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Ever since I returned from Palestine and Israel a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of a summary post or report or analysis or something to kind of tie a nice little bow on my experience, to have some finished product to point to that summarizes the things I saw and experienced while over there.

But life got in the way, as it is in the habit of doing. There was an untended inbox which had gotten rather bloated as a result of ten days of inattention. And there were meetings and appointments to keep. And there was an out-of-town conference to attend. And there was Palm Sunday worship to prepare for. And then, of course, there was Brussels and all kinds of other stories whose badness and sadness are no less worthy of our collective attention for their not being headline news.

And gradually, the sights and sounds and smells and hopes and fears of ten days spent a world away began to recede into the rearview mirror. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, at the end of it all. Perhaps the last thing the world (or the internet, at least) needs is one more postcard from the well-worn trails of ethical/religious tourism. One more voice who happens to have seen a few things and now imagines that they understand things far too complex and painful to grasp on a ten-day tour. One more cause to line up with all the others. One more injustice to be righteously inflamed about. One more painful reality to jostle for a few scraps of compassion from the table. Maybe sometimes it’s not such a bad things that words fail.

Over the past few evenings, I will often just scroll through my photo album. Sometimes it is not words but images that speak the loudest or the truest or the most evocatively. Sometimes it is a picture, more than any analysis or statistics or data, that tells a story most poignantly. There are a number of photos that I took during my ten days that I regularly pause over, but none more than this one. This image speaks to my soul.


I took this picture one afternoon in Hebron. I snapped it quickly, with my camera down by my hip. I was trying to be discreet. I didn’t want her to see me seeing her. We were heading back to our van after a sobering afternoon spent in a sobering place. Hebron is the site of the 1994 massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque (or, the Cave of the Patriarchs), the site where Abraham and Sarah (among others) are said to be buried. The story of Hebron since then has been one of increasing restrictions and repression endured by the Palestinian residents of the city, despite the fact that the massacre was perpetrated by an American-Israeli fanatic who opened fire in the mosque…. 

Never mind the analysis, the data, the statistics…

The girl.

She was one of dozens of kids that we had encountered on our walk around Hebron that day. Most of them were trying to sell us trinkets, gum, bracelets, etc. They were desperate, but we were told not to buy things from them because if we did, there would soon be a hundred more following us around. So we kept our eyes determinedly fixed forward. At least, I did.  I didn’t want to “encourage” them. God, wouldn’t that have been awful? So we ignored them. At least I did.

But this girl… She was hard to ignore. She wasn’t trying to sell anything. She didn’t have the air of frantic desperation that the others did. She was just standing there. While the strange people with their cameras and their notebooks and their obvious wealth paraded around her neighbourhood, taking stock of the injustice, cataloguing the sorrow, she just stood. And watched. Looking at us. Looking past us. Hands folded… peacefully?Resignedly? Defiantly? Hopefully? Who knows?

What did those eyes see, I wondered. What had they seen? Did she have a father or a mother or a sibling who has been the victim of violence? Did her family have enough to eat? Did she go to school? Did she have friends? Was she ever on the receiving end of kindness? Did she like to write stories or fly kites or listen to music? Did she fight with her brothers? Or did she just stand there and watch as the ethical/religious tourists walked by, sadly shaking our heads, wiping our eyes, listening and learning, imagining that we were changing anything?

Such a beautiful little girl. But I couldn’t get behind those eyes, I couldn’t ask her to tell me her story. I couldn’t do anything but weakly walk on by. I didn’t, at least.

But even though I didn’t listen to this little girl in Hebron two weeks ago, I can try to listen to her now. I can gaze into this precious little face from a land characterized by so much that is unholy, and I can see the whole story of this week we call “holy.”

I can see the innocent victim, the one unjustly treated, the one who takes the blame for crimes never committed, the one who absorbs the misdirected wrath of the angry mob. I can see the scapegoat.

I can also see strength. I can see resilience, curiosity, even rumours of joy. I can see a future not yet scripted and a promise that might yet be fulfilled. I can see an openness to surprise—to the possibility of miracles coming out of the least likely places and being told through the unlikeliest people. I can see those little feet running and running as if from an unlikely gardener and an empty tomb.

