Friday, March 30, 2012

Blind Bartimaeus
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

“Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
Jesus answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
(Luke’s Palm Sunday Gospel—Lk 19:40)

Just a few days before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, while passing by Jericho on this way to Jerusalem, Jesus encountered Blind Bartimaeus  (Mark 10:46-52).  This was the last miracle of Jesus according to Mark’s Gospel.  Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that “many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” trying to prevent healing for this unfortunate member of God’s creation.  Yet Bartimaeus only cried more loudly until he got Jesus' attention.

It happened again this week.   People trying to prevent “the recovery of sight to the blind.” And it happened near Jericho, at the Allenby Bridge border crossing from Jordan.

Dr. Ali Dabbagh, an eye-doctor with specialist credentials, was on his way to Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem to offer his third segment of a course on “Diabetes and Eye Complications.” 
And he was denied entry by Israeli security.  He tried another border crossing the next day, and was denied once again.

This is one of the many road blocks thrown up every day by a government of occupation in making life difficult for Palestinians.  It highlights even more the amazing story of our Lutheran ministry of health care to Palestinians at August Victoria Hospital--especially when one considers all the determination by health care providers and all their extraordinary efforts.  We were made aware of this story once again this week with the release of the LWF Jerusalem Annual Report --2011 (click the link to read the report or go to the website ).

When you see a beautiful cover photo of a young Palestinian dialysis patient with her Winnie the Pooh coloring page, you can only feel proud about what the world-wide Lutheran community is doing to continue Jesus’ healing ministry.  You can also read the story of Asmah, a six-year old cancer patient who came to AVH from a refugee camp in Gaza.  On page 12, you can read about the celebration at AVH of World Diabetes Day and the hospital's focus on childhood diabetes—with funding assistance of USAid.

14 % of Palestinians suffer from diabetes, the high figure a result of the stress-filled life under occupation—and in many cases it affects the eyes, no different than the world Jesus encountered with Roman occupation.

There are 66 ophthalmologists and 12 eye specialists for the Palestinian community, but none have been trained in diabetic eye problems.  Thus the importance for a specialist like Dr. Dabbagh who is a British citizen working in a hospital in Kuwait.  For the last thirteen years he has been donating part of each year working with Palestinian patients, establishing the Oyooni Mobile Clinic.  (Click for the clinic's webpage)

And so the importance of Dr Dabbagh’s courses at Augusta Victoria Hospital.  What a gift he offers to diabetic patients throughout Gaza and the West Bank, and particularly those coming to AVH for treatment.

What a disappointment for those who had come to the hospital on Tuesday expecting to learn from  him.  What a tragedy for individuals who continue to suffer because of such unnecessary delays.

Fortunately the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reporter Amira Hass heard about the denial of entry of Dr. Dabbagh at the border this past Monday and again at another border crossing on Tuesday and decided to investigate. The reporter’s inquiry at the Israeli Interior Ministry provided the explanation that he “was refused entry at the recommendation of defense elements.”  As a result of her prodding, there was typical beaurocratic backtracking-- no he really wasn't a security risk-- and  eventually the decision was reversed.  

Haaretz published the Friday story Israel reverses decision denying entry to British-Palestinian humanitarian doctor.”  (Read the newspaper story here.)
By Thursday Dr. Dabbagh was finally allowed to enter--three days after his original planned arrival.  He was merely delayed.  One wonders how many others have experienced the same unwarranted roadblocks?  How many other humanitarians have been denied completely?

In the story of blind Bartimaeus, when many sternly ordered him to be quiet, he refused. Bartimaeus  cried out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 
 Let’s pray for more determined individuals like Dr. Dabbagh and for more voices like Haaretz’s Amira Hass to continue crying out even more loudly to bring an end to the occupation.
"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Saturday, March 24, 2012

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.  Mark 1:13

Lent is the season for wilderness walking.

The perfect time for a congregational outing to the wilderness east of Jerusalem.

            A Picnic Lunch
One does not live by bread alone--a little peanut butter & nutella, please-                                                                       
Our destination: St. George's Monastery in Wadi Qelt --the valley cutting through the wilderness from Ramallah to Jericho.  In the 5th-6th centuries, over one hundred monasteries covered the wilderness landscape around Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The hike down
The view from below
Beginning with the monk Chariton in 330 ce, Christians began the practice of a Lenten pilgrimage to the wilderness, living in caves in the rugged landscape and then joining together each Sunday in the monasteries for their weekly Eucharistic feast.  Note the date:  When Christianity was legitimized and became main-stream under Constantine, and when persecutions and hardships were less frequent, the faithful felt the need for such Lenten discipline.

Note the caves to right of Mona- stery.   Tradition said that Elijah stayed here on way to the Sinai.The monastery was destroyed several times and later rebuilt, most recently in the late 19th century.

The winter rains in Jerusalem and water from a spring transform the Wadi into an oasis. 

Inside the monastery chapel: Iconostasis with traditional Greek Orthodox icons.
Icon of St. George of Koziba and his relic box (skeleton)- the monastery's leader in the late sixth century. 

Playing with the monks' pet dog.
Women are welcome to visit St. George's, unlike many other Orthodox monasteries.  Tradition says that Joachim, the father of Mary of Nazareth, had retreated nearby when he learned that his wife Anna was pregnant with Mary.  Later in the 6th century, a Christian noblewoman following a vision of the Virgin Mary came here and was healed.
The view below 
The trek back up, by donkey.
Our wilderness trip was capped off by a visit to Nabi Musa, a Pilgrimage site of Palestinian Muslims in honor of the Prophet Moses.
Greetings from the Wilderness, with the Dead Sea in the background and Mount Nebo beyond the Jordan.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Photo credits: Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath & Anna Johnson

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Women's Day
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Thursday was International Women’s Day.

