On Sunday afternoon, the group from Buena Vista UMC who recently traveled to Palestine gave a report back. I shared a piece about a short road trip that happened near the end of our time in the Holy Land. Those of you who know the the geography of the Holy Land know that Ramallah and Bethlehem are not far from each other, which makes the notion of an all-day road trip a little surreal. The piece mentions the popular Palestinian song “Wein a Ramallah”, or “Where is Ramallah”. This is the best version I’ve found online so far.
On a good road trip, time and space part ways for a moment moment. According to Einstein, time doesn’t stop until one is traveling at the speed of light. Einstein’s work is incomplete. One can stop time if one is moving at 50 kilometers per hour. One only needs a particular van with particular people. One only needs to be on the road to somewhere.
Time stopped and space kept moving outside the window; mountains into fertile valleys, into mountains, into green fields
speckled with Bedouins and their sheep. There were places where space stopped, too. Fences choked serenity, and walls blocked everything but air. Militarization was not lost on us. It was just that, in a moment without the distraction of time, we could see the world as it is.
Beauty doesn’t disappear when it is shrouded in injustice. Brilliant archaea exist beyond the realm of microscopes, and some paintings spend all their time in bedroom closets. Beauty unseen is still beauty. There is only so much that the Empire can take from us. That which the Empire cannot take – that which makes the earth, earth, and us, human – persists in the face of colonizers, occupiers, and the very destruction of the planet itself.
I sat in the back of the van. I sat in the back because joy is watching joy embodied in others. Our guide, Atta, had been so stressed for most of the time together. Our youth had been so quiet. But there was a brief shift on the road to Ramallah. Everyone was playful. Atta had something up his sleeve. We were going somewhere, and it seemed that only he knew.
Let’s keep going, I thought, let’s keep going in this moment, because outside the world is beautiful, and inside this van we are living as though we are alive. We are living into what the world could be for a change. We are bodies in a small space, and we are glad to be near each other.
The van stopped along the way. We met the River Jordan, and the Jordan we met was quiet. There were pavilions on each bank, and wooden planks over the marsh. I watched Russian women trying to hide their pale, naked bodies as they toweled off among the reeds. Their ancient breasts hung low like those of my grandmother’s sister when I’d bathed her in the sink at her nursing home. I was only 16 when she said to me, “This is what they look like when you’re old.”
On the opposite shore of the Jordan, an African-American pastor dunked an entire crowd one-by-one, all wearing tunics. They sang “Wade in the Water.” We sang back. It felt good. Then a group of young Palestinians jumped into the river next to the baptizees. The men had stripped down to their brightly colored briefs, revealing tight abdomens and brown skin. They looked incredible to black women in white tunics.
I got down on a wooden blank, and slid off my sandals. I put my feet in, one by one. I didn’t wade. I didn’t need to. There have been so many times that I have struggled to believe in anything, and that was okay at the Jordan. I’ll cross the river soon enough, I thought. For right now, all I have to do is get back in the van.
It felt good to be on the road again. Lunch was a while off, and Atta decided that it was time to sing.
“There is a love song that the people sing,” he said into the microphone. “It’s about a man whose lover went to Ramallah. He tells her that she stole his heart, that he will not forget her, and then he laments that she is away for so long.”
There was no need for the microphone. There were only six of us in the van, and the speakers made his sweet voice echo. It sounded far off and warm, like the bees outside my parents’ screened-in porch in the summertime. We moved so slowly. I felt as though the whole trip to Ramallah were about us chasing something. We didn’t know what it was, and we weren’t in a great hurry to catch it.
We stopped a second time on the way to Ramallah, at a tiny, empty amusement park. There was lunch, and a parrot, and 10 vely and so wasted. Some of them had college degrees in advanced math and science. They seemed bored working at a park that was the size of an American midway, and there didn’t even seem to be any work that day. It was cold, and the park was closed. Who knows how Atta got us inside, or why we were there?
It did not seem to matter to the young men who offered us coffee and shisha, both much too powerful for so late in the day. Time warped, but it did not stop completely, because at some point we were told that we had to go. We had to get to Ramallah.
