Several weeks ago, Paul finished a three-month stint with the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, which is actually in Bethlehem. ARIJ is a Palestinian NGO that promotes local solutions to local problems through sustainable development, renewable energy, and control of natural resources. During our first month here, however, Paul volunteered with Bethlehem Bible College. He spent most of his time in the gift shop, sorting through orders and taping price tags onto expensive souvenirs. On numerous occasions, he drove the BBC van to the airport in order to pick up employees or important guests. And for several Sundays, Paul stealthily drove the president of the Bible College and his wife to the Baptist church in East Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinians must have special permits in order to cross through checkpoints, which the president and his wife are not able to get. The president’s brother was one of Palestine’s most prominent nonviolent leaders who organized numerous boycotts against Israeli authorities before he was permanently deported. Patrick and I joined Paul one Sunday because a free ride to Jerusalem is hard to pass up, and we all planned on traveling to Ramallah in the afternoon.
Even with the free ride, I was hesitant. I was hesitant because I have an extreme discomfort in churches, and have long ceased regular attendance. I don’t feel called there. My family was, in some respects, aggressively encouraged to leave the Christian tradition from which we came. My dad believed in the necessity of questioning everything, including God. Not everyone agreed, and he was denied the ability to speak publicly and teach classes because, they said, “The church doesn’t need to change; it’s fine the way it is.” We were pushed into a corner until our only place within the community was passive compliance. My parents decided that it was time to excommunicate ourselves. For years, we visited almost every imaginable Christian denomination, which is how I learned about ecumenism and the education of difference. I also learned that the church is not housed in buildings but is housed as people.
As I grew older, I grew more disillusioned with church. Admittedly, the pool of churches into which my family dove was a shallow sample in the American South. But that sampling left a bitter taste in my mouth and many Sunday mornings I have found myself gasping for breath. Church can devolve into a sanitary and secluded place where people cathartically unleash their frustrations at the state of the world without ever going out to change it. Church activities can actually perpetuate injustice. The pressure valves are released and the constrained steam dissipates and fuels nothing. We have made our contribution, everything is certain, we have arrived, we are comforted. We’ve had our reassuring catharsis and the world stays as is.
All of this, it must be said, can apply just as equally to social outreach, a bloodless phrase that almost implies separation. People unleash their frustrations at the way the world is, dishing out fish instead of asking why so many people aren’t allowed access to the pond. We have made our contribution, and we are comforted. I am also fully aware that many churches do not fit these descriptions. Shared meals, rituals, and accountability are all vital. And I know that true change can and does occur beneath steeples. The church is a whore, but she has also given birth to some of the world’s most devoted servants. Good and bad exist in every religious tradition and ignoring one while uplifting the other is unfairly naïve. Unfortunately, my experience has tended toward the more ugly side.
I don’t think I have felt resentment toward the people, though I have certainly resented much of the espoused ideology. My discomfort has often been because I don’t know how to communicate. I speak a different language. When I speak and think, I draw on different vocabulary, and I struggle with meaningful translation between how I speak and how many churches speak. Some of my friends are fluent in both, like effortlessly speaking English and Arabic, or Hebrew. I feel mute. We all have holes, many churches say, and we need God to fill the hole in our lives. But I don’t believe God, whatever that means, fills the hole. I resonate with Frederick Buechner’s words: “If we cannot believe in God as a noun, maybe we can still believe in God as a verb. And the verb that God is, is transitive, it takes an object, and the object of the verb that God is, is the world. To love, to judge, to heal, to give Christs to. The world. The thousand thousand worlds.” I believe God is the hole.
Paul parked the van within the gated courtyard of the church. I thought I might sit outside beneath an olive tree, maybe read or sit in silence. My discomfort with church may sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I would still prefer to sit under an open sky with branches above my head. Paul needed help carrying boxes of plastic cups inside from a car, so I stacked a few and turned the corner to the front door. As I walked up the steps, I noticed an old Muslim woman hobbling toward me through the gate. Her back was bent and she leaned heavily against a knotted cane. The old woman looked around warily and saw me watching her. I said good morning in Arabic, sabah al-khair, and invited her to sit on the steps. She asked for water and I tossed the boxes inside, filled one of the cups at the cooler, and joined her on the cracking stairs.
