A Personal Testimony to My Church and My Country
(Some of the details may be wrong, as it was written from memory. I've decided, nevertheless, to make this public now, "as is," as I've neglected to do so for far too long.)
Arabiya is a beautiful name. In Arabic you roll the “r r r” in this name which speaks for the entire Arabic region. Phonetically, it’s like 'Arrre-a-'be-ya. To meet Arabiya is to meet someone who clearly comes from outside of our culture. She speaks Arabic but no English. She is Muslim. She wears the hajjab (head scarf). When I met Arabiya, Arabiya Shawamreh she was dressed all in black. It was at the Mosque in Cedar Rapids. She made such a powerfully emotional impact on me that I can't tell her story publicly, her story which is also my story, which is also your story, the story of my church. The emotions are still too strong in me to speak these stories publicly. And so I write them down.
When Karen, our Pastor, asked me to tell our congregation about a film series on Palestine and Israel, I was strongly tempted to tell the story of Arabiya. Her family was featured in the second film. Writing drafts of her story, her message to our church, or telling it to myself, again brought up strong emotions in me, grief, I think. And something more.
When we met, when I met Arabiya, her story, and my stories to her about America and the people in our church, came together and clashed and mingled and wrapped themselves around each other in a burst of emotion. They clashed and mingled and wrapped themselves around each other between the two of us, (the three of us with her translator, a high school girl from Palestine,) and especially they clashed and mingled and wrapped themselves together inside of me. And immediately after it happened, or as it happened, I realized that I was being called to bring this very experience to you. To bring to you Arabiya's story, and my story entwined together, my lesson in Christianity, my story of hope for Arabiya. And I immediately burst into tears, thinking of you.
Arabiya and her family were traveling with a translator and a group of peace activists, including a Jewish man and a Presbyterian woman. At the Mosque I met the Presbyterian woman through friends, because of my work in opening the Peace and Justice Center in Cedar Rapids and in organizing peace activists from across our area, mainly isolated Christians like me, to take action. This woman too was organizing, and she asked me to hand out sign-up forms for an email list to help mobilize and organize people to take action, specifically to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes and more generally to stand up for justice for Palestine.
One of the women in their group was an Aunt to Rachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie was a young American Christian woman who learned of the plight of the Palestinians and of the way that, for decades, the severe injustices caused by Israel have been supported by the United States, in direct contradiction to the values of the vast majority of Americans, and especially to the sacred beliefs of American Christians. Though I know very little about Rachel Corrie's story, (it is well known around the world,) I'm certain that she wrestled with this grievous contradiction between the Christians she knew and grew up with here in America and the heinous crimes being endorsed and paid for by the American politicians they repeatedly voted for.
Rachael Corrie went to Palestine to see for herself. She stood with the Palestinian people, helpless and powerless as they were, against the Israeli military machine, (including it's vast nuclear arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including perhaps 200 nuclear warheads,). Militarily, the Israeli military is both ruthless and nearly unsurpassed, (surpassed in power, that is, only by the U.S., Russia, and one other country). Rachel took a stand, and was killed, like so many Palestinians and others before her. She stood firm and was run over and killed by a massive armored Caterpillar bulldozer bent on destroying the houses of Palestinians. She stood firm, somehow, some way, as an American Christian. I think the basic idea was: "we American Christians won't stand for this magnitude of injustice to be committed in our name, in cooperation with our government. We refuse to be complicit in this, our country's evil and Israel's. I will not be moved." And she did not move. And she was crushed. Not all at once. She wasn't run over by the "Caterpillar" track. She was broken up underneath the center of the bulldozer. And then later she died.
I suppose she had met a lot of Arabiya's. Surely, she'd been close with them, intimate. She'd looked into their eyes, close up, as they cuddled their children, their terrified children. Surely she'd thought of her fellow church members back home, who remained silent. Who claimed ignorance as an excuse for a lack of involvement, in contradiction to the teachings of the church. Surely she'd thought of their children, their children just the same age as these children, these terrified children of Palestine.
This, then, brings us back to Arabiya and her story, and my story to her, my story to Arabiya about you, the members of my church right here in Springville, the Springville Presbyterian Church in Springville, Iowa. Arabiya's house was destroyed, suddenly, shockingly, aggressively, militarily, with American equipment, and American money paying a part of the cost.
And my story begins more than a half a century ago when my parents left their jobs in the city to come out here to this community to farm. They joined this church, and I was baptized here, and I was absorbed into this church, its worship and its Sunday School, and I was taught its songs, and it's prayers. I was taught its theology of hope and of justice and of peace and of love.
