Hope & Sumud – 50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation

By Seth Malone, Peace Program Coordinator, MCC Palestine and Israel

Today—June 5, 2017—marks the 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Under international law, military occupation is always meant to be temporary. This is because the longer an occupation lasts, the more likely it is that respect for human rights and dignity are eroded. This is certainly the case in Palestine and Israel.

Magad Amgad

Magad Amgad from al-Najd Developmental Forum, an MCC partner organization in Gaza, walks through a strawberry field. This MCC-funded agricultural project aims to provide greater food security for the people of Gaza who have been subjected to a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel.

Day in and day out, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners work tirelessly to help their communities grow and flourish. Our partners come up against the worst aspects of the Israeli military occupation but continue to work for justice and peace all the same. From rehabilitating homes destroyed in war, to providing counseling services to women whose husbands have been killed, to organizing against the construction of the separation barrier that devastates every community that it snakes through, our partners are active and hopeful despite all odds.

In Arabic, this “steadfastness” or “perseverance” is called sumud. Sumud, in the face of occupation, has become an indispensable part of Palestinian life and the work of MCC’s partners.

Nowar Educational Centre

Children at the Nowar Educational Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association are making materials for their community advocacy campaign for traffic safety, January 19, 2017

Despite five decades of brutal military occupation, our partners and the people of Palestine continue to embody sumud. This is because—despite all evidence to the contrary—they believe there is hope. In 2009 the Palestinian Christian churches issued a statement called “A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known popularly as the Kairos Palestine document, it describes hope in this way:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

This is not a passive hope. This is a hope which calls all of us to action—to act in solidarity with those who suffer. It calls us to responsibility. In the face of such injustice and violence, we are called to act justly and peaceably in the hope that God can take our humble actions, multiply them and make them bear fruit. We are called to remain steadfast—to embody sumud—by never giving up on our responsibility to God and our neighbour.

Such a hope and such a steadfastness is terrifying for those bent on propping up such a terrible occupation. The resistance, however small it may be, will always be the quiet voice that bears witness to truth, and tells the world that this unjust and evil occupation must end.

Omar Haramy

Omar Haramy leads a group through Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, which takes participants to locations representing the various forms of Palestinian suffering. In the background are soldiers preparing to discharge tear gas and rubber bullets at children who were throwing rocks in Shoufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, is an MCC partner organization that seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel and works for justice, peace and reconciliation by using nonviolence.

So let us have the courage to join this resistance. Let us call for justice and peace. Let us call for an end to this occupation.

A note to Canadians:  Please send a message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, letting her know that 50 years of occupation is enough.

The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

“If we don’t have hope, there will be none.”

This week’s guest writer is Dan Wiens, Food Security and Livelihoods Coordinator for MCC. He is also a farmer.  

This week I am traveling to Southern Africa to visit farmers who have been impacted by two successive years of drought.

Despite the very dry weather, the farmers I will visit have harvested some food, even as many of their neighbors have harvested nothing. This is at least partially because they covered their soil with mulch to conserve moisture and protect the soil from the harsh sun. Mulching is just one of several adaptations to climate change that MCC’s local partners in the region are encouraging farmers to try.

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Stezen Mudenda of Kulima Mbobumi Training Center in Zimbabwe, uses mulch to conserve moisture in the soil. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Next week (February 7-13) is International Development week. So, along with thinking about those mulching farmers, I’m also thinking about the big picture of international development. What difference is the work being done in the name of international development really making in the daily lives of people?

I admit this kind of taking stock sometimes leads me into dark places.

It’s true that the farmers I will visit have figured out how to grow food even during a drought year. But they are still just barely feeding their families with the limited resources they have. Questions about whether it makes sense to encourage farmers to adapt to a drying, marginal climate should not be ignored. Is our intervention just delaying the inevitable? Is it just a matter of time before these farmers will have to abandon their farms as the desert encroaches?

I ask similar questions about farmers MCC works with in the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh. With rising sea levels, these farms are at risk of losing their soil to excess salt from sea water.

The forces that mitigate against the success of our international development efforts are huge, diverse and unpredictable. Climate change and rising sea levels are just  two of many factors.  Others include: political instability, conflict, inadequate market structures, and the list goes on.

So where do I find hope in the work I do with farmers?

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Essambié Kanko (R), Jacqueline Kando (C), and Sabine Badiel (L), farmers in Didyr, Burkina Faso, participate in a program to help women farmers adapt to climate change through conservation agriculture practices. (MCC Photo/James Souder)

Friends of mine from the Global South have said to me, “Hopelessness is a luxury only the rich can afford.”  They go on to say things like, “In this place we have to have hope, because if we didn’t there would be none.”

