Walking for justice, walking with love

On my wall there hangs a print of a little girl walking to school—a completely ordinary action. But there is something different about this particular girl’s walk. Surrounding her are four armed U.S. marshals and in the background are the remains of a rotten tomato and hateful words scrawled across the wall.

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Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With.

The print is of Normal Rockwell’s 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With. The girl is Ruby Bridges who, at six years old in 1960, was the first African American child to attend a “white” school in New Orleans. Every day for a year Ruby walked through an angry mob of parents, children and others chanting insults and uttering death threats.

No one—especially a young child—should have to endure such hatred while standing up for justice.

Nevertheless, the story of Ruby Bridges tells us she walked with courage and strength. She did not back down in her struggle. She also embodied such grace as to pray for the people who stood outside her school, and to ask God’s forgiveness for them and their actions. She did not become entrenched in hatred, bitterness and hopelessness, nor fall away from the command of Jesus to love others, even those who hated her.

Ruby’s daily walk was an example of the power of persistence and love in the work for justice today. It teaches us that we cannot remain silent and still when we hear or see injustice around us, no matter who is in government. At the same time, it reminds us that we must also work out of a place of love for others, remembering that it is God who calls us to this work and that ultimately our hope is in the light of Christ, not governments.

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Participants at the January 21 march in Ottawa. Photo credit Carrie Lehn

On January 21 I was proud to gather with friends here in Ottawa to walk for justice. We joined millions of people marching around the world. To be sure, the people participating in these events held diverse opinions on many issues.  But there was also unity on the importance of resisting injustice, racism, sexism and the oppression of the vulnerable. And so we walked together as a way of standing with people who have been marginalized and denigrated because of immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity, gender and orientation.

Yes, we are called to respect governments and elected authorities. But we are called by a higher power to hold them accountable for words and acts of injustice. “Let justice roll on like a river,” says the prophet Amos to the Israelites who were failing to care for the vulnerable among them, “and righteousness like a never failing stream!” (Amos 5: 24).

As the prophet Isaiah wrote, and Jesus claimed as His own “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 1:1-2a; Luke 4:18-19).

We, as Christians, are all called to participate in this proclamation of God.  We must never forget who called us, and we must always act out of love and humility. But also we must not stay silent or still, for with silence comes complacency. And complacency allows injustice to grow.

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Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington DC, 1963. Photo credit AJC.com

As I gaze at pictures of people marching around the world on January 21, especially in Washington DC, I cannot help but think of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. It’s a powerful speech that inspires hope for a future without oppression. But just four months earlier, from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama, King wrote an impassioned letter, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, to white clergy who were discouraging such confrontational actions against the government. It speaks to his harsh criticisms of complacency and the exclusion of justice as a theme of the gospel.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

I pray that King’s lament might inspire and challenge us to stand up and walk, like Ruby and so many others, with the convictions of justice, peace and human dignity. Let’s keep on walking. And let us walk with love.

by Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office

What are Israeli settlements?

On December 23, 2016 — to great surprise — the UN Security Council affirmed the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. The resolution asserted the settlements constitute a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace between Palestine and Israel. It also called for an end to all forms of violence, incitement and provocation.

UNSCR 2334 passed by a vote 14 to 0 with 1 abstention, that of the U.S.  Traditionally, the U.S. has used its veto power to defeat such resolutions critical of Israel; this time it did not.

Like most of the world, Canada has long considered Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal under international law. In the wake of UNSCR 2334 and a strongly worded speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly reiterated Canada’s support for a two-state solution, with no mention of the settlements.

Given the significance of settlements as a point of tension in Palestine and Israel, it is important to know what the settlements are and what their impact is.

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The Israeli settlement of Har Homa built on Jabal Abu Ghneim, a mountain south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem.  MCC photo/Doug Hostetter

What are Israeli settlements?

  • Settlements are colonies established by Israel within the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some of these settlements are large cities. Only Jewish people may live in them.
  • Outposts are much smaller clusters of Jewish settlers scattered throughout the West Bank. They are not officially sanctioned by Israeli authorities and are considered illegal under Israeli law. But they often receive support and assistance from government ministries. Some outposts eventually develop into settlements.
  • Approximately, 700,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements and outposts. (Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem)
  • Settlement construction is ongoing. In 2015, Israeli authorities approved the construction of 8979 new units in 37 settlements. In the first half of 2016, they approved 1000 units in 35 settlements. (Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem)
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A map of Israel settlements, settlement blocks and outposts in the West Bank.  Map/Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem

Why are the settlements considered illegal by the international community?

