World Day of Prayer 2024

Women of Palestine

‘I beg you, bear with one another in love’ Ephesians 4: 1-6

Thank you for the invitation to speak at this year’s World Day of Prayer. This is a special day for me. My Mother who died at 103 only a few years ago would send me a card each year telling me to remember, Women’s World Day of Prayer. It is moving to think that we are joined with men and women around the world, women and men from different churches. This is an Ecumenical World Day of Prayer. It’s good that we are together from churches in Hawkhurst.

What an amazing co-incidence that this year’s World Day of Prayer is prepared for us by the Christian Women of Palestine just at a time when our newspapers and televisions are full of unbearable reports of the situation in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Israel and Palestine. I don’t know about you but I can hardly bare to watch the scenes of the suffering and devastation: the photos of children with amputated limbs and weeping women, the destruction of buildings, homes, hospitals, schools and the endless reports of what politicians are saying which make it hard to imagine that there ever will be an end to the violence, a violence in which the most vulnerable pay the greatest price. Could there be a more appropriate time to be with the Women of Palestine? To listen to those who live daily as part of that troubled area of our world.

Although the Women from Palestine prepared our service before October 7 and the violence that followed, even before this their lives were restricted, and precarious.

Two weeks ago the Bishop of Southwark, the Church of England lead bishop on the Middle East, made a five-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank. He described the terrible stories he heard of the violence: a new born baby in Gaza leaving hospital without clothing or a blanket; new born babies dying, born to weak and undernourished mothers; and one woman saying, ‘It’s best that my baby isn’t born into this nightmare.’ But, the Bishop speaks too of another story he wants us to hear, a mostly silent story, a story of his meeting with civic leaders, honorable, good people, Jewish, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim interested in dialogue, in healing the bitter divisions of the past and the present, interested in justice, interested in a better tomorrow. He described situations we hear so little of in the press. Bishop Christopher emphasized the importance of hearing the silent stories. If we close our ears to these stories of small glimmers of light, then life becomes even more horrific, more hopeless, more apocalyptic. We need to hear the smallest glimmerings of goodness buried underneath the stories of violence and destruction. These stories are shafts of light in an otherwise seemingly hopeless situation and can keep Christian hope alive.

I first visited the land we call holy in 1968 a few months after the 6- day war. I went with a group of Old Testament Scholars to visit archaeological sites. I wasn’t politically aware in those days. I didn’t know the complex history behind the current political situation but I sensed an underlying tension. There were soldiers around carrying guns.

On that first visit I fell in love with the land, the land of Jesus’s birth. But through it all I sensed hostility between those who lived there, though I hardly knew the modern history of the land, the Balfour Declaration and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and the increased repopulation with Jews after the Holocaust.

As I think back over many visits to the holy land in the years that followed and weep over the terrible scenes today, I turn to two stories from my own experience living in Israel/Palestine where I learnt that what seemed impossible might just be possible – if only, if only….There is a power in stories that theological or historical reflections can hardly convey.

i. The second Intifado (Uprising), 2000

In 1988 I was invited to teach for a term in a Roman Catholic Institute on the edge of Jerusalem looking into Bethlehem, not on Israeli soil, not on Palestinian soil, but on Vatican land. The thought of three months living on the beautiful hill of Tantur in the midst of an olive grove, working in the spacious well stocked library, praying in the chapel with a community of Christians from around the world, visiting again sites in Jerusalem, bathing in the Dead Sea, eating fish by the Sea of Galilee. It sounded heavenly.

I arrived on September 18th and as the Sharute driver drove with reckless abandon from the airport through the moonlit landscape I recognized the walls of Jerusalem – ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’…came into my mind. Well yes, the Oslo Accord was on the table, peace was surely about to be settled. I was the only one left in the Sharute when we arrived at the gates of Tantur. I saw just ahead a barrier across the road manned by soldiers with guns, ready to check passports. Beyond the checkpoint the lights of Bethlehem shone brightly and to the left the once barren hill top was now covered with homes and cranes building more. The gates of Tantur opened and we drove up the little hill to be greeted by the Palestinian night staff who welcomed me to the meal waiting for me. Two bottles of local wine and delicious local cooking – my cup was running over!

The next ten days I began to meet the academic staff, and the domestic staff who walked in daily from Bethlehem and the students in my class from around the world, ministers from different churches and Roman Catholic Sisters. Each evening a group of us would walk through our olive grove this side of our boundary wall and then join the road to Bethlehem, escaping the soldiers on the barrier, and so into Bethlehem. Over a glass of the local wine we would discuss the day’s lectures, and learn about the different countries and churches we came from.

Then, only ten days after arriving, on September 28th the peace was shattered. Ariel Sharon the Israeli Prime Minister, with some soldiers, walked on to the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem, onto the holiest shrine of the Muslims where Mohammed was said to have been taken up to heaven. It was a provocative thing to do, just as the Oslo Accord was in a delicate balance, an Accord that would have restored to Palestine some of the territory forcibly taken in 1947. There were still some outstanding issues to be settled, not least of all whether Jerusalem could be the capital in the future for both Israel and Palestine. Things had looked more hopeful than for many years.

By lunchtime the next day all hell let loose. The stone throwing and shooting began including in the road outside our wall. Several hundred Palestinians who walked along the road to work in Jerusalem showing passes to soldiers on the check point found a way of getting into our olive grove and walking inside our land and out of our gate to avoid the check point. If the soldiers closed our gate then there would be up to 300 Palestinians taking refuge in our olive grove.

The lights in Bethlehem went out, the shops were boarded up, the tourist buses stopped passing on their way into Bethlehem. We were now under a curfew and couldn’t go out at night or in the middle of the day. I learned more and more about the political scene: the insecurity of Israel after the Holocaust, no wonder they build fortresses like the settlements on the hill tops: the hopelessness of Palestinians who had lost so much of their land.

