Global Mission Sunday: Reflections on Serving with ELCA YAGM (LIFE in Service partner)

Sermon offered at Peace Lutheran Church (El Paso, TX) on Sunday, February 12, 2017

By Michael Dickson, BSCer serving at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey

“I did not see the walls or fences torn down, but in crossing them I was able to air out some of the deep, open wounds that are the walls in my own mind and allow them to begin to heal.”

Verses: Luke 10: 1-7; Isaiah 2: 2-4; Ephesians 4:1-6

Happy Global Mission Sunday! My name is Michael Dickson, and I’m the Border Servant Corps volunteer at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey in downtown El Paso. Before that, I was a called and commissioned missionary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Much better than “volunteer.” Anyway, I’m here today to talk to you a little about mission, and about my own personal experience of it.

I was a member of the Young Adults in Global Mission program, or YAGM for short, meaning I was one of the 60,70, now 80 young adults that the ELCA sends out into the world every year to serve in one of our global companion churches. We send young adults to Lutheran churches in Rwanda, Senegal, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Hungary, Madagascar, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Australia, and Israel/Palestine. We send them to be changed, to be shaken, to learn about our global church and our shared world and to be shaped by that, and with the hope that they will then come back to re-shape, shake up, to RE-FORM our church here. And that may sound somewhat radical, but it’s a call from the heart of our faith. We’re Lutherans. We know a thing or two about reformation.

So in August 2014, just a few months after I graduated from college, I set out on the road to try to answer this call. At the invitation and under the direction of the Palestinian Lutheran Church, I was appointed and placed in Jerusalem, known in Arabic as al-Quds, the Holy City. And there I lived and served for a year, walking alongside our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, Israelis, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, Jews. I worked in a local preschool run by the Palestinian Church and I lived with the pastoral intern in what for lack of a better word I’ll call the vicarage – An apartment/Sunday School classroom in an Arab neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, a good half hour north from the Old City where the Lutheran Church is located.

So that sounds cool. But what did I actually do? I was a missionary. And missionary’s such a complicated, loaded word, isn’t it? The legacy of missionaries in so many parts of the world is hopelessly tangled up with violence, economic exploitation, racism, and just unbelievable amounts of human arrogance. But let’s go back to the roots of mission, to the 72 disciples Jesus sends out into the world in Luke today. Now, let’s be clear, we’re not “preparing the way” for Jesus like these first missionaries. Jesus is alive and in the world now – no thanks to us. But what did these first missionaries in Luke 10 bring with them? Guns and smallpox? Mercantilism and slave labor? A superior language and culture? Mass produced study Bibles and a nearly pathological need to stamp out native cultural practices? Nope. They brought nothing. No purse, no bags, no sandals, no bread, no extra tunic. Actually nothing.

And that’s something fundamental about mission. It’s profoundly humbling. You’re leaving your home with nothing and throwing yourself upon the mercy and hospitality of a stranger. That’s scary. And I said humbling, but as someone with a brief experience of it, I believe humiliating is a far better word for what that actually feels like. In Ancient Israel, and still to a large extent in the Middle East today, your roots are everything: your family and your hometown. The 72 missionaries aren’t just deciding to be destitute, they’re leaving everything that makes them who they are, that makes them proud, that makes them feel valuable. In chapter 14 Jesus says “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, is not ready to abandon wife and children, forsake brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Carrying nothing and reduced to nothing, these missionaries can only offer a word of peace to a stranger, ask for food and shelter, and lean fully on their kindness and hospitality.

In the U.S. today family is important, but our self-worth is tied up in what we produce, in our resume, our skills. But after 4 years of intentional self-enrichment in college, building up my resume and creating a LinkedIn and making connections and gunning for that diploma, I was thrown into a totally different world. Suddenly after I landed in Jerusalem, no one wanted to look at my resume. No one cared where I went to school or what I studied or how many student magazines I was the editor for. I had a stipend – but I didn’t know how to spend it. I pride myself on my communication and writing skills and suddenly I couldn’t read, I couldn’t speak either of the languages around me, Arabic or Hebrew. I was a baby again, totally clueless about how to navigate even the most basic social and logistic tasks. What’s a normal price for falafel, was I horribly and unforgivably rude just now, how do I catch the bus, where do I go to buy vegetables, How many agharot is in a shekel, and why do people laugh when I say mutaTawwa?

