By: Antoine R. Cummins (Forest City, IA)
My recent trip to the Holy land left a distinctively tasteless flavor within my spirit. The sharp and steady sun overhead mirrored, if not amplified, the tense realities on the ground that so many call home; white hot.
This was not my first time to Palestine, but it was the first time that I was able to be fully present and alert; heart properly prepared for the experience. On this recent trip, I traveled with a group consisting of young adults of color from across the ELCA. As I reflect now, I realized that to have been in community with the individuals who made up the group alone was enough to prime my perspective to cope with the all too personal images and stories of injustice and discrimination.
Not only that, but the fact that we were led by two of the most powerful women that I have encountered within our Church provided me with ample space to explore how our communities would begin to heal themselves if only inherited beliefs and limitations made way for reimagining and courage: Rozella White and Karin Brown, no truer embodiment of divine feminine, but that is an entirely different reflection in and of itself.
Starting out as a group of acquaintances we traveled. We listened. We loved. We prayed. We communed. And despite all the stimuli and complexity, we were encouraged to be present with each other and with God. In the profane, we found sacredness and I will be ever thankful for the opportunity.
On one day that I remember in specific, we were walking the streets in the Old City of Jerusalem. My eyes wandered along the bright stone and ancient architecture, yet they found no resting place amongst the various monumental forms of systematic oppression and constructions that either promoted division or anxiety. Take your pick. My lips and mouth came alive with flavors and seasonings, yet the disputed stories of whether the recipes were of Israeli or Palestinian heritage kept me unsatisfied. My veins pulsed with life as busy shop keepers and eager tourist exchanged coin for craft, but the generous invitation to mint tea and intimate conversation that came free of charge diluted my pride in our Empire and its capitalism that ultimately chokes an entire culture into submission; Palestinian blood running free down the steps towards Damascus Gate. I close my eyes in a moment of silence.
The new and ever numbing realities that play out on the uneven stone streets forces one inward to sift and sort through the complexities on the softer and more manageable canvas that lies on the inside of closed eyelids: Like wet negative film waiting to develop in the red dark room of a master photographer. On this familiar plane, it is amazing the images that take shape, virtually drawing themselves into existence as if my very soul needed alone time; a safer space for expressing itself. There, behind pursed eye lashes, the drama that unfolds in this land on a daily basis can rest amidst the unsettling presence of my own privilege and comfort; a freedom that we all possess but that many Palestinians never have the opportunity to forget.
I open my eyes, committed to not missing a single moment to find myself staring down an alley, not quite like the alleys that I would venture pass on the streets of New York. There she was walking towards me, emerging from what looked like the sun itself. An old Palestinian woman, slowly making her way into the shade: with more than enough light behind her to overwhelm her features, but with just enough symbolism for me to imagine her experienced and pensive face.
In that single moment, all my theologically steeped thoughts, simultaneous frustration and guilt from being a black man with American citizenship, dissatisfaction with my wages while society, and unfortunately even the church, wage war on women with the glass ceiling and don’t forget the fear of police (or rather, their fear of my people) and our façade of a justice system that supposedly stands for innocent until proven guilty crashed down on me, converging into a single shot that my iPhone camera does no justice at capturing; dulled magic. Or can you see it? Embodied resistance.
She moved as if she carried all the pain and suffering of her people in the worn bag that connected to her thigh. Her walking stick added a fervent boost to her steady pace that demanded respect every time it vibrated the old steps beneath her traveled shoes. The steps, like the walls, were covered with various shades of mossy greens and faded reds. I closed my eyes to let the moment develop.
The woman escaping the sharp attention of the sun, seemed to find comfort within the damp slimy walls of alley. The nature of the alley reminded of the leviathans mentioned in the Old Testament: a terrible creature that struck fear and terror in those who were reckless enough to venture out onto mysteriously troubled waters. Not this Palestinian. Not this woman. It’s as if she walked into the dark:
Courageously, like the many community leaders and activist that we met who know that at any moment, illegal imprisonment or unjustifiably humiliating stops by Israeli soldiers could occur on their streets.
Defiantly, as if the possible repossessing of the very stones she walked on for the newest illegal Israeli settlement would never be able to defeat her stick.
Prophetically, knowing that her presence alone reinforces the unseen but ever present spiritual realm where permits are freely given to lift spirits and generate love.
Emotionally, because she has witnessed the devastating effects that war and apartheid has on both the oppressed and the oppressor. Young Israeli’s clashing with young Palestinians, securing foreign interest; both groups still just boys in her eyes: in need of the peace and hospitality that her home once offered before concrete and barbed wire snaked through her hills.
Patiently, as if she knew it was only a matter of time before an emphatic observer would witness her fight and join in against the pervasive forces of empire that we all endlessly labor under.
Faithfully, knowing that one day the universe would accept her steady offering of hope in exchange for a day when liberation would finally sweep the land.
Fearlessly, as if she knew the answers to God’s interrogation of Job in 41st chapter: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?… None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” This, sobering reminder of God’s sovereignty and ultimate vindication of the oppressed, tucked deep in her chest.
Hopefully, not looking back for the un-doing of the pain and suffering but looking forward towards promised salvation.
I slowly closed my eyes again. I mean, do we really ever have them open to begin with? I believe that we don’t start living until we begin to fight for that which we would die for and on this trip I found much more than that. I found people of amazing strength and courage. People rich with identity and purpose. More refreshingly, I found people of faith amidst the suffering and oppression. Within the unfortunately familiar narratives that would undermine the natural curiosity that those clinging to faith relentlessly appeal to, or that would otherwise serve as an impetus for the tiniest sliver of hope, I discovered real moments that offered refreshing clarity. Spiritual rejuvenation.
I experienced extremism, but in the form of radical innovation that fused a spectacularly colorful culture with accompanying patience and courageous inquiry. The proud People of Palestine. Despite being seemingly forgotten by those with more privilege. Despite being exploited by those of us with more power. People, who because of their lived faith, don’t fear death but the silence of those who watch until then.
So my take away from this trip? Let’s not be silent. Better yet, let us be silent in prayer with those whose cries are censored by normalization and tactically express anger when we vocalize their stories.