In light of these truths, while I’m still compelled to ask the hard questions, I’m also compelled to see actions like mulching as symbols of hope, rather than acts of desperation.

Of course there is no such thing as a panacea in this business. Mulching and other such adaptations to climate change have their limitations and challenges. What’s more, the true locus of hope is not really with things like mulch.  It’s with people.

When I finally visit farms in Southern Africa later this week, I’ll be looking for hope not so much in mulch, but in the words — and especially the eyes — of the farmers. This is not because of some romantic notion of the noble farmer sticking with her farm until the bitter end. Indeed, some of the farmers may someday decide to abandon their farms to look for other opportunities. Whether they  stay with their farms or not is not the metric by which we should be measuring success.  The metric should be their own sense of hope. The farmers have to find reasons to maintain hope for a better future for their families.

For if they don’t have hope, there will be none.

A spirituality of advocacy

Perhaps it is because we are in the season of Lent… Or perhaps it is because I was recently trying to explain how the work of our Ottawa Office differs from self-interested lobbying… Or perhaps it is the findings of a 2014 research project that challenged us as staff of the Ottawa Office to be more explicit about how our work is grounded in our faith…

Whatever the reasons, my thoughts have turned to articulating the spirituality that shapes the way we speak to government about issues of concern to MCC. What are the components of a spirituality of advocacy? How do we seek to faithfully express and embody this spirituality? I offer the following as preliminary thoughts.

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who came to Jordan in January 2014. One of her children is disabled, unable to walk, speak or eat by himself. They are living day to day in an apartment in one of the poorest areas of Amman with no furniture, no income and no family support. Together with MCC partner Caritas Jordan, we were able to bring blankets and relief buckets prepared in Canada. (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen) (Beneficiaries are from Syria which is an MCC Country of Sensitivity. Last names of beneficiaries are withheld for security reasons.)

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in January 2014.  (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen)

Solidarity.  MCC’s advocacy work arises out of program work – more specifically, from the call of partners that we work with in Canada and around the world. We seek to respond to the longing of real people for justice, for peace and for human dignity, and to call for government actions and policies which will fulfill those longings.  We are inspired by the biblical call to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).  But more than speaking for, we seek to speak with those who demand justice.  In other words, we try to be about solidarity. In the words of Samantha Baker Evens, “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’; we lend our privilege as a megaphone.”

Integrity.   We know that words and deeds go together; deeds in fact give integrity to words (James 1:14-17). Thus, MCC has learned that the words we speak and write to government have weight when they are grounded in the practices of MCC’s supporting congregations and communities as they do God’s work in the world. We can urge our government to welcome refugees because the communities that support us are willing and ready to sponsor refugees. We can call on the government to implement restorative justice approaches within the Corrections system because ordinary MCC supporters are involved in programs like prison visitation, victim assistance, or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).  We depend on the practical service and witness of our supporting communities to give our work integrity.

Respect. In our advocacy work, we try to be respectful of all people in the political system – to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) — whether we agree with them or not. We try not to be drawn into partisan debates, though we admit this can be very difficult. Sometimes our commitment to truth-telling makes us want to loudly denounce particular people or policies (and perhaps there is a time for that). We remind ourselves that no one political party has a monopoly on the truth and that each person in “the system” is a child of God, worthy of our respect and consideration.

Humility.  We seek to be humble in our witness to government, remembering Paul’s words to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  Although we try to listen carefully to our partners, do our research, and get our facts right, we recognize there are times when we don’t have all the information. Sometimes we simply don’t have ready alternatives to suggest. In October 2014 MCC sent a letter to the federal government urging it to reconsider its involvement in a military campaign against the group which calls itself ISIS. Our letter acknowledged that some of our partners in Syria and Iraq actually appreciated those airstrikes.  For MCC, as a pacifist organization, it was a difficult thing to do.  A commitment to humility meant we needed to do it.

drummingLament. Sometimes, when we as MCC workers listen well and are really honest with ourselves, we glimpse the insight that we – as individuals, as an organization, as a church – are part of the problem, rather than the solution.  Even though we as staff may consider ourselves advocates for social justice, at times our partners remind us otherwise.  Our Indigenous partners, for example, remind us of the ways that Mennonites have participated in and benefited from the colonial history of Turtle Island, and the ways that MCC continues to perpetuate unequal relationships with Indigenous people. In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they demand to know whether MCC is prepared for true reconciliation. At times, in the spirit of Psalm 51, we can only confess, weep and lament in response.