I was alone, stripped of my comfort, my confidence, and my dignity, and dropped off in a mostly Muslim Palestinian neighborhood north of the Old City of Jerusalem, If you’d asked my grandfather, he’d probably tell you, that like the 72, I was a lamb in the midst of wolves. I would then respond quietly that he was being melodramatic and more than a little racist, but that doesn’t mean I felt no fear. But I had no choice but to trust, to reach out like I was a child learning to walk in a new world, blindly confident that someone would be there to grab my hand and catch me when I fall. To trust in God and to trust in the stranger. That’s what YAGM is about and that’s what mission is about. Jesus asks us to be prepared to give up not only material things, but nearly everything that defines us, and to go forth as a bearer of peace, building connections with the people around you, building relationships through trust and vulnerability.

That sounds hard, and I thought so too.  So I arrived, timid and nervous, trying to carry peace in my words and in my heart. I learned the Israeli greeting, shalom, peace, and the Muslim tradition too, every time you greet someone, and every time you visit someone at home, assalamu alaykum, peace be upon you. I showed up, I tried every day to make the decision to trust, and as ambiguous as it sounds, I did my best to open myself to God acting in the people around me.

Very quickly I realized it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined. Alone and empty as I was, stripped of all of my skills and my imagined worth, I was welcomed into the community. I was hungry and they fed me, I was confused and scared and they comforted me and taught me. Every person I met, Muslim, Jew, or Christian, Israeli or Palestinian – I would introduce myself, share my word of peace, and they would welcome me into their home, they would introduce me to their family, they would bend over backwards to show me hospitality and to share in my peace. Everything of myself I sacrificed, I received again ten times over. They gave me the opportunity to walk alongside them and to learn and even to share of myself in return.

One day, midway through my year, I was working at the preschool, playing outside with the kids, when I saw an Arab man and a small boy, around 6 years old, standing on the other side of the playground fence, watching the kids at play. I figured they’d come from the hospital just across the street, so I opened the gate and told them they could come play. The boy shyly entered the playground and started to explore, avoiding the other kids, while the man and I talked. His name was Ayman, which comes from imaan, meaning faith, and he lived in the West Bank, which means he had to get very special permits to be able to cross the wall and visit the hospital in Jerusalem. He was there with his son Musa, which means Moses. Musa had had a brain tumor removed the year before, and now he was at the hospital for weekly chemotherapy treatments. There was no hospital in the West Bank that had that sort of radiology equipment, so he had to file for papers and take his son into Jerusalem to get treatment there. He showed me the surgical scar on the back of Musa’s neck, and, as literally every stranger did when I first met them, he invited me to visit him. I guess he was excited about this friendly American who spoke nearly passable Arabic, and he joyfully offered to show me around the Palestinian city of Ramallah. He insisted I come meet the rest of his family in his village of Beit Liqya, that I stay the night, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I took his number and he told me to call him when I was free. I’d never actually called any of the other people who just spontaneously gave me their phone number after our first conversation, partly out of lack of courage, and partly out of confusion about social norms. I’m a baby in a new world. But something was different about Ayman. So I explained the situation to my boss afterward and asked: “Does he really want me to call him? Is that just something people do to be nice?”

She dismissed the question. “That was a stranger. We don’t know him, don’t call him.” So I left it at that. But the next week, because Musa was there for weekly treatments, they came back. They came to the playground so he could play, and Ayman asked me “Why didn’t you call? Were you busy?” So what else could I do? Here I was, a missionary here in Jerusalem trying to be open to God working in the people around me, this Arab Muslim man was earnestly, sincerely trying to share his life with me, and I was coming up with excuses.  So I took the leap. A few days and a couple of challenging phone conversations entirely in Arabic later (still pumped about that) I was on my way to visit. He gave me directions and guided me through it. All I had to do was to take the bus from Jerusalem all the way to the main bus station in Ramallah and he’d meet me there. Ramallah is a fairly big city, the de facto Palestinian capital of their not-exactly-a-country. I’d been there before, but only with the other volunteers, being driven directly to some gathering or worship service. This was my first time taking the bus all the way from the Old City of Jerusalem, up through Qalandia, the military checkpoint where Israeli Security controls who goes in or out, and deep into the city of Ramallah. My nerves on edge, I waited as we twisted and turned into the crowded city center. And there, of course, was Ayman. He showed me downtown and he treated me to falafel. He opened up his facebook on his phone and showed me picture after picture of his son Musa. Musa at 3, Musa at 4, Musa before the surgery, Musa before chemo, Musa after chemo. We wandered and chatted about life, about religion, about Russian, of all things, and then he took me on a tour. But it wasn’t by any means a traditional tour of Ramallah. While we were waiting for his brother to come give us a ride to the village, Ayman took me on a tour of everything in Ramallah that meant something to him. He took me to the smaller local hospital, he introduced me to some of the staff, he showed me a small nearby plaza with a plaque where his father was buried, he took me to the room Musa had stayed in when he had his surgery, he took me to the café he would get coffee at every day for a month while Musa was recovering from the surgery. I was stunned. Even if my Arabic had been any better than just “functional,” even if I was capable of communicating complex ideas, there was nothing to say. There was nothing to do. I was a witness. A witness to his trials, to his pain, to his love and his life.

