The YMCA has always played a role in my life. As an infant their Mommy and Me classes introduced me to a lifelong love of swimming. In my early years their day camps and sports programs nurtured me while not in school. Their YMCA of the Rockies family camp in Colorado hosted most of our family vacations up to my teens. When I was going off to work at a summer camp I went to the Y for their Lifeguard certification; it was the best! And when I got my first call and needed to find a healthy lifestyle, it was the Y that afforded me that opportunity. In fact, part of my incentive for this call was the proximity of the Y to the church.
But saying all of that, I took for granted the fact that the Y for me was just that, for me. While I know intellectually that the Y is actually a huge social service agency in places providing everything from education to counseling, urban housing and, yes, athletics and so much more, I never really thought about the impact until my recent trip to Israel.
While on this trip I witnessed how work of the YMCA really changes communities and, might I say, gives hope for World Peace. Now, you might think I am crazy with that last statement. A few weeks ago I might have thought that I was crazy, too. But then again, a few weeks ago the Y was all about what I would get out of it.
For many years the YMCA tower in Jerusalem stood as the tallest building in that city. Now matched by other buildings, originally it stood as a beacon beckoning people from far and near. It’s boarding rooms host students, pilgrims, visitors, and many others from around the world. Like the YMCA here on the Alameda, it is a place that welcomes all and is intentional about that welcome. That welcome is what changed forever how I will look at the YMCA.
As most people know, there is an unsettled peace in the middle east, and a constant war between the mostly Muslim Arab-speaking Community and the Jewish Hebrew-speaking community. For the Arab-speaking community there is a great deal of mistrust, and for both there is a lot of fear of the other. This fear is more than anything most Americans could even imagine. But that fear did not stop that YMCA from following through with its values and role in creating respectful communities.
One of the programs in the Jerusalem YMCA is a Preschool. This is not uncommon for a YMCA, neither is the intentional inclusive nature, but its location and intentional witness is a powerful message. This school boasts of having an equal mix of Arab and Hebrew-speaking students as well as Arab and Hebrew-speaking teachers with equal billing in the classroom. What that YMCA saw is that when children, especially that age, get together they become friends. Once the children’s friendships are formed, their parents begin to learn about each other and trust is developed.
It sounds like an impossible thing, but while many good things have come out of that school, one of the more exceptional things happened a few years back. A group of Parents from that YMCA program, sad to see their kids graduate and be sent to segregated school (Jewish and Arab) and separated from their friends, they made a pact to make a difference and thus, expand that mission of Peace. Through hard work and help from around the world, including some presbyteries and churches from the PCUSA, that group of parents started what we would identify as a charter school. This school, now on multiple campuses, is known as the Hand in Hand School. It is a comprehensive school (elementary through High School) which provides children with a solid education with a twist: each classroom has one Arab-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking teacher with equal status and the equal mix of Arab and Jewish students.
What amazed me about walking through this school was just how normal it was. Looking into the High School age classes they looked just as bored as I felt at that age and watching the Elementary kids on the playground; it could be anywhere else in the world. It stunned me how blissfully unremarkable the school was, with the exception of the extra teachers and languages, it was like so many other schools.
I thought this was really wonderful because within their normalcy they can develop the relationships and grow together along with their families. It reminds me of what a teacher once said to me: when your enemy becomes a real person with whom you share real experiences it is hard to hate or demonize them. In a community where each side is afraid of annihilation by the other, peace can only begin when each side can recognize their mutual humanity in which they share fears, joys, hopes, and most of all, a future. By learning together, growing together, and sharing friendships they are already seeing the impacts in the first groups of young adults who have graduated. Possibly making a real difference to peace in the long run.
This program was so moving for me, and in many ways I could go on and on about my excitement for it; the time there also made me grow in a little bit of pride as they made the connection to the Y saying in the back of my mind saying I am a member of that organization but at the same time saying “Wow, I never really thought about what they do beyond what it has meant to me?” While on an intellectual or philosophical level I understand the impact of programs like the Y offers, this really brought home a reality. It made me rethink impact of things I am involved with everyday and how often as hard as I try to recognize that more happens than what I see, I often fall short of that.
The Hand in Hand School is not really connected to the Y anymore, but their impact is very present, within the first minute of any speech we heard about it, the Y was mentioned at least twice. The foundations and philosophy of the Y are in the DNA of the Hand in Hand School and their impact, though small now, with only a couple years of graduates, is lifted up as an international model changing hearts and minds from war to peace. However, in the short term, its biggest impact has been in leading to better understanding and hope within its community.