  • According to the Geneva Conventions, the key international law governing the conduct of armed conflicts, an occupying power is prohibited from making permanent changes to the territory it has occupied. It is also prohibited from moving its own citizens into the territory occupied. Israel has violated both of these provisions.

What is the impact of the settlements on Palestinians?

  • The settlements, and the special highways and bypass roads that link them to Israel proper, carve up the West Bank into unconnected pieces, making the possibility of a viable contiguous Palestinian state increasingly remote.
  • The settlements – and the soldiers required to defend them – severely impede movement for Palestinians. Checkpoints, barriers, and bypass roads, as well as the separation wall, make it very difficult for them to travel to nearby villages, seek out medical help, and even access their own agricultural land.
  • Settlers live under Israeli civilian law, while Palestinians in the West Bank live under military law and are routinely deprived of their civic and political rights. Palestinians – even children as young as 12 – are detained indefinitely in ways which constitute a violation of basic human rights. (Military Court Watch)
  • Settlements have access to water resources which are denied to Palestinians. Approximately 75 percent of the renewable water resources in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are used by Israel, both for settlements and for use inside Israel proper. By building settlements strategically, Israel has managed to consolidate its control over vital aquifers in the West Bank. Palestinians have access to 73 litres per day, while settlers access 240 litres per day. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 100 litres per day per individual. (EWASH, Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Group)
  • The growing presence of settlements in the West Bank is a constant source of friction and visual reminder to Palestinians of how Israel is confiscating their land and altering the map.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

What makes a good (political) leader?

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office.  Monica has watched many leaders come and go during her years with the Ottawa Office.

I’ve recently been thinking about leadership qualities. Perhaps that is because today (January 11) is Sir John A. Macdonald Day in Canada or because the U.S. will be marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 16. Or maybe it has something to do with the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump, or this week’s Government of Canada cabinet shuffle, or the Conservative and NDP leadership races set for later this year. Perhaps a recent Sunday sermon on Jesus’ baptism influenced me.

Whatever the reason, the question of what makes a good leader has been on my mind. What qualities do we look for or need in our leaders, especially our political leaders?

No doubt, qualities of integrity, strength, confidence, charisma, and decisiveness come to mind. Leaders should be passionate, innovative, open-minded, insightful, inspirational, pro-active, and of course good communicators. These are the ideals.

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Sir John A. Macdonald was Canadian prime minister 1867-73 and 1878-91. Photo credit Library and Archives Canada

As Canada’s first Prime Minister and a Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald is generally considered to be a great Canadian leader. Described as charismatic, visionary, while also highly partisan and politically ruthless, he accomplished a great deal during his 19 years as prime minister.

His leadership wasn’t without controversy. There was the Pacific Scandal around the building of the national railway, and the execution of Louis Riel which increased animosity between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians.

Macdonald also enacted policies toward Indigenous people and Chinese immigrants which we regard today as outright racist. He implemented the Indian Act and laid the foundations for the Indian Residential School  System. He imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants once the railroad was built and their labour no longer needed.

Macdonald’s heavy drinking was no secret, but at the same time he seems to have been a good husband and father.  All in all, he was very human with good qualities as well as flaws.

Leaders today need a variety of skills and attributes. Political leaders in particular want to stand out from the crowd. Some do so with charisma and vision, while others offer ideas and statements which alienate. Even leaders of movements require some kind of hook to get people’s attention and support for their ideas. For Martin Luther King Jr. it was his ability to move a crowd with his oratory. He didn’t build a nation, but he certainly changed one.

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Chrystia Freeland was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs on January 10.  Photo credit Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Whether the leader of a nation or a movement, all leaders need to demonstrate some understanding of who they are leading and why. Whether it is to create something new, bring about significant change, or just exercise power, leaders are responsible to those they lead. Good leaders should engender the trust, confidence, and loyalty of those who support them. Ego, pride, and arrogance are not positive leadership traits, though they may help someone achieve power. Real leaders admit when they are wrong and give credit where it is due.

We hope the women and men taking on new cabinet roles this year, as well as those who are continuing their mandates and those seeking leadership roles, will demonstrate good leadership with vision, integrity, and some humility. This won’t always be easy.

As we follow the leaders of 2017, let us remember to pray for them, asking God to grant them wisdom, strength of character, grace, understanding, and humility to be positive examples for future leaders.

A healing place for kids

This week’s guest writer is  Doreen Martens, a freelance writer. Her piece originally appeared in the MCC Lebanon/Syria blog under the title, “Psychosocial program helps Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon.”

