*For this particular thread in our experience, I hope you'll stick with me through several posts. It's too many stories to tell in one post, but I think you'll want to hear these stories together.
Fear seems reasonable in Israel and Palestine. The people there are living in the midst of circumstances that justify suspicion. If my grandparents had been victimized by the holocaust, or if I had to listen to the rants of a mad man in Iran calling for the annihilation of my nation, I might be fearful. If land that my family had cultivated for generations had been taken in 1948 or in subsequent developments, or if I were subjected to dehumanizing security measures every day on my way to work or school, I might be fearful. But one side effect of the fear is the way in which courage stands out in sharp relief. We met some courageous people during our trip. One of them was George Sa'adeh.
An encounter with George feels underwhelming at first. He talks quietly; we had to ask the hotel to turn off the background music in the small lounge where we were meeting so we could hear him. George is the deputy mayor of Bethlehem. He earned a degree in aerospace engineering from USC, but at this point in our trip we had grown accustomed to meeting people who had chosen fidelity to their homeland and family over an easier life in the West. He told us about his work on behalf of Bethlehem, a city that suffers from its place on the wrong side of West Bank security barriers.
We were a week into our trip at this point, and while economic development is important for peace, my head and heart were already full and I was struggling to fully engage. But then he turned from those issues to the story of a visit he and his family made to the market in 2003. He told us about driving to the center of town with his wife and two young daughters, when without warning his vehicle was blasted with automatic weapon fire that the IDF directed toward him. He took nine bullets in his back. One of his daughters and his wife were shot, too. And his other daughter, Christine, was killed. She was 12 years old.
Soldiers ran to his vehicle and immediately acknowledged their mistake, and, just as quickly, George forgave them on the spot. George wasn't in the wrong part of town. He wasn't cavorting with militant Palestinians. He didn't do anything to merit the attack that resulted in the death of his beautiful daughter. If anyone has a right to become indignant, self-righteous, hateful and militant, it's George. But instead he spoke softly to us about his hopes for peace and forgiveness between the Palestinians and Israelis.
George now works with a forum for bereaved parents who have lost children in the conflict. Through the forum, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all gather and find common ground through shared grief. If I were a Jewish mother or a Palestinian father who had lost a child, I think it would be easy to demonize anyone who bears the same nationality as my child's murderer. But these families are listening to each other, not hating each other, and understanding is growing instead of fear.
Maybe George isn't always so soft spoken. He revealed during our evening together that the day of our meeting would have been Christine's birthday, so it seemed appropriate that we speak quietly that night. I walked into that meeting with a head and heart too full to take in much more, which is probably why they broke as I listened.
When George had finished his story, we sat in near silence for a bit. (I say 'near' because we weren't quite able to stifle our weeping.) It wasn't the devastation of Christine's death that broke me, though. It was the tension between the tragedy of such an event and the courage of someone who chooses peace and understanding as his response. But if people like George persevere, maybe that tension won't exist forever.
I know some of you are anxious to hear stories about the holy sites of the Holy Land. Those places certainly marked me while I was there. But it was the people who are sanctifying that land today by their witness to the enemy-loving Savior who changed my life. The sacred stone we encountered that day happened to be a living stone named George, and I wanted you to hear his story.
More on these living stones tomorrow...