This is a land of complexity and complication and conflict. I knew that when I accepted this position.
Ministry is not easy work. It is filled with emotional and spiritual highs and lows. Those in ministry meet and accompany people through all that life brings (or doesn’t bring). I’ve known that and experienced that since I began ministry.
Moving abroad is exciting and daunting and logistically challenging and heartbreaking and costly and monetarily expensive and exhilarating and exhausting and amazing. I’ve moved abroad before in my life (to Japan, and then to Scotland). I knew what it would be like when we decided to come here.
Beginning a new position in ministry — one that is essentially solo after being in a team, one that is in a completely new context in all kinds of ways, one that is in a different denomination — is never easy. However, I felt mostly prepared for that when I came, in large part, thanks to the training I received at Old Saint Paul’s.
We are now two months in. Which sometimes feels like only two days. And sometimes like two lifetimes.
I had a goal to survive until Christmas. To get through the liturgical chaos, to begin to find our way around the area, to start meeting partners. As little change as possible for all. No pressure to introduce new ideas. No expectation that I would be everywhere in the country for the thousands of Advent and Christmas services taking place. Survival was the goal.
But Christmas is over. (Well, almost. The Armenians only just celebrated theirs.) And I can say with sincerity that this past fortnight has been the busiest yet of my ministry. Not only busy, but demanding. The newness is still overwhelming. The complexity of life here deepens at every new encounter.
I, like all priests, have gone from funeral visit to wedding visit, from hospital ICU to party, from baptism to visit to mental health ward. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it often takes time to return to myself (in a healthy way through a walk in the country, in a non-healthy way through a glass of whisky).
Here, the equivalent is meeting someone from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and seeing what life is like under occupation, hearing the sharp edge of anger and hurt in every word. And then going to meet someone from the Messianic community, hearing very different stories, very different perspectives, but hurt by and angry at the discrimination and persecution they have experienced.
And then what I have to do is sit between the two (or three, or four, or … ), not take sides, but to try to discern what it means for me, in this time, in this place, to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.
The highs here are so high. I encounter joy and celebration, hospitality and inclusion, love of God and love of all people. I drive back from these encounters and in the car think to myself, I love my job so, so much. How is it that I’m here?
But the lows here are so low. There are the various institutions — political, cultural, religious — which oppress and discriminate, which demand but rarely give. (Almost) every single relationship is coloured by the conflict and where one might stand, and that is incredibly lonely. The temptation to self-neglect, self-abnegation, self-negation is high.
These extremes are true even in the dailiness of life. Here, Friday evening means the start of Shabbat, and a calm falls over the town. For friends in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, Friday (and increasingly other days) means teargas and stones and rubber bullets and fires. I don’t bother going out on Shabbat because nothing’s open. Colleagues don’t go out because it’s not safe.
This past fortnight has contained all of this. Long hours of work, long hours in the car. Meetings. Parties. Meals. Writing. Admin. Laughter. Drink. Very little sleep. I have experienced the joy of being with fellow clergy who have welcomed me so warmly, and the pain of bloodying my fists against the walls of patriarchy… again. I have had the excitement of creative ideas and the late night wildness of my imagination, and the less than exciting engagement with various institutional constraints. I have been brought to tears by the amazingly kind words of encouragement and blessing from random strangers and partners alike, and have cried over the pain of others.
Yesterday, I hit the wall. I simply couldn’t do any more. But I had to. Because I had to go to Jaffa for a meeting in the afternoon. So Justin and I agreed we would go early, and explore Tel Aviv a bit.
We parked the car at the port, walked to the edge of the Mediterranean, and stared out. People jogged past. Even women (I have yet to see a woman out running in Tiberias — I go to the gym because I feel too self-conscious here to be bearing shoulders and knees in such an Orthodox area). People had tattoos … and were showing them ([Mom, look away now] I really, really want to get another one, but siting is such a huge issue in my context…). There were cocktail bars. And yoga studios. And people speaking lots of languages. And amazing architecture to geek out over.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about being able to step away from my work, to visit Tel Aviv, which certainly bears the scars of the conflict, but not the visible open wounds. Would I feel the weight of western privilege? Would I feel the guilt experienced by so many aid workers and missionaries at being able to leave a situation which others cannot? How much had I internalised the struggle here? How much had the pain and anger become a part of my own identity? I realised that I was anxious — about taking a few hours off, about allowing myself to relax, about what I would find in myself if I stopped.
But after a wander by the sea, as we sat down for coffee, I felt the tension fall from my shoulders. I felt myself take a huge deep breath for the first time in days. I felt my self return. And I realised that despite the busyness and the high highs and the low lows and the exhaustion, I am really, truly, deeply happy here and know beyond a doubt that this is where I am meant to be.
And last night, I slept blissfully, deeply, dreamlessly for eight full hours.