Monday, February 9, 2009

New Blog

Thank you to all of you who have followed this blog (and my journey) over the last year or so!

Given some of my change in direction, I have started a new blog: which will focus on my thoughts and reflections on life and work in the Parkside apartments, a multi-ethnic, low-income apartment complex in the suburbs of Chicago.

I may update the Sulha blog from time to time related to updates on the Middle East, but I will be focusing mostly on my other blog.

Peace and blessings!

Monday, January 5, 2009

It Gets Worse

It is so bad in Gaza now, it is almost unthinkable. Personally, it is emotionally very difficult to read the news and to get stories from the few who are inside Gaza and able to get the story out.

Here is a blog of someone currently inside Gaza: InGaza.

Here is a helpful BBC article:

Please pray for peace.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza Relief Effort


As many of you may have seen from the news, Gaza has been turned into hell the last week or so. Family of many of my friends from the West Bank live in Gaza and are suffering deeply. Much of the real story has not hit the news. Please see the letter below from one of my friends, Phil, who lived in Gaza for two years and who is helping to organize a relief effort. Pray to the prince of peace for the end of this violence.

In the next week a shipment of vital medicines will be going out by way of a group in Egypt to the people of Gaza- which Phil will be joining until the border. If you feel inclined to give towards this, please send money to his paypal account under the following address:

Arab Complicity, Israel's Duplicity

At 11:30am on December 27th the Israeli air force bombed Palestinian
government headquarters and civilian buildings all across the Gaza
Strip. Four consecutive days of attacks resulted in over 350 dead and
thousands injured. In the densely populated Gaza Strip the attacks
caused the death of scores of civilians.1 The UN reported seven school
children attending UN schools dead when Israeli rockets hit a school,2 over a dozen traffic police officers in training were killed while Israel's onslaught hit a prison burying inmates beneath the rubble.3 The hospitals are overcrowded with the dead and injured. Behind the images filling media outlets is a deeper story that needs to be realized. Since early November Israel has made it increasingly difficult for journalists, NGO workers, a UN rapporteur,4 and diplomats5 to enter the Gaza Strip.

On November 18th the New York Times reported that Foreign
Ministry spokesman Schlomo Dror justified Israel's closure by
considering "much of their [journalists in sum] previous coverage from
Gaza unfair," and therefore would not be "shedding tears" about
preventing their access.6 Since that time the Erez crossing- the only
entry and exit for foreigners to Gaza- has opened only for very brief periods and has continued to be extremely restrictive as to
who gets in and out. This has severely decreased travel to the Gaza
Strip where even journalists who do make it in are not guaranteed
exit- at times for weeks. As much of the world relies on English
coverage of the news in places like Gaza the images and stories have
severely declined due to Israeli limitations of access to journalists.
This has resulted in a veiling of the day-to-day catastrophe taking
place in Gaza for so many months.

In Gaza the recent deaths and injuries are an added tragedy to the
ongoing hardship. The Gaza Strip has not been under siege since June
2007, when Hamas took control of the small strip of land... it has
been under siege for years. 18 months ago that siege was only increased to unprecedented levels. Former Israeli Prime Minister's aide Dov
Weisglass claimed Palestinians would not be starved subsequent to
Hamas' election victory but put "on a diet."7 Israel determined to
only permit items into Gaza that they deemed "essential," hundreds
have since died due to a shortage of medical supplies, and not being
provided with permits to reach other destinations with better medical

Israel's aerial bombardment has brought to a head the urgent
humanitarian needs in Gaza. As has been the case for months Gazans are
short on blankets, cooking gas and candles, among other essential
items. For the past months food is increasingly being cooked over open
fires- when wood can be found- because cooking gas is now a commodity of the rich who can afford exorbitant black market prices.8 Many areas experience consistent electricity outages most of the day. Gaza has also run out of glass so that windows blown out by the ongoing air strikes cannot be replaced. While babies are going without diapers and children are going to sleep cold without blankets, bakeries are
running out of flour to provide bread to the queuing masses. Gaza has
long since run out of concrete and graves remain unmarked because
wood, a viable alternative is also scarce. The reality of the so-called truce between Hamas and Israel that ran out weeks ago is
that it never really existed: Israel has been increasingly turning
Gaza into a concentration camp- not for Hamas- but for all
Palestinians residing there, Muslims and Christians, Fatah, Hamas and
politically nonaligned citizens alike. In the midst of all the
political jargon many forget that Palestinians too are people, not just a
collective entity called "Hamas." When Israel began bombing tunnels
along the strip's Southern border Sunday, it closed a dire alternative channel- due to closed borders during the siege- for food, clothing and petrol.9

