On a rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, fifty-seven women arrive at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, seeking reconciliation against the odds. Despite common faith in Jesus, the group is far from ordinary---composed of Palestinian Israelis, Jewish Israelis, and Palestinian women living in the Palestinian Authority.
Recent political activity tried to exacerbate the distance between these communities; so everyone who walks through the door is performing an act of courage, vulnerability, and gentle defiance against stereotypes. Still, each person carries a unique set of expectations or doubts.
In the first session, rather than focusing explicitly on the theological rhetoric and the wounds and fears that have historically served to dichotomize these communities, the staff brought our focus to relationship building. The group is broken into smaller circles, and we engage in a game: each person is given a different coloured slip of paper. The surprise is that each colour is matched to a different question; the women then answer questions about their hobbies, careers, and family lives according to the colour they drew and its corresponding question. Hesitancies unclench as individuals discover how much they have in common.
This activity softens the ground for the first session; everyone gathers back to face front, where the speaker draws our attention to the current world situation and its new infatuation with lying. Once an act of shame and embarrassment, today, people take pride in deceitfulness. In the midst of this darkness, how will we as the people of God respond? The speaker challenges us to focus on the parts of our lives where we can improve and be available for others in need. If the five virgins in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, did not have their lives in order, they would not have been able to shine their lamps in darkness.
Three guitarists begin to lead worship, alternating between Arabic and Hebrew songs. For the next hour, women explore different stations around the room, such as taking communion or washing one another’s feet as part of sensory worship. The atmosphere grows soft, heavy, and reverent, reminding us that under God’s grace we all stand on the same plane.
The night closes with sorting and wrapping several gifts to prepare for our trip to the hospital tomorrow, but it also proves to be an entertaining teamwork exercise.
In the morning, the conference coordinators introduce another worship session and staff speaker. Songs are sung in both Arabic and Hebrew, but the group does not split into alternating halves, switching between silence or song depending on preferred language. Instead, the music seems to unite everyone’s confidence, and their voices blend over both the familiar and unfamiliar lyrics.
Before the ladies head out, another speaker challenges the women through her teaching about Elijah and his visit with the widow at Zarephath. Sometimes God calls us to reach out to feed, serve, or help the stranger before attending to our own needs or the needs of our family even when we have so little. They were able to put some of this into practice as they left to serve the patients at the Augusta Victoria Hospital.
The women deliver gifts, entertain patients with games and costumes, and lend a listening ear to anxious parents, who detail the wrenching accounts leading up to their child’s hospitalization. The trip is not for the faint of heart, but the Musalaha group administers as much encouragement and cheer as they can in the brief time they are given there.
In closing, we gather back at Tantur for a final review of the weekend.
While there are many external attempts to broker peace, Musalaha utilizes a different strategy, inviting us to reconcile from the outside-in. Musalaha aims to mortar the cracks between our differences with relationships, and concentrates first on our shared values as followers of Jesus.
Despite the political disruption in the region last week, this group of diverse, talented women refused to cave into the ideals of their respective communities, instead setting an example of valiance, humility, and prophetic imagination.
By Hana Shapiro