The year we lived in Jerusalem, I was aware on a daily basis of being “the other.” I was self-conscious of everything from my skin tone to my American English accent to my clothing choices as I moved about the segregated city and into the West Bank to the schools where I spent my days.
I remember learning to find the bus stop on the Mount of Olives, near the hospital compound where we lived. The Palestinian locals probably easily identified me as an American NGO worker, but I thought I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the only woman on the bus with uncovered hair. I worried, did I show too much elbow or neckline, and did I cross my legs out of habit, an offensive gesture in Arab culture? I felt the intense looks of women around me, and assumed that under their headscarves and ankle-length abayas they were judging me, or worse, feeling offended by my difference on display.
One morning, I felt the elderly woman next to me staring from just inches away. In spite of my nerves, I decided that day to look back and meet her eyes, accepting whatever emotion might be behind them. After all, how long could I go on avoiding my neighbors? And, as it turned out, she was smiling ear to ear, her eyes curious and friendly. She didn’t say anything, probably because she guessed we didn’t speak the same language. But her expression communicated welcome, and revealed that the judgment I feared was a projection of many unspoken lessons I had been taught about Muslim people and culture. As different (and vulnerable) as I felt in those early days in Jerusalem, the inclusion and hospitality I experienced among Palestinian and Israeli friends taught me that reaching out in delight to meet the “other” is core to our faith traditions.
We know that solutions to the crises of war and poverty, especially in Palestine and Israel where bombs now fall once again, will require bold action on the part of powerful corporations, international partnerships, and governments including our own. These are flawed systems, with histories of colonization and exploitation to recognize. But our hope can be drawn from the fact that human beings are capable of reaching and recognizing one another across deep differences – and demanding that our leaders follow. We will continue to cultivate this faith practice of seeing and listening to one another throughout the journey of Lent. And, when the time comes to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, we will remember that, in spite of everything, miracles happen there all the time.
Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries, Mayflower’s Associate Minister, served as a Global Ministries volunteer with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land in 2010-11, while partner Tim studied ancient languages and archaeology at the Hebrew University.