Pilgrimage is Seeing with New Eyes

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 Therese Taylor-Stinson

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Prou

This was my fifth attempt to visit “The Holy Land.” My aspiration was not big. I just wanted to be part of a group traveling there, visit biblical sites, and perhaps come back with new eyes for seeing.

Each of the first four attempts failed, even when I scheduled a Mediterranean cruise for my husband and me with two ports in Israel. The ship was diverted because of conflict in the region. I began to think this was a bucket list item I would not accomplish — until I saw the NEXT Church announcement.

Though a little weary of trying, I applied to go on the pilgrimage and requested a scholarship, and once accepted, I dutifully paid my installments as directed. It looked like I was finally going to Israel-Palestine, until about 2 weeks before our departure, when I became increasingly congested with asthma. I visited my pulmonologist, who gave me an emergency pack for the trip, and dutifully took my meds until flight time with a promise from pilgrimage leaders that they would help me through the challenges that the landscape and heat would bring. And they did beyond my expectations.

After a 4:00AM wakeup in DC, on May 19, to make a 10:00AM flight to New York, an unexpected coughing attack driving through Rock Creek Park to the airport threatened to turn me around to go back home. I made it to the airport, followed by an unexpectedly easy and fully accepted check-in for our 11-hour flight on El Al, only to hit the ground running in Tel Aviv at 5:00AM the next day, with a full day of pilgrimaging. As we rode to Bethlehem, the beauty of the city, the starkness of the desert, and the vastness of the land struck me immediately. It was a 48-hour, nonstop beginning!

A purpose of our pilgrimage was to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to compare it to systemic racism in the U.S. In Bethlehem, we met with Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, and founder and president of Dar al- Kalima University College of Arts and Culture. Dr. Raheb is the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date, and he was ready to give us a lesson on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(Therese Taylor-Stinson)

Dr. Raheb showed us the progression of the Israeli occupation — from a whole Palestine in 1946 to only a smattering of land today. He advised us of how the occupation is not only land-based, but also psychological; he showed us the extent of the occupation of land, resources, airspace, and the narrative. Israelis occupy water resources by giving residents colored water tanks. Israelis get white tanks with unlimited water access, and Palestinians get black tanks with access only three days a week. Israelis also control the narrative — “the Palestinians are violent.”

Compare the distribution of resources and the Israeli occupation of the narrative with racism in America, where the distribution of wealth, land, and resources systematically favors white Americans. Where the narrative about African-Americans in the U.S., or the black countries on the African continent, or the neighboring migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. from Mexico, or the oppression of people of color anywhere on the planet, favors a white perspective. I recently learned of how the narrative of black people is controlled even in our sacred Christian texts. The Biblical narrative we receive is the Roman narrative, with a few disparaging mentions of black characters, such as Simon of Cyrene, carrying Jesus’ cross, and an Ethiopian eunuch chatting with Paul. No mention of the Ethiopian Empire of Axum or how the Ethiopian Christians might have played a significant role in evangelizing Africa, including West Africa, where scholar John Mbiti states that Christianity was evident as early as the third century.

We were advised not to react. So, I struggled for control as I heard an Israeli military officer very matter-of-factly speak of random raids of Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, tying and blindfolding the male inhabitants and taking them out to the desert. He said, “We don’t have to kill many of them. Their minds will do more harm than we can by killing them.” He described these tactical incidents, with no sense of remorse, until the Palestinian woman with him spoke of the trauma these raids impose on the Palestinian women and children. I saw him put his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, apparently trying to abate tears. How awful! Yet, how familiar to the police raids in areas of concentrated poverty in the U.S. This was horrifying, and my most challenging moment.

We also visited The Tent of Nations, where Palestinian Christian Dauod Nasser has papers for his land near an Israeli settlement. With certain self-determination, he maintains his rights and offers an olive branch of peace to the world that visits him. Dauod shows the same love, openness, and desire for peace to his oppressor that African Americans have shown to theirs for centuries. We visited a school where the self-determination of Palestinian women care for those held in a refugee encampment made of narrow ally ways, teaching them the basics for survival and feeding them. We also visited an encampment where the children live. Not wanting anything but a smile and greeting in return, they ran to us to say, “hello.” These are also the qualities I often see at home in the self-determination of black and brown people in the U.S., so now I know pilgrimage is having new eyes for seeing, and hoping, and continuing….

Therese Taylor-Stinson is a retired Federal Senior Program Analyst and former expert on Federal regulatory activity, where she also served as a lead mediator for Equal Employment Opportunity disputes across Government. She is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served as Moderator of National Capital Presbytery in 2016. A graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Therese is a spiritual director in private practice for well over a decade and a member of the Shalem Society for Contemplative Leadership. She was also commissioned associate faculty for Shalem’s Personal Spiritual Deepening Program. Therese is the founder and organizer of the Racial Awareness Festival held in Washington DC, supported by National Capital Presbytery. 

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

Emmett Till: Then and Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jan Edmiston

Emmett Till was murdered more than 60 years ago and since that terrible day, more than 10 books have been written to tell the story. But Timothy B. Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till, is especially timely for a 21st century audience, telling the story once again within the context of the increasingly reported deaths of so many unarmed black men as well as the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

There was a time when the murders of unarmed black men and boys went largely unreported. And while hundreds more have been killed since Emmett Till, some of their names are part of our national liturgy of lament: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Clementa Pinckney, Freddy Gray. “America is still killing Emmett Till,” writes Tyson, but we are increasingly speaking the names of men and women of color who have died in the throes of racial bias and white supremacy. We are called to be like Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, and not allow victims of racially motivated deaths to be forgotten.

There was a time when the NAACP was considered a radical organization – much like the Black Lives Matter movement has been decried by some today. Timothy Tyson points out the NAACP was once considered to be “a left-wing power-mad organ of destruction” which had been “infiltrated by communist sympathizers.” Similarly incendiary descriptions of Black Lives Matter can be heard today even though that organization’s stated mission is to affirm “black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” We are reminded in The Blood of Emmett Till that what was once considered radical can become mainstream – and treasured – when we consider the true life experiences of people we have ignored.

Tyson’s book reminds us about the essential nature of testimony. It was his interview of Carolyn Bryant for this book which led to her to admit that Emmett Till never assaulted her in that tiny Mississippi grocery store in 1955. We are reminded what happens when we live by fear even in the face of cultural pressures. False narrative kills.

And we are also reminded that brave truths spoken even at the risk of death is what God has called us to speak today. Tyson powerfully describes what it meant for witnesses like Frank Young and Moses Wright to be brave in the face of darkness. Even though – as expected – the murderers of Emmett Till were found not guilty, the testimony spoken by brave witnesses in the 1950s bolsters our own courage for these days.

If you are just now “waking up white” after reading Debby Irving’s book, reading Tyson’s book about distant days – which are not so distant after all – will further stir a desire to dismantle racism. You may be completely familiar with the story of Emmett Till, but is an important read for our time.

Jan Edmiston serves as Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Jan was born, raised, and educated in Chapel Hill, NC, where she grew up in the University Presbyterian Church. She attended Andover-Newton Theological School and was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. She later earned a Doctor of Ministry in Christian Spirituality from Columbia Theological Seminary.She currently serves as Associate Executive Presbyter for Ministry at the Presbytery of Chicago.Edmiston blogs at A Church for Starving Artists. Throughout her parish ministry years, Edmiston served as moderator of the social justice committee and personnel committee, and took leadership roles in the areas of church revitalization, new church development, and presbytery council.