One Last Post

posted Jul 23, 2009, 7:32 PM by Chelsea Mathis   [ updated Jul 23, 2009, 8:00 PM ]

I've been home for nearly two weeks now. It's sort of surreal- not the fact that I'm home, but that Palestine feels so far away already and the past year feels like a dream. As my closing post, I thought I would share some of the questions I've received from various offices of the ELCA and my answers, as I'm sure many of you are pining for the answers to these questions as well.

What surprised you most about life in Palestine?

I was surprised most by the ability to live life ordinarily while living under such extraordinary conditions. Palestinians are adept at celebrating life's joys and making do with what they have. Even though I'm half-way around the world, I feel as at home here as I do in my home state of Michigan.

What expectations did you have going into your service?

Because I had visited Palestine before, I had a lot of expectations about the year. In those three weeks in 2005, I perceived so much hope, faith, and steadfastness in every single person I met. It was those characteristics that had me wanting to go back to Palestine. At the close of a year in Palestine, I can tell that Palestinians have a lot more feelings than just hope, faith, and steadfastness. Especially during the war on Gaza, I felt the people around me becoming tired and frustrated. Many parents told me that their children were questioning why children were dying in Gaza, and could give no explanation to ease their children’s minds. I don’t think that Palestinians have changed their perspectives all that much since I visited in 2005. I think that living in Palestine for an entire year gave me broader perspective of the attitudes and feelings that all Palestinians struggle with at one time or another. Understanding the complexity of emotions in one human being helped me to better understand the complexity of our world. And, when I did find those pockets of hope and unwavering faith throughout the year, they seemed all the sweeter.

What has been the best/worst part of your experience?

The worst part of my experience has been realizing how helpless I am in regards to the changing the future of the political situation for Palestinians. The best part has been realizing that I have helped change the future for many individuals through my presence, support, and simple acts of kindness.

What has been the hardest thing about being so far from home?

Missing my family, friends, and boyfriend!
How has your faith changed as a result of living in Palestine?

My faith has definitely been challenged. I'm still struggling with understanding where God is in this situation. What does it mean that the land called Holy is torn with violence, hatred, and fear?

Where did your weekly worship take place?

I most regularly worshiped at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer English-Speaking Congregation in Jerusalem. In a place that daily challenges my faith, I appreciated worshiping in English to support me and help me deal with the hard times.

 What was a typical day like for you?

Most days I would briefly talk or meet with Martin, the ELCA's Holy Land Trips Coordinator and my YAGM Country Coordinator, to discuss the status of my projects to promote alternative tourism in the Holy Land and catch up regarding upcoming trips. I would spend time during the day working on materials and information for trip planners, answering email inquiries about travel, and helping with special technology-related tasks for the ELCJHL schools. In the late afternoons, I played my bassoon with the music programs and choir of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala.

What message do you want to impart to Israel and Palestine?

Our commonality as humankind trumps all differences; religion, race, gender, political party. Israelis and Palestinians must see the human in each other's eyes to begin to erase the hatred and fear between them.

How do you describe your vocation?

Multifaceted. I've decided that God isn't calling me to one single vocation, but many. With a Biology Major and a Music minor from the University of Michigan, my life has always been a mash-up of science, music, Palestine, faith, and service and I wouldn't have it any other way.

How has your trip changed you?  What have you learned from being in Palestine?

I’m still trying to figure that out. I think the uncertainty of the future does not bother me as much as it did before I went to Palestine. Dr. Charlie Haddad (ELCJHL Director of Education) told me that if we plan for every problem that could arise as we start something new, we’d never get anything started.

What do you plan to do when you return to the United States?

I’ve applied to the AmeriCorps program as well as several other jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m looking to get some practical experience in the field of public health before applying to a master's program in the next few years.

From the Top of Mt. Sinai

posted Jun 27, 2009, 1:32 AM by Chelsea Mathis

I just wanted to share a couple photos from my climb to the top of Mt. Sinai on Tuesday night. We left our hotel at 11:00 pm and began our climb at 1:30 am. We reached the top about 5:00 am in time to watch the sun rise.

