Encounter the stranger and their stories become your own

Encounter the stranger and their stories become your own

Neuroth and Zaru in Ramallah
In the Holy land

Being a pastor's son I remember well the somewhat honored, somewhat humiliating, experience of dressing up in a robe, being given a gift and a crown, and processing down the aisle of our church singing "We Three Kings" as one of the three Magi in our celebration of Epiphany.

Although a fond memory from my childhood, this year the joy and anticipation that usually accompanies Epiphany for me was lost. Having recently returned from a trip to Bethlehem and the Middle East, I watched with horror as news reports after Christmas began showing images of the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Now, over two weeks later, more than 700 hundred Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured.

This reality and all of our emotions surrounding it seem to be the opposite of Epiphany. Report after report of fighting on both sides is not the hope we want to encounter in the Christ child, so we try not to think about it. We turn away. In the face of such extreme, dehumanizing violence we are often moved to numbness, even apathy.

For many in the United States this has become a reflexive response to the seemingly never-ending narrative appearing on our nightly news, which portrays the Middle East as a region dominated by extremists unable to resolve differences except through war. The anti-Arab sentiment in much of our culture and media - and the one-sided coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - only magnifies these sentiments and often leads to callousness toward the region.

"Those people have always been at war, always will be..." was a direct comment echoed by many as I shared that I had recently returned from the region. While home for the holidays I watched the eyes of family members and friends glaze over from my stories describing the reality that Palestinians face amidst hundreds of checkpoints, restrictions of movement and a "security wall" that slices through villages - separating people from jobs and families from one another.

The sheer otherness and inhumanity of this reality, coupled with constant images of war on the television, can cause any of us - even the faithful UCC and Middle East advocates - to grow somewhat numb to the reality or at least cynical to the prospects for peace and a two-state resolution to the conflict coming anytime soon.

I dealt with this range of emotions daily during our two weeks in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And yet, I left the region not hopeless but hopeful. It is, after all, a land many consider holy. God has, and can again, enact a miracle to bring about hope in a moment and in a place least likely for it to happen.

I found hope not so much through the experience of a holy land but of a holy people. Throughout our trip we met with Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, men and women and youth all working for peace in their own way. Some were working directly through advocacy or humanitarian assistance on both sides of the wall. Others were resisting in equally courageous, though often overlooked, ways.

Although I could point to several of the youth, advocates and religious leaders we met with as signs of hope, it was our own UCC partner, Jean Zaru, whose stories impacted and inspired me most.

Zaru is the Presiding Clerk of the Friends Meeting House in Ramallah, outside Jerusalem. Jean recounted to us, and I have subsequently read in her new book titled "Occupied with Nonviolence," her story of raising a family and going about life as normally and richly as possible in spite of the challenges of the occupation. It is clear that for Jean, as for many others, this life is itself an act of resistance and Christian witness. Her story and the stories of her community are her ministry.

She says in the introduction to her book, "Storytelling makes the world stronger because stories reveal the complexity of our truth. By telling our stories, we resist the diminishing of the reality of our lives. We resist vague and generalized abstractions and we maintain the urgency and intensity of the concrete."

In today's culture the term "epiphany" is often used void of its religious significance, simply used to describe a realization or moment of sudden knowledge. However, the meaning of epiphany in the Christian context points to a more embodied understanding. Not simply a realization, but an encounter.

The Magi in the biblical text did not encounter Jesus as an idea, but rather came face to face with a real baby. That encounter changed the Magi forever and it continues to bring hope into our world.

Meeting Ms. Zaru was a similar epiphany moment for me, one of many on my trip. Even in the midst of inclinations to lose hope, to become calloused by the realities of our brothers and sisters living in war, let us seek to courageously encounter and embrace them as fully as we can through listening to their stories, their news and extending fellowship to their families that have immigrated to our neighborhoods. When we encounter them, their stories become ours.

When we meet the stranger, whether Palestinian or Israeli - Jew or Muslim or Christian - we encounter the Spirit of God. That Spirit can bring hope and change to this troubled land and our world. I pray that it will.

Michael Neuroth is policy advocate on international issues for Justice and Witness Ministries. He traveled with Churches for Middle East Peace to the Holy Land Dec. 1-12, 2008. The delegation visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, but was not allowed to visit Gaza. 

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