Night after night the planes circled overhead. We heard bombs being dropped near us and the next morning could see the damaged houses in districts outside Bethlehem. On October 5th sitting in the dark in my room, I could hear the bombs close by and then someone rushing down the corridor shouted out ‘ go down immediately to the air raid shelter in the basement. John has been shot in the head’. John, a Roman Catholic Deacon from the States, was standing at his window just above my window, looking out at the tracer bullets. A stray bullet came through the window and into his head. As we gathered in the shelter praying for John, for Tantur, for all caught up in the violence, for those of the three Abrahamic faiths we began to ask ‘should we go home?’ Many did, some recalled by their governments. Some of us stayed.

As October gave way to November things got worse. We could see across our olive grove Palestinian homes that had been hit. One day a small group of us collected food from the kitchen and walked to the damaged houses with gifts. We were welcomed into one home and shown the damage already done to the house, broken walls, holes in the ceiling. The women were anxious to show us hospitality, to share something of the little they had and to introduce us to their children. Here was a precious moment of kindness extended by those who had suffered much and lost much. The next day at the very hour we had shared that moment of friendship a bomb hit that house. Had our newly made friends escaped with their lives? I treasure those moments of friendship in that home offered by those who lived under such violence but still found energy to entertain us.

Some days later we decided to hold a prayer meeting in the early evening. Word got out and we found ourselves joined by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had defied the curfew to come to pray with us, to pray to the God of Abraham and Sarah for peace, peace with justice in the land holy to us all.

This violent time in Tantur, on the edge of Jerusalem, looking into Bethlehem, that moment of hospitality, those moments of shared prayer with Jews and Muslims, I cling on to today. They are flickers of light and remain so. Signs of hope in the midst of hopelessness.

 ii. A week with the women in Bethlehem 2010

Very quickly, a second story from 10 years later. I found myself back in Bethlehem at the invitation of the Christian women of Bethlehem to chair a meeting of women, gathered by the World Council of Churches from all over the world, to listen to a story the women in Bethlehem wanted to share with us in the midst of their being confined to Bethlehem, unable to travel. They couldn’t come to us so they invited us to visit them. They wanted us to listen to stories of their daily experience and their reaction to their suffering. We were to read with them a very moving document recently written by Palestinian Christians called:

The Palestine Kairos Document with its striking title: ‘A moment of truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the heart of Palestinian Suffering’.

A group of Palestinian Christians, from different churches had been compelled to write this because they experienced only a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people with politicians who seemed to them only to manage the crisis and not resolve it. They described the catastrophe of the situation, the deprivation of freedom; enclosed behind walls; with the settlements on the hills increasingly seeping into their land. And yet, in the middle of all of this this is not a document of complaint, anger or revenge. They speak of faith in God; hope remaining against hopelessness; and a love which sees God in every human being regardless of race, or creed, or gender. They say defiantly: ‘Our message to Muslims is of love and living together. Our message to Jews, even though we have fought one another is, we are able to love and to live together. We can overcome all forms of racism, whether religious, or ethnic, including antisemitism and Islamaphobia. In the absence of hope, we cry out our hope. We believe that God’s goodnesss will finally triumph over the evil of hate and death that persist in this land’.

As we listened to this we wept when we heard their faith. Their confidence even in the hard, harsh, restricted life they led was that there was a better way possible. It was a challenge to us. Would we have such faith in God?

We saw what their restricted life was like when we got up at 5.30 one morning and went to the check point. We stood in the queue with men and women waiting for permission to go through the Checkpoint to work in Jerusalem. The queue was long those standing carried bags with rations for the day ahead. This was not an isolated event but a daily journey to work and there was still the journey home at the end of the working day. They queue morning by morning, doctors, builders, nurses, teachers. In the place of the barrier across the road that I had passed through when I arrived at Tantur 10 years earlier there was now a labrynth of walk ways, turnstiles, baggage checks, passport searches, and a large open space to cross to get to the final barrier before getting out to the road, past Tantur and on to Jerusalem to work.

Our international group of women listened to the Palestinian women. We heard a voice from the heart of a suffering people with hope in a God who they knew was present with them in the midst of it all. We listened with our ears and we saw with our eyes the humiliation, the suffering at the Bethlehem checkpoint, the separation wall, we saw the daily reality of their lives. And we heard throughout their affirmation of faith, hope and love.

These two stories come from my experience. There are shafts of light even in times of what seemed impossible: stories of bearing with one another in love. There was a hope expressed for those of seemingly intractable differences to defy the reality around them and still believe that living together in peace, in peace with justice is possible.

Stories speak a powerful message. At the heart of our Christian faith is a story of Jesus, his ministry, his death, and resurrection. As we pray our way through this service what the Women of Palestine prepared contains a message told through the power of stories. The Palestinians I met in Bethlehem, as well as Jews and Muslims too bear a message of hope against hope, of possibility against the seemingly impossible, of faith in the love of God. There is a better a more holy way of living and loving – and not only on the far- off future but already here in the midst of it all. A way that the media and very, very few allow us to hear or to think possible, a message the world deserves to hear.

To say this is not to make light of, or minimise the horrors of the present nor to deny that there are days when we all cry as Jesus cried, ‘My God, my God why has thou forsaken us?’ There are shafts of light in the dark. There are relationships of love, and caring support across the different faiths, Christian, Jewish, Muslim,  across the Israel and Palestinian divides. There is a powerful message in the verse chosen by the Palestinian women from Ephesians:  ‘I beg you, bear with one another in love’.

Mary Tanner, St Laurence, Hawkhurst

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