4 years ago today

posted Jun 18, 2009, 4:15 AM by Chelsea Mathis

Four years ago today I arrived in Israel and Palestine for the very first time. Embarking on a 2 and a half week journey with youth from my synod, I had no idea what was in store for me here. I find it poignant for me that this anniversary comes near the end of my YAGM year. It is reminding me of my immediate sense of call to the Palestinian people and how passionate I was upon returning to the States. At the end of this year, I'm aware that I'm tired and ready to go home. Will that passion for humanity and zeal for peace resurface itself once I return home again? After spending those first two weeks in the Holy Land, I felt like I knew the situation well, and that I could advocate on the Palestinian's behalf perfectly. After spending an entire year in the Holy Land, I realize that I know nothing, and that this situation is far more complicated than I made it out to be four years ago. Will I have the energy and patience to advocate when I return this time? I don't really know what to expect from myself so to all those waiting anxiously for my return home: hang in there, it might be a bumpy road. All I can say is that four years ago I never expected I would be where I am today. Hopefully in another four years, I will be able to say the same thing as I let God lead me on my next journey.

Just over 3 weeks left here!

Obama in Cairo

posted Jun 9, 2009, 4:22 AM by Chelsea Mathis

A week ago Thursday, President Obama delivered a speech from the Cairo University in Egypt. Directed at Muslims throughout the Middle East and the world, Obama spoke eloquently about the need to mend relations between the Islamic world and the West. He addressed many concerns of the United States and asked for cooperation to forge a better world for all. Most important to me were President Obama's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After hearing Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions Director Jeff Halper lecture last Wednesday before President Obama's speech and reading the speech on Thursday, I can offer these reflections.

A step in the right direction. In Thursday's speech, President Obama took a step in the right direction towards peace in the Middle East. It's obvious that he realizes how critical forming a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine is to securing peace throughout the region, and even the world. Jeff Halper said that Obama needed to put this conflict into the American public perspective in order to get anywhere. Obama did just that by saying, "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest."

Only one step in the right direction. Obama said some really encouraging things, but he didn't outline any plans for disengagment or any next steps. He warned Israel that illegal settlement expansion should stop. On the ground, it is quite apparent that settlements are not wimpy shanty towns that could be dismantled and moved back into Israel proper. Settlements are huge, well-constructed towns with shops and schools. If there is to be a lasting solution in the near future, Obama will have to work very hard.

It's strange to think how the general mood regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed since I first arrived in late August. At the time, we had a president with terrible approval ratings at home whom no one here liked. The Israeli activists I heard speak were nearly hopeless. The Palestinian activists just kept plugging along, not really expecting anything good to come from the U.S. While most people still don't like to be optimistic regarding the future of the political situation, I feel there is a renewed glimmer of hope for the two-state solution. In a recent panel discussion hosted by the Israel-Palestine Center for Reseach and Information, Dr. Gershon Baskin said that there are certain givens in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the international community has already decided. "There is a change in Washington, which means the quartet will be used as the primary mechanism for resolving the conflict. The issue of Palestinian statehood has already been decided by the international community. Its directives will unfold over the years. The Security Council has stated it will replace Resolution 242 as a reference point .The Council has also decided on the size of the Palestinian state and that its borders be based on the 1967 demarcation line. Israel will no longer be able to annex territory, which includes land in a Jerusalem that will be the capital of two states." At the beginning of my year here, I don't think anyone would have said this.

For the full transcript or to watch the video of President Obama's speech in Cairo, click here.
The illegal Israeli settlement of Har Homa is seen in the distance looking out from Bethlehem. Cranes now dot the skyline of the settlement as construction continues.

A Word from Bishop Younan

posted May 18, 2009, 1:51 AM by Chelsea Mathis   [ updated May 18, 2009, 2:25 AM ]

This past weekend we celebrated 170 years of Lutheran mission in the Holy Land, 50 years of the ELCJHL, and 30 years of the Arab Bishopric. It was a weekend full of celebrations and this excerpt comes from Bishop Younan's speech at the joint worship service Sunday afternoon. Since most of you reading this belong to partner churches of the ELCJHL, I have included his message to you and his hopes for the future of the Lutheran church in Palestine and Jordan.

