Rev. John Buttrick: A breakfast with new friends in D.C. shows the way toward peace

For the Monitor
Published: 5/16/2018 8:31:59 AM

Recently my wife, Faye, and I spent a week in Washington, D.C. Our primary reason for the trip was the annual meeting of the national United Church of Christ Palestine – Israel Network (UCC PIN) Steering Committee.

There were dozens of other groups meeting in the city planning to lobby their senators and representatives on issues driven by their convictions and passions. These assorted groups included the annual “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” conference and J Street. As we went from appointment to appointment on the Hill, we overlapped with delegations from J Street.

UCC PIN and J Street have different positions on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. However, we learned that both were advocating for a vote against Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s Israel Anti-Boycott Act, S. 720. Both see the act as a freedom-of-speech issue. This bill makes it a crime to support or advocate the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli products. Also, both delegations were urging an end to the Israeli military shooting across the armistice line at un-armed demonstrators in Gaza.

In addition, UCC PIN was asking our representatives to co-sponsor and support the Betty McCollum bill: H.R. 4391, Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act. It extends an absolute prohibition against the torture and ill treatment of detained minors, in keeping with both U.S. and international law. It requires that the secretary of state certify that American funds do not support Israeli military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill treatment of Palestinian children.

We visited the offices of Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and Rep. Annie Kuster. We met with legislative assistants and a senior national security adviser. We were warmly welcomed and given ample time for a thorough discussion of our “asks” and the reasons for supporting them. Information was shared, questions were asked and the developing positions of our legislators were explained. They received our background literature and promised to consider the contents. Each session ended with encouragement to keep in touch and offer any additional information that might develop. Noticing the rain outside, one aide even offered to arrange a ride for us to our next appointment on the far side of the Capitol building.

However, also included in these visits and throughout our five days in Washington was a cloud of apprehension.

The infusion of power abuse, hegemony, lies and bullying tactics of President Donald Trump and some others in the administration infected the mood and spirit of the city. Conversations contained hints of caution and despair. We heard it in congressional offices, in the voices at a demonstration on the lawns around the Capitol, and in overheard discussions in the street, on the Metro, or in a cafeteria. Several times we heard the words, “In this political climate it is not possible.” Lobbying groups exhibited anxiety and caution. Friends hesitated to delve into controversial issues.

Therefore, we were surprised by an experience at Kalomara Guest House.

Early in the morning six sleep-deprived strangers straggled in and pulled up chairs around the breakfast table laden with eggs, potato cakes, bacon, cereal, coffee, tea and orange juice. There was even a plate of home-baked chocolate chip cookies sitting on a side table. Cautiously we tested each other’s tolerance for early breakfast conversation. Names were exchanged. Hometowns revealed. Comfortable accommodations and a good, if short, night’s sleep were affirmed. Then the more courageous among us began to ask about why each of us was visiting Washington, D.C. The conversation soon became energized. Interest blossomed. Awkwardness disappeared as we shared our stories.

During the next hour, regional accents from the South, Midwest, New Hampshire and Maine blended into the conversation. Four of the people around the table were in D.C. to meet with their congressional delegations or to testify at congressional hearings. The other two were a daughter and mother visiting the college where the daughter had been accepted for the fall term.

One by one the breakfast guests expressed their commitment for improving the human condition. The student from a small town in Maine was seeking to expand her horizons, study with other young people from a variety of ethnic and cultural origins. The woman at the end of the table was scheduled to testify at a Senate hearing. Her organization advocates for immigrant children, as young as 4, who have crossed the Mexican border and been separated from their parents or other adults. By executive order, President Trump has taken away their grant funds. She is asking for funds to defend these children at risk. The man sitting across from me was lobbying for convenient, affordable mass transportation by financing improvements in the rail system.

When our turn came, we explained our membership on the steering committee of UCC PIN and our efforts to lobby for the protection of Palestinian children living in the occupied Palestinian territory. Then the man sitting across from me said, “I am Jewish.” After a pause he smiled and acknowledged the difficult struggle in Israel and Palestine. For the next 20 minutes we shared our positions and passions concerning the Israeli-Palestine situation. Around that breakfast table grew trust and respect for the honesty of our varied convictions.

I give thanks for that early morning breakfast at Kalorama Guest House. The conversation among six strangers affirmed that the lies, bullying, racism and all the current phobias have not won the day. The Greek root of “kalorama” means “beautiful, wide view.” Our day of advocacy on the Hill was validated by this small group of strangers who were willing to take in the wide view of listening to one another and extending love, care and peace with justice for all human beings.

It is a beautiful view when walls come down to reveal honest sharing among neighbors, no matter from where they come.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)

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