Tag Archives: Caritas Jordan

The lamb who becomes the shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 21, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

This week we enjoyed hosting Darrin Yoder, MCC’s material resources manager. Darrin has been responsible for coordinating shipments of relief kits, school kits, health kits and blankets to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in the wake of the Syrian crisis.

These two brothers eventually each received an MCC school kit

These two brothers eventually each received an MCC school kit

On Monday we visited Caritas Jordan distribution sites in Husson and Mafraq and talked with Syrian families about the violent situations they left behind in their own country.

Caritas has an orderly, efficient and dignity-preserving distribution system, taking time to assess each family’s needs and tailoring its response accordingly. Caritas makes extensive use of a network of Jordanian and Syrian volunteers.

Darrin Yoder, MCC material resources coordinator; Dana Abawi, Caritas Jordan communications coordinator; and Nada Zabaneh, MCC Jordan program coordinator

Darrin Yoder, MCC material resources manager; Dana Abawi, Caritas Jordan communications coordinator; and Nada Zabaneh, MCC Jordan program coordinator, at Husson distribution site

At Caritas’ distribution site in Husson, a family with two boys received several MCC blankets, a relief kit and one school kit. The brother’s both wanted the school kit and had a friendly tugging match for who would get it. As the boys walked away from the distribution site, the Caritas staff member realized that they had made a mistake in the allotment and called the family back. The family ended up leaving with three school kits and lots of smiles.

A Syrian volunteer opens a bundle of MCC blankets at a Caritas distribution site in Mafraq

A Syrian volunteer opens a bundle of MCC blankets at a Caritas distribution site in Mafraq

At the Caritas distribution site in Mafraq an elderly volunteer removed his baseball cap and showed us a large bandage on his head. “I just had surgery,” he said. “I can’t go to my job, so I thought I’d volunteer with Caritas today!”

On Tuesday we visited the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, where MCC SALTer Willy Stell works with children on the deaf-blind unit and offers administrative support for Brother Andrew, who heads the school.

Willy Stell communicates with Hazim in the deaf-blind unit at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

Willy Stell communicates with Hazim in the deaf-blind unit at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

Wednesday we welcomed guests from MedAir, a Swiss organization responding to the Syrian crisis.  On Thursday, Paul Parker, a professor at Elmhurst College who is spending his sabbatical at Sabeel Ecumenical Center in Jerusalem, joined us for lunch. Paul regularly leads groups of students and adults on tours to Palestine/Israel.

In the region this week:

Syrian refugee Fatima practices her hobby of drawing at a facility run by Noor Al Hussein Foundation's Institute for Family Health at the Zaatari Refugee Camp on Wednesday (Jordan Times photo courtesy of the Institute for Family Health)

Syrian refugee Fatima practices her hobby of drawing at a facility run by Noor Al Hussein Foundation’s Institute for Family Health at the Zaatari Refugee Camp on Wednesday (Jordan Times photo courtesy of the Institute for Family Health)

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about shepherds and sheep.

In the reading from Acts, Peter puts into practice the charge that Jesus gave him to “tend and feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). When the beloved disciple Tabitha becomes ill and dies, Peter prays and restores her to life (Acts 9:36-43).

The psalmist describes the shepherd who cares for the sheep by leading them to green pastures and still waters, on right paths and through dark valleys (Ps. 23).

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says in the Gospel reading. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish,” he promises. (John 10:27-28).

The reading from Revelation offers a stunning image. The Lamb who was slaughtered and who now sits with God at the center of the throne, will become the shepherd, guiding God people to “springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7:17a). With such a shepherd, God’s people “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat … and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (vv. 16, 17b)

The Bible is filled with paradoxes:

  • A shepherd boy with only an abiding faith and a sling shot defeats a bullying giant in full military armor (I Samuel 17).
  • The prophet Isaiah paints this image of God’s coming kingdom:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them (Is. 11:6)

Granddaughter Sydney enjoys playing with bubbles

Granddaughter Sydney enjoys playing with bubbles

  • Gentile men and women – thought to be outside the community of the faithful – are lauded by Jesus as the examples of true faith (Mathew 8:5-10; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 4:25-27).

But perhaps the ultimate paradox is that the Lamb who was slaughtered – the picture of utter vulnerability – becomes the powerful shepherd of the sheep, offering them protection, guidance and sustenance.


Extreme makeovers

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 20, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 62:1-5; Ps. 36:5-10; I Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

The directors of MCC’s three advocacy offices visited us in Amman this week to learn about the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach visits with Caritas Jordan emergency response coordinator, Jameel Dababneh outside a distribution center in Amman

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach visits with Caritas Jordan emergency response coordinator, Jameel Dababneh outside a distribution center in Amman

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach (MCC Washington), Paul Heidebrecht (MCC Ottawa) and Doug Hostetter (MCC United Nations) met with several refugee families and with MCC Jordan partners who are assisting some of the nearly 300,000 Syrians now living in Jordan.  The most recent issue of MCC’s a Common Place magazine features the stories of MCC partners working with refugees in Jordan.

Rachelle, Paul and Doug with Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies

Rachelle, Paul and Doug with Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies

The large influx of refugees is putting strong upward pressure on food and housing prices in Jordan and, in some cases, creating tensions between the refugees and Jordanian host communities.

7-year-old Ghadeer (right) served us tea at her family's one-room flat in Amman

7-year-old Ghadeer (right) served us tea at her family’s one-room flat in Amman (photo by Doug Hostetter)

In the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Amman, we visited a Syrian family with four small children, living in a one-room flat.  The father earns $125 per month selling clothing.  The rent on their flat costs $100 per month, forcing the family to take out loans to make ends meet.  In spite of the hardships the family has encountered, they welcomed us in their home and the 7-year-old daughter served us tea.

On Friday, we welcomed Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They will be studying Arabic until summer when they succeed us as MCC Reps in Amman.

Gordon and Carolyne Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg will become new MCC Reps in summer of 2013

Gordon and Carolyne Epp-Fransen from Winnipeg will become new MCC Reps in summer of 2013

In the region this week:

  • The Jordanian government announced a contract with MCC partner the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIS) to promote the Amman Message in the Middle East and Europe.  The Amman Message – which, according to the Jordan Times “seeks to affirm what Islam is and what it is not, and what actions represent it and what actions do not” — was released by His Majesty King Abdullah in November 2004.  “The promotion of the Amman Message reminds Muslims themselves of the true nature of their religion,” said Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber, director of the RIIS. “It is not the terrorist ugly faith that is presented sometimes by the Islamophobia in the West.”