Reflecting on the YMCA’s in the communities I have lived, especially the Y that resides just up the street from the church, I realize the very real impact they have on the community. While, I am so thankful for all of what I received from the YMCA in the past and it will always represent a home base for me, I will never be able to look at it from my own self-centered view. I know that its impact is much bigger than me, and maybe more importantly I also realize that through my connection and support, I am part of that impact, too.
Whether the Y or a church it is so easy to make the institution about yourself, or just look at the current programs or impact and forget that we are all part of something much bigger and no matter what we might get from our involvement, its impact is always so much bigger. When organizations welcome without strings, teach without bias, build relationships without expectation, they are a witness of community where peace, hope, and love can be found. And can you think of a better way of creating world peace than that?
Among pastors there is an old example of resistance that spawned out of the development of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible between 1946 and 1952. It goes like this: At a presbytery meeting the Presbytery was debating the adoption of the Revised Standard Version as the standard text they would use for all documents.
After a long debate on the merits of changing from the King James Version to the Revised Standard, a Pastor stood up and proclaimed “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!” To which the assembled body broke out in great laughter. We won’t go into where the pastor intentionally made the statement or did it to further a point, but the laughter was a result of people knowing that the Bible was not written by King James in “King James English.” Originally written in Koine Greek or Hebrew depending on the testament, there have been many translations, and even versions of the Greek and Hebrew, especially as new discoveries of original texts have been found.
There are many who still like the King James Version. My Grandpa was one of them. He loved the language and the poetry that the version afforded, but most of all it was the Bible he grew up with and found comfort in its prose. Though while for personal use he referred to the King James, in his professional capacity as a pastor he would use the Revised Standard, then the New International Version because those were the versions his communities used as their standards.
There are a lot of people that still love the KJV, but to someone not versed in that type of English, much of the meaning of the passage would be lost. Even if one sat with a dictionary trying to decipher meaning of the many words, the choppy approach to the passage would take away from the overall message and thus it would either lose meaning or it would be interpreted in a way contrary to the passage.
On Pentecost, something special happened:
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . . at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each (Acts 2:4,6)
The importance is that each person in the crowd did not only hear the message, but they could also immediately ascertain the meaning of the message. If we are to read this passage and hear its message, what we learn is that the truth of the gospel is not found in a particular translation or tongue but in how people can hear and interpret it, or as we would say today, make it their own.
So often people ask me which Bible is best, and I rarely can give a straight answer because the best Bible is the on you can best understand. However, you also have to be wary of the agendas behind a particular Bible. For instance, the NIV is a great translation of the Bible, but it comes out of the Evangelical movement and you want to keep that in mind for the differences in interpretation from that of the NRSV (the updated version of the Revised Standard Version), which comes from the academic communities (Oxford, Princeton, etc.). You also have to be careful to not take notes and interpretations found in study bibles as more than what they are; they are there to give insight and understanding, but should not be taken as giving meaning or witnessing the truth in a passage.
So, as we come to Pentecost this week, we do so with our hearts and minds open to hear the word as the spirit calls us following the message over the tradition. Listening for God in the midst of the chaos and sharing the word, trusting that the Holy Spirit will do the interpretation.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they interpret the word Justice. This is because there are so many meanings that have been associated with the word. While there are an infinite number of nuances to the word, I see basically two major interpretation streams. The first set of interpretations is based on a call for punitive justice. This justice sees that the world needs to be put back in order by exacting something from another to make all things right. The second set of interpretations allows justice to reject a punitive aspect en-lieu of a justice that is based on an individual’s call to moral living and the community’s call for caring for one another.
When we talk about Justice, the first thing that often comes to people’s mind is our Justice system. This is based on an understanding that if you wronged someone, that person who you wronged would be made right through your punishment. It is also a justice that would say if you make a large sum of money, you would have to give some back to the greater efforts of the community. As you can see, in the secular world the concept of Justice can be seen as merely punitive.
Among the Christian community Justice caries the same basic idea of making society right, but instead of punitive means, Justice is found when we work from the perspective of love and grace. For Christ, the question boils down to “how can we build up, not tear down.” This perspective follows the understanding Jesus gives when he claims to have fulfilled the law and gives us a new way.
For me, this is very important, because I recognize that the law is often not just. Often, instead of getting people help, the law overly punishes; just look at the disparity of drug-related cases in prisons, where most of them really need to be in treatment facilities. But that is another letter altogether! The other problem with a traditional view of Justice is the assumption by the people doling out the justice that their perspective is the correct one. The problem is that there is bias within our perspectives so often Justice as a secular and legal concept will serve one population over the expense of another. This is the narrative of our past year’s Journey with the Black Lives Matter, the realization that what is often legal justice is not really that just.
