Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage.
by Jessica Patchett
The children welcomed us with dancing.
Our band of pilgrims walked into Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus just before lunch. Nablus is a city in the West Bank, 30 miles north of Jerusalem, with a population of about 140,000 Arab Palestinian Muslims, Christians, Samaritans, and Jews. It is home to the traditional site of Jacob’s Well and in the shadow of Mount Gerazim, where Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well for a glass of cool water and a rousing theological debate.
Today, Nablus is also home to several refugee camps and a military occupation. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, many generational Palestinian families were forced out of their Nablus homes. Seven thousand of these Palestinian Muslims and Christians were herded into tents forming a camp called Balata. With nowhere else to go, families stayed, people built cinderblock structures, and over the past seventy years, Balata became a permanent home to more than 27,000. Most of today’s residents of Balata were born, have given birth, and know they will face death in the same 1/10th of a square mile.
I have been to Balata twice. There is no air conditioning. Doors open into narrow alleyways where adults must turn sideways to pass. Dirty dish water splashes down overhead. Graffiti tells the story of a half century, several generations, of life on hold.
Balata is often placed on curfew by the Israeli Defense Force, which means no one can come in or out of the camp. Sometimes curfew lasts a few hours. Other times a few days. During one of the uprisings, 27,000 people were locked in one tenth of a square mile for a year.
Perhaps the most terrifying reality of living in Balata is that the Israeli Defense Force conducts weekly search and arrest operations in the middle of the night. Youth as young as 12 are frequently taken from their beds and into military police custody without notice to their parents of where, why, or how long they will be held.
Walking past concrete rooms, one can hear arguing and crying. Hopelessness, domestic violence, and suicide threaten every block.
And yet, the person whose footsteps I have followed each time through this camp is a woman named Suhad. She grew up in Nablus. When she was five years old, she saw her best friend shot and killed in the street by an Israeli Defense Force soldier. She has seen cousins killed, lost friends and uncles, and been hit in the head by the butt of an automatic assault weapon.
Suhad also went to graduate school in Europe. And she says it was there, for the first time, she saw free people, realized it was not normal to live the way she grew up, and learned she had basic human rights that had been violated.
Suhad earned degrees in psychology and counseling. Though she could have taken other opportunities, Suhad moved back to Nablus to be a family therapist and eventually joined a team that created Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. Her vision as TYO’s Center Director and Psychosocial Program Manager is to help every child in the Balata refugee camp have a safe, supportive place to soothe traumas, learn how to read and write, and begin to find — with their own voices — a way to claim their own basic human rights.
Ten years later, TYO serves more than 1,000 children and youth, in addition to their families. TYO provides two shifts of daily programming for pre-school and school-age kids that includes reading, writing, arts and crafts, dancing and exercise, therapeutic support, and two meals. TYO does all of this for $50 per child per year.
I have often thought that if I walked into the same program in my hometown, I would not have found it remarkable. Reading, singing, dancing, playing — it is normal and pedestrian in Concord, North Carolina or Marietta, Georgia. But in the midst of Balata Refugee Camp, it is all an act of faith, a bold reclamation of personhood, a joyous defiance of all that dehumanizes people in the midst of a 70-year warzone.
When we pilgrims walked into the gym at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, we did not know the song the children were singing. But when they saw us come in, they changed the music. The Cha-Cha Slide blared, and everybody clapped their hands. Together, we danced and laughed and remembered that though crying may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.
Pilgrimage is dancing. It is pausing along a long, hard hike to remember with heart and soul, mind and body, in the company of friends and strangers what the journey is about after all.
In the days since my pilgrimage through Palestine and Israel, I have paused often to be grateful for Suhad and hundreds of children who greeted us at TYO. Dancing with them renewed my vision and refueled my desire for a world in which children can grow up without fear, young women and men know their worth, and all can live with dignity and joy.
Jessica Patchett is the Senior Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She enjoys helping people discover life-renewing connections with communities of faith. She finds joy in friendship, yoga and running, good poetry, and exploring new places. You can find her on Instagram – jessicareneepatchett – and Facebook – Jessica Renee Patchett.