The Common Lectionary readings for this second Sunday after Epiphany highlight extreme makeovers and second chances.

In the Old Testament reading, after a period of exile and shame, God’s wayward people receive a new name and a second chance.  “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,” God promises, “but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” (Is. 62:4)

The psalmist contrasts the wicked who do not fear God or do good, who are full of deceit and who plot mischief and evil, with those who drink from the river of God’s delights.  “For with you is the fountain of life,” the psalmist proclaims. “In your light we see light.” (Ps. 36:9)

Our granddaughter Sydney examines a snowflake (photo by Holden Byler)

Our granddaughter Sydney examines a snowflake outside her home in Virginia (photo by Holden Byler)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11).  In a dramatic sign of the theological shift from law to grace, Jesus transforms the water in six large stone jars used for Jewish rites of purification into the finest wine for joyful wedding guests.

In the Epistle reading, God’s Spirit activates gifts in each member of the community, transforming self-interested individuals into ministers for the common good. (I Cor. 12:1-11).

With all the brokenness around us, it is encouraging to know that God is in the business of extreme makeovers – transforming exile and shame into intimacy and delight; legalism into grace and celebration; and self-seeking individuals into a caring community.

Because God is with us

Third Sunday in Advent (December 16, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

We visited friends in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8-9, and enjoyed a Christmas concert at Eastern Market.  The remainder of the week we spent time with friends and family in Harrisonburg and attended excellent Christmas programs at Mt. Clinton Mennonite (where Holden and Heidi attend) and Zion Mennonite (where Daryl’s mother attends).

Below is the sermon that Daryl preached at Park View Mennonite Church, Dec. 16.

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

Let me begin by thanking Park View Mennonite for its exemplary leadership in the collection of school kits for MCC. We are aware that this congregation has collected thousands of kits across the years.

Did you know that the country of Jordan is the largest recipient of school kits – sometimes receiving as many as 25,000 in a shipment? MCC partner Caritas Jordan has an extensive distribution network. So these kits end up in schools and community centers in nearly every corner of Jordan. The kits are so highly valued that sometimes a single kit is divided among two or more students. Whenever the kits are distributed, Caritas tells the story of how the kits were collected.

This past year there have been several interesting developments in Jordan with regard to school kits:

Caritas has distributed several thousand school kits to Syrian refugee children.  Many of the Syrian families streaming into Jordan arrive with only the clothing on their backs – so school supplies are a luxury item.  There are now more than 200,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan and by some estimates the number could swell to 500,000 by spring.  The influx of refugees is placing enormous strain on Jordan’s infrastructure. Some elementary schools in Amman, for example, now have 60 students per classroom.

Caritas has also been working to develop a culture of volunteerism in Jordan.  Their vision is for Jordanian families to donate school kit materials and for volunteers to assemble the kits locally.  Several months ago, Evanna Hess from Lancaster and Jean Peifer from Hagerstown came to Jordan to help Caritas strengthen its capacity for collecting kits and other material resources like comforters.  For the coming year, Caritas has a goal of collecting 1,000 school kits locally.

The "Jinglers" gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The “Jinglers” gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The Lectionary readings for this third Sunday of Advent remind us that God is present with us.  This is an enormous encouragement given the volatile and uncertain world in which we live.

As a child growing up in Park View, I went through a period when I was terrified of sleeping alone.  There were a number of high profile kidnappings in the early 1960s. With my active imagination, I was convinced that I was the next victim.  My six-year-old analysis wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that, with my dad drawing an EMC salary, our family could not possibly be a serious kidnapping target.

My bedroom on the second floor of our bungalow house overlooked a large maple tree along South College Avenue.  At night, laying in my bed and looking out my dormer window, I was pretty sure that the kidnapper was hiding behind that maple tree.  I was quick to shout out to my parents who slept on the first floor, alerting them that someone was certainly lurking in our front yard. Sometimes – just to prove that no one was out there — my mother would grab a broom, march out to our front yard and around the tree, waving the broom. (Whoever said that parenting is an easy job?)

Sleeping alone was no fun. Often I ended up in my parent’s bed or slept in my older sister’s room. It made a big difference to know that someone was right beside me.

As adults, we do a better job of masking our fears — but we still have them. All of us do. We are afraid of not having enough or of not being good enough. We are afraid of not belonging or of not being liked. We are afraid of being alone or of suffering alone.

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

The Good News for this third Sunday of Advent is that God is with us.

  •  “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah repeats (Zeph. 3:14, 17).
  •   “Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” Isaiah asserts (Is. 12:6).
  • “The Lord is near,” Paul assures the church at Philippi (Phil. 4:5).
  • In the Gospel reading, the crowds are filled with expectation – or as the New English Bible translates it, “The people were on tiptoe of expectation.” (v.15) — wondering if John the Baptist is the Messiah. But John responds, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” (v.16)

God is in our midst. God is present with us. This is our affirmation of faith. It sounds good. But what does this mean for us practically?

In Amman, we live near the King Abdullah Mosque – one of the most prominent mosques in Jordan. The mosque has a massive dome covered with blue tiles.  The inside of the dome is also blue because the architect believed that faith should be the same on the inside as on the outside. In the same way, as Anabaptist Christians we believe there is a close connection between what we believe and how we live. Our affirmations of faith are not abstract ideas. They have a direct effect on how we act. To paraphrase the Apostle James, “Faith without action is void of life and power.”

If we truly believe something, it shapes our actions. There are many examples from daily life:

  • If we believe that the temperatures will drop well below freezing, we drain our outdoor faucets and check the antifreeze level in our car engines.
  • If we believe that a major snow storm is coming, we stock up on food.
  • If we believe that economic hard times are ahead, we tighten our spending.

A core affirmation of our faith – and something we especially emphasize during this Advent season – is that God is with us; God is in our midst.

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Taken together, today’s texts suggest three attitudes and actions that should grow out of this belief:

Because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried

As a nation, we have invested immense treasure in military might – almost as much as the rest of the world combined.  Yet the stronger our military, the more fearful we seem to become.  U.S. embassies around the world have become like fortresses with staff often sequestered inside. On more than one occasion, U.S. embassy staff in Amman have lamented to us that they are not free to visit places where MCC workers routinely travel.