We shared some quiet time together, got coffee, and hitched a ride with his brother back to his village. We went miles outside of town, on thin roads hanging off rolling hills, terraced with stones and covered with olive trees hundreds or even thousands of years old, leaving every streetlight and sign of civilization far behind us. There I met his wife Esme, his younger son Usaid, and I got to play with Musa. They fed me until I couldn’t eat anymore, and that evening, before letting me crash in their guest bedroom, Ayman took me out to the wall. It was dark already, and we rolled our way out of the village, down tiny roads by fields and henhouses in Ayman’s old truck. Musa was lying in the back, all his energy already spent. Usaid, the 3-year-old was sitting in Ayman’s lap, giggling and trying to steer. I couldn’t see too far outside the car in the night, but Ayman described every field and orchard we passed. Cucumbers there, olives here, carrots there, cabbage, almonds, tomatoes. We pulled up in one last clearing, and got out. Usaid ran to find a tomato to pick, and Musa got out to slowly follow his dad. Ayman led me through the field and over one last hill, pointing at the mountains in various directions, naming the cities and Israeli highways you would find on the other sides. Then he showed me the fence. In Jerusalem it is a concrete wall, 8 meters into the sky, separating Israel and Jerusalem from the West Bank, and I would see it every day from the Israeli side while I went about my day in Jerusalem, but in the rural zones it is a fence, a ditch, motion detectors, some razor wire, and a military access road. It is a symbol of fear, of limited movement. But here, way out in Beit Liqya, I was at least seeing the fence from the other side. And that was something. It meant something.

Ayman, this middle-aged Arab-Palestinian Muslim man, in the hills of what was once under King Herod’s authority, called me out onto the water, onto the road, into his life and into his home, across the walls that divide us and wound us and through the walls in my own mind. Jesus told the 72 to heal the sick and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. I am no healer of the sick, but by trusting, having faith, and leaving myself behind, I was able to participate, not just in the making of a little peace, of some tiny measure of reconciliation, but in some healing and resurrection. Peace for Ayman in being able to share his story, and reconciliation for me in learning to recognize his humanity. I was able to rejoice in Musa’s healing, in the slow resurrection of his spirit over time. I was able to witness a tiny bit of healing in the bonds of brotherhood between Ayman and me, between my family and his family, my faith and his faith. I did not see the walls or fences torn down, but in crossing them I was able to air out some of the deep, open wounds that are the walls in my own mind and allow them to begin to heal. And I didn’t have to proclaim it, but I think it was clear to both me and Ayman in our own way that the Kingdom of God had indeed come near to us in that moment.

And that’s what it’s about. The program I was a part of is called Young Adults in Global Mission, and this is Global Mission Sunday, not Global Missions, because it is about one single mission. God’s mission, and that is the healing and reconciliation of the world. Y’all, me, all of us in YAGM and in the Global Mission wing of the ELCA, we’re just individuals, a few laborers in a great harvest. The fruit is from God and Jesus is already in the world, but we are there to find, to bridge, to connect, to tear down walls. Just like the 72, ordinary illiterate Galillean peasants, bringing our own little measure of peace and healing. That is my calling, and I believe it is all of our calling. Thus in the words of Paul (or some Paul-like disciple), “I beg you to lead a life worthy of that calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” The hope of our calling is that we will have the privilege to witness, and to share in the building of the kingdom of God, that we can look forward to the time Isaiah foretells, when all others will join us in the harvest, when a chemotherapy appointment won’t be the only thing letting Musa physically approach Mount Zion, the Mountain of God Isaiah speaks of, when the guns, swords and spears, will be turned away from people like Ayman and put to work in that same harvest.

Thank you, and Allah Maak. God be with you.