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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mighty Fortresses: Visible and Invisible Walls

Sonia Solomonson wrote an article about the conference in the February 2007 issue of The Lutheran magazine titled, "Mighty Fortresses: Visible and Invisible Walls."

Solomonson, who is managing editor of the magazine, captures the tensions that were present among participants, as well as the bridges that were formed during the conference.

The article starts:

"Walls are built to imprison, create obstacles to movement of people, to keep people out. They are built in the mind, in the heart and over time—with suspicion, fear, racism, classism," Murray D. Finck, bishop of the ELCA Pacifica Synod, told 50 religious and civic leaders gathered Nov. 8-14 in Wittenberg, Germany.

Read full text

Friday, December 01, 2006

'Something There Is that Doesn't Love a Wall'

Here's an excellent reflection by Ralston Deffenbaugh, a participant in the conference and the president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

He raises an excellent point -- that although borders have a positive role in peaceful ordering of human affairs, physical barriers like walls can result in suspicion and even hostility.

Deffenbaugh writes:
"The contact zone, the border area, becomes unpleasant, even dangerous, further accentuating divisions and fears. The powerful and rich can cross over the barriers more easily; the costs of separation weigh more heavily on those who are poorer and less powerful."

He adds,
"What makes the U.S. wall with Mexico so offensive is that it has gone far beyond what is reasonable for combating drugs, smuggling and terrorism. It makes us look like a fearful people who no longer value liberty and peaceful interchange with our friendly neighbors. It is my hope that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a safe and legal channel for family members and honest workers to come to this country, thereby obviating the need for this ugly wall."
Find out more about Lutheran efforts to work for just immigration and border policies at LIRS' Advocacy Update.

Walls must be torn down from within

Here's a letter from Hermann Sieben, one of the German participants in the conference:

Thank you for your reports of the conference in Berlin and Wittenberg. We enjoyed the conference and especially the week being together with Christians from Mexico, the USA, Palestine and Germany. We had good conversations and learned a lot, meeting interesting personalities.

If you allow me I would like to add something to the report of the conference. When during the conference comparisons of the Iron Wall between the two Germanys with the walls in Palestine and between Mexico and the USA were made I said that the only thing we can learn from the destruction of the German wall is that nowadays walls can only brought down from the side responsible for its construction, like the German wall was torn down from the East Germans. If West Germans had tried to do it, they would have provoked a new world-war. What West Germans could do in the time of the existing wall, was to build bridges between the two parts of Germany like writing letters, visiting friends in the East who were not allowed to come to the West, meeting them in Hungary or other countries of the Eastern bloc, praying together, etc. In Berlin we heard a lot about it. These actions and among others the West German TV and radio helped the Easterners to keep their desire to come to a Germany without a wall.

What I missed in our conversations [at the conference] was for instance a readiness to hear from efforts from the Israeli side -- Jews and Arabs -- to overcome the terrible wall the Israeli government has built and is continuing to construct in Palestine. I understood my invitation from Stephan Dorgerloh, the director of the Academy in Wittenberg, to share with you my experience in youth exchange with Israel and Palestine and of the conciliation work in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam ["Oasis of Peace"], where Jews and Palestinians live together as good neighbors. More than 25 years of my professional life in German Youth exchange with Israel gave me the chance to see the falling down of walls between Germans and Jews, not visible walls but nevertheless very big ones. Nobody could imagine that after the holocaust Germans today could be considered by Israelis as ones of their best friends. It is not enough to complain the existence of walls you have to try to overcome them. When I mentioned bridges between Jews and Palestinians in Israel like the Oasis of Peace, Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, and the educational work done there for peace and understanding between the two peoples I could understand that for some Palestinians that disturbed the ugly picture they wanted to draw. I agree the wall for instance in Bethlehem is ugly and terrible. We have seen it last May. It should be torn down as soon as possible. But as I said that can be done only from the side it has built it. But should one wait till that will be done or would it not be better to help finding holes in the wall or building even small passes and ways over or through it?

