At this service, seminarian Zeb Green will share his reflections from a recent Peacemaker’s trip to Israel and Palestine. The service will explore stories of injustice and of hope. The service will be an opportunity to see how spiritual connections can allow us to look through barriers and see our mutual humanity.
Zeb Green is a seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry and the current Clergy Intern at the Washington Ethical Society. He has a background in community organizing and arts administration. Outside of ministerial roles, he loves to go hiking with his dog.
Thinking of Hope and Unitarian Universalism. The story of how I found this tradition comes to mind and the power of belief in the interconnection of life and how important it is to see how elements of our lives resonate in the lives of others.
I was raised in a Christian household, but I wrestled with doubts and questions of belonging – I left my church at 16 – the moment when my parents stopped making attend services.
In my early twenties, I began looking for a community again. I had appreciated the aims of my religious upbringing. The idea that we could have a community devoted to seeking the meaning of life, of living a courageous and just existence, one that supporting one another while working towards justice. All of these ideals, I loved.
I wanted a place that didn’t claim to have a monopoly on truth. Somewhere that accepted that life had many paths, that each were valid, or at least claimed some truth. I sought an environment that built connections instead of divisions. That offered hope even to those who felt outcast, lost, or in some way broken.
For me I had felt lost because of religious doubts, I felt outcast because my friends did not conform to the standards of South Carolina morality, be they lgbt or from so-called “broken homes” they weren’t welcome, and if my friends can’t sit at the table, neither can I, I felt broken because of my invisible distabality and chronic illness. If I was going to join a church all of those elements had to be welcomed and honored them.
In this search, it was my parents that pointed me to Unitarian Universalism. Their Presbyterian church had recently begun working with an interfaith coalition that made serious strides in the community. One day they were telling me about this work, and I was shocked. I did not know that churches could be that active and do that much good.
My mom floated Unitarian Universalism to me. She told me that they were “my kind of people.” Meaning eclectic, that is a nice way to put it. Committed too, most congregations in this organization had a handful of devoted supporters. The Unitarian Church of Charleston averaged around 30 to 50 members at every public meeting- more for the major events. Or as my mom put it, they show up, and it might be their entire church.
On her urging, I checked out the UU church. Unaware of what I might find.
I found a tradition that first and foremost puts its heart out there. Our principles that range from the worth and dignity of every person to the interconnections of the Universe. Somewhere to wrestle with theological questions, with meaning, while looking for the shared truths across the world. Every human is deserving of love, and every human is capable of contributing something to the search for meaning.
In the book A Chosen Faith by two former UUA presidents Forest Church and John Buehrens, I remember reading Rev. Church discussing the Cathedral of the World. A temple where all of us live. With the light of truth shining outside. Each religion, philosophy, and science was just a different stained glass window. They all shaped and bent the light in unique ways, containing something of the truth, light came through all of them, and no one had the perfect truth. Unitarian Universalism tries to understand that it is one light and many windows.
John Buehrens said that his problem with the metaphor is that no one in the cathedral seems to be talking to each other. He grounds our approach in conversation and dialogue with each other. Honoring our differences, then seeking the common ground.
One more metaphorical, one more practical- both about diversity and connection
Unitarian Universalism is not the only faith that looks for the resonances. Interfaith work is growing more common. We do it well, and so do many others.
This month Unitarian Universalists are focusing on the theme of hope. And feels like much of America is celebrating Christmas. It can be kind of hard to escape the trappings of this holiday. Managers and Santa are popping up- which I’m sure half the room hates. This season is meant to be one of hope. To celebrate this one birth, life and ministry.
I imagine we’ve all heard the Christmas story many time, and it has all become old hat. It becomes fascinating, once we look for resonances elsewhere.
When studying the Quran, I was surprised to learn that the Islamic faith honors the birth of Jesus and holds him as a great prophet and teacher. There are significant differences between the two faiths about the nature of God, about the role of this Galilean Jew, the distinctions should not be ignored.
At the same time, we should never forget about the connections. The chances for dialogue and to see the humanity of another. In this perspective we can have conversation and cooperation.
The story of the birth is very different. As it was taught to me by Sheikh Yassir Chadley, Mary has learned from a divine messenger that she is to give birth to Isa. She worries about her future and her reputation for she is a single woman. The Quranic story has no Joseph, no fiance. It is just her and the baby. As her pregnancy develops, she is afraid of what might happen and flees into the wilderness.
As the birth begins, she leans against a palm-date tree and cries out during her labor pains. She hears a voice from under her, “Do not Grieve, a stream has been placed at your feet. Shake the trunk of the palm and fresh; ripe dates will drop down to you. Eat and Drink and delight your eyes.”
It is beautiful, shade, freshfruit, clear water- far from the noise and smells of a barn.
In the book The Islamic Jesus, Mustafa Akyol examines parallels to this story and apocryphal Christian texts, and it is just staggering at the various moments of overlap that you can find when you look for them. Distinct religions, distinct theologies- for sure. But ingrained in love and respect.
Many of my colleagues have told me about questions regarding this respect during their time as a hospital chaplain, a requirement for ministerial fellowship. They have reported Islamic patients asking them this same question, “We see Jesus as a prophet, why can’t you see Muhammad as one?”
And of course, the answers varied from the I’m a Unitarian Universalists, not a Christian” “To we honor both and all prophets.”
I understand the question to be “If I see you, why won’t you see me?”
It requires us to ask, where do we have our boundaries in seeing other people?
How can we cross those barriers?
How do we seek connections while honoring our differences
It is not easy work, and often not something that we’re prepared to do.
Searching for the resonances led me to join an interfaith peace delegation to Israel and Palestine. UUs for Justice in the Middle East publicizes these delegations.
Years ago a number of colleagues went on one of these trips and suggested that we all do. For years, I said no thank you. The situation between Israel and Palestine was too complex. I was too far away to do any good. There were other people more dedicated to the cause that should go on this trips.
I had my excuses.
The last few years have happened. The Black Lives Matter Movement, The Protests at Standing Rock, The fight to secure rights for the dreamers.
And through it all, I saw support online coming from both Israeli and Palestinian organizers. I saw others reaching out to us, and the issues near my heart. And I began to pay more attention.
Finally, after the events of charlottesville and the rise of White Nationalists marching through the streets, I realized that we had to focus on global connections, even if all we did we see the humanity of others.
So this summer, when UUJME publicized another of these Israel and Palestine delegations, I decided to go.
One of my strongest memories from this delegation is the day we toured the Israeli Military Courts. These were not the courts for soldiers being put on trial, but the courts administered by the military in occupied Palestine. We were guided through the process by an organization called Military Court Watch.
Their mission is to document court proceedings to ensure that the rule of law is followed. They seek to be advocates for youth in caught in the arrests. They say about 800 to 1000 Palestinian children are arrested in occupied Palestine each year, the most common offense is throwing stones, which can carry years in jail. Most of the arrests happen at night and half the detained children report physical and psychological abuse after detainment.
The process of going into the court was intense, to say the least. It was a giant complex surrounded by walls and barbed wire. We had to go through numerous locked doors, give our passports, leave our phones and cameras with security. All to be put an outdoor waiting area.
The waiting area was filled with Palestinian parents and grandparents. That came to our delegation to tell us their stories. Most of them only speak Arabic, and at first our translator was overwhelmed by the different voices all speaking at once.
We heard five different stories, that were each heartbreaking and surprisingly the same with only a few variations.
It begins in the middle of the night, between midnight and three am. A loud pounding of the door, and a quick warning open it up, or it will be broken down. So the family rushes to get the door before it can be destroyed. The soldiers outside, barely more than children themselves, no older than twenty five. Would come in, demanding to see one of boys of the house.
After finding him, they would bind him, usually quite forcebaly. They’d force the parents watch as they searched the home for evidence. Wrecking, and tearing the place a part. They would never find any thing substantial, nor tell the parents what they were looking for.
After the search, they would say they had to take the son away. Not to arrest, just to question him. He would be home in a few hours.
One mother told that she asked if he could change out of his pajamas, they said no.
Another boy begged to be allowed to use the toilet first, they said no, and as they took him away nature took its course.
Another mother refused to stop asking why they were taking her son, and as she followed them out. The soldiers, she said, threw a stun grenade right past her head and at the home.
The boys, would be taken to integration center, and eventually charged with the crime of throwing stones. According to Military Court Watch, the conviction rate is 99%. Many youth are innocent, but after a long brutal night, with no guardian or lawyer present, they will sign a confession in Hebrew, a language they do not understand.
I couldn’t sit there without my heartbreaking. Our delegation had our notebooks out and were scribbling every detail as we could catch them. The one request being made of us, was to take these stories home.
After the last story, and as our group was preparing to observe a case.
I took a moment off to the side, a bit by myself. Bowing my head and holding my heart. A way to hold the weight of everything. The feeling and knoweldge that this could be anyone, if we just happened to be born here. I also thought about ICE raids in the US, I thought about our systems of mass incarceration, I thought about First Nations struggling for rights to their land.
The threads and connections resonated too strongly.
I thought too about the pain of the Israeli people. The horrors of the holocaust. The attacks against Israel. The lives lost, the disconnect, the fear, and hatred that created this military system. I was against it, but I understood it.
I just held it in my heart, no solutions.
Looking up after that moment, I caught the eyes of a grandmother that was hoping to see her grandson. She looked at me, bowed her head and held her heart. I couldn’t be speak Arabic and she couldn’t speak english. I wasn’t sure if she was asking, and not knowing what else to say, I pointed up and said Prayer. She nodded to me and said “salaam”
That much I knew, peace.
That moment of prayer left me with the question how could we establish our joint humanity and live in a way that honora all. It felt, like language and culture were transcended communication one moment of compassion, understanding. I wasn’t just an international documenting a story. I was another person feeling the heartbreak, and offering some love in return.
Our traditions and theology were likely worlds, but we connected through this spiritual practice of prayer.
Now I’ve come back to America, and the conflict in Israel and Palestine is still too complex. But I came back knowing the differnce between solving a problem and engaging. We don’t need the answer before being compassionate, we put our hearts first and trust the rest will follow. The conflict moved from the abstract to human level.
Remembering this human level is crucial as we watch as the American Embassy in Israel is being moved from Tel Aviv to Jersualem. A move that is destined to cause further bloodshed and conflict, to both nations. The legality of Jersualem is complex and according to the original UN legal boundaries both palestinians and Israelis have claims to the city, and it carries religious significance to both faiths. I do not know the answers, but any approach for us to take or support needs to keep the connections and humanity of all people and sides, in hearts.
It can be so easy to lose hope. So hard to keep reminiding ourselves of our connections, when it feels like this world is tearing us a part.
Finding our resonances with one another, can lead us to hope. We can find these resonances by keeping prayer in our hearts.
Prayer can be a dicey word in Unitarian Universalist circles. Who are we praying to? What is a prayer if not to a deity. My approach is that prayer is a moment when I ground myself in love and hope. To me these are external forces that I can’t prove exist. But when I reach out, I can feel love. I imagine what a more loving, hopeful, or connected world would be – and I hold that in my heart. I trust that it can happen. It is not easy, it takes practice.
Eric Wikstrom has a moving book Simply Pray, he writes:
“We engage in loving prayer to make sure that we aware of of the needs around us, because we most certainly can do nothing to help a situation- local or global- that we don’t know exists. Wheter or not you believe that there is a “god” listening to your prayers, bringing the needs of others into your consciousness has merit.”
Our faith calls us to to support one another and challenge systems of oppression. This is not to negate that conversation. To that effectively we need to find the resonances and connect.
Interfaith connections strenthen us, partnering with new communities guides us, prayer holds us. All three together gives me hope.
And leads us to walk togehter- to see our common heart.
This spiritual practice can help give you hope too.
This simple prayer you can take with you. I heard it my first day at Starr King School for the Ministry, and have held it ever since.
“There is a love holding us
There is a love holding all we love
There is a love holding all.
We rest in this love.
Together let us rest and strengthen ourselves in this love, and bring it with us.
Closing Hymn “Building Bridges” #1023
Closing Words and Extinguishing Our Chalice
As we come to end of this service…
We extinguish this flame but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again