In the spring of 2010, due to the gracious generosity of the congregation I am part of, I was given the opportunity to spend twelve days in Israel and Jordan. It was an amazing experience spending time in the place that I have spent much of my life learning about. I rode in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and I floated in the Dead Sea. I stood on top of Mt. Nebo and gazed, just as Moses did, into the land of promise. I placed a prayer in the Western Wall of the Temple, walked the streets of Old Jerusalem and spent a day in the town of Bethlehem. We celebrated communion on the Road to Emmaus, plunged ourselves into the Jordan River, and stood quietly next to the hill known as “The Place of a Skull.” It was a most memorable trip.
The most moving part of the experience, however, was not in visiting any of the historical places that play such a central role in my faith. It was instead visiting the Palestinian Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem. There Palestinian children, like the young girl pictured above, received care for chronic illnesses or were treated because of accidental injuries. We were graciously received by the head doctor of the hospital, by the nurses and the social workers, and by the children as well. One aspect of this hospital trip that was deeply disconcerting for me, however, was the near complete absence of the fathers of these children. Though mothers were everywhere to be seen, there was hardly a father anywhere. I asked if this was because the fathers were at work. I was told for a very few that was the case, but for most their absence was the result of the family being from Bethlehem and it being nearly impossible for young adult males to get beyond the wall that Israel had put up in a proposed effort to stop suicide bombers.
I had seen the wall the day before when my group went to Bethlehem. The wall is 468 miles of 25 foot high concrete slabs. Israel calls it a security barrier. Others call it an Apartheid Wall. What I call it is ugly. The true extent of its ugliness became clear to me as I heard that it was keeping fathers from being with their hospitalized children. To go to Israel is to go to a land of deep division. Division between Palestinians and Israelis, along with division between Christian, Jew and Muslim. Even the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is divided up among the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic Church with each having a section of the church that they are responsible for. We hear a lot in the news about these divisions and the strife that results from it; along with the political, ethnic and religious reasons for it. I know the matter is historically very complex. But on the day that I visited the Palestinian Children’s Hospital the only division that mattered to me was that a father wasn’t allowed to be with their child. It made me deeply sad and very angry.
You see, I have a daughter with a chronic illness. Her illness resulted in one long stay in a children’s hospital and now she is required to go back every two months for treatment. Along with my wife, I was with my daughter during her hospitalization and have accompanied her on many of her follow-up treatments. The thought that I could not be with her during that time is a very difficult one to fathom. History, religion, politics be damned . . . you keep me from my daughter then you and I have got a big problem. One whose only correction is to let me be with my child.
I suppose the reason I tell this story is because behind the historical and political landscape through which we often hear the stories of other places are the very human stories of children and parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. People who, in more ways than not, are just like us. They laugh, they cry, they play, they work, they try to provide for their families and they worry about their children. After visiting the Palestinian Children’s Hospital, I was continually haunted by the thought of living in a place where a father would not be allowed to be present with his ill child – not because he was in jail or had done anything wrong, but simply because of who he was, a Palestinian man.
Of course, I do live in such a place for I live as a part of this world. As do all of us. Whatever our race, whatever our nation of origin, whatever our language, whatever religion we might practice, whatever political system we might be part of, we all live together in this place. And we need to find a way to tear down the ugly walls that we too quickly and too often erect between each other. We need to try and understand that we have much more in common with one other than we realize. There will always be voices who say the walls, literal and figurative walls, are necessary for safety and security and to establish one’s own sense of identity. I fervently believe they are wrong. All those walls ultimately do is continue to breed anger and hatred and, thus, perpetuate the cycle of violence.
For those of us who happen to be Christian, we have been given, according to the scriptures, the ministry of reconciliation . . . the ministry of tearing down the walls of hostility that exist between people (Ephesians 2:14). It is our work. It is the heart of the gospel. And we need to be about our work with great diligence. This is so for many reasons, but one I know of personally is that there are some young Palestinian children and their fathers who need the opportunity to be together.