"God calls all churches and Christians to be one, to work together, to witness together, to heal together and to work for justice together. So, the ELCJHL continues to extend its hand to all our brothers and sisters in the churches of Jerusalem and tells them, God calls us to serve with you, to witness with you and to pray and carry the message of love with you, in order that the banner of Christ will be over our land. To our sisters and brothers that live with us and serve the expatriate Christians in Jerusalem, we tell you that our church is at your service, to proclaim the message of Christ. And we tell our evangelical brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and the other church families in the MECC (Middle East Council of Churches), that God has called us for a witness of love together, for the world is waiting to hear from us a single voice speaking a common word of love, justice and service.

We also want to tell the representatives of our partner churches in the world that the ELCJHL wants to carry with you the message of love and join you in our Christian vocations. We will work with you locally and globally for social justice, for gender balance and for addressing such problems as climate change. Our church readily works with you, for we believe that this is an integral part of its living witness and creative diakonia. But allow me, a resident of Jerusalem, to remind you not to forget the Arab Christians in Jerusalem, whose numbers are declining. For what is Jerusalem without those who first carried Christ's message to the world 2,000 years ago?

The church of Christ does not live in shrines but in its people. For this reason, our church hears him when he says, "He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18).

Christ's message was one of peace and justice. Our church has existed amidst political and economic difficulties, leading many of our members to be displaced and some to emigrate. Our church suffers with all who suffer. We see religious fanaticism and political extremism growing, for the common denominator between both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples is fear. Our church is afraid that there are those who want to shift the political conflict into religious war. We are afraid that this fear, insecurity and continuous denial of the other results in more hatred, more bloodshed, more violence. But our church wants to be a church with a prophetic vocation. It wants to heal the brokenhearted, to call for release for the prisoners and restoration of sight for the blind. It wants to continue, with God's grace, to work for justice and reconciliation, peace, forgiveness and coexistence with shared responsibility. For this reason, we say to all politicians at this celebration, our nations are tired. It is time to implement justice in which both people can live in their own states with security, freedom, peace and reconciliation. It is time that both people comprehend that their security and freedom are symbiotic. It is time to hear the position, articulated by the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem, that calls for a Jerusalem that is shared between three religions and two nations, Palestine and Israel. Our church will work with all people of good conscience for the Christian, Muslim and Jewish and together seek the common values that allow for justice, peace, forgiveness and the acceptance of the other. Our church desires that future generations may live in freedom and security, and that this Holy Land will be a lighthouse for all. Now is the kairos time for justice and peace in Jerusalem."

Papal Visit

posted May 14, 2009, 4:58 AM by Chelsea Mathis

LIfe in Bethlehem normally isn't all that exciting. There are occasional plays and movies sponsored by the International Center in Bethlehem that are worth seeing. Other than that, there is no theater in Bethlehem. When we feel like going out to eat, the list of restaurants to choose from in Bethlehem is a short one (not counting falafel and shawarma stands). Where to get a decent cappucino in Bethlehem? Yup, I know the two best places for that, too. And to prove that we've really gotten the hang of living in Bethlehem, we stare unabashedly at foreigners and tourists. What are they doing? Where are they from? Silly tourist, why would you wear shorts and a tank top in Bethlehem?