For example, in Sunday school I read the story from the Presbyterian curriculum about "the happy little house," about Kai Nam, a little orphan boy in Korea who lived on the streets after our war there, and who asked to be taken in to a crowded little house of orphans, a Presbyterian Christian house. And other children said "No, he plays rough." But the "parents," their new parents, said "yes," and arms reached out and he was taken right in, just like that. And there was hope for Kai Nam. (I found this story in an old Presbyterian Sunday School book in the attic out at the farm and read it to Sophia, my daughter, then age 3 or 4,). I read it so many times to Sophia one summer, at her request, that she learned it by heart.)
My story here at this church continues during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Our minister risked his life, (something like Rachel Corrie,) to go down to the South, to Mississippi during the violence, (the terrorism,) to see for himself, to help register people to vote, to bring truth back to us through sermons. Then he led us to invite members from the Bethel A.M.E. church the African Methodist Episcopal church in Cedar Rapids to come to our worship, and we went to theirs, and our youth groups joined for fellowship at Linn Grove, our rural sister church. I came of age in this church, in this context. I was confirmed here and the congregation vowed to support me.
In 1970 my youth group went to Holmes county Mississippi, the second poorest county in the United States, on a work mission. Holmes county Mississippi had been declared to be a "cousin" to Linn county Iowa in a project uniting churches taking an active stand for justice. So there we were, we 11th graders, in the deep South just two years after Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, just a few years after a series of civil rights murders, some Christians from far away finally showing some solidarity with those who had long been terrorized and tortured and lynched.
Of course, that's not how we saw it. We were more there to have fun. I was there because my mother was very insistent that I go. I was not at all enthusiastic. I was a particularly unenthusiastic seventeen year old Christian after a neighbor ridiculed me for going down there with those "jigaboos," (and worse,) and a high school friend did the same. This was all part of what I brought to the table, the context for my story, in response to the story of Arabiya.
Walt Whitman has a saying, "I and mine do not convince by arguments: we convince by our presence." That was certainly true about Arabiya. She was not at all the college educated sort. Her husband, Salim, speaks fluent English. He gave the major talk, complete with slides and explanations. He is outgoing and friendly. Arabiya is quiet and soft spoken. She spoke briefly in Arabic through the Palestinian high school translator. She had no notes. She told about her home and her family.
Arabiya told how her house on the West Bank was bulldozed down. They had armed soldiers come, in the early morning and drag her family out, with all of her children, and destroy their home. They had to restrain her husband. Friends and neighbors helped. They came to restrain him so he wouldn't be killed. He collapsed, and they came to support him.
And they came and helped the family rebuild their home. They rebuilt again, and it was tore down again, And Christians came in, and Jews from the peace movement in Israel and elsewhere came in, and they built their home again for a third time, and then the military and the bulldozers came in again and tore it down again, and they rebuilt it again and turned it into a peace center, and then the Israelis came in again, and they tore it down again.
And throughout this whole process of ripping them out of their own home over and over and over again, four times in all, her family was severely traumatized. One of her children lost the ability to see. She just went blind out of sheer trauma, a trauma we can only imagine in the mind of a child, a sensitive Palestinian child of say, upper elementary grades, living under the occupation and being forcibly and unexpectedly removed from her home and having her home ripped apart before her very eyes in sneak attacks over and over again, for no real reason other than brutal militancy, brutal political gamesmanship.
Another of Arabiya's children lost the ability to walk, so traumatized was she, from the brutality the United States supports and funds and equips as American Christians turn our eyes away in silence and safety.
Arabiya herself, I later learned, did not speak a single word after the first demolition. She did not speak at all for months. And of course, we don't see that a lot in the Springville Presbyterian church. We don't see Moms here so traumatized that they cannot or will not or do not speak. No, neighbor children here do not witness these traumas among their friends, children who refuse to see, who refuse to walk, whose minds will not allow them to see or to walk, and whose mothers remain locked in silence.
But Arabiya was not silent on this day at the Mosque in Cedar Rapids, so very far away from her home. She spoke quietly and modestly for a brief period. She told us the stories about her family, the stories that she felt comfortable in telling to this audience of people who did not speak her language, and some of whom did not know much about her religion.
Arabiya did not appear to be particularly happy to be here. She did not appear to be particularly happy to be a public speaker traveling across America. But at times during the afternoon, I saw her smiling. It was a certain kind of smile, the kind that only the great artists can paint. It was a real smile, a genuine smile, the smile that only someone who has experienced great trauma for herself and her family can give.
