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The Rev. John Buttrick: Two experiences, two stories of injustice

  • Water rains down from a fountain as people visit the Contemplation Court at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Feb. 13. AP



For the Monitor
Monday, November 26, 2018

In mid-October I traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the four-day Advocacy Summit of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

Following the summit, my wife and I spent a day in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Together these two experiences filled me with an acute awareness of the continuing injustices committed by powerful nations against the powerless.

The summit included more than 50 ecumenical accompaniers from the United States and Canada who have served a term of three months in Palestine and Israel.

WCC-EAPPI was created in 2002, based on an appeal from local Palestinian and Israeli church leaders to create an international presence in the country. EA’s from 21 different countries give protective presence to six communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

They collect documentation for the World Council of Churches. They witness the struggles of shepherds in the Jordan Valley. They accompany Palestinian school children at risk of Israeli settler harassment.

They observe Palestinian children and adults seeking to pass through Israeli army checkpoints to go to school, to jobs or to tend the crops on their land. They sit with families whose son or daughter has been taken away from their home by the Israeli military at 3 a.m.

They meet with mayors and civic leaders, shopkeepers, and Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. They are invited into Palestinian and Israeli living rooms to sit over tea, coffee and sweets while listening to their stories.

“The WCC-EAPPI works intentionally together with people of all faiths and no faith, in the conviction that God is God of all creation, and the source of all human efforts towards love, justice and peace.”

The October summit was a time for updates about the current situation in Palestine and Israel. We heard accounts of increasing oppression by the Israeli military and an increase in Israeli military arrests and holding of Palestinian children. We heard about Palestinians losing more land to expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There were also updates on the United States involvement in Palestine and Israel.

This involvement includes tactical training programs given by the Israeli military to United States police forces and border agencies. There is an increase in the annual $3.5 billion in United States military aid to Israel. However, the Trump administration has redirected an annual $200 million away from humanitarian assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.

These funds include helping support six East Jerusalem hospitals giving referral care for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are the main providers of health care services, including cancer care, cardiac and eye surgeries, neonatal intensive care, children’s dialysis and physical rehabilitation of children.

Some Israeli leaders and 14 Israeli doctors have protested that this loss of funds will result in “clear and certain medical harm and deleterious consequences for the health of (Palestinian) patients.”

The Trump administration has also suspended an annual $350 million funding for UNRWA. UNRWA helps fund 700 schools for more than 500,000 refugee children, 143 clinics, as well as low-interest startup loans for Palestinian enterprises. The decision to suspend aid will have a profound detrimental impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable Palestinians.

After the WCC-EAPPI summit, we dedicated a day to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We found ourselves immersed in a similar narrative.

“A People’s Journey, a Nation’s Story” led us through three major galleries: “Slavery and Freedom, 1400-1877”; “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968”; and “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.”

People of every skin color walked together through the galleries. I sometimes found myself turning my attention from an exhibit to look at the African Americans looking at the exhibits. I tried to imagine what they were thinking and feeling as I stood next to them in the white skin of my ancestors who profited in enslaving their ancestors.

I was particularly distressed by the report that major Christian church organizations had invested money in the early slave trade. I was flooded with a profound sense of anger and shame. It reminded me of some of the feelings I had living with Palestinians who knew I was from a country contributing to their experiences of racism, abusive power and economic exploitation.

However, I also remembered their hospitality and their acceptance of me as a companion on the journey toward a hopeful future.

Standing beside the diversity of people in the museum, a wave of empathy and hope washed over me for all those who struggle with injustice. All of us together walking through the museum might begin to accept and blend our diverse histories into a shared history motivating a future of peace with justice for all people.

These first three exhibits were below ground. Climbing to the ground floor provided the opportunity to sit at a table for conversation in the Sweet Home Café over a selection of food from the Creole Coast, the Northern States, the Agricultural South and the Western Range. And the café was only a short walk across the atrium to the Contemplation Court. It was a place to sit quietly with new companions on benches around a central pool viewing and listening to water falling into it like rain, washing away the violence, pain, segregation and ignorance of our past history.

With a hopeful spirit we were prepared for the climb to the community and cultural galleries on the three floors above ground to celebrate the African American contributions to the economics, culture, music and political leadership in the United States. From these galleries we could look out over the Washington, D.C., monuments and government buildings. The view invites the people of many skin colors and heritages traveling through this museum to speak the truth experienced here to the power below.

(The Rev. John Buttrick lives in Concord. He can be reached at fayejihn@gmail.com.)