Phifer’s First YAGM Newsletter

(This is the first of the bi-monthly newsletters I will be sending. If you are interested in receiving them directly via email, please let me know. Otherwise, I will continue sharing them on the blog throughout the year)

On October 14th, just shy of 80 young adults convened in the South Side of Chicago for our Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) orientation. Although the Discernment, Interview, and Placement weekend had taken place months before, in many ways it felt like we had just learned of our country placements. The reality of the coming year had not yet settled in. But, after eight days of group conversation, sharing of painful and beautiful stories, exploring privilege, prayer, worship, ultimate frisbee, liar’s dice, and more, the time had come – whether we were ready or not. For me, personally, I was eagerly anticipating our departure, despite how surprisingly difficult saying “see you when I see you” to many members of this remarkable community was.

We were welcomed in Tel Aviv after our 11-hour overnight flight from New York by the Grangaard family – Jeni, Colin, Josie, and Amos – alongside Adrienne Gray, another ELCA missionary. Jeni and Colin are the JWB country coordinators, and Josie and Amos are their wonderful children. We then took jet-lagged selves to their home for a light lunch and some introductory conversations. That night, we got to know each other better over delicious pizza from Bethlehem’s Zuwadeh restaurant, and soon after tried to catch up on some sleep. Some familiar sounds and smells greeted me from the start, such as the call to prayer out of a mosque near we were staying and the aroma of jasmine wafting from the plant just outside our building.

The next two weeks of in-country orientation were a blur of activity. The first few days were full of procedures/safety protocols, the hilarious “Servant Leader, Servant Schmuck, and Servant Martyr” exercise aimed at helping us imagine what a successful life looks like here, and intermittent periods of prayer and spiritual reflection on our journeys that brought us to the JWB program. In one of the afternoons, we hiked the Wadi Makhrour valley from Beit Jala to the beautiful town of Battir with a local guide. Along the way, he pointed out a myriad of plants and geological features, and also provided a vast amount of historical information. For example, Battir is the location where the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E) against the Romans was definitively crushed.

Some of the most powerful moments, however, came when he discussed his life growing up as a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Our guide spoke nonchalantly about being imprisoned twice during the second intifada for no explainable reason. Further, he discussed worries about announced Israeli settlement expansions around al-Makhrour and Battir that would effectively wipe out a Palestinian town called al-Walaja. He then explained that this Christian faith keeps him, despite the injustices that so characterize his existence, from hating his enemies. Instead, he feels called to work towards justice and the good of all people in the land.

The rest of orientation carried on in a similar manner. We learned from many Palestinians and a number of Israelis the ancient and current happenings in the Holy Land as we toured the Bethlehem area, the Old City of Jerusalem, Lutheran World Federation-run Augusta Victoria Hospital, and the various neighborhoods and settlements that comprise the greater Jerusalem area. As a group, we also visited each Lutheran School/volunteer site in which we will be working.

Recently, Eli Yackel-Juleen and myself moved into our home for the next year. Over the past week, we have worshipped with the Lutheran Church of Hope, hit the ground running in the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, and shared delicious meals with our host family. Furthermore, this week I met with the Meals on Wheels program, and am incredibly excited to form relationships with members of the elderly population in Ramallah as a part of this community-centered service.

This place is already starting to feel like home, and I look forward to meeting many more people as I continue to establish myself here. The next steps on my list: playing with Ramallah’s newly formed Ultimate Frisbee club and joining the local Right to Movement running club.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers and support. As always, I welcome any correspondence and am happy to answer questions you have for me. I look forward to learning together with you.

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