Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy.
For me, and I think it’s safe to say everyone on this trip, these words and this weel kent hymn by Jon Cohen will have new meaning and special significance. Never have I heard it sung with such passion, sadness, meaning or emotion as I heard on Thursday in a small Maronite Church amidst the ruins of the Arab village of Bir’em in northern Israel.
It’s a place I’ve been to before, in 2011 I was part of a group taken around by Anis Chacour. This time it was by his grandson Fadi – possibly there was a difference because of the group I was visiting with on this occasion, possibly it was the air raid siren test from the nearby village as we arrived, possibly it was Fadi’s description of the place and it’s story, but, something felt different this time around.
The story of Bir’em is similar to many other villages around the area. Occupied by Israeli forces in late October 1948 with the residents forced to leave in November that same year with promises that they could soon return they went to the nearby town of Gish. In 1951 the area was declared a ‘closed military zone’ with the residents told they would need special military permission to retun, they never received it. In 1953 the land was offically confiscated for the building of Israeli settlements and shortly after the village was bombed and destroyed with dynamite leaving only some shells of houses, the school and the church standing, although badly damaged.
To this day, the families have been appealing to the Israeli courts for the right to return and none of them have denied this right, although none of them have issued formal approval to return or otherwise. Currently the church is used for Mass every Saturday in Arabic and Aramaic and for funerals with residents being allowed to be buried in the nearby cemetry. Although, when Anis Chacour died he was not buried here as he had said that if he “could not return to Bir’em alive” he did not “want to return dead”.
We walked through the homes led by Fadi, and when he got to his grandfather’s house, he wryly, but sincerely appologised for not being able to give us coffee – the Palestinian culture is based in hospitality and coffee (or tea with mint) is ALWAYS given. We walked through this fertile area – with Figs dropping on our heads, eating green bitter Almonds, seeing the young Olives on the trees, and the Oranges growing in the odd tree. Always carefully stepping around fallen stones, carefully avoiding unmarked wells, and feeling the spirit of the people eminating from the stone walls.
Fadi had brought with him the man with the keys to the Church which was opened for us. Rhona spoke a short prayer from her heart, we sang and she prayed again. All the time emotion was spilling over from all of us – the tremble in Rhona’s voice was evident and acted as a catalyst with her every thought-filled word for a common outpouring of grief for the situation, the people and the world as we came to the end of our trip. It felt like something we all needed and a fitting end to our trip together. Following this, Essa (the man with the keys) walked forward and said he wanted to sing something – he did – he sang the Ave Maria Sanctus in Aramaic. The bell on the church then sounded in a haunting rythym with, as I found out later, Fadi hitting it with two stones.
Following this service we left Bir’em and headed for Gish where we visited Essa’s house. We had seen the stones of the houses and heard their stories, now was the time to see their things. He has made up a museum of items recovered from the houses – something of a memorial to the previous lifes of the residents of Bir’em. As part of his collection, Essa has the key to his house in Bir’em. To Palestinians a key is the hope of return, ‘if we have they key we can always get back in’ they say.
So with this, we head home. Our hearts and heads full of thoughts, questions and conflict. We will need time to process everything and to discuss together how we move on from here. But we will, in time, share what we have seen, the stories of those we have spoken to, and what we can do to help the situation, it wil just take some thinking, talking and lots of prayer to get there.