Many of you know that, as part of our course requirements, I went in 2008 on my seminary cross-cultural immersion to Israel and Palestine. Our professor made certain that, in addition to worship and history/archeology, we were deeply immersed in the context of contemporary Palestine. At that time, I learned of the hardships of the people living in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank). The Occupation influences everything: whether water is available in one’s home; whether one has access to green space to play; where one can live; whether one can live with one’s spouse; whether one can get a job; whether farmers can harvest their crops; whether crops can be brought to markets; whether children can safely go to school; where one is allowed to worship; whether one gets health care, or not; whether one can leave one’s home; what roads one can use; etc.
When I got home, I couldn’t get Palestine out of my mind, so I followed the first trip with a second one, this time going to Bethlehem in order to work with Dar Al Kalima College as a visiting artist for three weeks, assisting in providing educational opportunities to students living behind the Separation Wall. (If you scroll back to older posts in this blog, you will find posts from that trip.) By making a more personal contact with a number of young adults in my classes, I learned even more about what daily life is like for these people, and it is a hard life.
In fact, our sister church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, has joined other Christian churches in the Holy Land in denouncing the Occupation as a situation that brings harm to Palestinians and Jews alike, and have labeled it a sin against God and humanity. (http://www.kairospalestine.ps/). Such luminaries as President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called the Occupation of Palestine by Israel a system of Apartheid, and it is, complete with passes, curfews, closures, separate and unequal living arrangements and opportunities, armed presence, removals, and imprisonments based upon race.
One of the organizations I encountered in Palestine is EAPPI, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. (See http://www.eappi.org.) This organization, administered as an international ministry of the World Council of Churches, is committed to non-violence and to accompaniment, which I find similar in focus to chaplaincy. The role of the accompanier (EA) is to live among the people, and to stand as a visible sign of peace in the midst of conflict, in schools, neighborhoods, at checkpoints, and in rural areas. EAs are positioned to promote peace; by their presence as internationals, they help reduce conflict, and also provide eyewitness reports of what they have seen. EAs participate in support of the end of the Occupation through non-confrontational means. During my first trip to the region, my seminary group and I participated with “Women in Black”, a group of Jewish women who demonstrate in Jerusalem every Friday afternoon against the Occupation. The EAs were there in support of the women, and we stood with them. During my second trip to Palestine, I went with the EA group in Jerusalem to visit a family that had been evicted from their home at gunpoint by settlers. This was a very formative experience for me. (You can read blogs of returned U.S. volunteers at this site: http://www.eappi-us.org/index.php?page=blogs/.)
A number of people involved in the EAPPI have been/are clergy, but not everyone goes for religious reasons. All are committed to working for peace and justice, and to do so non-violently. The Jerusalem office places EAs into international teams that are sent to the specific regions where they are needed. I have been told by associates in Palestine that EAs are among the most helpful of all those working in the West Bank in terms of what they have been able to do for the people.
I have been following the EA eyewitness reports for a couple years now on the web. I find them to be compassionate and insightful. This spring, I completed the application process, and as a result have been accepted as an EA for the fall service window, roughly from September 6 until December 15.
People come from all over the world to be EAs: Sweden, France, Australia, Britain, South Africa, Canada, South America, you name it. Most of the volunteers are either young adults or retirees, but some people take leaves or sabbaticals in order to participate.
It would be great for more Americans to be part of this service, because our country funds the Israeli military with our tax dollars, to the tune of $3 billion a year, while giving comparatively very little to the Palestinian people. The value of the American presence on EAPPI teams can not be overstated, because in this grassroots way it is possible to show that we care about what is happening to the people there.
Some would say that those who stand against the Occupation are anti-Semitic. This is not true. Many Israeli Jews are joining the movement against the Occupation because they have come to believe that the Occupation hurts both Palestinians and Israelis. Real peace and security cannot be obtained by one people by repression of the other. Even a number of former Israeli soldiers have broken their silence and chosen no longer to serve in the military because of human rights issues (http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/). Moreover, the Palestinian people are also Semitic. EAs do not stand against the nation of Israel, nor against Jewish people. They stand for peace.
This is an exciting and big commitment. I would not have chosen it for myself, because I actually don’t like politics, and have shied away from it all my life. I would not even have been aware of this issue if it hadn’t been for the seminary. Certainly, being in EAPPI is an opportunity, an opportunity to build bridges across cultures and between faiths. It is an opportunity to connect with our brothers and sisters in the Christian Churches of the Holy Land as well, and to let them know that we are praying with them in their struggle. And as a Franciscan, it is an opportunity to connect with St.Francis, a man of peace who also engaged in cross-cultural conversations.
September will be here before I know it. I look forward to blogging during my time in Palestine, and also to sharing this experience with the seminary community in the Spring. Seminary professors have agreed to follow my blog and help me process this experience and present it to the Seminary in Spring semester. I will receive independent study credit for this experience.
Some will want to know how they can help. First of all, I covet your prayers for the peace process between Palestine and Israel, as well as for the effectiveness of my ministry there. Second, if you know of any groups that would be interested in a presentation in Spring or Summer of 2012 about the experience of being an EA in Palestine, or about daily life and its challenges there, please let me know. Part of my service involves educating and informing others. I am actively looking for presentation opportunities. I would like to get at least a few of these onto my calendar before I leave. If you reply to the blog telling me how to reach you, I will respond.
Third, I hope we can intentionally work against that tide of opinion that wishes to paint all Arabs, and all Moslems, with the brush of radicalism. I believe that it is essential, as people of peace, that we work against racial profiling. No one should be vilified merely because he or she belongs to a particular religion or race. Just as Jesus was a crosser of boundaries, who came in peace and acted in love for the Roman centurion, the Tyro-Phoenician woman, the disturbed man in Gentile Gerasa, the Samaritans, and for us, we also must be willing to act in love toward all peoples.
Finally, there is the matter of funding. Some countries provide financial support for their EA volunteers. In the U.S.A., this is not the case. The cost to me is $7500 (including my plane fare and cost of living for 3 months in the West Bank.) I am committed to this service, and it will go forward. If you wish to provide financial support, please know I thank you for contributing to a global ministry of peace and reconciliation, in a place direly in need of such a witness, on behalf of human beings, all God’s children, whether Christian, Moslem, or Jewish.
The best way to send support to me is through my church, Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 2126 Gable Lane, Ames, IA 50014. In that case, write the check to Lord of Life Lutheran Church, with the subject line “EAPPI.” If you prefer not to go through the church, an account has been set up for donations at Greater Iowa Credit Union, PO Box 665, 801 Lincoln Way, Ames, IA 50010. Please direct any contributions to Chris Cowan with the subject line on the check reading “EAPPI”.
Once I leave, you will be able to follow my blog posts here. In addition, I may set up other blogs; if so, they will be connected to this one. Thanks, and God bless!
Chris Cowan, TSSF, EA.