Fear was something the people of Judah dealt with as well. With the Assyrians and the Babylonians close by – theirs was not an easy neighborhood.

Into this context, Zephaniah announced that there was no need to be afraid, because God will give victory (3:17).  Appropriately, Zephaniah’s name means, “Yahweh protects.” Zephaniah – who some scholars believe was a disciple of Isaiah – writes that God has turned away our enemies (v.15).  God will deal with our oppressors (v.19). God will remove the disasters that beset us (v.18).

In a second reading, Isaiah — who prophesied during the expansion of the Assyrian empire — adds that the people need not be afraid because God is our strength, our might and our salvation (Isaiah 12: 2).  Isaiah assumed the demise of Judah. But he also predicted its restoration from captivity.  Isaiah’s name means, “The Lord saves.”

Paul writes to the church at Philippi: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement is hosting a visiting Islamic scholar from Iran — Dr. Amir Akrami. Dr. Akrami has been teaching a Monday night course on basic concepts of Islam.  Two weeks ago he reflected that, in the Islamic tradition, remembrance of God is the purpose of prayer.  “Remembrance of God takes away our disturbances,” he said.

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom -- and is taking her first steps

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom — and is taking her first steps

Because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!” Zephaniah urges. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” (3:14)

“Give thanks to the Lord,” Isaiah exclaims in a hymn expressing gratitude for God’s salvation. “Sing praises . . . shout aloud and sing for joy.” (12:3-6)

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Paul tells the church at Philippi. Indeed, in his short letter, Paul uses the word “joy” or “rejoice” no less than 16 times.

Zephaniah lived in the 7th century BC. The short book that bears his name speaks of God’s impending judgment on Judah and the surrounding nations.  In the first two chapters, these judgments are introduced with the phrase “On that day.”

But in today’s reading, this phrase is given a hopeful twist. “On that day,” promises Zephaniah, there will be cause for celebration for a remnant (v.16).  “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,” Zephaniah assures. “God has turned away your enemies.” (v15)

Furthermore, according to Zephaniah, we can rejoice and give thanks because God promises to remove disaster (v18), to deal with oppressors (19a), to save the lame (19b), to gather the outcasts (19c), to replace shame with honor (19d), to gather us and bring us home (v.20a), to make us renowned and praised among the nations (20b), and to restore our fortunes (20c).

Why rejoice and give thanks? “Because God “is great (v.6) and has done gloriously” (v.5), Isaiah proclaims. Using the image of a well, which was a favorite place for recounting God’s deeds, Isaiah promises, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (v.3)

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007

Because God is with us, we are to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice

God’s presence inspires and calls us to live in new ways. At least that is the way it is supposed to work.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul urges the church at Philippi. (Phil 4:5)

In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist demands that the people “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) Specifically, John calls for the people to act generously and justly. Luke writes:

And the crowds asked (John the Baptist), “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (vv.10-14)

Fruit worthy of repentance is to act generously.  It is sharing clothing and food with those in need.

Fruit worthy of repentance is also to act justly.  Tax collectors at the time of Jesus purchased from the Romans the right to collect the assessed taxes – in much the same way that many debt collection agencies work today.  These hated tax collectors often added significantly to the assessed amounts and pocketed the difference.  Scholars say that the soldiers John addressed here were not those associated with Herod or Pilate but were soldiers who provided armed support for the tax collectors — hired thugs so to speak.

What does it look like to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice in today’s world?  Allow me to speak briefly about how we might engage the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

In the past two year, long-standing regimes have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. More than 40,000 Syrians have been killed in a civil war that rages on.  An average of 200-300 Iraqis are still killed in violence each month.  There is constant threat of a military attack against Iran. The truce between Hamas and Israel masks major issues that have yet to be transformed.  Even in Jordan – a country thought to be one of the most stable in the region – protestors are increasingly emboldened in their weekly demands for major reforms and al Qaeda operatives are beginning to pop up.

We have heard a number of common themes in our five years living in the Middle East:

  • Middle Eastern Christians are looking for evidence that Western Christians have not abandoned them.  This voice is particularly prominent among Palestinian Christians who are confounded by the Western church’s embrace of a theology of Christian Zionism and its uncritical support for the State of Israel.
  •  More broadly Middle Easterners are looking for evidence that the United States is not anti-Islamic.  The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and constant threats against Iran – have led many to conclude that the United States is engaging in a new Crusade against Muslims.
  • Middle Easterners are also looking for evidence that the U.S. is interested in being a good global neighbor rather than a country which imposes its will on others or supports human rights only when it’s convenient.

So what can we do?

  • Get to know the growing number of Middle Eastern students living in this area.  Invite them into your homes. Hospitality is central in Middle Eastern culture. Listen to their stories and perspectives.  You will be amazed at the nuances their voices add to the perspectives one hears on network news or even on NPR.  The realities on the ground are far more complex than can be captured in a two-minute news report.
  • Participate in a learning tour to the Middle East or bring Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi or Iranian speakers to your church for a Sunday School conversation.
  • Continue to generously support MCC’s and Mennonite Mission Network’s presence in the region.  Send regular notes of support to workers who you know personally.
  • Engage in advocacy aimed at calling this nation to be a good global neighbor.  Keep collecting school kits. But also keep open an active channel with your elected representatives.  Remind them that being a good neighbor is as much in the U.S. national interest as it is in the interest of others.

We may no longer be afraid of sleeping alone like a child.  But our adult lives tend to be fraught with all kinds of other fears.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us we must bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice.

It matters what we believe.  And true faith always makes a difference in how we live.

Honorable mention

21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 21, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 53:4-12; Ps. 91:9-16; Heb. 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

This week we hosted three MCC Egypt staff, introducing them to the MCC programs in Jordan, Iraq and Iran.  We visited several MCC partners — Orthodox Kindergarten in Ashrafiyeh, Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, Caritas Jordan and Arab Episcopal School – and met with Jordan alumni of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP).

MCC Egypt staffer Irini Asaad dips her feet in the Jordan River

We also visited Jesus’ baptism site at the Jordan River.  The Jordan is still a popular Christian pilgrimage site; a number of persons were being baptized during our visit.