In my mind, Ramallah was a bright city, with streets that smelled like cardamom. My grandmother and her sister were waiting on a bench when we got out of the van. While I was buying coffee, I ran into my college roommate, who’d taught me how to iron my pants my sophomore year.
“A crease down the from tells them you mean business,” she’d said.
Ramallah isn’t life after death. It is life after living. It is touching the pieces of everything we have broken, at the risk of cutting ourselves on the shards of glass. Ramallah is possibility. It is where we pray we will find our loved ones, or the people we wish we could have loved better.
The van eventually pulled into a town 10 kilometers north of Jerusalem. We were told it was Ramallah, but it wasn’t. Not really. The real Ramallah is somewhere else, and I know we won’t get there anytime soon. If the separation wall comes down, somewhere the Empire will build another. If the occupation ends in Palestine, somewhere else, occupation is just beginning. Even now, I live on occupied land; land that belongs to people who did not invite my ancestors here. I know in my bones that there is no Ramallah in my lifetime.
We are not in a high-speed train to a tangible space. We are in a van. We are moving at 50 kilometers per hour. We are passing through a place and a time that are both beautiful and holy, in spite all of the harm we do to each other. We are packed in tight, and the only noise is something far off and tinny.
Where is Ramallah? I don’t know, but the van found its way back to road. Atta said we are going to Ramallah, and also, that we had just left there. Along the way, we pulled over for a hitchhiker. It was an old woman. She sat down next to me, with a plastic bag on her lap.
“Are we close to Ramallah?” I asked her. These are words from Atta’s song. The woman kept her silence, and pulled some figs out of her bag. She handed me one.
In the song, the young man follows one question with another. He asks his beloved, “Do you not fear Allah?”
He is being dramatic. He is accusing her of stealing his heart.
I am waiting. I am waiting in a whole season devoted to waiting – in a society that doesn’t like to wait for anything. In the past few weeks, I am reminded that Advent is the favorite liturgical season for many an observant Christian. For me, as for others, this is not because we are anticipating Christmas. It is because it is the season that turns off the lights. While the rest of society is blaring halogens and electrified fur trees, Advent dares to flip the switch down. Advent says, “Quiet. Look at the stars.”
The actual stars. The real light.
Advent reminds us that we have blinded ourselves with the petty twinkling of this world, and season demands that we stop. Our lives are about anticipating satisfaction. The joy of Advent is in the waiting itself. The joy is the mystery of a divine for whom we waiting. The divine who comes to us even as we are waiting. The divine we can only see when we dare to sit in the darkness.
If there were no Christmas – Advent would be enough. After our pupils have dilated, and when we are ready to look into the depths, we see that the divine is already here. She has been with us since before the beginning. Advent is our season of sitting in that presence. Advent is us waiting to remember.
They scatter in the
Light, so much
light, long and early
the leaves that
hold space between
earth and sky, until
the leaves become what
you are becoming.
For the first time,
you greet Persephone
in autumn. It grows
no colder where you
are. This time, the leaves
fall above you.
The pickaxe met
glass, it crunched into
cracked earth, and the geese
did not notice. They
saw nothing of that city block,
saving their v-shaped
precision for the
country more pristine than
Oakland. I took
a moment. I took
a sip of cold coffee, and
admired the hole that
I’d put into the earth. I took
a gander that there
was no one on the
other side of the
fence, and I took off
my shirt, and I looked
at the place where the
geese had been, and
thought that, maybe,
someone should write
a poem about garbage –
an elegy for filthy
panes and empty
vessels, for what’s left
over and discarded
directly beneath us,
while we lean
back to admire the
heavens. I could not
write that poem. I could
not look at the
too many hours remained
in the day, too much
earth needed to be
the sun was cracking
my stiff back, and my
arms and legs. For
once I was grounded,
and I watched words and
overhead like geese.
Labor cries do not
make still hearts beat, as
unions pour through
workers chained to
other migrants, to boat
people of River Styx.
We hold the line.
We stand between masses
and authority. We pull
Red string taunt, keeping
bodies from traffic.
