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Witherspoon's new

Global Engagement Initiative
page 2

For the introduction to this program >>

PC(USA) mission volunteer visits West Bank town of Hebron

"I would rather live in the refugee camp than here"

by Shannon O’Donnell

[Sent from Jerusalem March 13, posted here 3-15-07]

Also from Shannon O'Donnell:  Meeting the Real Holy Land.

Another recent report from Shannon has been published in Network News, describing her experience at a Palestinian farm and vineyard outside Bethlehem, where she finds a project dedicated to "prepar[ing] young people for a positive contribution to their future and culture by bringing values of understanding and tolerance into their life experience."  Click here for the PDF version of Network News (Winter 2007), and jump to page 5.

I never imagined I would have such a thought. I was traveling with a group of international participants that Sabeel was hosting for the spring "Witness Visit." We went all over the West Bank, met with mayors, priests, political leaders, and regular people to hear about their current reality.

So many stories have come out of this region. The Bible stories, the rich historical accounts, the political promises, all in this "Promised Land." People often talk about the "facts on the ground," which are different from what one can find outside of Israel, and the territories that Israel is controlling. The facts can be interpreted in many ways, even to the point of justifying injustice. I am bothered by the lack of information that is allowed to filter out, by the mainstream media, by the people abroad not getting all the facts. These are some of the reasons that Sabeel has "Witness Visits," to invite people from abroad to come and see for themselves the beauty, history, and the reality that affects everyone living here. "The shadow falls on both sides of the wall," I heard one of the participants say.

I have never experienced a place as dismal as Hebron. This town is located not far from Bethlehem, and is notorious for having the most violent settlers living next door to Palestinians in the city. We were shown around town by a few people from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and told not to wander off. Normally, I do wander off from the group, as I like to explore on my own, but in Hebron that did not even enter my mind. Even though I stuck with the group, I still encountered typical Hebron tension.

Protection from flying trash

As we rounded a corner in the marketplace, I heard the familiar "click-click" of a soldier prepping his gun to fire. I turned to see four Israeli soldiers heading out on patrol, one of them momentarily aiming his gun at me. Perhaps it was not the best day to be wearing my bright red "Palestinian Liberation Theology" t-shirt. I felt exposed, but not because of the soldiers. I was uneasy from walking down the streets, where the Israeli Army has put fencing over the main walkway. This fencing is to keep the bricks, glass bottles, trash, etc, the settlers throw down from falling on pedestrians below. However, our CPT guide said that on his first day in the city, a settler threw a bunch of sand down on him.

I also encountered the rough Palestinian kids, who are known for their course language and tomato throwing. They are daily harassed by settlers, and not respected by the soldiers, so I’m not surprised they lack respect for visitors. They greeted our group by attempting to hit us with empty plastic bottles, and saying various cuss words. Still, as our group paused to hear the CPT leader explain something, I chatted with a small group of the kids. Things were going well, as I was glad to use some of my Arabic. One boy, about nine years old, started asking for money. I hate to refuse, but I honestly didn’t have any change. Besides, I couldn’t give to one child, and not to the rest. Despite our nice chat moments before, the boy kicked me hard as I turned to go. I was surprised by my initial reaction when I turned and wanted to grab his arm or something. He looked at me, with no fear, no hesitation, and no indication of any wrongdoing. I just put my hand on his shoulder, made the "tisk-tisk" sound that I hear Palestinian mothers make when their children misbehave, and said "ya habibi." (oh, sweetie). As I walked away, I tried to ignore the cuss words the kids were saying.

The girls' school at Aida Camp

The next day we went to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida Refugee Camp accommodates over 4,000 people (40% under age 18) who took refuge there from 35 different villages in Palestine, in 1948 and later in 1967, as the result of the two Arab-Israeli wars. The children have created several murals within the camp, showing the villages from which their families originated. The Youth Center encourages the kids to express themselves creatively through art, photography, writing, or sports. One of the Youth Center workers said often the children draw pictures of guns, tanks, or helicopters, but he looks forward to the day when they will only draw things like trees or rainbows.

School let out as we were walking through the camp. I was hesitant to interact with the kids this time, and still sore from being kicked the day before. But a group of giggly girls offered me a piece of their sugary candy, and I quickly let go of my previous hesitations. Even though the refugee camp feels welcoming and normal, you can still see the bullet holes in the Girls’ School. The school was built by the UN, and has been caught in the cross-fire from various attacks. Still, if I were given a choice to live in the Aida Refugee Camp, or Hebron, I’d choose Aida. That will always be a strange thought to me.

The forgotten elephant in the Middle East

Shannon O’Donnell reflects on her first-hand encounter with the Israeli occupation of Palestine

[received Jan. 5, 2007, posted here on 1-17-07]

There is an elephant in the middle of the Middle East. It gets smaller and smaller with each passing day. It is not officially recognized by the world, although everyone knows about its existence.