Tyre, Lebanon––A boy of about 10 cups in his hands in front of his face, imagining in them a little bird waiting to hear what he most misses about his home back in Syria. “All my toys,” he whispers in Arabic. Then, with a shy smile, he flings his arms wide, releasing the imaginary bird into the sky with a wish that the bird will fly over his old home and say hello to his toys.

The next boy in the circle does the same, whispering to the bird that he misses his two older brothers, who have gone elsewhere to find work. The bird flies off to visit his brothers.

The game is a healing exercise for about 30 Syrian refugee children gathered today in a sunny walled courtyard, all coping with the pain and loss of fleeing the life they once knew.

Here in southern Lebanon, their families have found some measure of peace, but struggle daily, against growing tensions with the host community, to find any kind of work and to feed and shelter their children.

This psychosocial program, operated in three locations, is funded by Mennonite Central Committee and run by its local partner, Popular Aid for Relief and Development. It brings kids aged 7 to 12 together weekly for a kind of mental-health day, a break from their troubles: to have fun, play games, get to know one another and build trust and social cohesion.

It helps break the isolation many children feel, as well as detect and fend off negative responses to trauma, such as violence in families.

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Layal Al Ali and Fadia Dahshe.  MCC photo

At the beginning, says Fadia Dahshe, coordinator of the program, most of the kids “didn’t know each other before. Now they’re starting to talk to each other.”

She recalls that they all refused to play with a boy who, as some hungry refugees are forced to do, earned a little money by collecting people’s household garbage, for about 65 cents U.S. per home. “Now,” she says, “they’re starting to accept him.”

Activities they do together are fun, but also teach things like trust and problem-solving.

A leader places some plastic markers on the pavement to create a little maze. One of the girls is blindfolded and told to follow instructions from the other kids to help her find her way through. Hesitantly, she steps forward as the others jump up, point and enthusiastically shout directions in Syrian-accented Arabic ––  “Left!  Right! Forward!” ––  eager to see her succeed. When she makes it through, everyone laughs and cheers. Suddenly, these shy kids are a team.

PARD project manager Rashid El Mansi says the program, now in its second year, concentrates on kids with highest needs for this kind of support –– some 200 kids from eight gatherings. The program also includes components of health awareness –– supported by puppet shows –– first aid training, and computer and English programs for older kids. PARD representatives went to all the gatherings in the area to put together a list of kids facing particular struggles, such as the two daughters whose father, out of exaggerated fears, refuses to let them out of the home except to go to the mosque.

“We’re also trying to aid inclusion and integration of children from different groups and reduce bullying and conflict, to make friends with each other and spend time together outside of the program.”

The boys and girls come from what’s known locally as “gatherings,” unofficial refugee communities that have swelled with the Syrian influx near long-established Palestinian refugee camps. Some live crammed into tiny, sparsely furnished rented rooms, others in informal tented communities scattered around the rural areas where they have found landholders willing to rent them a patch of earth.

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, the government here has not allowed the establishment of formal UN-run camps, so well over 1 million Syrians are scattered around the country among a host population of just 4.5 million, with few services available to help them and few opportunities to find work.

Under the economic and social pressures of hosting so many, prejudices and tensions –– and a sort of social pecking order among Lebanese, long-time Palestinian residents, Syrians and Syrian Palestinian newcomers –– are extra barriers to a peaceful co-existence. Bringing children together from these groups is one way to build peace.

For Dahshe, helping the kids extends to empowering their mothers, who carry a huge burden of trying to keep life and limb together, and often fail to take care of their own mental-health needs.  She gathers moms to talk about their troubles and to help them take an active role in their communities –– sometimes taking a group session to the home of a woman reluctant to go out on her own.

Many struggle with questions about how to discipline their children; some with depression; and many with the trauma of war, like the woman who, fearful about scraping up rent, had nightmares about a man destroying her house and raping her daughters.

“We encourage them to forget their children for a minute and think about yourself. Because they never think about self-care,” Dahshe says. Amid the endless round of work to care for their families, she encourages them to take at least 10 or 15 minutes a day to do something that relaxes them. Happier mothers will make for happier children, she believes.

For the kids, she says, “it doesn’t have to be so complicated.” Give them a healthy environment and they will flourish.

Back in the courtyard, the children are all getting blindfolds and being told the name of an animal they will pretend to be in the next game. Then they have to circulate in a crowd, making animal noises to find the rest of their herd.

Soon they’re finding each other, laughing and hugging in big happy groups of goats and elephants –– blinded, literally, to what makes them different.

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