The "Evangelisches Missionswerk in Deutschland" (EMW) has just published Nr. 63 Studienheft "Sehnsucht nach Frieden -- Initiativen für Verständigung und Zusammenarbeit in Israel und Palästina." In this paper you can find a lot of examples of such initiatives for understanding and cooperation. It could be worthwhile to have it translated into English.

You can find more about the Village of Peace on this Web site www.nswas.com.

Our best wishes,

Hermann Sieben
Sankt Augustin, Germany

Monday, November 27, 2006

Forbidden Family - Walls in Palestine

"Forbidden Family" (9 min 40 sec) is the story of a Palestinian family divided by the separation wall in the Holy Land.

This is a great introduction to any discussion on walls -- why are walls built, what effect do walls have on families, and how the church can respond to build bridges rather than walls.

For more information on this ELCA video resource and a downloadable discussion guide to accompany the video, visit: elca.org/peacenotwalls/walls

Monday, November 13, 2006

Food security and walls: Eliseo Perez-Alvarez

Dr. Eliseo Perez-Alvarez of the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest explains how food is a major way of excluding or including marginalized people in the global community.

The interview was recorded after a visit to the Luther Haus, a museum in the former monastery where Martin Luther and his wife Katie lived in Wittenberg. There was a fascinating display on Katie's household management that followed the old mosastic tradition -- allowing the Luther household to be almost entirely food-sufficient.

Eliseo's presentation about food security in Mexico following the North American Free Trade Agreement was titled "The Tortilla Curtain: War on the Table of the Poor."

Mexican perspectives on walls

Participants practice making a bridge in response to Francisco Garcia Aten's presentation about the U.S.-Mexico border.The third wall we focused on is the barrier being constructed along roughly one-third of the United States-Mexico border's 1,920-mile expanse. The Rev. Kim Erno, ELCA program director of the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, introduced a set of presentations that included photography, film, cultural and historical analysis, and personal testimony.

On Friday evening we heard from Maria Teresa Fernandez, a San Diego-based photographer who presented an exhibit of images she took along the corrugated metal wall that separates San Diego and Tijuana. The arresting images from her collection provided a visual backdrop for the presentations on Saturday.
Pablo Gleason Gonzales, Armando Villegas Contreras and Francisco Garcia Aten respond to questions about the wall being built on the U.S.-Mexico borderSaturday started with a documentary, "Borders: Walls and Immigrants," by conference participants Pablo Gleason González and Armando Villegas Contreras and produced by Kim Erno. The film showed the dangers associated with crossing in the desert regions of the border, the economic pressures that drive Mexicans north, and examined the arguments surrounding the border.

We then heard analysis from a faith perspective from Francisco Garcia Aten, director of an outreach center for immigrants who pass through his town (up to 3,000 per day in peak season) in the northern Mexican state of Sonora en route to the United States.

John Bertrand, a participant from the United States, expressed concern that in his home state of Arizona immigrants are placing a strain on the social systems, causing hospitals to close and taking tax dollars away from U.S. citizens. Pablo Gonzalez responded by saying the immigrants do pay taxes through social security, and they provide much more economic benefit for the U.S. than they use, in the form of cheaper food and cheap labor in many service sectors.

Palestinian filmmaker, Walid Atallah, commented that in an increasingly globalized economy, goods travel more freely across borders, but the workers are stuck in their countries. He pointed out that this problem is not just happening in Mexico, but around the world.

We also received historical and cultural perspectives from Dr. Olivia Ruiz about shifting border between the U.S. and Mexico and its effects on the culture surrounding the border region. Ruiz, a cultural anthropologist in Tijuana, Mexico, said that border policy has been influenced by the United States' "economic addiction" to cheap Mexican labor and that the increasingly militarized border zone serves as a "selective wall" that blocks migration by the poor.