In the Palestinian community, this is a day off of school and in many cases women are given the day off work for special women’s gatherings and forums.

Among Israelis, Women’s Day was overshadowed by the holiday Purim which focuses on a biblical role model Esther who saved her people from annihilation.

It was my weekly afternoon to teach my Old Testament class at Dar Alkalima College and appropriately our topic was the Genesis matriarch Rachel, an exemplary woman of faith, patience, and hope; the mother who gave her life in childbirth; the caring figure who continues to weep for her children displaced from family and home. With Rachel’s Tomb recognized as a Bethlehem landmark for two millennia, and as once accessible to expectant mothers of all three monotheistic religions, one might have expected the kind of familiarity of an oft mentioned favorite daughter.

Yet politics does strange things. The surgical amputation of this historic site from Bethlehem by the separation wall has left most of my class members without any visual memory of the quaint little shrine that stood open to all. So they were attentive as I shared historical photos and drawings and reports from visitors of all three faiths.

One of the difficulties teaching this class of mainly West Bank students is that they aren’t allowed to see with their own eyes Jerusalem sites just a few miles away.

There is one exception. Salma, a mother of four including one a high school senior, is from East Jerusalem and drives each day for class, now in her upper thirties and wanting to get a college education—a good example of what Women’s Day is all about. At first I had assumed that she was Christian –my class is divided evenly between Christians and Muslims. After all, she did not wear the traditional Hejab (headscarf), and I had to pry her away from her King-James-Version Bible in favor of our NRSV study Bible textbook. Then she explained how as a little girl she got in the habit of reading the Qur’an for hour upon hour during the annual Ramadan fast. And later she added Bible reading to increase her understanding. So now she’s taking a class in Old Testament and running circles around both Christian and Muslim students in her knowledge of both holy books.

Yet there is one thing that stumped her. “Can you tell us about Purim?” she asked after our mid-afternoon break.

“It’s about Esther,” I started.

“. . . And how she saved the Jewish people from annihilation,” Salma interrupted.

Some of the others nodded their heads familiar with the story.

“But how can a woman like that demand the killing of all the Persians?” She asked.

“Really? Is that in the Bible?” one of the Christian students responded.

Yes. I’m afraid so. 75,000 persons slaughtered in revenge for one crazy power-hungry man named Haman. There’s a reason I skipped over this book in my 24 years of college teaching. Isn’t the Bible supposed to be about love and forgiveness?

“They were enemies,” one of the male students explained.

“But Esther was a woman,” Salma answered in disbelief. “She wouldn’t kill all those children.”

The Palestinian women’s committees called on people to remember women who have made an impression, teachers, women in government, business women, mothers.

So which matriarch should we admire this Women’s Day? Rachel weeping for her children? or Esther rescuing her children and then rendering vengeance upon her enemy?

That evening we pulled up to the Bethlehem check point about 7:30. The queue was backed up about a quarter of a mile with tour buses heading back to their Jerusalem hotels and Jerusalem residents heading back home after a day in Bethlehem for school, for work, for a visit to mothers on women’s day. The queue was moving faster than unusual and within 45 minutes we would make it to the front of the line.  We were the lucky ones.  Those from Bethlehem fortunate to get a travel permit had to walk through the maze on foot.

In the car ahead of us, we noticed a head bobbing up and down—a child being entertained trying to make the time pass more quickly. Been there, done that. Today we had our Kindles, and slowly, slowly, we inched forward toward the security guards. They didn’t appear to be checking very carefully tonight. Occasionally they would ask a driver to open the trunk for a quick glance and wave them through.

Now we were one car back, and it would be just a matter of minutes.


Tonight there was a woman soldier doing the inspection. And second male guard stood back a distance and watched with gun in hand. The woman soldier put her head part way in the open window and seemed to signal the driver to get out of the car where he handed her his documents for inspection. The license plates showed that they were Jerusalem residents. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then the soldier walked to the back of this small SUV motioning for him to open the door. He did. Right before our eyes we could see there was no reason for concern. She pointed at a yellow plastic bag. He held it upside down. Empty. Then another. Then she rolled up the floor mat. Then a walk to the front to inspect under the hood. Then opening the front passenger door, the young woman soldier climbed in with her rifle dangling from her shoulder, apparently searching under the seats and above the vizers. Back outside she signaled the young man to open the back door. He reached in and lifted his one-year old child out of the car seat while his wife crawled over it to get outside. Again with rifle dangling, the woman soldier climbed in to search apparently under the car seat and in the diaper bag. Nothing. All the while the young couple stood patiently waiting, looking much like the students in my class, wearing jeans and nice tailored shirts. And the young mother wearing her hejab. In the states we’d call that “probable cause.” We’ve seen it often enough. Racial profiling. Religious profiling. Car after car passing quickly through with hardly a passing glance. No security threat here. But the woman wearing the hejab was cause enough for concern. Even with her one-year old child.

Photo illustrative of the Palestinian mothers who walk through the checkpoint each day.

So for International Women’s Day 2012, if there is one woman who stands out in our minds to remember, it’s this nameless mother—like the hundreds of women going through security each day--dressed in her hejab, patient and quietly waiting while on the way, at the checkpoint by Rachel’s Tomb.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert