Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Eve- Star-Crossed Christmas

by John Daniel Gore

Text: Isaiah 11:6-16

“Bethlehem must be such a mystical place to spend Christmas,” a family friend commented in a recent e-mail. The tourists think so. A shop-keeper once complained to me that droves of people spewed from buses, in and out of the Nativity Church, and back onto the buses without visiting Bethlehem’s Old City area. All ‘Holy’ sites are like that. Pilgrims carry their Easter vision with them from the hotel to the Holy Sepulcher and mill for an hour in the vortex of waiting bodies to kiss a rock. At the Garden Tomb this November, where Jesus was never buried nor rose, pilgrims sang hymns of praise that grated my nerves: I was burned out this November. The Gaza conflict followed...

I see Israeli occupation daily, working by the Annexation/Apartheid Wall. At my office we like to say that the occupation would prevent Mary and Joseph from reaching Bethlehem but pregnant Mary would have stayed in Nazareth if not for Roman occupation (—matrices of control). When the wind howls past my window, I think the Holy family wished that the census was taken in balmy Jericho. Probably, relatives tucked them into a lower cavern, where the animals were kept, and Mary had a normal, wretched delivery. Giving birth sucks. I am not saying that shepherds did not make an uncanny visit nor that magi did not follow a brilliant supernova, predicting Christ’s ascension to ministry. All of that happened but so did the ugly details missing from popular imagination...

I adored the Christmas of my childhood, overflowing with the warmth of family and the promise of good things, with plenty of merry winter fun. That Christmas feeling slowly drained away as my parents divorced, my grandparents died, and I left places behind. Jesus was harder to find in the plastic faces of swaddled baby-dolls. I wanted mystical Bethlehem to revive my earliest memories of anticipation and awe. Bethlehem’s aura is different and the yuletide center of gravity is shifted Northward. Without any occupation, this place might be ‘Scandinavian wonderland meets Southern California climate’ but Palestine was unlucky, falling to the Ottoman and British Empires and now to Israel— so deftly named to commandeer Old Testament prophesies for a Manifest Destiny agenda. The Christmas I knew is shot and hung to dry...

I have kept searching, though. Isaiah is a thicket of predictions, prophesy, and blatant wishes where we can find both visions of the Messiah: the counter-conqueror versus the counter-cultural. Reading Isaiah out-loud, I came to a passage in chapter 11 that juxtaposes images of unprecedented peace with a vision of regional dominance. “Aw [expletive],” I grumbled, “this sounds SO stinking zionist.” I stopped to pray for a moment. “Could it be,” I mused, “that Isaiah had a broader vision than the translators or, further still, could it be that God had a greater vision than Isaiah could comprehend as he penned?” What if the returning exiles were refugees in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon—from enclaves around the world— exercising their right to return with equal rights? There could be space, in this text—on the land, for everyone to overcome the rash of reactive ethnocentrism that rooted itself here over seventy years ago. I can reclaim Christmas from the neo-colonialists— Independence Day, too...

Christmas in Bethlehem feels like the 4th of July. Each Christmas procession (there are parades for each rite) conjures a wave of pomp that surges along The Star Street. Camel riders, people dressed as cartoon characters, long lines of silent monks, and band after band of bagpipe-toting scout troupes pour in from across the West Bank. I love marching bagpipes. A gargantuan, fake pine with flashing lights is erected in the middle of the square, next to the massive stage. Living a block from the square, I am treated to two weeks of rah-rah and concerts but nothing compares to the tree-lighting. A mass of Christians, streaked with curious Muslims, congeals around the tree to listen to speeches by big-wigs: the mayor, the prime minister, special guests. I cannot resist the electricity. At last, a bloom of fireworks forces the recon drones to higher altitudes. The band bursts into song and everyone croons: “Ballaaaadi! Ballaaaadi!” My country! My country! Tears trickle from my chin: my patriotism has returned from exile. In Bethlehem, at Christmas, I have a nation again as a Christian!

In successive years, Advent comes wrapped in a Palestinian statehood bid. The land groans for liberation. Imagine how early Christians must have felt when Jesus was hung to dry, rolled in spices and buried. The Star the magi followed must have seemed like a lie, all anticipation wasted. Then the good news emerged that he was risen, that they could hoist the cross at last. They remained among a sea of doubters and hostiles. Similarly, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly, 139 to 9, to grant Palestine nonmember State status. Yet those 9 have the power to close an iron noose. Herod (I mean the Knesset) is restless: there could be military crackdowns, new restrictions. False prophets across the West speculate with outdated information and armchair heuristics. Regardless, most of the world awoke as protests for Gaza dotted the globe last month: the smell of Justice, like the Magi, wafts across the desert!

The newborn Jesus was our statehood bid, Christians, but not the state that was envisioned. I believe that having a Messiah was a terrible, human idea that God purloined for the good of all humanity. God pirated the Messianic prophesies using the census, angels, and even the stars to put the boy from Nazareth in the right place at the right time. What a huge save! Jesus did come to balmy Jericho and, on the Mount of Temptation, Satan painted him a picture of supremacy. Jesus had an immaculate conception: to forego domination for Salvation. The budding anticipation flowered that day and the Advent of Salvation, his ministry and passage into the Earth as The seed of Love, and everything that followed was clinched. Hallelujah!

Like the first Christmas, little has changed ‘on the ground’. I keep returning to the magi, those people who came from afar because they knew (inexplicably?) that Victory was imminent. The solidarity workers are all magi and the local NGO-workers are our shepherds. We seem like crazy optimists. The rest of the world thinks we celebrate prematurely. Bethlehem shows us the first, shining face of Christmas. It is a brazen demonstration of Faith in things to come: an end to oppression, the beginning of a people. When our lives are torn apart and we feel rootless, Christmas is a time to conceive what God will do to restore Unity with Dignity. As for the warm Christmas I knew as a child, I understand now that this is the glow of Victory remembered. Someday, I will see it again.

رجاء, مبادرة, و سلام إليكم. [Hope, Initiative, and Peace to you all]  


John Daniel Gore is a young adult missionary through the United Methodist Church serving at the Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. He was born and educated in Michigan before departing for Bethlehem, Palestine, to begin what he hopes is a career in peace and conflict. He describes himself as a writer, a hack musician, and a lover of insects, lakes, and star-lit nights. He blogs at Reverse Exiled.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent 4- Rejoicing in Our Calling

by Kara Crawford

“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
For you have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy -
the promise you made to our ancestors -
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”
(Luke 1:46-55, The Inclusive Bible)

I have never quite understood how Mary found the strength within her to bear such a heavy burden. I can hardly imagine being so young – barely a teenager, an unmarried girl – and finding out that I was pregnant with the son of God. Quite a bit of pressure, right?

Even more amazing to me is her response. After a moment of shocked hesitance, she says to the angel, “I am a servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say.” As such a young woman, living in her cultural, political, and personal context, this was a very brave decision on her part to accept God's call, quite literally risking life and fiancee to carry out her call.

What is most striking for me, though, is her song of praise which follows the initial events of her call, most commonly called the Magnificat. Many of us, when we receive our calls, try to avoid it, saying “isn't there someone more qualified? More worthy? More...not me?”

Mary, on the other hand, does something quite different. Instead of asking God “why didn't you choose a queen for this noble task?” she rejoices in a God who exalts the lowly and fills the hungry, a God who casts out the powerful and proud from their high places. A God who turns the system on its head and empowers the marginalized to hold the most important places in the processes of liberation.

In her moment of call, Mary discovered that she would not only play a role in God's liberating process, but that she would bear the seed of liberation, the Christ, the Messiah. In the Magnificat, Mary spoke the prophetic truth of kingdom come – the kingdom of God will not come about by means of the rich and powerful, but rather when the humble and lowly are lifted up and the high and mighty are brought down from their thrones.

Often we allow the Gospel narrative to disappear between the bookends of the idyllic birth scene, the “holy infant so tender and mild” and the triumphant victory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords over death. When we do this, though, we forget the most liberating elements of the narrative. Looking at the Magnificat rather than the birth as the beginning of the story gives us a whole new perspective.

From his origins, Jesus brought with him liberation. By giving birth to the son of God, Mary was liberated from her marginalization, becoming one that all generations would call blessed. Likewise, she brought liberation to those future generations in the form of her son.

The Magnificat as a song of praise reminds us to rejoice in our call to be part of God's liberating process, bringing us forth from our humble and sometimes marginalized and seemingly underqualified origins to play that part. The Magnificat as a reminder of God's goodness, we are reminded that liberation is coming, that liberation is here, should we choose to humble ourselves and accept the call.

This Christmas, rather than celebrating solely with idyllic pictures of the nativity and consumption galore, we should learn from the example of Mary, taking time to listen for our calls, rejoicing in them, and humbly accepting them.


Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with The United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent 3- Mud on My Boots

by Betty L. Gannon

Luke 2:6-7
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Entering into the neighborhood in Staten Island NY where I was going to be spending the day cleaning up was like something out of the Twilight Zone. The houses from the outside looked fine, but it was so silent. Utility companies on the street working and dump trucks created some noise but it did not cut the silence. Walking into the houses the silence got even louder. Houses that must have been the dreams of many people where covered in mud, water stained and molding. The stories of the people who lived in here in this neighborhood molding away, as the mud leached up the walls as well. But the mud was truly the one hallmark that covered everything it was everywhere. On the street itself, in the front yards, on the floors, on the people working to restore there lives. Thinking of most of the pictures of the Nativity that come to my mind, I can’t help but to think just how clean they are. Mary without a sweat drop on her brow, the shepherds in clean tunics, and the animals looking in from clean straw underfoot. Now I did not grow up on a farm but I spent enough time around animals to know that animals in general are not always the picture perfect image we have in our Christmas cards. Same thing about human birth, that’s messy too, without going into to details.

Life is messy. But the mess is central to our lives as Christians. God proves that to us by coming to dwell with us. Making sure to make a grand entrance in the world in the muck, the dirt, and the mud of the earth and of our lives. Not exactly the Hollywood version of a savior. The group of people I was working with was tasked to demo a house. It’s messy and yucky and potentially very dangerous. Whacking down dry wall that has been soaked through makes it twice as hard to clean up then regular dry wall. The mold spots black and fuzzy serve as a very real reminder of just what we are doing. Plaster dust that is bad enough on its own has become crusted to our pants and to the bottom of our boots because of the dampness. It is a mess. But here’s the thing, the houses in Staten Island and other storm-damaged areas from Sandy are going to be a mess for a long time. But think of the lives of the people affected by Sandy let alone the other storms that where in their lives before the storm. Imagine the mud left in their lives right now. Covered like the roads and the stoops.

Life is messy; we as humans are created from the mud, formed into the images of God. Most of us reading this where unlikely born into mud, but plenty of people still are born into mud today. But we, unlike God, can’t always shape the mud into something good.

But there are opportunities for us to make the mud go away, to shape it into something. I encourage everyone who is United Methodist to go get an ERT (early responder training) badge, so that you can be among the second wave of people to go to a disaster site and help clean up. You can also donate money and flood buckets to United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), make it a project for your youth group, ladies group, get the entire community involved maybe hold a drive at your local grocery store to get the items.

Additionally if you have people going to help commission them for the important work of Christian presence that they are providing. But most importantly continue to pray for the survivors of the storm, the utility workers, the police, the EMTs, the linemen, the Red Cross workers, the construction managers, and the volunteers that are on the ground working to try and create something out of the mud.

For more information about Hurricane Sandy Disaster Response, visit the New York Annual Conference's website.


Betty L. Gannon is a third year seminarian at Drew Theological School in Madison NJ. She is in the ordination process in the New York Annual Conference of The UMC, her interests include disability theology, social work, pastoral counseling and care, and working to meet people ‘where they are’ to help them meet the goals they have for themselves. When she is not hitting the books she knits, reads, and watches Law and Order SVU just a little too much! She blogs at Itinerant Camper.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent 2- Anticipating the birth of Christ with all the Earth

by Tyler Sit 

Romans 8:18-24
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?"

I know Jesus never wore snowpants, but Christmas is certainly the time when my mind is on cold weather.

I think about the street lamps of Minnesota, padded with the bluster of blizzards, shining onto glossy streets. I think of icicles, hanging like the pipes of an organ along every rooftop. How much warmer fireplaces and friends feel in this season; how much cleaner do our hallelujahs ring across the plates of ice. It’s not exactly Bethlehem, but winter in the Twin Cities gives me the thrill of hope that Advent is all about.

Perhaps your ecological memories are different than mine, but we have all encountered God during some brush with nature—whether it was at a mountain top, during a thunderstorm, or in the middle of a bird song in the morning. As Christians, we have to honor these sites of divine encounter, not in a romanticized way but in honor of the real difference nature makes in our spiritual lives.

Romans 8 says that the earth’s flourishing is a sign that human beings are living rightly; destruction of the planet (“bondage and decay”) directly correlates to human rejection of God’s will.

The reason is obvious: nature is our friend in finding God—it inspires us, calms us, and accompanies us. The degradation of the planet, its subjection to “futility,” is not something to be taken lightly.

Furthermore, our abuse of the planet is accessory to injustices against human beings—think of refugees created by climate change, environmental health risks to children from pollution, and increasing amounts of famine.

The vision of Romans 8, however, offers more: it gives earth a voice. The planet literally groans (v22) for the time when it must shoulder the weight of human recklessness no longer. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is not a melody for human voices alone.

Celebrate this Advent season, then, with more than just your family or church. Anticipate the birth of Christ with all of the Earth, ever-mindful of the destruction humans have wrought and ever-grateful in the Spirit that abides with us despite it all.

It is a shallow practice indeed—to place a star on a tree without noticing deforestation, to break bread without caring about desolation of agricultural systems, to celebrate a virgin birth without considering the future world of our children.
God offers us more hope that that. Humans and earth alike deserve care and freedom from violence.

Let us begin now.

3 Ideas for Making Your Christmas Greener
  • Agree with friends and family to exchange gifts that make a difference—donations to charity, microloans to end poverty (see, or organic and fair trade gifts
  • Pray with your faith community for the renewal of the planet and the healing of human actions that have harmed it
  • It’s never too early to start planning your next vegetable garden!


Tyler Sit is in the Master of Divinity program at the Candler School of Theology and pursuing ordination in The United Methodist Church. He is an organizer for the World Student Christian Federation (North America), and is constantly seeking creative ways to combine his passions for environmentalism, contemplation, feminism, and social justice. In his spare time, he enjoys going on adventures.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 1 - Waiting on God

Text: Luke 21:25-35

I am out there. Way out there. No, really, I am way out there in rural Kekaha, Kauai, Hawaii. I am the pastor of the westernmost United Methodist Church in the United States. This church is teaching me how to “do” or “be” this call to pastoral ministry. I have much to learn.

Then again many of us on this blog are “out there.” You know, in the world that Wesley called his parish--committed to movement(s) of justice wherever we may be. We are just your typical rabble rousers speaking truth to systems of power. We respond to the realities of global climate change. We refuse to accept institutionalized forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the ignorance that haunts our classrooms, places of business, and sadly, even our homes. We raise our voices in opposition of belligerent, derailed/ing political-economic systems that maintain structures of inequality. Wherever we find ourselves we must know our context.

Indeed, we walk dusty roads in worn “slippers,” our sneakers smell because we have walked the streets time and again, and our hearts are sometimes full and other times not.

The Advent 1 lectionary text portrays Jesus as a prophetic rabbi who preached in the temple of the coming reign of God. He was out there. Jesus spoke of the signs of nature, the distress of nations, the fainting masses, and the shaking heavens. It sounds mildly reminiscent of the “Left Behind” book series. Then, only, will we see the Son of Man return in triumphant victory.

What did Jesus mean? Did he mean that the temple would be destroyed or was he directing our consciousness toward the end times? Is this an apocalyptic judgment or an eschatological promise? In an article, Walter Wink wrote that “apocalyptic [thought] has a foreshortened sense of time. It anticipates a final war between the powers of Good and Evil...Eschatology, by contrast, regards the future as open, undetermined and capable of being changed if people alter their behavior in time.” [1]

In other words, Jesus offered a word of hope--we still have time. Do not despair but stand up and raise your heads. We continue to build, create, and hope in the transformative work of the kin-dom of God. Advent reminds us that we do not do this work alone. We need each other.

Most importantly, we wait on God. For a city boy appointed to the beautiful beaches of rural Kauai this season of Advent challenges me to pause, to be present where God is already at work. We wait on God who became human to dwell with humans in our messy, chaotic world.

The answer lies in a fig tree.

The fig tree, an ancient symbol of blessing and hope, often requires three to five years of tending, fertilizing, and cultivating to bear fruit. The ancients knew this when they sat under the tree for shade and learning. Jesus taught his disciples that the work of kin-dom necessitates patience. We have much work to do. Do it. But the good news is that God is already present, God is the one who moves within and amidst us, as we await the coming of the Messiah.

Holy God, give us grace to cast away the darkness of despair, that we might embrace the light of justice, now in this present life in which Christ came to live and die; and on that day, when Christ shall come again may we share in the life to come through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (adapted from The Book of Common Prayer)

Check out this video and reclaim the Advent season.

Joshua Clough is the pastor at West Kauai United Methodist Church on the Island of Kauai, Hawaii and a candidate for elders orders in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. A native of the Seattle, Washington area he enjoys running, politics, reading, writing, and walking on the beach at sunset with his dog “Cassie.”

[1] The Christian Century, October 17, 2001, pp. 16-19.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent in Tahrir Square

Stay tuned for OnFire's Advent 2012 series beginning this weekend where we will explore the meaning of Advent through the justice work young people (or, in the case of this post, the young at heart!) are doing around the world. This Advent "preview" is cross-posted from Global Lens, a blog by Paul Jeffrey, a photojournalist for the mission agency of The United Methodist Church. Check out his blog to see more of his reflections and stunning photography!

by Paul Jeffrey

It is Advent in Tahrir Square, where people are waiting. They’re not sure for what, but such is the nature of Advent, to wait for freedom and deliverance amid uncertainty. The people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square are both afraid and hopeful at the same time. That's Advent in a land where Arab Spring has turned into Arab Fall.

Although western churches begin celebrating Advent on Sunday,December 2, the waiting period has already begin in the Orthodox churches, including for the Copts, as Christians here are called. They have begun fasting, though that seems to mean they just give up meat. When I sat down to lunch Wednesday in a small village in northern Egypt,the Copt family hosting me apologized for their "fasting foods"–a rich variety of salads, tahini, lentil soup, falafel, and eggplant. Fasting for them means giving up meat, though fish is OK. Frankly, I'd fast more often if that’s how we defined the word.

My Coptic friends here were concerned for my safety during the protests in and around Tahrir Square, and they’d warned me to stay in my hotel and shoot the protests from the balcony, which overlooks the square. I went anyway, and I got beat up by the Egyptian police. When one friend heard what happened, she stared at me with a mixture of concern and a very clear I-told-you-so look. I promised her I wouldn't go out again that night and would watch from the hotel balcony. Then a few hours later, she called me from the square to invite me down. I couldn't hear her very well, with all the chanting and noise. A quarter million people had shown up for a massive demonstration against the dictatorial measures announced by President Mohamed Morsi on November 22. She said I should come join her and her friends. I knew I'd never find them, so I declined. The next day, she talked about it with a sparkle in her eyes. "There were so many people that there was no oxygen to breathe," she said, pantomiming suffocating. "It was wonderful!"

Advent: waiting that takes your breath away.

Not all the protesters are as nonviolent and polite as the thousands who are maintaining a vigil in a collection of tents in the center of Tahrir Square. Hundreds of mostly young men have been engaged in a continuous battle with police (also, not coincidentally, mostly young men) in the streets around the square, including the street right under my balcony. The youth, who did include some young women, express their anger about the president’s anti-democratic measures by taunting and throwing rocks at the police, who shoot tear gas at the protesters, who in turn throw the tear gas back at the police. It's a testosterone-fueled drama which, quite frankly, has strongly compelling visual elements. Translation: I wanted to photograph it. I could shoot the scene from my balcony, but the aerial view of human drama is seldom very compelling.

So I got closer. And, wouldn't you know it, the first time I went out to photograph the showdown I got "injured." It was on the north side of Tahrir Square, and three times the tear gas got the better of me, so I'd retreat a bit and the protesters’ medics would grab me and rinse out my eyes with whatever solution they use to take the sting away. No worries. But then a tear gas canister landed right in front of a guy who was right in front of me, and it startled him and he jumped backward, right into me. He collided with my lens, which shoved the attached camera into my forehead, cutting me and drawing quite a bit of blood. (Fortunately my Nikons are tougher than me.) The medics quickly grabbed me, thinking they had a serious case to work on, and a foreigner to boot, but it was just one of those little cuts that bleeds a lot. They graciously cleaned me up, and I was back in action. As some more tear gas was incoming, one of the medics pointed at a smoking canister bouncing by and said, "Made in USA." Then he innocently asked me, "Where you from?" America. Malesh. "I'm from America. I'm sorry," I said in pigeon Arabic. I wished him good luck. He hugged me. I went back to taking pictures.

Some images from the day include a man throwing back a smoking tear gas canister, another man snuffing one out in the mud, a woman raising her arms in defiance toward the police, and a man throwing a rock.
The next day was Tuesday, when a massive march was planned for the afternoon. Most schools and businesses shut down so people could stay at home, or participate, whichever they chose. I had some interviews later in the day but went out early in the morning to see what I could find. The same drama was unfolding. I tried to shoot from behind police lines but an official told me to go away, that no photos were allowed. So I walked around to the protesters' side and started shooting.
Let me say, before you dismiss me as completely foolish, that in situations like this I always keep security in mind. I tend to be conservative and am always thinking of how I'm going to exit the encounter should things turn dodgy. So I stayed close to one side street which I figured I could run down if I needed to escape. But then something interesting happened. Some older men, and a few women, were standing between the police and the young protesters, trying to get the later to quit throwing stones, and the former to hold their fire. They were moderately successful, and the two opposing lines came closer together.
People starting talking to each other, and I watched as one police officer and one protester embraced. It was an emotional moment, and many people cheered. Everyone, for a moment, was simply Egyptian, and the divisions disappeared. And then the kumbaya moment ended as a new barrage of rocks arrived from youth in the back, and the police lost their cool and charged, firing tear gas and swinging batons. I turned to run for my escape route, but got knocked over in the melee. When I got up, there were rocks falling all around me, and I ran toward the side of the street holding my arms over my head in case a rock had my name on it. But that diversion put me directly in the path of three running police, who when they saw me raised their batons to hit me. I motioned at the rocks and pleaded for them to help me (always assume the best of people, my mother always taught me), and after a moment’s indecision one of them said something to the others, and then two of them raised their plexiglass shields to keep the rocks from hitting me and we moved down the street together toward safety. Yet just as I thought I might get out if it alive, some other police, who’d run after the protesters firing tear gas, turned to see these three escorting me, and they yelled "camera!" and ran toward us, pushing the other three out of the way and hitting me with their batons. The three "good cops" tried to stop them, but to no avail. I doubled over from a particularly sharp blow to my right side. They then drug me back to the police line, where several other police joined in hitting and kicking me. Frankly, at this point I've gone beyond my initial fear that they would seize the Compact Flash cards from my cameras, and am starting to contemplate more existential questions. Finally one cop grabbed me and pulled me away from the others. I think it was the cop who I'd photographed hugging the demonstrator, but I'm not sure. It all happened kind of fast, and I was trying to protect my vital organs and cameras from grave harm. He pushed me forward down the street, and I didn’t turn back. I stumbled around the corner and down my "escape street," even though it was full of tear gas, soon to be grabbed by some demonstrators who ran out to rush me to safety. They sat me down, washed my eyes out, stuck some cotton soaked with something under my nose, and kept apologizing for the police. Two of them escorted me back to the hotel, all the while saying they were sorry.

I was left with a unpleasant collection of bruises, and some kidney issues which are now OK. I'm also feeling, I have to admit, like I'm getting too old for this. But it’s clear that it could have been worse. At least two Egyptian photographers were also beaten by the police that day; one of them was hospitalized. Egyptian journalists face tremendous challenges in trying to cover what’s happening here. The truth is a dangerous thing, and telling the truth, in whatever way, obviously entails certain risks.
Egypt's Christians face even more serious challenges, yet they don't shrink from them. They never had an easy time under Mubarek, but the rise to power of conservative Islamists has emboldened those who would do them harm. Churches and Christian businesses and homes have been attacked in recent months, and church members killed. While these attacks probably don’t reflect any official policy of violence toward Christians, and there are numerous examples of Muslims protecting Christians from violence, it's nonetheless clear that some extremists have taken advantage of political instability to promote an agenda of intolerance. Thousands of Christians have left Egypt in recent months.
But those who remain–they’re roughly ten percent of the population–aren’t shrinking away from their faith. I witnessed that in a couple of rural villages I visited, where Christians and Muslims get along fine, both free to live out their faith. In Sakra, for example, I walked around with Father Joil Sobhe, the Coptic Orthodox priest, as he visited the faithful.
In Cairo, I interviewed Coptic Orthodox Bishop Youannes, who has a great black beard. At the end of our talk I compared our beards and asked for any advice on how to make mine more, ahh, distinguished. He told me to have more faith. OK.

Youannes also explained the demographics of religion here, saying that Christians had “very good” relations with moderate Muslims who, with Christians, make up half the population. That’s what I witnessed in the villages. With the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said represented about 30 percent of the population, Christians had “good” relations, and could coexist just fine albeit with disagreements. But the 20 percent or less of the population from Salafist and other fundamentalist groups want little to do with the Christians, he said, and some even think they should be kicked out of Egypt. So there's no dialogue between them and Christians.

While they're rightly concerned about their security and status here, to characterize Egypt's Copts as fearful would be overstating things. "Yes, the future is vague. But from the point of view of our faith we are enthusiastic. God is almighty and our protector, and we are a blessed nation," Youannes told me. "Being a minority gives us more faith, makes us closer to God, makes us seek God's help and support even more."

Copts, by the way, are quick to remember that they weren't always a minority, that indeed they were here before the Muslims. Yet political convenience triumphed when they welcomed the Muslims to Egypt in order to rid the country of the Byzantines. And some Muslims rightly point out that Christian-Muslim relations here are better in general than the relationships between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, many of whom refuse to acknowledge, let alone talk with each other. So we should be careful about easy reductionism. It's complicated.

Another example of this complicated scene is that the Copts could actually benefit in some ways from Morsi’s power grab, in that one of the things he did was reduce the power of the judiciary, much of which is still a holdover from the Mubarek regime. It’s extremely corrupt, and Christians have often gotten a raw deal in the courts whenever their relationship with Muslims was part of any legal matter. If Morsi can help craft a more transparent and fair court system, he’ll be doing all Egyptians a favor. Whether that results from his new power grab remains to be seen. Indeed, it’s not clear how long his extraordinary powers will last. Although no time limit was announced at the beginning, some of Morsi’s people are talking about the exceptional powers ending within weeks, once a draft of the constitution is approved. Obviously, for the people who keep Tahrir Square filled with protest songs day and night, even that is not acceptable, in part because the proposed new constitution takes Egypt even further away from its secular past.

Yet such is the nature of revolutions, what Ambrose Bierce characterized as the "abrupt change in the form of misgovernment." They are complicated, messy things. Ours in the United States was no exception, and some of the critical issues of the day were not resolved for decades or more. So that it is taking Egypt a while to find its way is not surprising, although it’s ironic that a country with such an iconic role in the history of civilization is still struggling with what it means to be a democracy.

And that uncertainty is at the heart of waiting. Have a happy Advent, my friends.

Before coming here, I was in Jordan and Lebanon to report on how churches are responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. Instead of going home from here, as originally planned, I’m instead flying to Southeast Asia for two weeks to look at some issues in the Philippines and Cambodia. I confess this blog has been a bit quiet of late, for which I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. I’ve just been too busy to find the time to write. I hope to remedy that after I return home, where several major projects of writing and photo-editing await. Stay tuned.


To read more about Paul Jeffrey, visit his website or see his longer bio here. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jubilee at Wal-mart

by Mistead Sai

I have been working on the Wal-mart Black Friday actions for the past couple weeks for my organization, the Interfaith Worker justice (IWJ). The Interfaith Worker Justice is a national organization located in Chicago whose mission is to organize, mobilize, and encourage communities of faith to advocate for workers' rights (and worker justice). As a recently new US-2 missionary commissioned by General Board of Global Ministries of the UMC, I was commissioned to Chicago to work with IWJ as my placement site.

In the past couple weeks, my job tasks has allowed me to participate in Jubilee at Wal-mart, which has been IWJ’s Wal-mart campaign, inciting the religious rhetoric of Jubilee in the Judeo-Christian tradition for management and owners of Wal-mart to share their resources and wealth with their workers. It is with this same token that IWJ seeks to advocate that the 1.4 million Wal-mart workers be provided a living wage, decent minimum hours, less costly health care, and better working conditions.

At the heart of this issue and various worker-related campaigns is dignity and respect. It is fundamental for our co-existence as humans and for God’s creation to acknowledge the dignity and worthy of all people. This also applies to the work and labor that the individual offers to the world with their talents and gifts. Like my friend said to me, work is dignified because humans are dignified. Thereby it’s important for Wal-mart to acknowledge the dignity and respect of people and the work they produce. As a missionary serving at IWJ, I have come to understand that labor allows God’s mission and ministry to be done in the world.

Some of my job tasks had included creating a flash mob tutorial video, and reaching out to our affiliates to get involved in the Black Friday actions. And in these past couple weeks, I have been transformed by this experience. I discovered a passion for this campaign because I saw the economic injustice and the welfare of humans being tarnished. I was hearing stories of individuals not being given minimum hours unable to pay their rent, a worker going to management saying they needed more hours to pay for their rent and management at Wal-mart providing church communities that could help them out rather than working to help them get hours to make ends meet. Wal-mart workers are struggling to pay for food, rent, and health care. The worst part of it that struck a chord with me was to hear and read the CEO of Wal-mart, Mike Duke had a total compensation of $18.1 million per the 2012 shareholder report while a total compensation for a full-time worker is $8.83/hr or $15,000 a year putting the full-time worker below the poverty line. This should be a red flag for any person of faith. Is God’s justice reigning in this world? How are some people struggling for survival and others are grossly rewarded for the hard labor of other individuals?

After my personal investment in this campaign at IWJ with all the calls and work, I stood in solidarity with Wal-mart workers in the Black Friday actions in Chicago, to stand against the largest private employer and the nation’s largest retailer to treat their workers with dignity and respect and provide them with a living wage, decent minimum hours, less costly health care, an end to retaliation and for workers to freely associate (if they so choose), and better working conditions.

We are like the biblical narrative of David and Goliath and unless we stand up against this big retailer like Wal-mart who makes billion of dollars in profit each year saying, “You come against me with low prices on the backs of hard labor from some impoverished workers and communities devastated by Wal-mart, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God that said liberate your workers and provide them with dignity and respect," we would not have brought about justice into this world.

It is time for Jubilee, my brothers and sisters! It is time for Jubilee!

Mistead Sai is currently a US-2 missionary commissioned by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church to Chicago, IL where he works with Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How It Felt to be Powerless

My grandmother was born in 1922 and born the oldest of four children to a farmer in Arkansas.  I’ve always thought that her childhood experiences of deprivation affected her tendency to keep a stocked refrigerator and pantry.  I used to marvel at all the colorful fresh vegetables and fruits that filled her fridge with multiple types of ice cream in the freezer next to various cuts of meat.  The shelves in her pantry were always filled with stacks of canned vegetables and soups along with baking supplies so she could make fresh cookies at a moment’s notice.  

This habit of keeping a stocked kitchen was inherited by mother whose current pantry offers a variety of unique bread mixes, pickles and sprinkles among other foods.  Poking through her refrigerator looking for food she bought just for me and exploring her creative pantry are rituals of coming home.

Now in my first house in New Jersey, my own refrigerator and pantry seem like important validators of my ability to care for my family.  But three weeks ago, these validators were threatened by Hurricane Sandy.  Accurately predicting that we would lose power, I took all of our frozen fish and meats to a friend’s house where we set up camp expecting their house to be safer than our own.  If we were going to lose all this food, we might as well begin to eat it!  

On Sunday October 28th, the nine of us who had gathered under one roof began to feast on everything that we expected to go bad.  On Monday as the worst of the storm began to hit, we were cooking frantically when our friend’s house lost power.  It was too warm to keep any of the perishable food outside so we kept cooking on their gas stove by lantern light to fry fish and bacon and cook one-pot meals so our food wouldn’t be wasted.

Just as we hit the point when food poisoning was a real threat because we couldn’t keep any food cold, the temperatures dropped.  Unfortunately all our leftover meats, milk, salad dressings, condiments and frozen meals had already gone bad.  And now we were cold.  We started making nightly fires in the fireplace and we toasted bread in a frying pan to accompany meals of canned soup.  Instead flipping on a coffee pot each morning, we struggled to patiently pour boiling water through a coffee filter knowing that we didn’t have half and half to add to our homemade coffee and our sugar supply was diminishing.  It almost seemed like we were pioneers.  As power was restored to other various blocks in town, we were able to begin finding fast food restaurants that were open.  

After the first few days, we began to rethink our situation.  We debated daily whether we should use our limited gas to move to various family member’s houses who might have had power restored.  After a week of hanging in there working as a team to survive, I left with my infant son to stay with my parents.  

I returned a week later to my friend’s house where power had been restored since my house still wouldn’t have power for three more days.  Finally it was time to clear my refrigerator and freezer of the things we weren’t able to eat before they went bad.  I cried as I washed out bottles for the recycling and scrubbed every nook and cranny hoping to avoid mold and the possibility of contamination of future meals.  Then it was time to restock.  Where do you even start?  Milk... eggs... butter... cheese... 

As I prepared to preach a sermon for last Sunday based the importance of generosity, I found an article that estimated that 1.5 billion people live without power every day.  One in five people worldwide can’t reach into a cold refrigerator to get milk for their coffee, let alone drink coffee made by an automated coffeepot.  They can’t even flip a switch to turn on the kitchen light after the sun goes down.

One of Paul’s comments caught my attention as I thought about my experience.  

“You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way.  
Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us.”  
-2 Corinthians 9:11 (CEB) 

Yes, it was difficult to lose most of our food.  But I feel grateful that I can begin to restock my refrigerator and the almost empty pantry shelves.  Many people in my own state lost more than just their food supply.  You’ve probably seen the photographs of the devastation on the Jersey shore.  I have been given the resources not only to restock my own shelves but also to act generously towards others.  And generosity is not limited to monetary gifts.  Some of our neighbors need help cutting down trees, cleaning out flooded houses and repairing their damaged property.  Some of us need listening ears and compassionate responses as we readjust after a frightening storm.  And some of us need to help each other.  May such generosity produce thanksgiving to God this Thanksgiving holiday.