The old woman sipped delicately. Her heavy black clothes were stained and the scarf around her head was damp with sweat. Her teeth were rotting yellow and brown. She had a few whiskers around her upper lip, drops of water clinging to their ends. Her rough face looked like it had been carved out of crumbling wood, and her skin was wrinkled like ruffled laundry unevenly thrown out to dry. She held the plastic cup in her dark twisted fingers as I sat next to her and Paul sat behind me. She asked if this was a school; someone had told her she could find help here because she needed fifty shekels (around thirteen dollars) to buy a bus ticket to Ramallah and to pay for a doctor’s appointment for stomach problems. It’s not a school, I answered, it’s a church. But surely we could find someone here to help. Paul immediately jumped up and ran inside to find someone. The old woman told me she was from Bethany, born to a German Christian mother and a Palestinian Muslim father. She was like her father, she said. Bethany is on the other side of the Wall. I didn’t know how she got into Jerusalem or why she didn’t just go to Ramallah through the West Bank. As we sat on the steps I could hear people singing hymns. The church service had started. The sound bounced around the inside of the walls.
Paul soon returned with a prominent leader from a Christian college. He knelt down on the top step, several feet away from her, and spoke a few words in Arabic. Then he tossed two coins in her lap and hurried back inside. She looked up at me and the lines around her eyes looked like deep-set trails of tears.
“Oh,” she murmured, almost inaudibly. “He only gave me ten shekels.”
Everything outside was silent for a moment, but I could still hear music in the walls. I offered to walk her to the bus station, but she refused because she had to stop by a friend’s house to get her prescription for the medication. I didn’t really know if her story was true. I had no reason to doubt her. She had a legitimate answer to every question. Either way, she obviously needed money and she needed help. The smallest bill I had in my wallet was more than she needed, but I handed it to her. Shukran, she said with her head bowed, thank you. Then she stood and her body trembled as she struggled to rise. She turned and walked away like an old church, a frail object of a transitive verb.
Paul and I sat in the back pew. The guest pastor was an enthusiastic Australian, neatly-trimmed and well-dressed with a beaming white smile. His sermon was about suffering. We suffer, he said, for glory. Glory is the reward for suffering! But in the midst of suffering we must keep our eyes on God! and he pointed emphatically toward the ceiling. And the way we keep our eyes on God in suffering is through prayer, singing praises, and memorizing the Bible. Then we can persevere! Now we wear a crown of thorns, but one day we will trade it in for a crown of gold!
Patrick, Paul, and I sat quietly in the small atrium as everyone filed out of the sanctuary. My feet swished on the flowered tiles and left comet-shaped patterns of dust. When the last person exited to the foyer for snacks, Paul moved to the bench in front of the Baldwin piano. His fingers moved over the keys and, closing his eyes, he started to sing: “I am a whore I do confess/But I put you on just like a wedding dress/And I run down the aisle.” Patrick and I felt the piano reverberating through the floor and we started to sing too. “So could you love this bastard child/Though I don’t trust you to provide/With one hand in a pot of gold/and with the other in your side?” The music and words echoed in the sanctuary and I thought about opening a window so it wouldn’t be trapped in the walls. Paul began to sing louder. “I am so easily satisfied/By the call of lovers so less wild/That I would take a little cash/Over your very flesh and blood.” And then our voices simultaneously lowered almost to whispers, and the clear notes of the piano softly filled the room. “I’m a prodigal with no way home/But I put you on like a ring of gold/And I run down the aisle/Run down the aisle to you.”
The last notes lingered and I wondered if one of the thousand worlds had safely arrived in Ramallah.