Defining Identity

By: Rev. Tuhina Rasche (San Carlos, CA)

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Rev. Tuhina Rasche walking along the separation/security wall in Bethlehem, Palestine.

As a second generation Indian-American woman, I often times struggle with my identity in multiple spaces and how my story is told into these spaces. This is both tragic and comical, as much of my work and ministry deals with the perception of identities within church settings. But identity is extremely complicated; what are the labels with which we use to self-identify, but also, what are the labels that are then placed upon us by outside forces? Who gets to tell our story? As a person who longs for a sense of place in the world, how a story is told and who tells a story matters a great deal to me.

But what happens when your identity is controlled by outside forces that strip away your humanity on a multitude of levels? What happens when the words that define your flesh are taken away from you? When your sense of place becomes literally dislocated and your own home becomes a place of wilderness? What happens when your narrative, the ability to tell your story, is taken away from you?

My first exposure to this came, of all places, on the shuttle from Tel Aviv to the West Bank. I told the driver of the shuttle that I needed to get to the Lutheran guesthouse at Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mt. Scopus near Hebrew University. In my naïveté, I asked one of the trip leaders for the address to the guesthouse so I could give it to the shuttle driver. The response?

“LOL address. There aren’t addresses in the West Bank.”

The first time I was in the Holy Land back in 1996, I was in places that had addresses. During my stays in Arad, Netanya, and Tel Aviv, I had a physical sense of location. I had a place with a street, a street name, and a postal code where I could tell friends and family my location. But this trip was to the West Bank; everything was now different. With my previous trip to the Holy Land and my experiences with having a physical address in the United States that I call home, I was entering into a new narrative.

This is how you start to strip away a population’s identity. Take away what names you, take away parts of the world that help tell your story. Then tell a singular story of who has access to land, thereby silencing a cacophony of voices desiring to be heard and recognizing the complexity of histories. Control the narrative. Control how information is used and distributed. If you take away the physical identifier of location, could a person, a community, a population reside there if their very existence and claim to the land is in question? What happens when the place you call home… is not deemed or deeded to be your home? What happens when you start to believe the stories placed upon your identity, being fed words, thoughts, and ideas that are no longer your own? Elias Chacour, former archbishop of the Melkite Church, a person passionate about reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews, and a Palestinian dislocated from his home in 1948, asks, “What was the true story of Palestine?” In addition to that question, I wonder, who gets to tell the story that is heard by the masses?

There is not one single way to tell stories. If you have to fight for your story to be shared with the world, sometimes storytelling has to happen in a subversive and surprising way. I experienced identity and narrative in a way I wasn’t anticipating while in the Holy Land; yet they felt oddly familiar to me as a former parish pastor in Oakland, California. I saw narratives written and drawn on the walls of the West Bank, telling so many stories of resilience, of lamentation, and of existence. These narratives, while not verbal, represented a cacophony of stories wanting to be acknowledged by the greater world. The ultimate cacophony of these narratives, these stories, came at the security wall in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, where on Christmas Eve so many sing, “Oh little town… how still we see thee lie” is not still, but stifled. The town is located in the West Bank and it is almost entirely encircled by a concrete security wall and caught between two bypass roads giving Jewish settlers easier access to Israel. While one side of the wall was pristine, the other side was filled with stories. These narratives had a physical location where they could exist, an actual mark on the land that made a claim that the storyteller existed in this space at this time.

This was the proof of being, the proof of “I AM,” the proof that there are multiple stories in a land where there is an immense danger in telling one sole story.

 

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