Suzi Khoury (MCC Jordan), Ayman Kerols (MCC Egypt) and Cindy share a laugh with the weaver at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

Daryl celebrated his birthday with dozens of greetings from friends and a special dinner with the MCC Egypt team – and by running the Amman International Marathon.  His goal was to break 5 hours and he finished with a time of 4 hours and 51 minutes. Ethiopian runner Mohammad Nori set a new course record of 2 hours 19 minutes and 39 seconds for the 26.2 mile (42km) race.

Daryl displays his medal outside the Roman Amphitheater in downtown Amman, where the marathon ended

In the region this week:

  • The Jordanian government announced that it will open a second Syrian refugee camp near Zarqa by the end of the year. Officials expect that 250,000 Syrians will be living in Jordan by year end.

Mrs. Sabah Zurikat, headmistress at Arab Episcopal School, greets Cindy during our visit, Oct. 18

The Common Lectionary readings this week describe various aspects of honor.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah describes the suffering servant who is struck down, afflicted, wounded, crushed, oppressed, cut off and poured out for the well-being of humanity (Is. 53:4-12).  For this reason, God chooses to honor the suffering servant, allotting him “a portion with the great.” (v.12a)

Ms. Maha teaches Braille to a young student at Arab Episcopal School

Through the psalmist, God promises to deliver, protect, answer, be with, rescue and honor those who make the Lord their refuge, satisfying them and showing them God’s salvation (Ps. 91:9-14).

The writer of Hebrews says that high priests are “put in charge of things pertaining to God” on behalf of humans (Heb. 5:1).  “One does not presume to take this honor,” says the writer, “but takes it only when called by God.” (v.4)  Because of his reverent submission to God, God honored him by making him the source of eternal salvation (v.9).

Evanna Hess and Jean Peifer (far right), short-term volunteers with Caritas Jordan, inspect comforters and material with the women who sew at the Caritas Center in Husn

In the Gospel reading, James and John ask Jesus to give them the places of honor in his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-37). Jesus responds that this honor is not his to grant.  However, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” Jesus assures his disciples, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (vv.43-44)

Honorable mention in God’s economy goes, not to the powerful, the wealthy and status seekers, but to those who fully submit to God and serve others.  May we find our honor in this way.

Grace to help in time of need

20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 14, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Ps. 90:12-17; Heb. 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

This week we welcomed Evanna Hess and Jean Peifer from Lancaster, Pa. and Hagerstown, Md., respectively. They will volunteer for three weeks with MCC partner Caritas Jordan, providing training to women at a Caritas center in Husn, Jordan.  Caritas is seeking to boost its capacity for local collection and preparation of items such as school kits.

Wafa and Cindy at Orthodox Patriarchate office in Amman

We also enjoyed visiting with our friend Wafa Goussous, who is now serving as director for the Orthodox Initiative – the Syrian refugee response on behalf of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In the region this week:

  • Jordan’s King Abdullah appointed a new Prime Minister, who immediately extended the registration deadline for participation by the Muslim Brotherhood in upcoming elections.  Brotherhood leaders responded that they still plan to boycott the elections, citing their belief that the government is not serious about reforms.  Tension is mounting between the protesters and the regime.
  • The leader of Hezbollah announced that his organization was responsible for sending an Iranian-built drone into Israeli airspace as a response to repeated Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.  Israel shot down the drone.
  • Some 4,000 Syrian children attended school in 14 temporary tent classrooms in the Zaatari Refugee Camp near Mafraq. Workers are preparing more durable classrooms that are expected to open in November.

Syrian boys attend a class at the Zaatari Refugee Camp (Jordan Times photo by Muath Freij)

The Common Lectionary readings this week juxtapose God’s judgment and God’s grace.

In the Old Testament reading, Amos prophesies that those who “trample on the poor” will build stone houses but not live in them and plant pleasant vineyards but not drink their wine. (Amos 5:11).  “Hate evil and love good,” challenges Amos, “and establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord … will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” (v.15)

“Turn, O Lord! How long?” a weary Moses pleads in Psalm 90.  “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us . . . Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands . . .”

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-sword,” the writer of Hebrews asserts. “It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12). Indeed, “all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (v.13) Still, Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses, the writer encourages. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (v.16)

Amidst the political upheaval in the region, a new “downtown” is rising in the Abdali section of Amman

In the Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a man who is weighted down by his possessions. He invites the man to sell his possession, give the money to the poor and then come follow Jesus. It is more than the man is willing to give up. Jesus promises his disciples that those who leave everything to follow him will receive a hundredfold in return – albeit, not without persecution (Mark 10:17-31).

The Middle East is undergoing dramatic changes.  Those in power seek to hold on to the old ways, while those at the margins are demanding governance that listens to a broader spectrum of voices.  We are watching human judgment play out before our eyes. We pray that God’s favor and grace will ultimately win the day.

We do not control God’s grace.  Still, we place ourselves in a space to most abundantly receive God’s grace when we act justly, surrender fully and plead boldly.

As God intended

19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8; Heb. 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This week we hosted meetings for MCC representatives serving in Europe and the Middle East.  While the meeting schedule was full, we also enjoyed lots of time for visiting and encouraging each other.

A student at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf hugs Misha, 2-year-old daughter of MCC East Europe Reps, Ruth Plett and Krystan Pawlikowski

We met at the Rosary Sisters’ retreat center just outside Amman.   On Thursday, we visited several MCC Jordan partners – Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, YWCA Jordan and Caritas Jordan.

Tom Snowdon, MCC Egypt Rep, watches the weaver at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

In the region this week:

October 5 demonstration in Amman, led by Muslim Brotherhood (AFP photo)

  • A planned pro-government rally was suspended at the last minute in order to reduce the likelihood of a major confrontation.
  • Heavy fighting continued in Syria, including Syrian cross-border fire into Turkey and retaliatory strikes by Turkey into Syria. In spite of the poor conditions in Syria, some refugees in Jordan are choosing to return home, saying they prefer to die as martyrs than to live as refugees.

Children at Za’atari Refuge Camp in northern Jordan during one of many dust storms. More than 30,000 Syrian refugees now live in the camp.  (photo by Bert de Vries)

The Common Lectionary readings this week reflect on God’s intent for humans in the created order.

In the Old Testament reading, God gives Adam the responsibility for naming every living creature and creates male and female as partners (Gen. 2:18-24).

The psalmist writes that God created humans “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor,” giving them “dominion over the works of God’s hands.” (Ps. 8:5-6).

