Smoke-Stained Sky

This article was first published in the Kerux magazine here.

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“Ethnically ambiguous.” I have adopted this short phrase to describe my appearance. Most people in West Michigan cannot identify my ethnicity without asking. Really, I am the love product of a brown Dominican daddy and a fair-skinned Puerto Rican mom. You can see that in my own caramel skin, dark eyes and wavy hair. But, I have often been mistaken for African-American, Indian, Arab and various “other” Latino ethnicities. I used to sing in a choir at an African-American church for several years. Only as recently as last year did the choir director approach me to say he didn’t know I was Hispanic. After a hilarious exchange, he concluded the conversation by saying, “Well, you’re still Black to me!”

This past January I went to Israel with a group from Calvin Seminary. Once again I had to decide if I would keep my black beard and get the not-so-random security check or shave it off and cut those chances in half. After several hours of indecision, I decided to not shave. It shouldn’t surprise you that by the end of our pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” I had been given the evil eye and questioned several times by Israeli guards and airport security. For a fragment of time, I entered the world of the Palestinians.

I became most conscious of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians when our crew visited the town of Bethlehem. Present day Bethlehem is a Palestinian community in the West Bank of Israel. To enter Bethlehem, we needed to pass through the literal dividing wall of hostility that surrounds the West Bank. Just as I made the conscious choice to keep my beard, regardless as to what would be assumed of my ethnicity, at the checkpoint I made the decision to crouch away from the tour bus window. I didn’t want to be seen by the Israeli soldiers. I had seen enough guns and soldiers and I confess that with my passport in my backpack, I was ready to exercise some American privilege. I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being questioned by guards in front of my peers. And ironically, as I thought about that passport, I felt a sense of shame take hold of me. Is this what it feels like for the Palestinians? Is this what it feels like when the have to stand in line every day at the checkpoint just to get in and out of the city?

We chose the perfect day to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. No, not really. We learned on site that a young man was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers the night before. I saw a procession of mourning Palestinians clothed in every rich shade of black and on their way to a funeral at the same church we visited. I saw a man in that multitude who reminded me of my father before I could think twice about him. His salt and pepper hair gleamed in the morning sun while he stared at his feet and followed his shadow on the stony pavement. His eyes conveyed such a deep sense of loss. I saw young men in the streets, burning tires in protest at the injustice of the shooting of one of their brothers. I was reminded of the young people on Madison Avenue in Grand Rapids, who often hold their poster signs in silence at the Hall Street intersection, hoping for change.

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After visiting the church, we went to Bethlehem Bible College. I was amazed to learn that there was Palestinian Christian college in the West Bank.  Palestinian Christians are striving to be faithful to the Gospel hope in a context of apartheid. Inside, Dr. Munther Isaac walked us through a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the second time we had the opportunity to learn from a professor through this walk of history. But, listening to a Palestinian Christian witness to us about how Palestinians are robbed of their property and subjected to constant inspection shook my core. Families are being divided by the contribution of American dollars. As I listened, I was again ashamed of how I felt at the checkpoint. I was ashamed for my American and Latin American brothers and sisters who rally a cry for Zionism without a moment’s thought at the cost someone has to pay in return. I became enraged when I considered how the same Bible that I use to preach shalom and reconciliation between God and men has been used to support theft and abuse of the Palestinians.

I can never unlearn what I learned that day any more than I can erase what I saw. After we left Bethlehem Bible College, the streets were burgeoning with protests. We walked several blocks to our waiting bus. Walking the streets of Bethlehem during the protest was not a fearful event for me. I perhaps never felt safer, even at the sound of tear gas shot into the air and watching the smoke in the distance. God chooses to shed the light of Christ first in Bethlehem. Angels shouted His praise in that same smoke-stained sky. Hosanna in the highest. Bethlehem changed me just as much as standing at the Jordan River and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. God met me at the checkpoint.