So, when the Pope comes to visit, it's a big deal. The preparations have been ongoing for about a month. Streets have been repaved, new traffic circles constructed, flowers planted, and parking/no-parking zones repainted on the curbs. On the day of the papal visit, all of the dumpsters were removed from the streets (a terrible idea, because the trash quickly started to pile up in the places where the dumpsters normally sit). Eager to catch a glimpse of the pope and all of the hulabaloo, I left home yesterday morning to go into Bethlehem with my roommate Kendra. All of the main streets into Bethlehem were closed to traffic and posted along the street every 20 yards or so were Palestinian police.
Posters and banners of the Pope and Mahmoud Abbas lined Hebron Road welcoming them to Bethlehem. The taxi dropped us off at Bab Iz-kak, location of the only traffic light in Bethlehem, and we walked toward Manger Square. The souks of the Old City were surprisingly open for business as usual in spite of the road closures and increased security. We reached the first gate that guarded the entrance to Manger Square and we quickly realized we didn't have the tickets necessary to enter. We decided to walk around another way to see if we could at least catch a glimpse of Manger Square and the Pope. Following the sound of Scout Troops playing bagpipes and drums, we reached another
road closure. Defeated, we decided to sit in the shade near the police, listen to the music, and people watch. After about 15 minutes, one of the Tourist Police came up to us and asked why we were still sitting there. We explained that we didn't have tickets to get in. He replied that we
could walk up closer to have a look, but the police ahead wouldn't let us on to Manger Square. So we got a bit closer, this time behind the Peace Center when we were turned away by more police. We could at least hear the mass now and see the massive crowds filling Manger Square. We then weaved our way up some back staircases to another security closure point, the last one before entering Manger Square. Certain that we wouldn't be able to cross this one, we stood there looking forlorn for a few minutes until the security guard motioned toward us and
said, "Etla, Etla" (Go, Go). After all that, we made it onto Manger Square. Situated in front of the Peace Center was a large stage with the Pope and other church figures leading the mass. In front of the Church of the Nativity, another large stage was set with local choirs providing most of the music for the mass. The innermost part of the Square was was covered with seating and the remaining portions of the square were packed with tour groups, locals, and Scout Troups. Maan News reported somewhere around 8,000 people were in attendance. There was a mood in Bethlehem yesterday that I've never experienced before. For Palestinian Christians, they were proud to welcome the Pope to their homeland. For Muslim shop-owners near Manger Square, they could care less about the Pope, but welcomed the tourists and the slightly increased business that comes with them. Many of the Christian schools cancelled school for the day and Christian businesses were closed so the general mood was joyful and relaxed like a holiday. For those of you who have followed the Pope's visit with news sources like the New York Times, you're aware that the Pope's visit is a tense and a political one. His comments in the past have caused rifts in relations with Jews, Muslims, and Non-Catholic Christians. While I'm sure his comments in Bethlehem upset some on all sides, he managed to say a few things that Palestinians can gather a little reassurance from. He confirmed the need for a Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and called the illegal Israeli separation barrier, "a stark reminder of the stalemate of relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached," when he spoke in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. For more on the Pope's comments, see this Maan News Article. Personally, I'm still a little peeved at the Pope for his comments in Africa discouraging the use of condoms as a means to prevent HIV, so I'll take his comments that I am happy with with a grain of salt.

April Newsletter Posted

posted May 6, 2009, 5:02 AM by Chelsea Mathis

Be sure to check out my April newsletter!

Mission Moment

posted May 4, 2009, 12:42 AM by Chelsea Mathis

Click here to view the Mission Moment video I recorded for the Southeast Michigan Synod Assembly.

And, congratulations to the new bishop of the SEMI Synod, Pastor Stephen Marsh!


posted Apr 30, 2009, 5:09 AM by Chelsea Mathis

This article seems poignant after my last post, "The Bus Lane," questioning the growing sense of apartheid in a supposedly democratic country. The writer is a volunteer for Christian Peacemaker Teams and former CNN correspondent.

OP-ED in Birmingham News Sunday Viewpoints Section April 12, 2009 


By Jerry Levin

Birmingham Jewish Federation Executive Director, Richard Friedman in recent writings in the Birmingham News continues to claim that "the Jewish State" of Israel is a "tiny and humane democracy struggling against Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East [and so] deserves our support and admiration." As the anniversary of Israel's momentous, violent and controversial establishment nears, I am challenging those assertions. 

It is true that tiny Israel is struggling to protect its noncombatant citizens from potentially deadly rocket attacks by its tinier violent opponent, the militant wing of Hamas, as well it should. But what Mr. Friedman's arguments on behalf of Israel obscure is the Jewish State's historic and violently abusive and predatory treatment of non Jewish citizens living inside Israel or its non Jewish subjects hanging on in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Until now, however, publicly questioning the Jewish State's exclusionary conduct has been an elephant in the room that has been avoided by U.S policy and opinion makers for generations. Apparently believing it not to be particularly relevant with respect to our interests in that part of the world, a succession of U. S. administrations have rationalized their massive economic and military support by giving disingenuous lip service to Mr. Friedman's eyes wide shut claim that Israel is the only "true democracy in the Middle East." 

Israel has no constitution and no bill of rights. In addition its history of legislating apartheid, unequal civil rights, privileges and access to public funds make a disqualifying mockery of the definition of "true" and the concept of "democracy." The truth is there are no true democracies in the Middle East. 