I can see sorrow stretching out toward joy, despair stretching out toward hope, death stretching out toward life. Even with those arms folded. It might just be what I want to see. Or what I need to see. But maybe that’s at least part of what Holy Week is about—stretching out toward what we want and need and finding that these are the very things that are there to welcome us and guide us to new life.


I took the picture of the tree above as we were leaving Hebron. This image, too, speaks to me of death stretching out toward life.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good. I am glad we can’t wrap the thing up in a ribbon. And that this image haunts us. The whole place haunts us, and should. I think the one that haunts me most is the waiter up in Bethlehem Star. Every morning we talked for a few minutes. Great post. Thank you.

    March 23, 2016
  2. Dan Y #

    Very nice Ryan…

    March 23, 2016
  3. Stan Noffsinger #

    Ryan, your narrative brings a ton of images and experiences rolling through the lense of my experience as well. None more haunting than a text I received from a young Nigerian brother at 3 am our time in which he said: “pray for me but don’t text me. I’m in a tree and Boco Haram is hunting for me.” It is when the context becomes personal through the eyes and words of the human family intersecting our lives that the pain and injustice becomes our own. When one part of the human family hurts, it hurts us all.

    Thank you for exploring the hurt through the eyes of this child and sharing it with us all. May God’s shalom, Christ’s peace and the moving of the Holy Spirit dwell in you.

    March 23, 2016
  4. Renita Hamm #

    This picture caught my eye when you posted it earlier too. She seems to be floating, or somehow superimposed on the picture. The crisp, bright colour of sweater and sandals makes her seem like the only bit of substance in an otherwise shadowy, grey world.

    March 23, 2016
  5. Joani #

    Your post brought back memories of my day in Hebron almost 10 years ago. A lifetime ago. The children and the people we meet stay with us. Posts like this give them life anew in my heart.

    March 23, 2016
  6. Paul Johnston #

    How do we help those whose situation, we would describe as,… “least of His”? Stories, pictures, sermons…and the like, are useful in that they have the potential to inspire us to action but come with very harmful potentials/ realities.

    Very often our ideas about the sufferings of others are nothing more than panaceas remedying various selfish interests. Assuaging our guilt, our sense of moral outrage, even our own personal sufferings. My pain is alleviated watching yours. As for your pain, well I truly don’t want you to suffer and hopefully somebody will come along to actually help you with that. As for me….

    I’m disappointed that, “people on the ground” would not encourage you to engage with the local children. If we aren’t there to meet them on their own terms, encouraging them with smiles, gifts (sharing in our relative abundance) and to offer a real moment of friendship, for however long that moment were to last, why do we go?

    I don’t condemn or lecture here, Ryan. This observation and it’s concerns, are as much for me as it would be for anyone else.

    Some days and some outcomes are better than others. 🙂

    Keep up your efforts.There is His Holy Presence in what you are doing, I am certain of it.

    As always, I thank you for your inspiration. 🙂

    March 24, 2016
    • I suppose there are many ways to help, whether through political engagement or working with/contributing to trusted organizations doing good work in troubled regions. My own contribution often seems to be to write about what I see and to do whatever small things I am able in the place God has called me to be. I cannot do everything (shocker, I know!). I can’t even do very much at all, actually. This has become more apparent to me, the older I get and the more that I see. There are so many sinful systems and structures of violence and oppression that are the product of long years of grinding, intractable conflict. This region, in particular, seems particularly immune to hope.

      And yet. I am called to offer what I have. Time, money, words. Concrete acts of kindness and support, where possible. Advocacy. And prayer, all the way through. These are the only tools I have at my disposal. As you say, some days and some outcomes are certainly better than others!

      Thank you very much for your words of encouragement, Paul. They truly mean a lot.

      March 30, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        Good for you to see the, “half full” circumstance. Especially acknowledging my, “half empty” (or more) observations.

        Thanks also for your kind hearted affirmation, Ryan, it renews my strength. 🙂

        I am at a stage in life where my Spirit can seemingly no longer find peace in, (or tolerance for?) my contradictions.

        The clearer the call of God, the louder the shout of temptation.

        April 4, 2016
  7. Thanks, everyone, for these kind words.

    March 30, 2016

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