Hope.  Our advocacy is inspired by a big hope – an eschatological hope. There are many disappointments in advocacy work.  As much as we hope for the success of a change in policy, or an amendment to a bill, or some helpful new regulations, the results often fall short of our goals. And yet, if we depended on this kind of “success” to carry on, we probably would abandon the task. Indeed, a longtime civil servant once said to one of us, “The people who hang on a long time in government are either alcoholics or Christians.” As people of faith, we are assured that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. We remember the promise that God’s reign of justice and peace will surely come (Isaiah 2:1-5, Luke 4:18-19). And so we carry on, believing that God blesses our meager efforts and makes them bear fruit in ways we may not see.

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

 

 

 

 

Feeding hope

It seems an odd thing to admit during Advent, but—full disclosure here—the last number of years I’ve sometimes had difficulty hanging on to hope.

Maybe it’s partly the line of work. After all, as the media continually reminds us, we are no strangers to things falling apart.

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A woman bursts into tears during the morning meeting at the village which was shelled during an overnight artillery raid outside Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine. MCC Photo by Sergey Ponomarev

Every day we read accounts of people displaced by conflict and war. Personal stories coloured by sickness, loneliness, and loss. Reports of broken political systems and structural injustices our governments do too little to rectify. Admittedly, the chaotic spin of the world can leave me feeling off-kilter, unnerved, and groping for answers…

We say that God’s peace will come to its fullness.

But sometimes the price of our experience is high. As a person committed to the Christian story, perhaps my hope is not supposed to wax and wane. Yet there can sometimes be an unbearable mismatch between predictable theological explanations and the unpredictability of our lived realities.

But this Advent season, in spite of (or maybe because of?) this dissonance, I am on a personal journey to retrieve hope. It’s a journey that is leaving me at once fascinated, inspired, and befuddled in equal measure.

What exactly is hope? Is it endless optimism under-girded by a certainty that “things will work out”? A mental or emotional state? A gift that comes from holding tight to a particular theological narrative?

Is hope practical—a pragmatic tool to help you navigate the muck-and-mire of life? Or is it about shattering the practical so that new possibilities can be dreamed, imagined, and birthed?

For all its mystery, I know that hope is important. I know because I’ve wrestled with the apathy, resignation, and despair that befriend you in its absence.

“Hope,” American poet Emily Dickinson famously penned, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops — at all.”

There is something really beautiful about this image of hope as a winged melody-maker—a constant friend that “no storm” can break, and that keeps you warm on “the chilliest land,/And on the strangest sea.”

Hope is always present, she says, and “yet never, in extremity…asked a crumb of me.”

This, truth be told, is where Dickinson loses me. In my own eye-of-a-storm, swimming-upstream, wandering-in-a-desert (or whatever other metaphor) kind of moments, I’ve often waited for hope to arrive, crossing my fingers that it might spontaneously re-emerge somehow.

Well, perhaps waiting is not my forte, but more and more I believe that hope does ask something—often a lot (and usually more than just a “crumb”)—of us, particularly in our darkest moments.

Hope, I think, is participatory.

In my own preoccupation with hope, I’ve been trying different images and metaphors on for size. I’ve imagined hope as a habit that must be practiced. Or as a muscle that must be flexed—a muscle that, admittedly, I’ve let atrophy in recent years. I’m still exploring what practices help me rebuild that muscle, what tools might challenge the muscle memory of cynicism (built up over years!), which can quickly pull me back into old stories and habits of thinking.

To circle back to Dickinson’s metaphor, I believe more every day that for hope to live, thrive, and be resilient, I need to feed it. After all, what you choose to feed gets stronger.

CandleIn the world of advocacy, quite frankly it isn’t hard for me to feed my cynicism. When years of political engagement result in only minor improvements to policy, and new world crises quickly overtake existing political agendas, one’s hope can be tried. Transformative change is a long process that often takes years or even decades to bear fruit.

Yet we are still called to enact hope in a world that isn’t always entirely hospitable to our dreams—to say “yes” (or even just “maybe”!) to possibility….to the surprises of the Spirit.

This is the mysterious dimension of faith—we are in relationship with the divine that admits to no easy or quick resolution for all of life’s challenges. Sometimes things change for the better; other times we don’t see a way out. And this tension is made all the more pointed, depending on what side of privilege we are on.

An honest faith must live through these “gaps,” and move forward through the shadows. This, I’m realizing, is precisely where hope lives—deeply entangled within all of life’s messy rhythms.

As American novelist Anne Lamott wrote, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

Though for me it requires more than a dash of vulnerability and a pinch of risk, this Advent season—the season of light birthed in the midst of darkness—I am committed to giving more than a crumb to hope.

Jenn Wiebe is the Interim Ottawa Office Director