This was made clear in watching a protest in Israel. A lot is taken that the problems in Israel are between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is true, but like every other culture and nation there are issues that arise when one group has power and another does not. On the Thursday and Sunday there were protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by the Ethiopians. The gist of these protest were similar to those that have sparked the issues we are seeing in America. While posing a very small percentage of the population, they have a disproportionately high rate of incarceration, among other issues. I guess this stuck out because it was the only time that we saw “violence” of any kind; even at that, it was pretty tame.
What was interesting was the societal tension between the definition of what it means to be Jewish and Jewish communities that are culturally very different from one another. This gave me yet another lens by which to see the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and really see how difficult it is to create just communities when there are disparities and cultural differences with which interfere what is really best for the society as a whole.
Our trip was coming to an end; our minds were swirling with thoughts of everything we had seen and done and how we would transition back to our homes creating sermons and writings that would not overwhelm our congregations with the same intensity as our experiences of the past week had been. As we drove through the Palestinian territories, on the one side we looked to the Palestinian communities and on the other Israeli settlements. This was going to be an interesting journey.
The bus pulled down the unpaved country road to a house that looked to be held together by scrap wood and prayers. I did not know how right I was! Soon a man met us with a big smile on his face welcoming us to this very special place. If I were a different person I might have had the proper wits to be scared, but I knew better: meeting in Palestinian territory, surrounded by settlements at the home of a Palestinian man...this was going to be interesting.
As we walked to the back of the house we saw they had set up a meeting space with comfortable couches, chairs, and netted fabric overhead for shade. We were sitting in the middle of an ancient road that biblically would have hosted many prophets, possibly Moses himself. The gravity did not really hit me until the men we came to see began to speak. They were three people that were supposed to hate each other, two Israeli settlers and one Palestinian man, on whose land we were meeting. But that was not the case; there was a genuine openness and hope along with a candid and blatant acceptance of one another.
Each of the men told their story and each told a unique one. They were not telling them to make an argument, or even to look for support for their reasons; they were telling us who they were and, more importantly, they were letting us know how they got to that place. The reality was that the impetus for this was a realization among both of the men that no matter what might happen politically; they would have to be neighbors.
Being neighbors is not easy, especially with different cultures, perspectives, understandings, and status, but they each have found a way to begin to ask the question, “how can I be a neighbor to my neighbor?” For both men, this was the pathway to peace and where we sat, though not much to look at was a sacred space where those dialogues could begin to take place. But before any of that could happen both of the men had to do something that is often not done in the Middle East, they had to recognize and honor first the personhood of each other and secondly the legitimacy of each other.
This was not easy, especially for the Palestinian man who had been imprisoned by the Israelis along with his mother and they had killed his brother. But he said one of the most powerful things I think I have ever heard; “the best act of anger is nonviolence.” For all of us Americans, that does not mean passive aggressive behavior; he was talking about finding ways to reach out, communicate, and share. He went on to share the truth we all know so well: violence only creates more violence and fear only creates more fear, so much that we begin to forget ourselves which allows us to forget the humanity of those who we fear.
As we sat on the road where so many of those patriarchs of our traditions walked, I could not help but think that how often as Americans we are driven by the fight and our arrogance to think we know how to win. The truth is, winning is just not that important because, as the Bible tells us over and over, any earthly win is temporary because God will win all battles in the end.
This is what I learned in that meeting, and it is perfect for our scripture and theme this Sunday. The fact is as people of faith we have to meet everyone where they are, without criticism or judgment, but with love and compassion. Only then can we begin to dialogue, learn, and find ways of understanding, compromise and ultimately peace.
Yes, this may be a dream, and you can say this movement is so small it could not really make a difference, but I would say this was only one of the dozens of groups we spoke with who are working off of these principles. All of whom realize that peace can only be attained through the loving acceptance of each other as unique persons created and blessed by God.
As I sit in my office early this Wednesday morning my mind and my heart are still overwhelmed with the mission to the holy land. Between the travel and recovery I am now just starting to process what I saw, did, and heard. I am sure that over the next month or so I will be writing, preaching, and talking about the trip. But this was a very unique trip; one that I think very few people will ever have the opportunity to experience. What we did and saw really were secondary to the people we were with and the journey we had together. For that, I am eternally thankful for the JCPA who founded that International Partners for Peace.