Amazingly while the concept of an Islamic state ruled by either authoritarian theocratic, monarchical or secular elites is not compatible with American political values, the notion of a Jewish defiantly ethnically exclusionary state continues to be o.k. The sensibilities of Mr. Friedman and other Americans' political sensibilities do not seem to be offended by the second class status Israel's Jewish majority has legally imposed on its Christian and Arab Muslim populations even though doing that does not square with an egalitarian view of what constitutes "democracy" and the Jeffersonian concept of equal inalienable rights for "all men." 

It is true those living in Israel have citizenship; but it is even truer that Jewish nationality still counts the most. Nevertheless Israel's exaggerated democratic characterizations of itself have gained such astounding credibility that its government has been able to put off reversing the inferior civil and human rights status of Palestinians living in Israel or under its control in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Meanwhile the kind of effective massive few strings attached support Israel continues to receive from especially the United States is enabling its military/industrial/theocratic ruling establishment to put off coming to grips fairly and decently with West Bank and Gazan Christian and Muslim Palestinians' aspirations for political, economic, and territorial integrity. Still a succession of U. S. administrations has participated in the scornful rejection of any persons or parties who challenge the "right" of the exclusivist Jewish State "to exist." 

Except for a violent extremist Islamic fringe that does not speak for all Palestinians, what most Palestinians are calling into question when they dispute "Israel's right to exist," is not the right of Jews to continue living there. What they are still futilely disputing is the moral and ethical legitimacy of Israel's current legally discriminating militantly elitist ethnically pure governing establishment. Also contrary to the kind of negative stereotyping rhetoric still prevalent in the United States, what Christian and Muslim Palestinians in the street mean when they talk about "the destruction of Israel" is a radical but nonviolent change of government orientation from political and social exclusion to inclusion. In other words, what they want to have established at last is the first true democracy in the Middle East. 

Moreover, even though some militant Hamas leaders behind the unconscionable indiscriminate sometimes lethal rocket attacks on Israeli noncombatants do call for violent upheaval, most Palestinians including politically oriented Hamas leaders do not. They favor one achieved by the kind of dramatic internal political reform in Israel that I have been describing. 

At this moment it does not seem likely that President Obama's policy includes encouraging the kind of political change in Israel that will result in an end to the current exclusivist Jewish state and the beginning of a truly democratic pluralist equalitarian society that would not be prey to any sectarian, ethnic, gender, or racial interests. To bad because such nonviolent regime change could set the stage for the establishment of two side by side similar truly democratic states, one in Israel and one in Palestine, that could go far in creating political stability in the Middle East that has been so tragically elusive until now. 

Jerry Levin is a former CNN foreign correspondent. He is cofounder with his wife, Sis, of the Community Nonviolence Resource Center and the youth oriented NonviolentPeacebuilders. Jerry and Sis Levin will receive the Dali Lama's Unsung Heroes of Compassion award in San Francisco at the end of April.

The Bus Lane

posted Apr 27, 2009, 11:44 PM by Chelsea Mathis

I wanted to wait till I had the perfect picture to post with this blog entry, but I can't seem to get the right shot. Hopefully you can imagine what I'm talking about.

On a stretch of Hebron Road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, there is a designated bus lane where buses can breeze by the lanes of traffic and drop off passengers without angering a line of cars behind them. I often ride the Arab buses from Bethlehem into Jerusalem, packed with hijab-covered women and their children, Arab men heading to work, and an occasional international. And then, I get the strangest sensation when our bus pulls up alongside an Egged bus heading in the other direction, packed with Orthodox Jews- women wearing headscarves and hats to cover their hair, men wearing black suits and large, black hats. As the buses pause, one next to the other, you catch a glimpse into the life of the other. The people on the other bus look  just as uncomfortable as I do squeezed onto the hot, smelly bus. You see the same children with their faces smashed up against the glass looking out onto the world. Occasionally I think, this must be what a shared Jerusalem looks like. Palestinians and Israelis, living side by side, peacefully coexisting on this stretch of bus lane in Jerusalem. They even sit next to each other on the bench at the bus stops.

Then I think about this a little more. Why are there two bus systems that drive on the same road and use the same stops, but are exclusive to one group of people? Why do I never, ever see an Israeli get on the bus with me? Why are these buses completely segregated? Why do the Palestinian buses get stopped and searched at checkpoints, while the Egged buses fly on through? Maybe these bus systems are not an example of a shared Jerusalem at all, but of the future for Israel, an apartheid state.

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