During the past few days, many of us have felt an increasing sense of despair; as almost no one we have visited thinks this conflict will ever see a peaceful resolution. But today was a turning point – at least slightly. Our discussions were guided by a sense of hope. All is not lost for either of these peoples – the Israelis or the Palestinians, or anyone who is striving to bring peace to the Holy Land. Hope can seem pointless in a struggle so lengthy as massive as this one – but we’re learning that the best thing any of us can do, really in any situation we face, is simply to have enough hope for tomorrow.
Today we started off our day with a tour at the Augusta Victoria Hospital and Church. Pastor Mark was our guide and provided much needed insight into how the Lutheran World Federation is involved in church and the hospital ministry. During our time in the church, we were able to view the architecture and a variety of mosaics that each featured Lutheran symbolism. He also covered the history of the hospital and church grounds. This included the influence of German Lutherans coming to Jerusalem to establish a sanctuary for medical care outside of the city; however, it is now in the heart of the city. Part of our tour of the church included the church’s bell tower, and as we ascend the seemingly endless staircase we came to the top and could view both East and West Jerusalem almost simultaneously. Viewing the two sides of the city from this perspective allowed us to be removed from the tensions and truly see the contrast from a new perspective.
What is important to note is that Augusta Victoria hospital is completely run by Palestinians and today specializes in oncology care. The hospital was built by the German Lutherans around 1910 as a general hospital; however, it has faced financial situations in recent years that have led to the switch to oncology. In 2005, the Hospital was doing mostly pain-management care and their survival rates for patients entering for treatments were at only 20%. Thankfully, today they are seeing an 80% survival rate because of advances in their cancer care treatments including much needed radiation machines. This facility is growing and becoming state of the art thanks to donations from Lutheran organizations that support LWF, donations from countries around the world, and even U.S. taxpayer dollars have all gone to help this hospital. Currently, they are in the midst of planning an edition to the hospital. Palestinians see this hospital as a symbol of hope showing the world their resilience in times of oppression, their strength and capabilities in being able to be independent, and their hope that one day there will be a nation where they can have freedom. This hospital represents hope to the Palestinians that have cancer, but also symbolizes the strength and future stability for all Palestinians.
After our visit and tour with Mark, we climbed aboard the bus once more and drove to Ramallah in Palestinian territory, experiencing military checkpoints and insane (but apparently normal?) traffic along the way. We went to the home of Pastor Imad, who serves at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope. He shared with us his story and the story of Hope Lutheran and how it came to be. It is a church of refugees – 99% of its members or their families have been refugees at one period or another. They worship in Arabic but have resources in English for visitors or those who have a need for them. We also learned about the school that is affiliated with the church and the programs they run in the community. We had shawarma for lunch – thinly sliced lamb with a combination of vegetables that was served in something comparable to a tortilla. Many of us with Scandinavian roots thought the outside looked and tasted like lefse!
After lunch, we continued our discussion with Imad. The group asked him many questions and he answered them honestly and in great detail. We discussed the role of the three major religions in the area and whether there is peace between the groups or not. We asked him about the role that religion plays in this conflict. He replied, “Religion is the problem, faith is the solution.” Many people on both sides use their religion as justification for prejudices and wrongdoings against members of the other group. Imad believes that only through our faith in God and love for our neighbor can peace ever be possible in the world.
He left us with a final quote in regards to living and ministering in an occupied area: “To live behind walls is dangerous, but to live with walls around your heart is even more dangerous.” We have to have the courage to open our hearts to our neighbors and love them in spite of our differences. We must love them like Jesus does.
We finished the day with a tour of the Taybeh Brewery. They are a Palestinian beer company that has been in business since 1994 and has been very successful in the Middle East and around the world. Taybeh will be available for the first time in the United States beginning in 2017. The company’s success has been an inspiration to many, especially in Palestinian communities. We were all happy to support them as we concluded our tour! J
Our experiences today served as a light for many of us. We came here for many different reasons and being challenged was among them, but it was refreshing to have a few hopeful and encouraging encounters as we continue our adventures in the Holy Land.