It is time for us to stop blamingSami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust
the darkness for being too dark
and start looking for the light
that is fully present in each of us,
and that light will shine only
when we do what we are called to do.
Happy New Year from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I pray 2020 has started well for each of you and your loved ones.
Towards the end of last year, I attended an event at Tabeetha organised by the World Peace Prayer Society. Primary school students from three other schools — Jewish, Arab, and binational — joined some of our students for a morning of activities, a peace march to the port, and a ceremony at which Tabeetha was presented with a peace pole, on which is inscribed ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’. I’d been invited to offer a Christian blessing as part of an interfaith time of prayer, alongside a rabbi and imam.
I’d met the rabbi very briefly at another event years ago, and when the ceremony finished, we decided to go out for a coffee to catch up. I have few opportunities to meet with clergywomen here, especially those who have experience of both activism and pastoral ministry, so it wasn’t long before we found ourselves deep in conversation, talking about the prevalence of activist burnout and the challenges of pastoring congregations in times of collective trauma and anxiety.
I mentioned that much of the news and analysis (secular and religious) I was seeing online in both social and traditional media focused only on the darkness in our world. It felt as though the emphasis was no longer on highlighting all the many injustices we are witnessing, but on deliberately creating a polarising culture of fear and hatred. I was seeing people becoming overwhelmed, exhausted, and even paralysed by it. And what concerned me was that those who were looking for hope and witnessing to acts of compassion and love were accused of escapism, of ignoring the suffering around us. ‘What is this about?’ I asked. She replied, ‘We’ve been convinced by the lie that the darkness is somehow more real.’ Hanukkah and Christmas were approaching, and we both said almost at the same time, ‘But our faith reminds us that is not true.’
A few days later, I read a thread of tweets by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg which included the following: ‘Hope doesn’t mean believing everything is going to be fine, no problem. It means forcing yourself to find the light, even when it’s dark as hell out there. It means going to look for the sparks of light, and if you can’t find any, then walking up to somebody else and seeing if you can’t make some sparks together. Where is good work happening? Who is offering love, bravery, care? Who is showing you what’s possible?’
I remembered these words as Christmas drew near, and as the news grew darker, I held on to hope and searched for the sparks of love, bravery and care around me.
I watched as Scots Hotel staff of all faiths laughed and joked while decorating the hotel for Christmas. We joined together again each day to light the Hanukkiah in the staff dining room. As I wrote my sermon for Christmas, some of the Jewish staff brought me sufganiyot, and when I took a break to wander through the restaurant, I spotted a couple of the Muslim restaurant staff helping the Druze chef arrange the centrepiece he’d made for the Christmas buffet. ‘This sums up the Scots Hotel,’ one of the managers said. ‘A Druze man makes a decoration for a Christian holiday meal at which many of the guests will be Jewish.’
I took a few bags of clothing from the St Andrew’s Tiberias congregation to House of Grace for their shop, and listened as Jamal told me about some of the volunteer opportunities they’re offering to residents of Haifa to work with the youth programme as they try to combat some of the stigma around poverty. I remembered him telling me once that sometimes the harder work is rehabilitating a judgemental and fearful society, not rehabilitating those who have been in prison.
I spoke to a friend from one of our partners who had been working for months to exempt her daughter from military service. She had received invaluable advice and offer of legal support from another of our partners, New Profile, a feminist organisation which works for the demilitarisation of Israeli society, and has now received exemption for both of her girls. She talked about how much it helped to know she wasn’t alone in the process.
On Christmas Eve, I walked into the silence of the dark empty church, and I began to light candles, on the communion table, on the window sills, around the font, on every surface I could find. And as I lit them, I brought to mind these times — and many, many more — when I had seen hope. Good work, love, bravery, care, the possibility of a future where our differences no longer divide us. The flickering flames chased away the darkness.
The church was full on Christmas Eve. A member of Rosyth Parish Church had given me some of the knitted angels their knitting group had made, and I placed them around the church, inviting our guests to take them as a Scottish reminder of their Christmas in the land of the Holy One. I heard people say they would give them to loved ones, or place them in their prayer corner as a reminder to proclaim the Good News of Christ. The Scots Hotel laid out stockings for the children, along with the mulled wine and Christmas chocolates we shared in the church after the service. As I do every year, I asked for volunteers to read, and when it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer, I heard whispers of Dutch, Spanish, German, and Arabic.
Over and over people told me, ‘We felt welcomed, loved and included. You were church when we needed church.’ Ministry here is not without its challenges, but this we can do: be church for those who need church as they travel this beautiful, complicated land.
Members of the congregation had decided they’d like to celebrate Christmas at the Scots Hotel after the Christmas Eve service, and so ten of us shared Christmas dinner. I looked into the faces of those gathered there, and my heart filled with awe and wonder at the ways God is transforming this little community.
On Christmas Day, after the morning communion service, I joined some friends for their multifaith, multicultural celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah. And as we sat to eat, my friend Sandra led us in a prayer of thanks to God for the gifts of love and light in our lives and in our world.
We are now almost a month into 2020, and we need only look at our phones or computers to see the darkness of illness, violence, inequality, discrimination, uncertainty and fear across our world. Here in Israel and Palestine, it is difficult to know what will happen as a result of Soleimani’s death, what the outcome of the third election will be in March, or what kind of reaction we’ll see to Trump’s ‘peace plan’.
But let us not be swayed by the lie sold to us that the darkness is more real. Let there be no doubt: the Light of Christ has come into the world, and the darkness has not, cannot, will not overcome it.
So whatever it brings, I pray that this year will be one of hope. Let us point out to one another the places we see good work being done and new possibilities created. And may we offer love, bravery and care to all we encounter.
Thank you, friends, for your continued support of my ministry and your prayers for all who are a part of our presence here, our partners, congregations, employees, and students.
This post is adapted from my most recent partner plan letter, which is sent through the to the presbyteries with whom I’m partnered, as well as other congregations and individuals who support my ministry through their correspondence and prayers. I wrote it more than a week ago, but it has taken longer than I intended to post it, so I apologise that it is already quite out of date, especially in terms of recent political events.