The Cry of the Oppressed

We stepped off the plane and into burning 80 degree Israeli heat - a far cry from the English summer behind us. A transit bus from our friendly BA 747 to the terminal and then the waiting in queues began. Finally at passport control with my bag already circling in the luggage pickup area, security asked the new question even I wasn't ready for: 'Are you here to work for the Arabs?'

I've been to the Middle East over twenty times now, mainly in my capacity as Development Co-ordinator for Highway Projects - an evangelical Christian charity, which aims to work alongside the indigenous Christian church. Most of our work has been Israel based, but work has also taken place over the last six years in Palestine and Jordan. These short term missions give opportunity for Christians aged 18+ years to 'get involved' in local issues, peoples' lives and above all gospel work. This has led us to an interesting collection of work: reconciliation work amongst Arab and Jewish young people, English language lessons, painting and decorating in homes for the handicapped, work and play with the deaf, leading sessions on children's peace camps, practical building work and church maintenance, kindergarten activities...

Each time we have tried to bring the volunteers (all of whom pay their own way to work in this burning heat!) up to speed with the current 'situation' and what they can expect in this cross cultural work. We attempt to be balanced and yet provoke some questions: 'What about the Holocaust?' and 'What about biblical prophecy?', 'What about issues of justice?' and 'What does real security mean?', 'Whose land really is it?' and 'Aren't all Arabs militant Muslims?', 'How long before a place becomes yours?' (remember the Falklands!), 'Are there any Christians, or is it just Jews and Arabs?'.

But I have to admit that over the last two years, it has been hard to be 'balanced'. Since the second intifada there have been just too many stories from Gaza and the West Bank of 23-hour curfews, families starving through lack of food, water supplies deliberately dug up, homes decimated by F16 bombers, soldiers raiding homes to trash the place and defecate on lounge carpets, the endless bullet injuries to eyes and genitals. And all of these actions 'in the name of security' and to 'end the terrorist activity'. Too many unheard pleas from Christian priests caught up in supporting their frightened flocks. Security with a terrible price - and yet the violence continues on both sides - stories of settlement killings, and of course the suicide bombers. Too true we need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Gaza City - for whoever lives there.

My mind raced as I thought about my reply. In the mind of the security guard 'The Arabs' were those terrorists who blow up buses and discos full of teenagers - and all Arabs had to be mistrusted. In my mind were my Arab friends, Jordanian, Palestinian and the church leaders and members working for peace and struggling to find their place in Israeli society. The 20% of Israelis who were increasingly marginalized and treated as second class citizens, often unable to get jobs for which they were well qualified because of the rising discrimination. Also in my mind the fact that 2,000 international peacemakers have either never been allowed in, or have been deported from Israel because they had been monitoring the human rights situation in Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. How to respond?

'I'm here to work with the church' I replied. She paused and looked at me. 'Welcome to Israel, Shalom' she said. Shalom indeed.

Rather than any more - what does the gospel mean today, and what is the role of the church in sharing that gospel? Maybe the following will provoke some thoughts and maybe some discussion.

From the Via Dolorosa to the Cathedral

Through the door and turning right, I walked to church… In the early morning as the city awoke, I walked to church… And passed exhausted old women from the villages selling vines leaves and looking up with pleading eyes….'Please buy - it's for the children'… Passed three soldiers - young and confident, fingering their rifle triggers whilst examining an anxious man's identity papers. A small crowd gathered, a few voices raised, momentary tension…but nothing unusual was happening, so I walked on to church. Through the gate and ascending the steps into the brilliance I passed a boy, sitting on the roadside in the dusty baking heat, smoking, staring into the gutter. No work, nothing to do, nowhere to go, no hope.

I walked to church… Crossing the road I wound my way through the concrete army barriers ('erected for your own safety'), past the bread man and the choking traffic - horns blaring with irritation. I passed a boy escorting his blind grandfather by the arm. The boy, embarrassed, looked at the wall as I smiled encouragingly at him. The old man - feeble, reached out to steady himself as the jaunty, rubbled pavement surface caused a stumble. Passed the Garden Tomb, scene of the Protestant Resurrection - ironically closed on Sundays due to 'the situation'. At the clamouring office I paused to allow a gap to develop as people pushed and shoved their anxious way to the caged front - newly typed travel documents and work visas in their hands. Would they be allowed to travel next week to see their families or not?

I walked to church… And passed the American Consulate all proud and shiny, confident in its world role, confused in its Middle East message, holding the keys to heaven and hell in its emigration lounge. I passed the empty playground, the abandoned burnt out cars, the closed souvenir shop… and I walked on to church…to hear the gospel.

Shalom / Salaam