Pastor Maria Santa CruzFollowing these presentations, there was a powerful personal testimony by the Rev. Maria Santa Cruz, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serves among immigrants in the San Diego, California area.

The day finished with a theological reflection by Dr. Eliseo Perez-Alvarez on the links between Mexico's food insecurity and its increasing economic dependence on the United States as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Letter from Bishop Younan

"For Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken the dividing walls of hostility."

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

I greet you on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, all of our people and pastors, congregations and centers, schools and educational programs. I greet you from your sisters and brothers living behind the Wall.

How I wish I could be there at this important conference to struggle with you about this crucial ministry of breaking down the walls that divide us. As you will hear, the wall that is surrounding us in Palestine is growing every day into a tighter concrete noose around our cities, towns, homes and churches.

Yet the concrete wall is symbolic of the larger walls of resentment, oppression, fear and frustration that are being constructed by this and by the larger trends of politics, militarization and religious extremism that threaten to encircle all of us in our own ghettoes of fear and isolation.

Yet, even standing face to face with these obstacles, we hear a different call: to break down the walls of hostility through the ministry of reconciliation. Even in the face of oppression and violence, we are called to be prophets for justice, instruments of peace, voices of hope, and hands of healing and reconciliation.

I dream of the day no more walls of hate, demonization or stigmatization will separate us.

I dream of the day Palestinian farmers can enter their own fields without gates or permits.

I dream of the day I can place on my table next to a piece of the Berlin Wall a piece of the wall that used to surround us.

I dream of the day Palestinian and Israeli children no longer wonder about each other on the other side but instead work together to transform the huge, heavy foundations of concrete walls into tables of reconciliation.

I dream of the day we won't talk about my Jerusalem or your Jerusalem but our shared Jerusalem.
But we all know we must do more than dream. Thank you for engaging this important work, and may God bless you during this conference with wisdom and insight and stir up within you courage and imagination to go forth from here inspired and led to break down the walls that divide and reconcile us with one another and God.

One day, in the not too distant future, I pray that when you come to visit us in the Holy Land, I will only be able to show you pictures of the wall that once divided us here.

As we say in Arabic: Ahlan wa Sahlan!

Your brother in Christ,

Bishop Dr. Munib Younan
Evangelical Lutheran Chruch in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL)

Text of a letter delivered to conference participants by Rana Khoury, deputy general director of the International Center in Bethlehem.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hard Conversations

Castle Church, Wittenberg, GermanyWITTENBERG -- Yesterday we focused on the separation wall in Palestine.

"How do we express ourselves as Christians with regard to the wall in Palestine?" asked the Rev. Said Ailabouni, director, Europe and Middle East Program, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Global Mission.

Ailabouni emphasized that Jesus calls Christians to follow his example by breaking down barriers that divide people. "We insist that God calls us to be peacemakers. We are committed to peace, not walls," he said in his reflection on Ephesians 2:13-22.

Seven Palestinian Christians examined the wall's impact from various angles -- economic, societal, urban planning, political. They described in detail how the wall is cutting off Palestinians from access to water, farmland, trade, health care and education. "This wall puts us in a big prison," said Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem.

The Palestinians cried out for justice, asking that the international community uphold United Nations resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings against the wall.

Dr. Bernard Sabella and Bishop Murray Finck talk at the ELCA Wittenberg Center, Wittenberg, Germany.Dr. Bernard Sabella, a Roman Catholic and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the wall has been presented as a way to stop suicide bombings and reduce Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. He said, "You cannot banish Palestinians within their own land in the name of security." Sabella argued that the wall is not only for security purposes. "If so, the wall would not go through [a Palestinian's] front yard," cutting off Palestinians from their olive trees and other means of livelihood.

Katharina Wegner, a German participant, challenged Sabella's statements about security. "If we take the wall away, the [security] problems will not be gone," she said.

Sari Khoury, a Palestinian architect, replied, "The wall is about more than just security. I don't understand how olive trees are a threat. That's more than security, it's taking things out of proportion."

