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The fruit of the olive tree

by Chelsey Crary

In 2013, my husband and I had the opportunity to live and volunteer in Palestine for an entire year. We served with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program, which sends approximately 75 young adults annually to nine countries around the world. Part of the sixth group of volunteers in the Jerusalem/West Bank program, my husband and I lived in a small town called Beit Sahour, just south of Bethlehem. 

Early in my first year of service, our pastor, Ashraf Tannous, one of six pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), read from Psalm 52 during worship. 

But I am like a green olive tree

in the house of God. 

I trust in the steadfast love of God 

forever and ever. 

I will thank you forever, 

because of what you have done. 

In the presence of the faithful 

I will proclaim your name, for it is good. 

(Psalm 52:8–9)

Pastor Tannous explained in his sermon that olive trees, plentiful in Palestine, grow and flourish in the harsh desert climate. An olive tree thrives and bears fruit year after year despite the unwavering heat. It provides for families at harvest even though there has been little rain. The olive tree remains steadfast through desolate circumstances.

The olive tree, Pastor Tannous said, is a metaphor for Palestinians. Like the olive tree, Palestinians grow and flourish in the harsh circumstances in which they find themselves. They live faithful, family-oriented lives despite living under Israeli occupation. Palestinians remain steadfast in their beliefs and values even though they face many challenges living under Israeli control. 

The longer I lived in Palestine, the more I saw this metaphor come alive. Here are four stories from that year—stories I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

The bus to Jerusalem

“To resist is to exist” is a mantra for many Palestinians with whom we lived and worked. Non-violent resistance is something our Palestinian sisters and brothers cling to while living under Israeli occupation. Our Palestinian friends continue to live their lives: working, praying and growing, despite the occupation, as a way of resisting the occupation.

Every day Palestinians face many challenges. Israel controls water access, imports and exports, citizenship and identification, building permits and, perhaps most obvious, movement. In the West Bank, there are 542 obstacles that block Palestinian movement, keeping them from moving within their own country. Those obstacles include a separation wall, roadblocks, earth mounds and checkpoints. 

I remember the first time I crossed the separation wall through a checkpoint via bus. My husband and I were traveling from Beit Sahour into Jerusalem. We rode on a bus full of Palestinians who like us lived on the West Bank side of the wall. As we approached the checkpoint, bus riders all around us began to stir, gathering belongings even though we were still far from the next bus stop. At the checkpoint, all of the Palestinians exited the bus. As I watched from the window, I saw each Palestinian present their identification to an Israeli soldier before being allowed to cross a line in the sidewalk. Palestinians are not allowed to cross the border on a bus. Instead, they must exit the bus at the checkpoint and walk across a line in the sidewalk before reentering the bus. Meanwhile, international bus riders, including myself, are allowed to remain on the bus, presenting our identification to another Israeli soldier. 

As I watched this I felt like a rock had settled at the bottom of my stomach. I felt privileged, sick and ashamed. I wanted to become invisible, but instead, my face flushed a more pronounced shade of red. I couldn’t look directly at the faces of the Palestinians as they reentered. Here I was, brand new to the country, but given more privileges than others around me who had lived and worked here for their whole lives. 

In the face of this conflict, Palestinians continue to ride the bus. They continue to cross the separation wall for work, for family and for worship. They resist the occupation by continuing to live their lives. I was left in awe of their strength and steadfastness.

Chelsey Crary is a middle school English teacher and lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Nate.

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