Pictures of our granddaughter Sydney keep us smiling (photo by Holden Byler)

The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, noting the prominent role of humans in God’s creation. In theory, God left nothing outside the control of human beings (Heb. 2:8b). Still, in practice, we do not yet see everything subjected to human control, “but we do see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honor” because of the suffering he endured (v. 8c-9a).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question about divorce. He reaffirms that, in creating male and female, God’s intention is for them to become one flesh, and not to be separated by the human act of divorce (Mk. 10:2-9).

We live in a violent and broken world. Clearly humans are not living as God intended. Still, by God’s grace, we are being restored into the image of what God created us to be.

The heart of religion

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 4:1-9; Ps. 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Linda Espenshade and Silas Crews, a writer-photographer team from the MCC U.S. communications office, visited Jordan this week to document stories of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and the MCC Jordan partners who work with these uprooted communities.

An Iraqi student from the “Higher Education at the Margins” program visits with Linda Espenshade

On Monday, we visited an education center operated by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Amman.  Originally opened to offer services to Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the center now also serves Palestinian, Somali, Sudanese and Syrian refugees.  We were present for the first day of a new online Liberal Studies Diploma program, “Higher Education at the Margins,” designed for urban refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Colin Gilbert, JRS Jordan director, talks with Linda Espenshade outside the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

JRS is increasingly seeking to address the Syrian refugee crisis.  Some 15 Syrian women from Homs showed up for the first day of fall activities at the Ashrafiyeh center, and described the kinds of training they hope to receive from JRS.

Silas Crews photographs two Syrian boys at the Caritas center in Mafraq

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we accompanied Caritas Jordan on visits with Syrian refugee families in Mafraq and Zarqa.  With support from MCC and other agencies, Caritas Jordan has mounted a major response to Syrian refugees, offering food items and other material resources such as relief kits, blankets and health kits. The majority of refugees we visited blamed the Assad government for the violence in Syria, but one family placed the blame on the rebel groups, who they described as “terrorists.”

Entrance to the Za’atari refugee camp near Mafraq

We were able to drive by (but not enter) the Za’atari refugee camp, now home to some 25,000 refugees — and site of several riots during the past week.  The camp is in the middle of the desert where temperatures rise above 100 degrees and dust storms are frequent.

A Syrian woman at Za’atari camp carries her baby while doing the laundry (AP photo)

Officials are struggling to create infrastructure to serve an average of 1,500 refugees arriving daily. This two-minute UNHCR video offers a view of the enormous challenges faced by the refugees and the agencies seeking to work with them. Jordan is now hosting 177,000 Syrian refugees, at an expected cost of $150 million by the end of 2012.

Dust storms are only one challenge for Za’atari camp residents (photo by Linda Espenshade)

On Thursday, we accompanied MCC partner YWCA Jordan on a visit to the Baqa’a refugee camp where YWCA offers a human rights training program for Palestinian women in Jordan.

MCC Jordan program coordinator Nada Zabaneh engages a Syrian boy at Caritas Jordan’s center in Mafraq

We also hosted Mark Brown, Jerusalem director for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who was in Amman to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, outlining LWF response to the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on the heart of religion – genuine religion vs. phony religion.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses warns God’s people to give heed to (Deut. 4:1), keep (v.2), hold fast to (v.4) and observe (vv.5, 6) God’s commands. In so doing, the people will model to the surrounding nations God’s nearness and justice (vv.7, 8).

Taking a break from a hard week of work, Linda rides a camel at the Dead Sea

The psalmist says that true religion is expressed by dwelling with God and treating others justly and with respect.  Practicing true religion is to: walk blamelessly (Ps. 15:2a), do what is right (v.2b), speak the truth (v.2c), not harm neighbors through word or deed (v.3), hate evil and honor those who fear God (v.4a), keep promises even when it’s difficult (v.4b), and not charge interest or take bribes (v.5)

In the Epistle reading James writes,  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God  . . . is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). It means to be doers of God’s word, not simply hearers (vv. 22-25).

Silas exchanges his camera for a chance to float in the Dead Sea

In the Gospel reading, the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for failing to observe religious rituals such as properly washing their hands and eating utensils (Mark 7:1-5).  Jesus condemns the Pharisees for rejecting God’s commandments in order to keep their human traditions aimed at keeping up appearances.  Jesus says that true religion is not about outward rituals but is a matter of the heart. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (v.22)

Sunset over Amman, as viewed from the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

Sadly, religion too often earns a bad name.  It is used as badge to advance claims of being superior to others.  Or as a sword to strike down those who are different.  Indeed, inter-religious conflict has been a prominent component of wars across the centuries.  Other times religion has been used as a club to impose strict rules.

The Common Lectionary readings helpfully remind us that true religion is concerned with justice, with right relationships and with matters of the heart.  Such religion is not about badges and swords and clubs.  Rather, it is winsome to the nations, reminding others that God is near and God is just.

Our granddaughter Sydney is crawling and does her best to talk to us on Skype (photo by Holden Byler)

Food for the journey

11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 19:4-8; Ps. 34:1-8; Eph. 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

We hosted a number of delightful visitors this week.  Nader Abu Amsha and his spouse Sana, visited from the Palestinian village of Beit Jala. Nader is the director of East Jerusalem YMCA, and was in Amman to explore psychosocial support training for volunteers who are working with Syrian refugees in Jordan.  East Jerusalem YMCA has significant experience in trauma healing work.  Sana teaches English at the Talitha Kumi Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Jala and also works with the school’s innovative peer mediation program.

With Agnes Chen at our home in Amman

Agnes Chen, a senior at Wheaton College, is doing an internship with Caritas Jordan through Wheaton’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program.  She is assisting Caritas’ response with Syrian refugees, including the distribution of MCC material resources.

Don and Lurline Campbell share a laugh

Don and Lurline Campbell, from Brisbane, Australia, are serving as interim pastors at the International Anglican Church of Amman, where we attend.  This is the third summer they have served in Amman while the regular priest is away.  We have greatly appreciated Don and Lurline’s friendship, pastoral care and interest in MCC’s work.

Recently we were also privileged to hear Dr. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican priest from the United Kingdom, give a thoughtful lecture on Christian Zionism.

In the region this week:

  • The former head of Israeli Military Intelligence predicted that Israel will attack Iran in the next few weeks.  There have been many predictions like this before, and some say that such an attack is unlikely before Israel is assured that the potential for retaliatory strikes from Syria and Hezbollah is neutralized.

The view of our neighborhood in Jabal al-Webdah — Greek Orthodox Church, Parliament building, King Abdullah Mosque, and the towers of the new Abdali development

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about food for the journey.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah flees from an angry Queen Jezebel, who has threatened to kill him.  In fear and despair he asks God to take his life. (I Kings 19:4)  Instead, God sends an angel who prepares a cake and offers a jar of water. “Get up and eat,” the angel commands Elijah, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  Elijah obeys. “Then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” (vv.6-8)

Sydney enjoys tasting plums and puffs (photo by Holden Byler)

The psalmist challenges, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps. 34:8)  In times of trouble, God answers us (v.4b), delivers us from our fears (4c), hears our cries (6a), saves us from every trouble (6b) and encamps around us (7a).

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus proclaims in the Gospel reading.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35).  While the crowds come looking for manna – miracle bread — like their ancestors ate in the wilderness, Jesus has something far better to offer.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he declares.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (v.51).

Satisfied Sydney — our beautiful eyes granddaughter (photo by Holden Byler)

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges the church at Ephesus to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Eph. 5:2)  Living in love means to speak the truth and put away falsehood (4:25); to be angry without sinning (4:26); to share rather than to steal (4:28); to speak in ways that build up rather than to tear down (4:29); and to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving, rather than bitter, slanderous and full of wrath (4:31-32).

These are difficult times.  Still, God sustains us in many ways.  The encouragement of guests, and new pictures of our granddaughter Sydney, have been several ways that God has provided food for our journey this week.

Sydney plays at an outdoor wedding at CrossKeys Vineyard  (photo by Holden Byler)

Filled and satisfied

9th Sunday after Pentecost (July 29, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Eph. 3:14-21; II Kings 4:42-44; Ps. 145:10-18; John 6:1-21

The holy month of Ramadan began on July 20. During this 30-day period, devout Muslims choose not to eat, drink or smoke from dawn to dusk – an amazing commitment during the long hot days of summer.  Ramadan, based on a lunar cycle, begins 10-12 days earlier each year.  In many parts of the world, it now falls during the longest daylight hours. Temperatures in Amman have been climbing to 40 C (104 F).

The Crescent moon is seen above the King Hussein Grand Mosque, in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, July 22, 2012. Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is celebrated as the period when the Quran, Islam’s holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad about 1,400 years ago, according to the Islamic history. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon – Denver Post)

Ramadan is a season of reflection, repentance, restoring right relationships and charitable giving.  It is also a time to celebrate family and food, as extended families gather to break the fast each day with an “Iftar” meal.  During Ramadan, Muslims experience the discomfort of hunger and thirst.  But they also know the satisfaction of being filled.

Palestinian Muslim women perform the “Tarawih” evening prayer in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the old city of Jerusalem, July 24, 2012, during the fasting month of Ramadan. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GettyImages -Denver Post)

Syrian rebels break their fast with the “iftar” meal during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in the northern city of Aleppo on July 24, 2012. A commercial hub and home to 2.5 million people, Syria’s second city Aleppo has become a new front in the country’s 16-month uprising, after being largely excluded from the violence. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/ GettyImages – Denver Post)

Fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government rebels continues to intensify, with major battles now taking place in the large cities of Damascus and Aleppo, prompting thousands of Syrians to flee across the borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, where officials are torn between welcoming the refugees and worrying about the impact on already volatile conditions and strained infrastructure.

Preparing food at a camp in Ramtha, Jordan a border town where Syrian refugees have fled (Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times)

MCC material resources are being distributed to Syrian refugees in Jordan and an additional shipment of relief kits and blankets will soon be on the way to Jordan.

Basil Kaboushi, left, and Wajdi Haddad, volunteers with Caritas Jordan, an MCC partner, help to distribute MCC relief kits and comforters to Syrian refugees at the Latin Patriarchate School in Mafraq, Jordan, in June. (MCC Photo/Nada Zabaneh)

More than 100 persons were killed in a spate of attacks across Iraq, July 23, in the most deadly incident this year.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on being filled and satisfied.

In the Old Testament reading, a man brings 20 small barley loaves and fresh ears of grain to the prophet Elisha, who tells the man, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” (II Kings 4:42)  The man protests that it will not be enough food for 100 people. But Elisha insists that it will be more than enough.  Indeed, the people eat their fill and “had some left” – just as Elisha had promised (v.44).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus stretches a small amount of food even further. A crowd of thousands gathers because of the signs of healing Jesus has performed (John 6:1).  A young boy in the crowd offers his five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses the lad’s lunch and asks his disciples to distribute the food to the crowd.  Everyone ate “as much as they wanted” (v.11) and “when they were satisfied” Jesus asked his disciples to gather up the leftovers, which filled twelve baskets.

Libyan men shop for olives and pickles from a vendor in downtown Tripoli before breaking their fast during Islam’s holy fasting month of Ramadan on July 22, 2012. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages -Denver Post)

Similarly, the psalmist proclaims: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.  You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” (Ps. 145:15-16).

In the Epistle reading, Paul prays that Christ will dwell in the hearts of the people so that they will have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love; and so that they will be “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)

Palestinians light fireworks to celebrate the first day of the Muslim Holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City,  July 20, 2012.  (EPA/MOHAMMED SABER)

With thousands fleeing the violence in Syria, we are thankful for MCC partners like Caritas Jordan, who are daily engaged in distributing food and other material resources to meet basic needs of vulnerable families.  We pray for the day when the violence will end and families can return to their homes.  In the mean time, God is using human hands like those of Caritas Jordan volunteers to satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Choose life

We returned to Amman, July 1, tired but encouraged by the many interactions with MCC constituents and policymakers in Canada and the U.S. during the past seven weeks. The opportunities to connect with family and friends along the way were a special source of joy and delight!

While in Ohio, we had a chance to see Cindy’s cousin Rachel Augspurger, and Rachel’s niece Sydney

Below is the devotional reflection that Daryl shared at the MCC U.S. board meeting, June 29, in Goshen, Indiana.

For the past five years, Cindy and I have lived in Amman, Jordan — about 60 miles from Jerusalem. Both cities are about 3,000 feet above sea level. When we travel to Jerusalem we drive down into the Jordan Valley through what was known in biblical times as the Plains of Moab. Near the Dead Sea – some 1,200 feet below sea level –we cross the Jordan River and take a bus up the mountain to Jerusalem.

It was in the Plains of Moab that the Israelites gathered more than 3,000 years ago in their final staging area before crossing the Jordan River into the “Promised Land.” It was in these same Plains of Moab that Moses gave the sermons that became known as the book of Deuteronomy.

In his sermons Moses reminds the people that God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. He recounts God’s faithfulness in spite of the Israelites’ many acts of disobedience during the wilderness years. He warns the people not to follow the gods that are worshiped in the land they are about to enter. Moses speaks repeatedly of the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. He outlines a series of choices that will determine whether or not they experience God’s blessing and, consequently, whether or not they will be a blessing to others.

Looking over the Plains of Moab — from Mt. Nebo

Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land can be a metaphor for the new journey that God calls each of us to embrace. Indeed, these choices that Moses outlined millennia ago are equally relevant for our faith journey today.

The choice between fear and faith
The first choice is between fear and faith. The book of Deuteronomy begins with a reminder that, when God initially commanded the people to enter the Promised Land, they were afraid and did not trust God. Instead, they grumbled and said, “It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us.” (Deut. 1:27) The Israelites saw only giant challenges ahead. They were unwilling to face their fears and take the risk that the God who had called them would also protect and provide for them. For their lack of faith, they spent an additional generation aimlessly wandering in the wilderness where they were a blessing to no one.

Not every risk is worth taking. Not every risk that we take is evidence of our faith in God. But when God calls us to act, those risks must be taken. In such cases, we must choose faith over fear.

As part of our speaking engagements during the past six weeks, we traveled to Mississippi. While there, one of the members at the Jubilee Mennonite Church in Meridian told us that the formerly classified files of the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission were now available online. This Commission was the state’s official counter civil rights agency from 1956–1973. They constantly investigated and harassed persons thought to be part of the civil rights movement. Their members included the then governor of the State of Mississippi.

We did some quick research and found the files containing the Sovereignty Commission’s investigation of Camp Landon in Gulfport, Mississippi, where the General Conference Mennonites had a voluntary service unit for many years. Cindy served there as a teacher in the early 1970s.

While in Mississippi, our daughter Jessica surprised us with a gift of hand-made pottery bowls — delivered by the potter himself, Bob Baldwin, pictured here with Cindy and Bob’s wife, Edea.

The Commission’s recently opened files show that a neighbor to the Camp Landon property constantly wrote letters to the Commission, updating them on the comings and goings at Camp Landon, and complaining about the regular interaction between African Americans and the white members of the VS unit. This informant – a Mr. M.M. High — was a college graduate who had worked 37 years for the U.S. Government’s Department of Agriculture. This is a sampling of the things Mr. High would write in his letters to the Sovereignty Commission:

“We have a sect here that call themselves Mennonites. They have a camp here by me, and it would appear they are teaching integration as much or more than anything else. I do not know if state can do anything much or not. They hold parties for teenage negroes, go out and build outdoor toilets for negroes, repair negro houses, etc. They are from the north, we wonder if they are teaching some kind of “ism” through their kind of religion, at least they mingle with the negroes, and maybe sleep with them. The director seems like a fairly nice chap, but most of them have foreign names. We do not need their kind in Mississippi.” (7/21/1959)

Within weeks of Mr. High’s letter, Mr. Zack VanLandingham, a Sovereignty Committee staff member, traveled to Gulfport to visit Mr. High. Shortly thereafter, Mr. VanLandingham sent a two-page memo to the Director of the State Sovereignty Commission, further documenting Mr. High’s complaints, noting that the Rev. Orlo Kaufman was in charge of Camp Landon and that he was trying to get black people and white people to integrate in parks and playgrounds and that he “was a potential source of trouble in Harrison County.” He concluded his memo with the recommendation “That the new Sheriff of Harrison County be contacted and the matter of Orlo Kaufman and his integration activities be discussed with a view to putting a stop to such integration activities that are going on at Camp Landon.” (8/11/1959)

Within months the matter of the Mennonites had reached the State Attorney General’s office. In his letter to the Director of the State Sovereignty Commission, Zack VanLandingham wrote: “On October 30, 1959 I conferred with Asst. Atty. Gen. Dugar Shands and Mr. John Sullivan who is doing some investigative work for the General Legislative Investigating Committee. They are interested in the Menonite (sic) group at Camp Landon just north of Gulfport, Mississippi. They desire further investigation to be made in an effort to determine whether there is any subversiveness attached to this group. (11/3/1959)

Across the years, Camp Landon received multiple visits from the Sovereignty Commission and local law enforcement. Sovereignty Commission documents frequently refer to Camp Landon leaders as “agitators”. They expressed fears about “fraternizing” between blacks and whites and about mixed swimming. But most of all, they were afraid that the Mennonites were trying to integrate the local churches. Camp Landon also received threats from the Ku Klux Klan. There must have been many days when the leaders of Camp Landon wondered if they work would survive such scrutiny. But in the end, Camp Landon continued its ministry.

With the dismantling-racism and anti-oppression analysis that MCC uses today, the program at Camp Landon would likely have looked different today. Still, leaders at the time sought to follow God’s call as they understood it – many times at great risk to their own safety and well-being.

What risks is God calling MCC to take in this generation? Where is God calling us to agitate and to challenge the powers of oppression in our day? For what faithful actions are we at risk of being called subversive? Our choice is between fear and faith.

The choice between forgetting and remembering
A second choice is between forgetting and remembering. Moses knew the serious consequences of forgetting. He knew that if the people forgot who had called them they would turn to other gods. He knew that if the people forgot from where they had been called – from slavery in Egypt – they would mistreat the vulnerable people in the land they were about to enter. He knew that, if the people forgot why they had been called (to be a blessing to others), they would become proud, accumulate wealth and only care about their own survival and well-being. And so Moses pled with them to remember their true identity.

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” (Deut. 8:11-19)

Zochrot staffer Eitan speaks to MCC learning tour members at Canada Park, built over three destroyed Palestinian villages

An MCC Israeli partner, Zochrot – which is the Hebrew word for remembering – is staffed by Israelis who could easily enjoy their privileges as Israeli nationals. They could choose to buy into the popular Israeli narrative that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Instead, courageous Zochrot staff members have taken it upon themselves the unpopular task of educating the Israeli public about the Palestinian “Nakba” – the tragic story of 530 Palestinian villages that were depopulated or destroyed in order to create the State of Israel in 1948. Members of Zochrot believe that Israeli’s won’t be secure until the also seek justice for their Palestinian neighbors.

Our choice is between forgetting and remembering.

The choice between hostility and hospitality
A third choice is between hostility and hospitality. Gary Percesepe, editor of Mississippi Review, notes that the English words hostility and hospitality come from the same Latin word hospes, which originally meant “stranger,” but later took on the meaning of a “hostile” stranger or enemy. Hospitality, says Percesepe, has to do with the power of a host in deciding what level of welcome, if any, to extend to the stranger. While hospitality focuses on welcoming all – including the stranger– hostility thrives on creating differences between insiders and outsiders.

Because the climate of the desert is so harsh, the Bedouin of the Middle East had a practice of offering three days of hospitality to anyone who passed by their tents. Amazingly, this hospitality was extended even to their enemies.

Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber – the former foreign minister of Jordan and son of a Bedouin father – told us recently that he cannot remember a day or week during his childhood that his family did not host visitors – sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Indeed, when we go to Dr. Abu Jaber’s farm for lunch, the hospitality is extraordinary – with Dr. Abu Jaber personally serving our food throughout the meal.

A Syrian woman and her children at Caritas Jordan distribution center in northern Jordan (photo by Nada Zabaneh)

Jordan has a history of welcoming the stranger. Well over 60 percent of the population is made up of newcomers who have arrived to Jordan during the past 60 years. Jordan, whose population is about 6.5 million, has opened its arms to several million Palestinians; half a million Iraqis; thousands of Somalis, Sudanese and Libyans; and now, in the past year, more than 100,000 Syrians.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported two weeks ago that “2011 was a record year for forced displacement across borders, with more people becoming refugees than at any time since 2000.” According to the report, “Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).”

MCC’s migration and resettlement work will only become more important in the years ahead. How are we doing at offering hospitality to strangers? How big is our table? Do we extend hospitality only to those who are like us, or also to those who are different – remembering that our own families have also been immigrants? The writer of Hebrews urges: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2)

Two containers of MCC relief kits, school kits, blankets and hygiene kits have arrived in Jordan for distribution to Syrian refugee families

The choice between “just us” and justice
A fourth choice is between “just us” and justice. In another sermon, Moses says, “(God) executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19)

The Middle East is undergoing major changes as a result of the so called Arab Spring. In less than 18 months, four authoritarian regimes have been toppled – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. It is a time of much anxiety and of great opportunity. No one is quite sure how things will turn out. Some fear that the current violence in Syria will spill into Lebanon and Jordan, along with the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Some fear a war with Iran. Christians – who are a small minority in the region — are especially anxious about what their place will be in the new societies that are emerging. It is unclear whether the new democratically-elected governments will represent only the interests of the religious majority or of minority groups as well.

The Bible calls us to not simply consider our own needs but to also consider the interests of others – especially those who are vulnerable. We are called to seek justice and well-being for them as well.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus run “Kids House” for three-five year old children

Since the war in Iraq, up to two-thirds of the Christian community has fled the country. Many of those who remain in Iraq have moved from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas in the north, where they are seeking to build a new life. It would be understandable if these Christian sisters and brothers would only focus on their own needs at this traumatic time. But we have seen beautiful examples of those who have also been ready to look out for the interests of others.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus run a kindergarten for 3 to 5 year-olds. Most of the children who come to Kids House are from internally displaced families who have been uprooted from their homes because of the violence in Iraq. But Sisters of the Sacred Heart doesn’t just open their doors for children from their own Chaldean Catholic tradition, they open their doors to Muslim children and children from other minority faith groups as well.

Caritas Jordan staff member Jameel welcomes a Syrian child at Caritas’ distribution center in Mafraq

MCC partner Caritas Jordan has plenty to do with responding to the needs of vulnerable Jordanians. But they understand that looking after their own is not the full extent of what God calls us to. So they have extended their services to Iraqi refugees and now to thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into Jordan.

Another dear MCC partner is the Bethlehem Bible College. Bashar and Alex Awad, leaders of the school, are committed evangelical Christians. Just two months ago they hosted a conference in Bethlehem for several hundred evangelical Christians from the West. The purpose of the conference was to study the scriptures and look again at whether the Bible actually supports the teaching of Christian Zionism – a theology that has been used to justify the Israeli military occupation that makes life difficult for many Palestinians – including Palestinian Christians.

Bashar and Alex are supporters of the Kairos document – a letter that was written in 2009 to explain the situation of Christians in the Holy Land. The letter includes a section entitled: “Our word to the Churches of the world.” I quote from that letter:

Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College, with MCC worker Ingrid Rodrick Beiler

Our word to the Churches of the world is firstly a word of gratitude for the solidarity you have shown toward us in word, deed and presence among us. It is a word of praise for the many Churches and Christians who support the right of the Palestinian people for self-determination. It is a message of solidarity with those Christians and Churches who have suffered because of their advocacy for law and justice.

However, it is also a call to repentance; to revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support certain unjust political options with regard to the Palestinian people. It is a call to stand alongside the oppressed and preserve the word of God as good news for all rather than to turn it into a weapon with which to slay the oppressed.

The word of God is a word of love for all His creation. God is not the ally of one against the other, nor the opponent of one in the face of the other. God is the Lord of all and loves all, demanding justice from all and issuing to all of us the same commandments. We ask our sister Churches not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us. Our question to our brothers and sisters in the Churches today is: Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?

“Just us” or justice? Are our lives focused too narrowly on our own interests, or are we taking time to lift our voices on behalf of sisters and brothers around the world?

The choice between death and life
A fifth choice is between death and life. Deuteronomy 30 is the culmination of Moses’ sermons, reminding the people to choose life rather than the path that leads to death. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” (Deut. 30:19-20)

Choosing life over death is the summary of all the other choices. Choosing life is to choose:
• Faith over fear
• Remembering over forgetting
• Hospitality over hostility
• Justice over just us

In the Old Testament, when God’s people chose fear over faith, they wandered aimlessly and blessed no one.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people forgot who had called them, they turned to idolatry.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people forgot from where they had come, they exploited the vulnerable people for their own benefit.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people focused only on the fact that God had chosen them, they concluded that they were superior to others. They became nationalistic and forgot that God had chosen them to bless the nations around them.

By God’s grace and with the power of God’s Spirit may we choose life – today and each day. Amen