Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Report from Rev. Darrell Mitchell about his recent trip to Bethlehem

Good people are everywhere
To the Editor:

Lately, The Tribune has published letters to the editor about American financial support of the state of Israel. Those who have written expressing dismay at the huge amounts invested in a foreign nation have been answered by those who seem to feel that Israel deserves unquestioned support and that anyone who dares disagree with this position is an anti-Semite, a hater and a skewer of facts.

I am an Iowan who recently returned from a mission travel study trip to Palestine/Israel, implemented in February for two weeks, by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. There were 85 of us from 22 annual conferences in the United States.

One night, each person on our trip spent the night with a Palestinian Christian or Muslim family. My host family, living in the Aida Refugee Camp, included Azmir, who before retiring, had been a United Nation's administrator for five Palestinian refugee camps in the Bethlehem and Hebron area, and his wife, Amal, who has been a teacher of math and science for 32 years in the Aida Camp. There are close to 45,000 Palestinian refugees in the five camps this couple served.

Each of their five adult children has a college education. Their oldest daughter is a graduate of Harvard University. A son, now married, works as a news reporter for Arabia News Network. Another son is a medical doctor in Bethlehem. Another son lives in Canada with his Canadian wife and their child. A fifth adult child, a daughter, is a professor at Bethlehem University. In addition to making sure all their children have been well educated, Azmir and Amal made it clear to me that they have instilled in their children the value of living moral lives regardless of their situations.

Because there is no central heat in refugee homes like Azmir's I had to wear my longjohns. They carried a small kerosene burner from room to room, so we would always have a little heat. When I went to bed, I used about six layers of blankets to keep me warm. At 4 a.m., I woke up hearing the music from a local mosque, reminding people to pray as they begin a new day with God. I thought to myself, "Well, I should pray, too." And so I said, "Lord, help me to be a better follower, and to love my brothers and sisters of other faiths and this dear Muslim family that has invited me into their home. Save me, O Lord, from demonizing them and taking part in collective judgment of them. Amen."

It was close to daylight. I heard a rooster crow. As it was the season of Lent, I thought about Peter and his denial of our Lord. How could he have done that? How come I do that? Why don't I speak up more often on peace and justice issues? Should we be supporting Israel 100 percent of the time? Is everything that happens in this land the fault of people like Azmir and Amal? What does the Israel lobby group in America do to continue the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Morning arrived. We had a great breakfast with egg, oranges, rice and pasta type food. It was more than I could possibly eat, but it was not rich in meat. We all enjoyed our coffee and hot tea, too. I shared a Bible verse with them, from I John 4:7, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." They thought that was a nice thought that needed to be shared and thanked me for it.

After breakfast, I sat down with Azmir and he told me his story. He said, "In 1946, I went to a school in Jerusalem. In 1948 I was placed in the Aida Refuge Camp, along with my mother and brothers and sisters. My father was killed one month after Israel occupied Palestine. My mother was left with the responsibility of raising two boys and three girls. I entered a private school in Bethlehem and then went on to college. I graduated from Terrezanta College in Bethlehem. I was then asked to work for the United Nations. Eventually I became an administrator of five refugee camps. I did this for 22 years. I got married to Amal in 1972. One year ago, Amal got breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy; she is doing quite well at this time. As for me, I have a bad habit of smoking, and I should try to stop. Maybe, you should pray for me."

I sat down with Amal and she told me her story. Amal said, "My oldest brother was killed in fighting in Lebanon in 1977. My mother died in 2003. My father is now 80 years old. He is still living. I have one brother and two sisters living in Jordan and three sisters in Bethlehem. One of my sisters is a professor at Bethlehem University. My other two sisters are unable to find employment because 50 percent of the people are unemployed. Living in Palestine is like living in a prison. You have walls, checkpoints and you find it so difficult to travel and go places. We need the help of God, we need good American friends who might be willing to help us."

A car came to pick me up and take me to a Palestinian Christian Church. The Immanuel Evangelical Church of Bethlehem. In going to church, I felt a need to pray for these Palestinian people that are in every visible way, "the salt of the earth." These are the kind of people I grew up in America admiring as role models.

It did not mater to me that Azmir and Amal were Muslim; they were simply good people, people any community would welcome. The Palestinian Christians are the real mediators between the Israelis and Muslim factions. Again and again, I heard that many Muslims are non-violent, and I do not hear or read about them in our American press. It is time that we speak well concerning that Palestinian people. We need to recognize that there are good people everywhere.

Rev. Darrell V. Mitchell

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