Usually though, she did not smile. My friends, Joe and Laila Aossey let me borrow a series of snapshots from the time when Cheryl, Sophia and I were invited, with others from the Mosque and the peace movement, to their house to meet Arabiya and her husband and Rachel Corrie's Aunt and the others traveling with them. You see these many pictures of people joined together in solidarity, in support. You see them smiling together. You see them smiling with her husband. You see them dressed in many colors, some in (scarves), some not. And there is Arabiya, dressed in black Muslim attire, and she is smiling only occasionally.
At the Mosque there was lots of energy. Here was a group of people, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, uniting for justice. With strategic institutional backing they had taken this family in. They had provided lawyers. They had energetically rebuilt the house of Arabiya and Salim Shawamreh and their seven children. In fact, they turned their house into an international peace center, an international symbol of world solidarity getting ready to expose the truths of Israeli and American injustice and bureaucratically calculated brutality.
I was sitting there after the program, and I watched as people walked up to Arabiya and Salim to offer words of comfort, encouragement and commitment. And there I saw that wonderful mysterious smile. It reminded me of what psychologist Rollo May wrote in his excellent book, "My Quest for Beauty." In a section on "Beauty and Death" he wrote a fictional story, a about a Greek boy, he named Costas Argyropoulos. Costas was fifteen, a composite of Greek boys he had met. Dr. May wrote:
"When I gave him his book on the elevator in the morning his smile was as irresistible as when I had first met him. Now, of course, I knew the secret of his perpetual optimism–it was the buoyancy of a person who had suffered greatly but was glad to be alive. One living with memories like this would have to develop the ability to laugh long and well, or else be engulfed in despair."
The story was set in Greece during World War II. Costas' own story, however, was as a small boy in a Greek family in Turkey during the war of 1922, and the massacre and great migration of refugees during that war. His family lost their home during the forced migration and his mother died along the way. Then one night the Turkish soldiers took his older sister and other attractive young women, and the families could hear them whooping and firing guns over the hill in the night. And then, toward morning as the soldiers returned drunk, a group of fathers quietly killed the guards and took their guns and opened fire. May has Costas then, awakened by the gunfire, run across a field to where his father was barricaded, to be with him as he lay dying. "We are of Argyros," his father, Mr. Argyropoulos says, Argyros being the hero from Greek literature who had helped to successfully defend a mountain pass for three days so Athens could be fortified against invasion.
So this was Costas and his smile. And there was Arabiya and her smile, born from the traumas of her family, her children, her husband and herself, living under the occupation.
And here we were, American Christians, Moslems and Jews, receiving Arabiya's story as she chose to tell it, to take it onward and outward into our own churches. Here we were, from all across America, ready to back up the peace center that was supporting her family, that was supporting their home in occupied Palestine.
Being there to hear her story, I focused on her "presence," in Walt Whitman's word. Watching her there, watching her smile, I believed I saw hope. It was sort of an "aha," and I suddenly decided to speak with her directly, to ask Arabiya a question. And so I asked her the question of hope. I told her, through the translator, that I saw her here, with the peace movement abundantly supporting her, and at her home, with the peace movement robustly advocating for her family there. "So, do you have hope, I asked Arabiya?"
She answered me very directly. In fact, she became indignant and answered me firmly, with discouragement on her face, (and I'm paraphrasing here). "How could I possibly have hope," she said? "They have destroyed my home over and over again. We are powerless to do anything about it. They traumatize my family over and over and there is nothing we can do to stop it? I have no hope. How could I possibly have any hope. Where is my hope?"
As she spoke I understood the discouragement I saw on her face. Clearly here her coming to America was in vain. Her talk, her "presence" in person was all in vain. Here a receptive man missed the whole point. He didn't get it at all.
Yes, here I was. I had seen her smile, occasionally. I had seen the warmth and comfort and support surrounding her after she spoke. And yes, I thought I saw hope. And I wanted to see hope.
And so I asked. And so she answered. And so she too asked. She asked me directly. "How can I possibly have hope? Where, (Brad Wilson,) is my hope?"
And of course, I knew the answer. Even before she finished, I knew the answer. I knew exactly where her hope was. And so, when she finished I immediately told her exactly how she could have hope. I am a member of the Springville Presbyterian Church. I was raised here. I've absorbed this church with my family for more than half a century. I came of age here during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. I am an American Christian. A Presbyterian Christian. A Springville Presbyterian Christian. My family and my church has taught me that this is the kind of people we are. And so, without hesitation, I answered Arabiya, through her Palestinian high school translator.
"I am your hope," I told her. And I immediately choked up and began to cry. (And I choke up again, as I type these words.)