R. R. Tavárez

Set This World on Fire

A week ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was acknowledged along with his life’s work and mission. We acknowledge his work as a civil rights activist and his dedication to change through non-violence. We remember the racial injustice of the past and the progress we’ve made into the present.  Now, do we take a break until Black History Month or until next January?  Despite the prevailing myth of a present “post-racial” society, the winds of change and activism have sprung up once again. We see it through the protests in the news reports and social critiques in blogs and articles posted all over social media outlets.  America is begrudgingly becoming conscious again of our communal sin, or collective apathy and blindness to injustice and prejudice.

And the church? Secular society wants us to disconnect our faith with the rest of the world, to compartmentalize our religiosity. This phenomenon – secularism – has also entered the sphere of activism. It’s not to say that one cannot be a secular humanist and work towards ending oppression and dedicating one’s life to the betterment of man. Far from it, many of my atheist and agnostic friends are caring and compassionate people –passionate even on social justice issues. I applaud and welcome them as companions in the struggle for peace and freedom in the face of oppression and prejudice.

Regardless of this reality, we as Christians of all stripes cannot forget our role and responsibility to labor for justice, peace, and civil rights. We must remember the word of Christ  – “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40, NIV).  As Christians, who hopefully take on the title in recognition of our Savior and role model for a holy life in this world and the next, we must toil in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to be a people of the beatitudes. We are meant to remember them and live them.

Christianity is and always has been a radical and revolutionary faith that puts us at odds with society and with ourselves. Our faith is meant to eliminate our comfort zones and recognize our failings, so that Christ lives through us to the world. St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, nun and theologian said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…

We are the “Christ” in the world tasked with building the kingdom of God. For what is faith if it doesn’t transform your very being into a servant of God for the people of God. And if we look at our collective history as Christians, despite all the negative propaganda and agenda about our failings as a church, true or untrue, we have also served as role models of change. There are countless priests and pastors who spent their lives ministering to the untouchables of India and the lepers of the pacific islands. And even to the poor and marginalized on the south side and the diseased and hungry of the developing world. Just to name a few: there is Bartolomé de Las Casas, who stood up for the rights of the Indigenous in the Americas; John Woolman, Quaker and abolitionist; Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of southern slaves; William Booth, the first general of the Salvation Army, and Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker Movement and social activist. And of course there is Martin Luther King Jr., activist and preacher.

There are droves of Christians from antiquity to contemporary times that dedicate their lives to the service of others and wish to see God’s Kingdom on earth. See, faith is not about restrictions. It’s about knowing that there is a love so encompassing and powerful that your failings are irrelevant to the divine mercy of God’s love. And because God is compassion, we also have compassion and become impassioned to do the work of the Lord.  Therefore, let us remember that we have a calling to be activists and fighters for a better world. We have our own special calling from on high. Let us live it fully. Because when we are with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed we are also in communion with the suffering Christ.

We must remember the words of Rev. Dr.  King,

“…[the masses] have taken the Old Testament call righteousness and justice …  with the New Testament call to love one’s enemies and to bless one’s persecutors has formed one of the most creative and constructive revolutionary forces that our world has known in many a decade.”   (Sermon, Rev. Dr. King, Christian Movement in a Revolutionary Age).

King gave the world a true legacy, an example in which faith and passion can be used peacefully with love to create change; this concept so benign-sounding and simplistic is also so counter-cultural that it is revolutionary. King demonstrated a method and lived the example of what a Christian activist is and can be. Activism and social justice cannot just be the sole province of the secular humanist; it is a task onto which we must all travail. We are called to be the revolution – faith for the service of others and loving your neighbor, especially the oppressor and persecutor.

Thus, I ask you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to remember the Lord’s call to service and justice.  St. Catherine of Sienna, a French mystic and theologian said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” My God, how true are those words!  When we enter more fully in the Lord, Christ takes on us, we take on Christ and we discover and become a truer self. We are reconstructed to become recon-structors.  We are revolutionized into the person God has called us to be to be. Some are called to lead, others to preach, some to sing, and all to serve.

 Gerald Polanco

Ed. R.R. Tavárez