The complicity of select neighboring Arab governments in the latest
US-applauded Israeli attacks is a further factor that merits
reflection. In the week preceding the Israeli onslaught Israel's
Foreign Minister traveled the region to garner support for the planned
attack on Gaza. On December 26th, the day before the Israeli
offensive, Egyptian newspapers carried front page images of Foreign
Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit clasping the hand of his Israeli counterpart
Tzipi Livni as if in agreement of what was to come.10 On December 28th Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas warmed the very seat that Livni
had occupied just days earlier when she had met with Egyptian
president Husni Mubarak at which time Israeli plans had already been
solidified to attack Gaza.11 The complicity of neighboring Arab governments has never been so obvious. London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Tuesday that Livni had shared plans regarding the attack with Egypt's security chief Omar Soleiman prior to the attacks.12 For the past few days Egyptian state security has listened to the chants of protesters yelling, "all of us are Hamas" – given the Palestinian Islamic
movement's roots within Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood which opposes the Egyptian regime in power- tacit Egyptian support for a deadly blow in Gaza comes as no surprise.

On a legal dimension there are some considerations to keep in mind. On
Monday Israel declared it was carrying out an "all-out war" on
Hamas.13 In a state of war between two states retaliation is a
justified act and yet in this "war" Hamas is endlessly labeled a
"terrorist" organization thus without any justification for the use of
violence over and against Israel's justified use thereof. Israel's logic
only mirrors that of the USA's stated "war on terror," which is a war
on an unidentifiable, unseen enemy. Rules of international law
regarding war have historically applied to nation-states at war with
each other. The USA has utilized the ambiguity in the law to
legitimize its unlimited use of force, detention and torture against
stateless "enemies" in their campaign on the "war on terror."
The complication in Israel's case is the fact that Hamas very
legitimately won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006-
with Jimmy Carter's seal of approval- and by Palestinian and
international law is a legitimate and representative governing body
for Palestinians. Yet two conditions follow: first, Palestinians have
not been granted statehood and thus Israel can continue to treat the
Palestinian pseudo-government as a "non-state" actor and still be in
line with international law. This means any act of violence by Israel-
an internationally recognized state- on "Hamas" is legitimized in the
eyes of the West's public as Hamas is continually confirmed as a
non-state, "terrorist" entity. The second matter at stake is that
Hamas' election victory was not recognized by Israel, the so-called
international community nor by the losing party in the elections,
Fatah, who have in turn been pampered by Hamas' opponents as a
legitimate representative of Palestinians despite their defeat.

Following Hamas' election win Fatah neglected to hand over control of
all security apparatus while preparing for a US-sponsored coup against Hamas.14 After Hamas took its legitimately gained power by force the Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas- illegally according to Palestinian law-15 deposed the Hamas government bringing about an unprecedented state of division within Palestinian society.
Internal division is the ultimate aim of Israel and its international
Supporters; the weakening of Islamist factions the aim of complicit
Arab governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon. All
this has left Israel with legitimacy in the eyes of the so-called
"international community" to carry out not an attack on Hamas but a
full-fledged aggression on the population of the Gaza Strip, with the
aim of deepening the divide among Palestinians. This illegal act is
another successful step towards destroying the Palestinian cause and
entrenching Israel's aspirations of expanding their control over
Palestinian land and deepening their legitimacy in doing so in the
eyes of a global community drunk on an Israeli-concocted legal ploy,
backed by a tremendous media machine.

12 -

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Importance of Place

Last Wednesday evening I returned to my apartment after a long day of classes and work and was greeted by a host of children from our apartment complex yelling my name and running toward me. The kids fidgeted impatiently while I fumbled with my keys and unlocked my door. They then piled into my small apartment to play with puzzles, read the children’s Bible, get piggy back rides, clean out our pantry (!), and just hang out. Though somewhat re-invigorated by all this new energy, I plopped down on my couch and prayed that one of our neighbors would invite me over for dinner. I really didn’t feel like cooking. Sure enough, in a couple minutes I was invited over to dinner at the home of one our Mexican neighbors. It was a good, though not too unusual, day at Parkside.

An actual update has been long overdue, reflective of the different nature of my life these last two months or so. It’s not that it has been a really busy time (though, it has been at times) but rather it has been marked by unpredictability. Or surprise. This last semester (which is quickly coming to a close) has been a very different and unexpected season of my life.

While I have still been taking a full load of grad school classes (I will be finishing my degree in May) what has really marked my life and been my focus these last months is life at Parkside, the apartment complex where I live. In August I moved in here with Matt (a friend from church) and Teo (a Rwandan friend) expecting some adventures, but not really knowing what was to come. Now, a small community (within the community) has begun to take shape, with two more girls from our church likely moving into an apartment next to us next month. We pray together nightly, take Eucharist once a week, share meals and work at reaching out to our neighbors. We have also, in partnership with a couple local churches, been exploring the idea of a church plant in one of our apartments.

Parkside, where we live, is a low-income apartment complex in the midst of Glen Ellyn, a very affluent suburb of Chicago. About 40% of its residents are refugees who have been resettled here from all over the world. Another, say, 40% are Mexican immigrants and the other 20% are poor African-American and white folks. There are a host of issues that people face here: lack of legal immigration status, lack of English language skills, alcoholism, drug use, and prostitution. At the same time, the community posses many strengths: Neighbors know each other, kids play together in the courtyard, family is highly valued and celebrated, and for many God is their daily bread by which they live.

One of the lessons I am learning by living in Parkside is the centrality of “place” in the Christian way of life.

Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places says this:
“Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people…cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is might difficult…What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life—ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs—are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and places” (pp. 72, 73, 75).

Following Christ, working for peace and justice, always is rooted in a particular place, whether it is in the suburbs of Chicago or Israel/Palestine. For those who go overseas place is usually in the forefront of their minds: missionaries spend years deciding what country and city they want to work in and then they move there and live among the people they want to work with. If they are good missionaries, they will think carefully about their lifestyle and adjust it to match the place where they are. Us here in the US are not usually as conscious of our specific place. We choose a house based on its size and cost. We don’t often know our neighbors. More often than not we live in one place, work in another, go to church somewhere else, and have friends all over.

Those of us living at Parkside have tried, in a similar way to missionaries overseas, to be intentional in choosing our place where we want to be rooted. We have specifically chosen a place on the margins (others have called such spaces “the abandoned places,” abandoned by a society in search of the American dream). Not everyone, however, has to live in a neighborhood like Parkside, though. What is important is being conscious of one’s own place, one’s own context, wherever that may be. Where you are is where God has placed you. You are a minister of the Gospel in your place: usually the main one’s being your workplace and your neighborhood. Do you know your physical neighbors? Are you aware of the poor in your work place (those who are on the outside)?

Al Hsu, in his book The Suburban Christian speaks about this issue in this way: “Lost today is the sense of physical community, in which “community” refers to a specific geographic area or neighborhood that anchors us and defines us.” Quoting Alex Marshal he says that “the biggest change in “community” is that it is less linked to a physical place than ever before” (117,118).
On this issue of place, one of the issues I am wrestling with, is when, how and if to return to the Middle East. I have found myself doing here in the US many of the things I was hoping to do there (living among the poor, working cross-culturally, etc). At the same time I have so much invested there and deeply care about the situation in Israel/Palestine. I appreciate your prayers for direction and wisdom.

Lastly on a side note, if you know anyone who is interested in a trip to Israel and/or the Palestinian territories this summer, please contact me. What I can offer:
-a custom designed and personally led tour or pilgrimage of Israel/Palestine, with all the details arranged from transportation to travel within the country.
-Possibilities for the trip include: a) visits to the holy sites such as the mount of olives and the sea of Galilee b) meeting local believers, both Palestinian and Jewish c) meetings with local organizations working for peace and understanding d) cultural experiences, such as home stays and visits to museums and other historical sites .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gaza Update: Part 2 (from BBC)

Gazans despair over blockade

Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Ramallah

Woman waits for food aid, Rafah, south Gaza, 18.11.08
Many Gazans are dependent on food aid

"People in Gaza are waiting in lines for almost everything, and that's if they're lucky enough to find something to wait for," says Bassam Nasser, 39.

An aid worker in Gaza City, he, like so many others there, including the UN relief agency, says living conditions are the worst he has ever seen in the strip.

"People queue for two or three hours for bread, but sometimes there's no cooking gas or flour, so no bread.

"People wait in line for UN food handouts, but sometimes there aren't any. The suffering is reaching every aspect of life."

As well as working for an American development agency, Mr Nasser is a Gazan, and a father.

"I've got three young children. It's difficult to explain to them that it's not my fault we don't have electricity and that it's not in my control."

'Severely stretched'

Since June 2007, Israel has allowed little more than basic humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.

Many there hoped that policy would change, five months ago, when Hamas and Israel agreed to a truce.

Gazan family eating by candlelight, 17.11.08

But while there were some increases in the amount of aid allowed in, Israel's strict restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza largely remained.

Two weeks ago, an already fragile humanitarian situation resulting from the mounting effects of months of shortages, saw a dramatic downturn.

The fighting resumed, with an Israeli army incursion into Gaza and a retaliatory barrage of militant rocket fire. With that, Israel all-but shut the Gaza Strip.

Although there are some goods being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt, little else is reaching the territory.

Serious fuel shortages have led to widespread power cuts across Gaza City. That, in turn, has caused problems in pumping water to homes, and sewage to treatment plants.

Israel is preventing many aid workers, and all journalists from entering Gaza too, so our interviews have had to be conducted over the telephone.

It's so hard to see where the hope is, and so hard to stop these conditions breeding more hatred
Bassam Nasser, aid worker, Gaza

"I never thought we would see days like this," says Monther Shublak, head of Gaza's water authority.

"The water system was severely stretched even before this crisis, but now, things are much worse.

"For the last four days, around 40% of people in Gaza City have had no access to running water in their homes at all."

"People ask me 'When will we get water?' I simply can't answer them," Mr Shublak says.

"But we are putting all of our resources into sewage pumping. The health consequences of that system totally failing are too worrying to think about, but it could happen unless things change."

Alongside attacks by its military, Israel's government says its Gaza closure strategy aims to deter Palestinian militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

It also wants to choke Hamas, the Islamist faction in charge of Gaza, an enemy Israel sees as one of its most deadly.

But the rockets keep being launched and Hamas shows few signs of losing its grip on power.

Question of blame

There is much discussion among Palestinians as to why this sudden increase in pressure on Gaza is happening now.

Some say Israel is preparing for a big invasion; others feel there is an element of political posturing ahead of an Israeli general election in February.

Gaza map

Many will tell you that they feel a time of deep division in Palestinian society is being taken advantage of.

Few take Israel's explanation, that it is only protecting its citizens from the horror of rocket attacks, at face value.

"Isn't it enough that their army kills the people who fire rockets?" asks Mr Nasser.

"We are not responsible, so why are we all being punished? It makes no sense."

He talks of the long-term impact on children in Gaza, including his own, aged six, five and two.

"It's getting harder for us to answer our childrens' questions about the situation, without instilling hatred in their minds about the people responsible for our suffering," he says.

He does not just mean the Israeli government.

"People here see everyone as responsible for their miserable lives. They see Israel closing Gaza, but they also see people around the world doing nothing.

"They see Hamas making things worse by using the blockade as an excuse not to be accountable, and they do whatever they like.

"People see the silence of the PA, [the Fatah-dominated Palestinian government in the West Bank] and blame them too," he says.

"It's so hard to see where the hope is, and so hard to stop these conditions breeding more hatred."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gaza Update

A personal update is coming soon, but until then please read the following from CNN about the humanitarian crises in Gaza:

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A U.N. agency in Gaza will stop distributing aid to more than 750,000 Palestinians because Israel has halted border crossings into the Palestinian territory, the agency's director said Friday.

Palestinians protest Israeli sanctions Thursday evening in Gaza City.

Palestinians protest Israeli sanctions Thursday evening in Gaza City.

"We have run out of food. Our warehouses are empty," U.N. Relief and Works Agency Director John Ging said.

"These interruptions on the crossing points affect us immediately," Ging said earlier. "So the immediate impact is that on Saturday morning, we won't have any food to distribute."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel "to allow urgently, the steady and sufficient supply of fuel and humanitarian assistance," according to a statement from the U.N. chief's spokesman.

Ban also called on Israel "to resume facilitating the activities" of UNRWA and other relief agencies by allowing U.N. officials and humanitarian workers unimpeded access to the region, the spokesman's statement said.

The Israeli military said it was forced to shut down the border because of rocket attacks on Israel and security threats.

The Israeli government denies that its actions have interfered with UNRWA's ability to provide assistance to some 80 percent of the territory's 1.5 million people.

Hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza continued for an 11th day Friday, bringing an effective end to a five-month cease-fire and creating what one U.N. official called a "desperate" humanitarian situation.

The Israeli military carried out airstrikes on a suspected militant rocket-launching site in northern Gaza early Friday, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.

The strikes targeted militants who had been firing rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. Five militants were wounded, according to Palestinian security forces.

Around a dozen rockets have been launched from Gaza in the last 24 hours, according to the IDF, with about 80 fired over the last 10 days. Shrapnel lightly wounded an Israeli woman in the southern border town of Sderot in one of the attacks.

Fighting between Israel and Palestinians flared up last week when Israeli troops entered Gaza to blow up a tunnel that the military suspected militants were going to use to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

That incursion set off a wave of fighting and rocket attacks in which 10 Palestinian gunmen have been killed and one Israeli soldier was wounded. It also prompted Israel to seal its borders Thursday, halting the already limited aid from reaching Gaza.

Gaza City went dark Thursday as a result of a power shortage, according to Palestinian officials. The Israeli government maintains that Gaza's Hamas leaders purposely cause power outages in the Palestinian territory in an attempt to garner international sympathy.

Ging said UNRWA usually stocks two months' supplies of rations, but the organization had been prevented from maintaining its strategic reserve during the five-month cessation of hostilities.

He characterized the policy as "a deliberate political decision" to keep the civilian population on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.

But Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister's office, denied the allegation, saying, "We have been very cooperative with UNRWA."

Regev said, "We did not hear complaints that not enough aid" was being allowed to enter Gaza during the cease-fire.

He said recent Jewish and Muslim holidays probably had prevented the buildup of UNRWA's reserves.

Regev said the most recent round of fighting was instigated by Hamas, arguing that Israel's detonation of the tunnel was defensive and aimed at preventing a much larger escalation.

Regev said Israel was again prepared to abide by the truce if Hamas halted firing rockets.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Welcoming the Stranger

Matthew 25:43: I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

Last month my roommate and I drove Diego and his cousin Luis to the car repair shop. Earlier that month he had been hit by another car who pulled out of a driveway and ran right into him. His car was fairly damaged and one of his friends in the car with him was bleeding. He decided to call the police. The police came and within minutes Diego had a ticket and a court date. Why? He was driving without a license. It didn't matter that the other person claimed responsibility for the accident. Later, on the day of his court date, the court room was filled with Hispanics there for similar reasons. The root of the problem: Diego is an undocumented immigrant. He can't get a license.

Diego is 20 and came to the US to join his family here and to help support his wife and young daughter back in Mexico. He works at a restaurant in town and now rides his bike to work. He pays taxes off his paycheck (without any of the benefits, of course), is taking English classes, and plays soccer on Mondays at a local park.

In the last months my eyes have been opened to the glaring injustices of our American immigration system. My apartment complex, smack dab in the middle of the western suburbs of Chicago often noted for their wealth, is roughly made up of 40% Mexicans. Most of them are undocumented. What does this mean? It means among many other things that they can't work legally, they can't get drivers licenses, and they face the threat of, if caught, being deported and forced to leave everything here behind, often including other family members. Just think how crucial it is to have a driver's license (the main form of ID) and social security number here in the US. Without one, everything is more difficult and much is simply impossible.

Everyone—the government, the businesses, the police--- knows that there are undocumented people all around. Take the court room scenario described above. The judge knows that all these Hispanics are illegal. The same thing goes for the police officer who gave him the ticket. The system, which benefits from them, turns a blind eye. The truth is we all benefit from them and our system depends on them. Their low-cost labor, the taxes they pay, etc, all contribute to the American way of life and economic system. They, due to their undocumented status, however, do not reap the benefits from that system (health insurance, retirement, legal protection…) that they contribute to uphold. This is a glaring injustice to which many of us "documented" people are blind.

The truth is, however, that they are not a "they" or a "them." Undocumented immigrants are not "illegal aliens," or the "immigration problem." They are beautiful people with names and faces made in the image of God. As Christians we are to remember that our loyalty is not ultimately to the nation-state with its artificial drawn borders and little pieces of paper that make claims as to who is to be welcomed or not. Our "status" comes from elsewhere. Our allegiance is to a foreign country, to a foreign King named Christ. It is to his higher law of hospitality that we are to submit. Ultimately, we as Christians are all strangers and aliens here on earth.

Some Quick Stats on Undocumented Immigrants in the US:

-Only 56% of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico. There are also 1.5 million from Asia and 600,000 undocumented Canadians and Europeans.

-The Social Security Administration estimates that 3 out of 4 are paying payroll taxes, accounting for $6 billion per year in Social Security revenue paid in the last year that does not match a valid Social Security number

- 1 in 3 live in “mixed status” families, with at least one member a US citizen

My roommate Matt has finished writing a book on the issue of immigration and how the church should respond. It is called "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate." Click on this link to get more information on the book and to join the facebook group.

-See this link on the sanctuary movement among US churches working to protect immigrants facing deportation.