I am your hope. And I knew I was. I knew I could bring her hope. Not me alone, of course, and not me acting alone. What I meant was that the Springville Presbyterian Church was her hope. What I meant was that the Springville Presbyterian Church really was a source of hope for Arabiya.
I didn't mean this lightly. I mean, here she was, one woman, a mother and wife living in Palestine, occupied by the Israelis, forced out of her home four times and very possibly very soon five times. This was all totally outside of my experience. It was all very real, very concrete, all enormous in power and inertia. I didn't know that.
But I do know America. I do know my church. I know, as my mother might have said, "what kind of people we are." And I know about social change, about social reconciliation and the theology of reconciliation from the Presbyterian "Confession of 1967." This is my profession, personal development and social change, and I've been seriously immersed in this work for nearly thirty years.
So I told Arabiya, without a moment's hesitation. "I am your hope."
Of course, I also knew that, tangibly, at that moment, my church was not her hope. Not at all. My Presbyterian denomination likewise was not her hope. We clearly could not concretely answer her question as she meant it. We Presbyterians did not, in reality, offer hope for Arabiya.
Likewise, my nation, the United States of America, did not offer any tangible hope for Arabiya. As I saw it, standing there answering Arabiya that I, as a Springville, Presbyterian, American Christian, am her hope, concretely, in the real world, I believed that we are a wicked people, and that we are essentially unrepentant in our wickedness. And so, to explain this hope I saw for Arabiya, within this context of wickedness I saw in my community and my country, I told her, I told Arabiya through her translator, about the story of Jonah. (She told me she had never heard of the story.)
I was familiar with the story of Jonah because I had written about it. After 9/11, late in the fall of 2001, I had written an essay which I called "Preaching to the Choir Since 9-11: A Layman’s Christmas Sermon." It is from Jonah that I choose to use this seemingly out-of-date word: "wicked." Jonah was called by God to tell the people of Nineveh that they were wicked and that God was going to destroy them. Jonah ran away and so forth, but finally did as God asked. The people of Nineveh, however, repented. Not only that, but God then did not destroy them, which really angered Jonah. My "sermon to the choir," then, was to preach to the peace movement that Americans are really good at heart, they have good values, and they will repent and change their ways when they hear the truth. Of course, God doesn't get ahead of the repentance I was anticipating. The repentance has to come first.
In any case, this was my argument to Arabiya. We who are her hope– though we are wicked, we have good values. We are fully on her side, once we become informed about the issues and the actions toward which God calls us, and which have been spelled out quite well, for example, by the Presbyterian Church. And clearly, this group, these people with these Christian values: we clearly have the power within American democracy to offer full, concrete hope to Arabiya. In short, we clearly have the power, collectively, to stop the bulldozers we've previously sent over to tear down her house and severely traumatize her family four times. Or perhaps, by now, five.
So yes, in this way, I am the hope for Arabiya, and I mean that, fully, concretely. What else is Christianity, if it is not this?
With that, I left Arabiya. I left to go back to my home and community, to my church, to live as a Christian, to bring the hope that comes from being "the kind of people we are," the kind of people I'm raising my daughter to be. I left feeling drained, knowing all too well of the enormous gap between who we are, potentially and in the words of our Christian commitments, and who we've been with regards to Arabiya and her children, Arabiya and her family. We were her hope, and yet we did not, at present, collectively offer her any real hope. This is the burden of being a Christian American, a Springville Presbyterian. I am called here to be concrete hope, hope for Arabiya. I am called here to engage my fellow Christians, and in a "Christian" way, whatever that may mean, and to be successful in doing so. To be Christian: I feared that I knew what God meant by that. I knew that God has these reverse values, that we are blessed, for going this other way. And yet I was alone. "Two or three" had not lately, as the Bible says "gathered in [God's] name" here in this church on the kinds of controversial questions God had placed before me.
Many months later I again met Arabiya's husband, Salim, and some of the others. He was again in America. They gave their program in a Presbyterian church in Le Clair Iowa, just prior to our Presbytery there. I told him a little of my story, and recommitted my hope. I felt bad that I had so little to offer him at that point. I don't know that I made any positive impression whatsoever. But there were several people from my church there.
Pastor Karen, in particular, while she is here as interim pastor, is opening the doors. She has invited me to tell the church something about becoming informed about Palestine. And now, as I write, a small group of us has met at her home around these and other issues. We have "gathered." We are praying. We are planning.
It is not enough. It is not yet nearly enough. We remain immersed in the wickedness of our church and our nation. But we continue to gather together. We are growing. We are finding other like minded Christians (and those disillusioned with Springville and American Christianity's wickedness).
This concludes Part I.