Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pastor Russ Siler's farewell to Jerusalem

Pastor Russell Siler writes... From Jerusalem #39

9 June 2007

It is almost as if I am returning to school after a summer break, preparing to write the obligatory essay on what I did over my vacation. Save for the fact that this term stretched out for four years, it was truly a break — a world apart from that which most people in my home country experience on a daily basis. Here is a world in which one is not free to travel where one wishes. It is a place not of freedom, but of restrictions — not of liberty, but of oppression. As my wife Anne and I prepare to leave this land which has been our home these past few years, I wish that I could package this segment of our lives and make it available to you in such a way that you could see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch the things we have. Then you would be as overwhelmed by joy, sadness, elation, and despair as we are. But I cannot. All I believe I am capable of doing is telling you what I will miss and what I will not miss as we return to the United States.

I will miss the beautiful homes left to us from a magnificent past, with their arched windows and ornate porches and high ceilings. I will not miss the piles of rubble and rebar which mark demolished Palestinian homes — more than 15,000 of them since the Occupation began, most on the flimsiest of pretexts by the Israeli army or municipal authority — where I know lie crushed under each one a family's dream of a place of their own.

I will miss the magnificent countryside, littered with rocks and hills of every size and description, and the rugged landscapes that Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Jesus, Peter, and Andrew hiked through. I will not miss the monstrous Wall, barbed wire fences, dirt mounds across unpaved village access roads, and ugly, prison-fortress-like crossings and terminals, ubiquitous in their barbarity. I won't miss them, because Israel presents them to you as dire necessities for their security, indeed, for their very survival, while we see the truth of Israel's reality which is to carve up Palestine into ever tinier clusters of humanity whose religious, cultural, societal ties are so slashed into disconnected ribbons that a nation is impossible.

I will miss ever so much the innocent smiles and playful giggles on the faces of the children — Israeli, Palestinian, international — all over the place. I will not miss the heaviness dragging on my heart like an anchor, as I realize how very soon that playful innocence will fall victim to fear and hatred, to bigotry and racism.

I will miss the steady stream of visitors — vacationers, pilgrims, seekers, tourists — that arrive like clockwork at our 9:00 am Sunday worship in St. John's Chapel. I will miss their delight at being in the Holy Land — many of them first-timers, but many more veterans of the land — their eagerness to meet Palestinian Christians whom, they soon learn, have been a vital presence here for the entire life of the Christian Church, and their openness to listen to narratives of the deadly conflict that the rest of the world seldom hears. I will not miss the busloads of tourists whose guide takes them to Bethlehem for a quick peek at the Church of the Nativity, then hurries them back to Jerusalem, because, "It's dangerous in the West Bank."

I will miss the witness of the courageous Israeli and Jewish women and men — Machsom Watch, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Women in Black, and all the others — as they tirelessly seek to stand in solidarity with people who seek justice and to educate those who wonder what unspeakable things are being done in the name of their beloved religion. I will not miss those coarse voices who violently insist — to the detriment of intelligent dialogue, discussion, disagreement, debate, or dissent — that any person who dares to criticize Israeli policy is either self-hating or anti-Semitic.

Perhaps, however, more than anything, I will miss the thousand times a week I hear ahlan wa salan — Welcome — singing out with genuine warmth from face after face of those who are desperately eager to let me know that, regardless of appearance, religion, or nationality, I am their brother. I have no doubt whatsoever that, were one of these persons to be down to his last piece of bread, he would beckon me closer and say, "Come, sit, eat!" What I will never miss are the questions spontaneously emerging from these same warm hearts, "Why does America treat us this way?" "Why do they help Israel oppress us and take our land?" "Will you please tell Mr. Bush that all we want is to be treated fairly; we only want justice." I will not miss these questions because I think they are harsh or prompted by bad intentions, but because I have no answers which will make a whit of difference to my sisters, to my brothers who are so baffled by the way our country treats them.

Some of you have asked what I will do when we return to the States. At this juncture I can only grin broadly and say "Retire!" We do know there are challenges and adventures awaiting us; we just don't know what or where or when. The only certainty in my mind — No. Make that in my heart — is that I will continue to speak up and to speak out. My friends here would understand if I did not. They would softly comfort me, "We know how hard it will be." The problem is that I will not be that easy on myself. I cannot see the tears in my brother's eyes without tasting the salty bitterness in my own mouth. And I cannot swallow the bitter taste; I must open my mouth and let it out!

Thank you for your faithful willingness to listen and for your constant support. They have been life-giving! Peace!

Russell O. Siler, Pastor
English-speaking Congregation
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Jerusalem, Old City

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