What am I talking about? The country in which I now live: Palestine.

I am going to tell you some ugly truths that I have discovered during my time here. Words you probably are not familiar with: "Nakba" and "Occupied Territories."

You have probably heard about the Holocaust. Of course you know about the horrible acts done to the Jewish people. If you didn’t, then I would think you were living under a rock or something. Yet, you do not know about the Nakba? I didn’t either until I got here. I have come out from under my rock in the USA, and find that there is a whole lot more to history than I was ever taught. There is a whole other side of the story that is never talked about. Even now, it is the elephant in the middle of the Middle East.

Nakba means "a human catastrophe" and it is used by the people here to describe the events of 1948 in this land. It refers to a type of ethnic cleansing, a crime committed against the Palestinian people, crimes that were never admitted to. In seven months, 531 villages were destroyed, and 11 urban neighborhoods were emptied. Where did all of these people (the ones who survived) go? To refugee camps, to prisons for a while, to the Old City in Jerusalem, to wait until they could return to their homes. That was back in 1948…they are still waiting.

The people thought that was the worst result of the beginning of the state of Israel. But they were wrong. It always gets worse in Palestine, just when you think it couldn’t possibly…

In 1967 there was a war that lasted for only six days. That doesn’t sound so terrible, but the results from that war are still in effect today. This year, 2007, marks 40 years since the West Bank has been occupied by Israel. That’s nearly double my whole lifetime. It was the year Israel started the occupation of seized lands, including the Golan Heights (from Syria), the West Bank and East Jerusalem (from Jordan) and the Gaza strip and Sinai desert (from Egypt). What does "occupation" mean? As I interpret it, Israel doesn’t officially own the West Bank land, but they are acting as if they do. By the use of force, guns, intimidation, walls, and checkpoints. Yep, it’s not hard to see who’s in charge here when you’re living here. I had no idea that Jordan used to own where I now reside. I wonder if they are even interested in owning this land again.

I have been reading a book by Henri Nouwen called "Seeds of Hope." I picked it up from the bookshelf because lately it has become increasingly difficult for me keep hope that there is a peaceful solution to the unrest and injustice I see here. One parable he wrote caught my attention, as I sat in my kitchen, watching truckloads of dirt and concrete being hauled up the hill to build the separation wall. Nouwen wrote the following parable "to illustrate the disastrous results of an obsessive preoccupation with national security":

"Once there was a people who surveyed the resources of the world and said to each other: ‘How can we be sue that we will have enough in hard times? We want to survive whatever happens. Let us start collecting food, materials, and knowledge so that we are safe and secure when a crisis occurs.’ So they started hoarding, so much and so eagerly that other peoples protested and said: ‘You have much more than you need, while we don’t have enough to survive. Give us part of your wealth!’ But the fearful hoarders said: ‘No, no, we need to keep this in case of an emergency, in case things go bad for us, too, in case our lives are threatened.’ But the others said: ‘We are dying now, please give us food and materials and knowledge to survive. We can’t wait…we need it now!’ Then the fearful hoarders became ever more fearful since they became afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them. So they said to one another: ‘Let us build walls around our wealth so that no stranger can take it from us.’ They started erecting walls so high that they could not even see anymore whether there were enemies outside the walls or not! As their fear increased they told each other: ‘Our enemies have become so numerous that they may be able to tear down our walls. Our walls are not strong enough to keep them away. We need to put bombs on top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close to us.’ But instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had built with their own fear. They even became afraid of their own bombs, wondering if they might harm themselves more than their enemy. And gradually they realized their fear of death had brought them closer to it."

I watch them daily construct what I see as one of the biggest obstacles to a possible future state of Palestine. I suppose it’s getting difficult to see hope for a two-state solution, because there’s a big grey wall blocking my view.

Bishop Dr. Munib Younan is the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and also the Vice President of Lutheran World Federation. He says: "When we look for true justice in today’s world, we see the great divide between the East and the West, the haves and the have-nots, the occupied and the occupier. Nowhere is this division more apparent than the Middle East, with all of its turmoil. Today’s justice is deeply rooted in self-interest, power, economics and double standards. This contradicts the power of the cross: that God has redeemed all humanity equally regardless of gender, ethnicity or race, whether powerful or weak, rich or poor, from the North or South, East or West. The reign of God calls us all together to the higher version of seeking justice, love and reconciliation for all people."

My biggest asset in keeping a hopeful outlook during my time here has been the people with whom I live and work. The Christians I have met, those who come to Sabeel, those who come to visit what they call the "Holy Land" and also include what we call "Palestine" in their visit to Israel. I now read the Bible with a new set of eyes and ears that have become especially attuned to the perspective of the oppressed, to the words of Christ. But I still have so much more to learn. I look forward to learning from all peoples I encounter, no matter what side of the wall they live on.

Hoping for a Peaceful 2007,

Shannon O’Donnell


GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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