Keeping living from dead.
The dead break through.
They are unafraid. They
see newness coming.
They fill our mouths
as we cry out for labor.
I lean on the garbage can by baggage check, screening road for a particular set of headlights.
“Yeah, we’re just going out to the desert,” a dread-locked woman says to the guy next to me. She pulled on her tam as soon as we’d exited the glass doors. The East Bay is not fickle about climate. It knows what it is, especially at night. “I packed for the desert, you know?”
I want to tell her that I don’t know. All I know about the desert is what I learned from a Peanuts cartoon about Snoopy’s drifter cousin. What I know is a place on the other side of everything. I know how it can feel sticky even when it gets cool, and I know that the sun moves high and can burn you late into the afternoon.
Before I flew back to the West Coast, I was standing in my parents’ yard in Western Pennsylvania, and I heard the crickets. It was late morning, and I know that crickets only call in the daytime when they can smell death. I waited a while before I put my suitcase in the car.
Outside the Oakland airport, my friend spots me first. The car slows. Her window is down. “I’m glad to see you,” I said.
Homesickness is easy. It lives a quiet existence in the back of my throat. Every so often it calls out, but it then diminishes like crickets. Home is harder to track down. It is a blue car. It is a concrete corridor.
I walk into an empty apartment. There was a time when the temporary nature of things scared me. I put down my bag, and sit on the bed.
This article as first posted on State of Formation.
Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. – Augustine of Hippo
About a month ago, I was driving home from work when I heard a news story about the hurricane that ravaged the
Southern Philippines. I turned up the volume on the radio. I’d already heard about the storm and flooding that left thousands dead in around the city of Cagayan de Oro. But I so rarely hear about the Philippines on mainstream news– most international coverage is relegated to the “Asia” section of major news sites like that of the BBC or The New York Times.
The radio report was brief. It said that the number of dead was rising, and it included a few grisly details about bodies washing up on shore. The broadcaster also mentioned that international aid was starting to arrive. I turned off the radio in disgust.
There is no doubt that flood victims desperately needed (and still need) aid. I support international aid organizations, like the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Many such NGOs support the work already being done by Filipino organizations, and their work can be incredibly noble. But the international community’s place in the story of this hurricane cannot simply be as the wealthy beneficiaries.
Thorough reporting requires understanding the context. It dares to ask the question, “Why?” Why are hurricanes now hitting the southern Philippines, a place that was once free of such natural disasters? And how is it that so many people died in landslides? To answer the first question may require some explanation of the science behind global warming. I’ll assume that most of us are familiar with the phenomenon that is changing the climate of our earth, but for those of you who aren’t, it’s not too late to catch up. This interview with author Elizabeth Kolbert is a good place to start.
Answering the question “How is it that so many people died in landslides?” is more simple, so I’ll tackle it myself. Internationally owned companies are mining the hell out of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. When they cut down all the trees, there is nothing to absorb the water, let alone hold up the hillsides. When a storm comes, the mountains turn to mud and bury the people who live nearby.
What bothers me most about foreign aid to the Philippines is this: Filipinos wouldn’t need foreign aid if foreigners weren’t stealing Filipino resources in bulk.
As a seminarian, I frequently assess service work from a justice/charity perspective. Classically defined, charity is “the voluntary giving of help,” while justice is “fair and reasonable treatment in relationships and systems.”
Both can be done in a spirit of love and kindness. The difference is that charity tends to empower the person in power, making that person feel good about giving away their excess. Justice works to rectify the system that gives a privileged few all of that excess to begin with, and seeks to create a world where all will have enough.
Simply put, in a just world where society operates to benefit the masses, charity will be unnecessary. As people of faith and goodwill, we will still be called to do acts of loving kindness for one another, but it will no longer be that a privileged minority gains moral superiority by doing charity for the unjustly treated.
Certainly, we do not live in a just world right now, and so for the time being, charity is necessary. But it is not the sum total of the news. Those reporting about “natural” disasters must dare to answer the “why” and “how” questions of journalism. They must rigorously engage issues of science and systemic abuse.
Justice, then, will speak for itself.