and impose additional restrictions on the local Palestinian population. The tensions raised by each of these potential flashpoints was an occasion for prayer. Even when I wasn't on the street during one of those occasions, we coordinated continuously via social media.

Last week I reported on another seasonal event, the olive harvest.

The most stressful monitoring assignments were the ones not on the calendar -- for example, responding to reports of arrests, temporary road blocks and checkpoints, or the use of tear gas and other munitions. Sometimes these occasions would lead to stone-throwing by Palestinian young people, aimed at the checkpoints or at the vehicles doing the blocking, with a response of varying (but always disproportionate) severity from Israeli forces.

Part of the stress for me was finding vantage points to observe as closely as possible while not getting directly in the line of fire. On the "Day of Rage," my teammate and I were temporarily right in the middle, finding percussion grenades landing nearby (one hitting the metal awning over my head with a shower of sparks, while I was trying to cope with tear gas). As smoke from burning tires made it hard to see farther than a half block, things quieted down for a while, but resumed later in the evening. Prayer was never far from my mind.

For me, the most difficult assignment was the home demolitions on November 28 in Beit Kahil town near Hebron. After being part of an interview team with the families whose homes were to be destroyed (the conversation resulted in this article), we were all waiting for the seemingly inevitable conclusion. Even so it was a shock to be awakened at about 1 a.m. on November 28 and told "the demolitions have begun." By the time we were able to organize transportation, get to the town, climb over walls and fences with our heavy cameras, meet up with journalists, and find a vantage point, it was nearly 2 a.m. and the destruction was in full swing.

One of my prayer concerns during that hellish scene was for the souls of the equipment operators. who could not have been in any doubt that they were destroying homes of innocent people, regardless of the guilt or innocence (as yet undetermined in court) of the suspects in custody.

My school of prayer for those three months included, as you might expect, pleas for safety, intercessions and blessings for others, and sheer inarticulate lament. Sometimes it boiled down to just one word: "Why?"

Christianity Today editorial: Trump should be removed from office. (Related observations from the Washington Post's Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and Emma Green in The Atlantic.)

 Josh Marshall's three essential points on impeachment.
This process has been so clotted with tantrums, goalpost-moving and dissimulation that it can be hard to keep one’s bearings. For me, those three essential points clarify the matter and drown out the yelling and stomping.
Thanks to Danny Coleman for this timely reminder: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on stupidity.

 A photo-essay on winter in Murmansk, Russia.

An update on Hebron from Curt Bell.

Steve Guyger Band:



Derek "Longshot" Lamson said...

Just thanks, I am trying to rebuild my habit of reading your excellent blog. Come home safe.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Derek! I'm home! Hello to Ruba and Eugene Friends Church.