Sabella added, "We want simply to go forward. What we aspire to is to live normal lives. We are peace seekers -- violence on any side will not lead to peace."

Said Ailabouni and Kim Erno discuss a photo taken at the U.S.-Mexico border by Maria Teresa Fernandez.The Palestinians also talked about ways they work to prevent violence and hopelessness. Rana Khoury, deputy general director of the International Center of Bethlehem (ICB), commented that the ICB is trying to break the isolating effect that the wall has on young Palestinians. "We work with a lot of young people with art, with music, with multimedia. These are very important tools to break the isolation that is being imposed on [them]; and at the same time [they] connect with the rest of the world."

Although there were signs of hope, the discussion left me and many others exhausted and overwhelmed. Terry Boggs, ELCA director for congregation-based community organizing, commented at the end of the day that these "hard conversations" were a sign of "respect and immense maturity." He asked us to think of ways we can reflect love of neighbor and concern for justice.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Connecting Berlin and Palestine?

Dr. Khalil Nijem was a Ph.D. student in Berlin when the wall came down. As we talked about his experience of that time, he related to me the connection for him between the jubilation he witnessed in Berlin in 1989 and the celebration he hopes to see someday in his home, Palestine. Dr. Nijem is currently an urban planning specialist in Jerusalem who is one of seven Palestinians attending the conference.

In the video clip, Nijem says that although it took the Germans 40 years of waiting (from 1949-1989) before they were reunited, he is encouraged by the Germans' example: "It doesn't matter how long it will take, but eventually that will happen and this gives us hope as Palestinians."

The focus of today's sessions was the Berlin Wall and its impact on the German people and the German church. We listened to presentations by the former mayor of Berlin (Dr. Christine Bergmann), the bishop of Saxony (the Rev. Axel Noack) and German theologian (the Rev. Friedrich Schorlemmer), as well as other moving testimonies by pastors who served in the former East Germany.

In discussions following these presentations, the separation wall in Palestine came up. Participants disagreed on whether Berlin offers a parallel for the Palestinian situation. Some maintained that the Palestinian case and others, such as the U.S.-Mexico border, are different from the German example because those walls have been constructed to keep others "out" rather than to keep their own people "in."

During the discussion, Bishop Noack stated, "I do not want to justify the wall [in Palestine]. As a Christian, you cannot accept it and you cannot approve of it. But as a government, I'm not sure they [walls to keep others out] will come down."

Others like Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem in Palestine, argued that "it's a wall that puts us in a big prison. We are here to speak against all walls -- whether they are in Germany, Israel-Palestine, Mexico-U.S.A., or the invisible walls ... As a church we should have a big stand against all walls. You build bridges of love and understanding, not walls of separation."

Tomorrow's presentations will focus on Bethlehem and the separation wall, so there will be plenty more to discuss.

Church of Reconciliation

Church of the Reconciliation, Jan. 28, 1985 (reproduction of photo by Gunter Peters)Today we met with Pastor Manfred Fischer at the Church of the Reconciliation in Berlin. The church was famously located in the "death zone" behind the wall. Pastor Fischer's told us the history as we stood on the spot where the church was dynamited in 1985 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Pastor Manfred Fischer, Church of the ReconciliationAccording to Fischer's animated account, the GDR didn't like Western tourists coming and taking pictures of a church of reconciliation trapped in the death zone; but when they blew it up, the images of the steeple collapsing next to the wall "said more than all the other photos combined."

After 1990, the congregation had to decide how to proceed -- rebuild their old church, or pursue a new path. They chose a third way, building a small circular chapel using the rubble from the old structure to form new walls.
Prayer in the Church of the Reconciliation, Berlin

It was a stirring example of how lost hopes can be rekindled and how congregations can outlast persecution and witness to God's love and reconciliation in creative ways.

We gathered in that space for a short prayer service followed by singing "Dona Nobis Pacem."