This morning, Eli (my friend and fellow YAGM volunteer) and I climbed the stairs of the bell tower at 10:30 AM to ring the two bells like usual. This has become one of our weekly responsibilities, and as such we have stopped checking in with other church members before pulling the slightly frayed cables connected to the bells. However, perhaps just twenty seconds after starting, a church member came up the stairs and ordered us to stop. We were shocked – this had never happened before. He then told us that the pastor was not here yet.
We knew that our regular pastor and host father, Imad, was out of town and another local minister was to fill his shoes today. This responsibility fell on Pastor Fursan, the head of the Arabic-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. We walked down the stairs and began to ask more questions.
Jerusalem is only 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Ramallah. As such, a Sunday morning drive – even including traffic – should take no more than 20 minutes. However, this does not account for the reality that is the Qalandia checkpoint. This checkpoint has become a regular feature in our lives, and has been so for the Palestinian population for the past seventeen years. Here, Palestinians with permissions pass through daily to go to work, worship, or visit family. Every time they come through on a bus, the able-bodied dismount and pass through cage-like structures and security screening reminiscent of stalls used to herd cattle. Cars are frequently stopped and searched. Here, capriciousness rules the day. Sometimes folks move relatively quickly though Qalandia. Sometimes, minutes stretch into hours or a return trip from whence one came.
The traffic created by this checkpoint was the culprit this morning. Undeterred, about fifteen minutes after our service was supposed to start, a woman in the congregation started calling out hymn numbers and we began to sing together. We got through about four hymns and then she directed the readers to read today’s scripture passages. A rhythm began to develop and a worshipful atmosphere was cultivated. Then, a full hour after the service was supposed to start, Pastor Fursan strode in at the perfect time to proclaim today’s Gospel, Matthew 18:21-35.
“21Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven…’”
After the reading, he delivered one of the most powerful sermons I have heard on this text. The stories of instances of radical forgiveness offered by Christians in obedience to this text were wonderful, but what truly struck me was his admission that living faithfully to this command is extremely difficult here – only made possible by the Spirit. It brought to mind the words Pastor Imad shared a few weeks ago in a sermon after taking over two hours to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to Palestine just that morning, “It is so hard to love your enemies at the bridge.” It is a place that is starkly dehumanizing and humiliating, just like the checkpoints, the wall, and the illegal Israeli settlements that pepper the Palestinian countryside.
The people that I have grown to love here are showing me just what it looks like to be Christian. It means looking in the face of the soldier demanding your papers and choosing to love instead of hate. It means opening your home constantly to share your food and very lives with local people and those from abroad. It means continuing to sing, continuing to worship, continuing to pray, and continuing to forgive, even when the checkpoint aims to choke hope.
I do not claim that this community is a perfect one. But, it is a profoundly faithful one – one that is helping me remain in relationship with Christ despite my many doubts. For that, I am grateful.