Last year when I sat on the General Assembly’s committee on Middle East Affairs, I knew something was very off within the discussion. I spoke up at the time; the problem was that I was going on my gut feelings without a real understanding myself, but something felt wrong. I now know that we make some very wide reaching assumptions about the Middle East and about Israel/Palestine that are far too simple and contextually American to either be helpful or bring about peace.
The debates that we had over BDS last year, you would have thought BDS would have been on the forefront of the discussions. The truth was only one of the Palestinians we talked with mentioned it without being questioned and all did not see it as a truly effective way to peace, since the end result would perpetuate conflict. The reality (though a reality no one loves) is that there has to be some way in which both sides can come together in an agreement for living together in peace.
Surprisingly, both sides also recognize that the peace will come only with sacrifice on both sides. Though, equally surprising, both the negotiators for the Palestinians and the Israelis really did think that peace was possible, though obviously they disagreed in the particulars of how that would happen. This too will come up again in future blogs and letters, but as moving as all of the political stuff was, the life-changing event had nothing to do with the politics or even the holy land itself. it was studying, praying, worshipping, and fellowshipping with people from various Protestant and Jewish communities.
It was fascinating to listen to the Jewish perspective on text I’ve studied so many times from the Hebrew Testament and even the New Testament readings, especially when the Rabbi’s would raise the witness that often what Christ was teaching was a traditional Jewish teaching or approach to a situation. As I process more, I will post more, but there is a lot of work to do now. Not just getting caught up from being away for the past 10 days, but in how we witness to the bigger plan God has for us and listening for how we can learn to bring peace, not only to problems far away, but within our own communities.
About a month ago I started to call this trip a mission. In the Presbyterian Church especially as laity we often see mission as going and serving. In fact, that is what the church I grew up in called all of our high school mission trips. Though as I look back in my mind on those trips, and the later missions I have taken, the physical work that was done was always secondary to what God did to me in changing me. I do not say this to sound arrogant, rude, or superior in anyway, because it is the humility I learned to accept God’s place in my heart and eventually in my life through those which allowed me to hear God’s Call. And it is that humility that brought me hear with an open heart and mind to listen for God.
In coming I had many thoughts about what I would expect, but my greatest desire was to find understanding to a situation I barley understood. But what I did not expect was to find myself going through a fundamental change in how I view myself, how I view others, and mostly how I listen for god in the midst of conflict.
Throughout the first half of the trip there has been a feeling of being a ping pong ball, as politicians explain the reasoning for their decisions and academics further their agendas. Though the amazing thing in all of our discussions has been a desire to be faithful, whether that be to the land or tradition or directly to God.
It is going to take me along time to process our speakers and with so many notes, I am not going to do that now, I want to highlight a couple thoughts. First off I can say I wish I had taken this trip before last year. Though I knew our process in the Presbyterian Church was wrong, I did not know how much. The reality whether we agree or disagree with the vote, one thing that is very obvious was that we were having an American debate putting forward American Solutions to a problem that is far more difficult and definitely not American. The moves of our denomination went against both Israel and the Fattah (Palestinian Authority) who are both in favor of a two state solution, though they do disagree with how that would play out.
Secondly, I realize the otherness of the other. How does that sound? When listening to the differing sides talk “the other” is often painted as less whether that be honest, or trustworthy or even subhuman (though that had not been expressed directly). The thing that is easy to see is that by seeing the other as less then human, it is easy to make decisions that effect their lives without care for their humanity. Needless to say that is the basis for wars. Though, just as interesting, both sides were quick to speak against Hamas, and the former acting Prime Minister of the PA gave us a quick passionate refutation of Isis and their absolute rejection of the core Islamic tenets.
I am getting ready to prepare my heart and mind for a Shabbat Service Tonight. I will go with my group to the reformed synagogue, but I was fairly split with that choice and my curiosity to see what a Shabbat would be at the Western Wall. Coming, when I saw that option of the Western Wall I was excited, but I think for the purposes of this trip, it would put a sour taste to not worship with those who I have been on this journey with. We do not agree, and being very tired from continual speeches, tours, and dialogue many things have come up, but surprisingly we always seem to come to a way of understanding. We are learning to be respectful of our differences, celebrate our communities and begin to ask the questions that need to be asked to make a difference not only in our communities, but how we might be able to make a difference in a crisis in an area that has been under dispute for, well, all of written human history.
In the Psalms the songs of pilgrimages are all songs of ascent (or going up). Being in Jerusalem for the last couple days you do recognize the reality of always going up! Maybe that is part and parcel for the ingrained spirituality of this place. Even though we have yet to go into the old city, the presence is hard to miss.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen