Cross the Line

Deacon Firas, Melkite (Greek Catholic) Deacon of Zababdeh, a Palestinian Christian village in the north of the West Bank, near Jenin.

For the past six months, people in the Jenin district have been struggling under curfews and closures with varying degrees of strictness. Today, like yesterday and the day before, was one of the stricter days. No buses, students, or staff from Jenin could come to school. I was absent, too. But instead of staying locked-down at home like them, I went with Firas, the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Deacon of Zababdeh, to visit Christian communities in two nearby villages, one in Palestine and one in Israel.

This would be a simple task in better times (that is, over two years ago) when we’d catch shared taxis from Jenin, the transportation (and economic, medical and educational) heart of the region. But Jenin is sealed tight and most alternate roads are destroyed or blocked. From Zababdeh, we hired a taxi whose route was part paved road, part dirt tractor trail, part wheat field as it skirted around Jenin and stayed clear of settler roads. Anything goes when it comes to arriving at one’s destination. We’ve ridden through ravines, under highway culverts, and across swaths of barren desert with people determined that closures, checkpoints, and curfews would not stop them from living their lives.

After a forty-minute workout for the old taxi’s shocks, we arrived at Jalame, a town of 2,000 nestled against the Green Line, the 1967 armistice line forming the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the occupied West Bank. In the days of thriving border trade between Israelis and Palestinians, Jalame was a place of economic stability - that is, when compared to the rest of the West Bank.

Near the border, its main road was lined with discount stores with Arabic and Hebrew signs advertising cheap produce and goods. A point of entry for Israeli shoppers, Jalame was also a point of exit for Palestinian day laborers on their way to jobs in Israel, jobs which once employed nearly forty percent of the Palestinian workforce. Jalame was doing all right for itself.

Today, when we arrived, there were no bargain-hunters, no thriving business district, no day laborers. However, the shape of Jalame remains the same, that of a typical Palestinian West Bank town. The mosque towers over tightly-built, cement buildings, homes on top of each other as extended families live three or four or five to a building. Front doors open right onto the street. There’s no such thing as a sidewalk, so all traffic — human and otherwise — passes on the cracking paved streets. Plastic bags and candy wrappers blew by us in the dust as our taxi squeezed past oncoming traffic in the alley-like “main street.” Like an Old West frontier town, Jalame gives off a scent of chaos - to the outsider, things seem wild, but nevertheless there is stability.

We had come here to meet Jalame’s Christian community, about 70 people, but didn’t know where to find them. We asked the first people we saw, two men repairing the main street. They were covered in dust, one of them wearing a baseball cap with Hebrew writing on it - the tell-tale sign of a former day laborer. He directed us to a little electronics shop. It was there that we found Ramzi, who welcomed us with fresh apples. By training, he is an English teacher. He left the shop in the care of his Muslim friend and invited us to his house. There, we noticed the usual trappings of a Palestinian Christian home - pictures and icons of the Virgin and child, rosary beads, crucifixes.

The Christians of Jalame belong to two large extended families. They are closely related to the Christian communities in Zababdeh, Jenin, Burqin, and in the Galilee. They have no church here, nor Christian cemetery. Recently, the municipality voted to give them some land for burial. But neighbors rebelled against having it next to them, especially in the center of town, so the municipality went back on its word.

When the Christians worship, it is in their homes, or on a Sunday visit to the church in nearby Jenin - their pastoral responsibility traditionally falls to the priest serving the church in Jenin. But the last time clergy visited the village was six months ago - since then, the siege has made going and coming from Jenin difficult at best - towards the north, where Jalame lies, nearly impossible. They have had no Christmas or Easter celebrations in two years. Their children have forgotten the hymns.

Now, Deacon Firas’ bishop has entrusted to him the pastoral care of the community here. He is hoping to organize weekly Bible studies, as well as worship services. Perhaps he will pool together some funds and rent a room somewhere in town, and decorate it appropriately for worship - a home church from which the community can prepare for the future. The body of Christ is hungry for the simplest of ministries in Jalame.

The village of Muqeible is just on the other side of the Green Line. We began the long walk from Jalame’s lone gas station towards the Israeli checkpoint. It is a desolate strip of land. The dress shops, fruit and vegetable stands, and discount kiosks which once lined the street have been bulldozed for security reasons. The vestiges of commerce have given way to razor wire, cement barricades, and young soldiers with M-16s wearing bullet-proof vests and over-sized camouflage hats.

On most days, there is a steady trickle of Arab-Israelis entering Jalame. But not today. The only vehicles we saw on the road were two cars driven by settlers zooming off to Jenin’s illegal neighbors, Kadim and Ganim. Otherwise, it was just the two of us walking this long stretch of road. There was something unsettling about the quiet, and we both drew deep, nervous breaths as the stretch of road grew longer and lonelier. Firas began to pray as we walked. Once within shouting-distance, a soldier ordered us to approach the checkpoint one by one. I walked slowly, clutching my American passport like a talisman. In the end, we both passed, but it wasn’t Firas’ Vatican-issued, Israeli-authorized laissez-passe that got him through, but rather the fact he was with an American companion. Still breathing sighs of relief, we found a ride going into Muqeible.

The main road into this town of 3000 is newly-paved - black, shiny asphalt, with even curbs of alternating red and white paint lining its sidewalks. It’s a spacious town, and clean. No garbage littering the streets here. The lawns (lawns!) are green, European-style, bordered with flowers. It’s less than a mile from Jalame, and prior to 1948, there was little separating them. In fact, most residents of Jalame have family in Muqeible. Both are Palestinian villages, both have Muslims and Christians living together. But one is in Israel, the other in the West Bank. They might as well be a million miles apart.

We hopped out of the van in front of what appeared to be an official building - clean, sedate, rectangular. It was the local youth center we learn from Mohammad, a broad man with a broad smile. He offered to drive us to the home of Zuheir, a young Muqeible Christian and a friend of his. Muqeible, like Jalame, has suffered from pastoral neglect. It has no church, though it is home to the first Christians you will find coming south from Nazareth. It, too, falls under the responsibility of the Jenin clergy, two checkpoints away. But unlike Jalame, they have occasional visits from clergy living in the Galilee. Muqeible’s 200 Christians come from three denominations - Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Melkite. They, too, have grown tired of waiting for ministry to be brought to them.

And so they have begun to build. The regional council has given them land - three dunums, to be exact. They’ve received all of the official permissions to build n no small feat for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Their architectural drawings are complete, and the exterior wall that surrounds the land is three-fourths finished. They are in need of funding, but their vision is clear: an ecumenical church for the Christians of Muqeible. As we surveyed the land, Muhammad stopped by - his home borders the church grounds, and he can often be found lending a hand with the work that is done here. Muslims and Christians are, in his words, brothers in Muqeible.

Now Deacon Firas has also been given responsibility for ministry in this village. His work here will be difficult, too, but there is hope. The leadership of Muqeible’s Christian community is young, it is eager, and it is focused. The body of Christ is being built up. Hopefully, the energy here will invigorate the ministries of Jalame and Zababdeh.

As the afternoon grew long, we bade our new Muqeible friends goodbye and went back to the checkpoint. Back at the Green Line, the Israeli soldier frisked us as we entered the West Bank. Granted permission to pass, we began the long walk back to Jalame and then the long, dusty taxi ride back to Zababdeh, the Palestinian Christian village we both call home. As Firas napped in the back seat, I began to think. We traveled between worlds today. The ordered tranquility of Muqeible feels like suburban utopia, with warm neighborhoods of permanence.

In Jalame, it’s not hard to imagine the warzone of Jenin. The whole place feels so temporary, as though everyone and everything were leaning, poised to escape from their cage if given the chance. But they’re not so far apart - they speak the same language, share the same faiths, even come from the same families. But by the arbitrary choices of history, they are separated by nationality and citizenship - and thus live in different circumstances, have different status, face different treatment.

Yet in the body of Christ that straddles that Line, there lies the hope of unity. Those days that clergy stop by to visit and share in sacrament, or when Firas the deacon becomes Firas the priest and can begin to come here regularly, they are brought together in a holy communion that fills both time and space.

The same is true of me and Firas. Muqeible to me is far more familiar. In Jalame he seems at home. But here we are, sharing a taxi back to the heart of the West Bank. We are able to span the gap in language, a mixture of his broken English and my atrocious Arabic. We are brothers in Christ, members of the same family. But by an accident of birth, my passport works wonders at border crossings, while his draws suspicion.

After seminary, I spent four years working in churches whereas he spent four years working in sweat shops. But we are drawn together in that same communion that binds Jalame to Muqeible, and by a common call. We are here to serve the church in the land of its birth. We are here to witness to Christ in the land of his resurrection. And if it means walking from Jalame to Muqeible and back again, so be it. Right now, as the dust of an oncoming truck rolls in through the window, there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.

Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are American Presbyterians working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh. Their website can be found at come.to/zababdeh

Holy fire