On Mission in Jerusalem

During February and March 2002 I had the unique opportunity with two other Cliff College students of a placement at the Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem that first afternoon left me sad and disappointed. Endless mounds of rubble, heaps of stinking rubbish and poor housing made my heart sink. Yet as I looked out across the hills, and thought of this as the place where Jesus walked, I remembered the humanity and suffering of Jesus. I thought of how he wept over Jerusalem, and I sensed he was weeping still.

The Princess Basma Centre offers care and service to the community, especially those marginalized through disability or poverty. During my first week I helped a mother with her year-old triplets staying for two weeks rehabilitation. The girl has physical disabilities, but less severe than her brother, who is severely disabled through Cerebral Palsy. The other boy is healthy. It is the Centre's policy that the mother remains with them throughout, so she attends the sessions of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and recreational therapy. She is thus taught the skills to continue the treatment once they are sent home on a 'home programme'. Sadly because most of these children come from Gaza and the West Bank (occupied territories), no more were able to reach the Centre for vital treatment.

I then went on to assist Hana in her kindergarten class of 20 children (aged 4-5 years). Each day included colouring of a worksheet relating to that day's topic. There would then be a time of creative play using Plasticine, Lego or beads. Some days involved music lessons, singing along to songs on cassette. Other days play was outside in the playground or sand pit. The day-to-day happenings of the Centre however, were disrupted by the escalating troubles outside, overshadowing everybody's life. Daily in the Kindergarten when the children were playing teachers huddled around each other; and though I couldn't understand what they were saying I read their body language. The strain and tiredness showed increasingly. When they spoke to me in English, the sentiments expressed were: 'Maybe we're next; you might not see me tomorrow'. The thought sent a chill through me. Yet still there was a quiet hopefulness and perseverance among the staff at the Centre.

Hana and I would sit and talk often. I asked her if the children asked questions about the troubles. The first week she said 'No'. The children played innocently, drawing pictures of cats and family members. But within less than a week the atmosphere changed dramatically. A boy sat imitating the sound of sirens. Plasticine and Lego were shaped into guns. The beads they used to make pictures became 'bombs'. At playtimes, both boys and girls played at shooting each other. The saddest sight of all was when five-year-old Ahmad arrived at school one morning, head shaven bald, sporting a cap. He had become so nervous over the past few weeks that he had taken to pulling out chunks of his own hair, his parents resorting to shaving his hair off.

My commitment to love and respect others, based on the biblical insight that we are all created in the image of God, committed me to conversational dialogue - talking less, listening and learning more. But what does it mean to be created in God's image when seen from positions of powerlessness and suffering? When you look at Palestinians trapped in Ramallah, herded into homes and surrounded by tanks with helicopters overhead; or unable to leave town to visit a relative; or children unable to play outdoors? Even at school children were not safe: a teacher and four pupils were killed in Bethlehem while we were there, after an Israeli planted a bomb. A school in Jerusalem was also bombed that morning. You can imagine how we felt. One teacher commented: 'I tell my children, you must study and I think. But why study? There is no future'.

Walking the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa brought home to me that it is all about following Jesus (Mt 16:24-25). When I learned to re-focus on him, to look for the good, to give God thanks and praise, then I experienced some of the most intimate and precious moments with God. He was all I had, and all I needed. During the evenings, outside on the flat-roof overlooking the Jericho mountains, I turned my eyes to Jesus and became so aware of his unconditional love that I felt lost in his love. Night after night I stood and sang his name from the rooftops! As I worshipped him, God brought healing to my spirit: 'I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth' (Ps 34:1).

On our last Sunday we went to Christ Church on Mount Zion (CMJ). CMJ aims at evangelism amongst Jewish people. The service, through its songs and sermon, helped to put into words how I had been feeling throughout my placement. During an open time of worship a lady read from Isaiah 61:1-7 and I cried as I felt the prophetic force of those words. After a time of silence we moved unaccompanied into singing 'Some-one's crying Lord...Kum Ba Ya'. To stand in church on Mount Zion the Sunday after 100 people had died in the most intense fighting yet and sing those words was a deeply moving time.

I went through many emotions during this placement and struggled on many occasions. Standing on the flat roof one evening watching a fleet of helicopters heading for Bethlehem and knowing full well their intentions to drop bombs was the most awful sensation. Worse still was praying that every target would be missed, while simultaneously saying to oneself: 'People are going to die. They are so intent on killing and their technology is so sophisticated that they won't miss'. As I held back the tears I felt utterly powerless to do anything. I could not comprehend the enormity of these atrocities, but I felt God's presence and trusted in him. Though the powers of darkness are at work, with evil men intent on killing, God is greater than any other and we are called to declare his praises (1 Pet 2:9).

Day after day I found myself singing 'Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me' as I watched helicopters circle overhead. Why? Because I believe it is ourselves we should be examining, not pointing a finger at others. Both sides are hurting in this war. We should not show a pro-Israeli bias, and we should examine our attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims because none of us has the right to judge - that is for God alone (Deut 1:17). Even within a context of such violence and injustice, God was there. He does not cease to be God. He is always present and active in every situation. We are called to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but there cannot be peace when such injustice prevails. Churches and individual Christians have a role to play as advocates for suffering people, to give voice to those who cry out but are not heard. As co-workers with God, we have been given a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). We are called to promote understanding, reconciliation and peace among human beings, following the example of Christ who is our peace (Eph 2:14).

'O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

may they prosper who love you'

(Psalm 122:6)