“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I was asked to come speak with you,” Joseph leans over to me and says.
“But I can tell you that I am tired of people who come to my village and tell me how to interpret the Bible. I live in Galilee. The Bible is written about my homeland. I know how to read the Bible. But you are not doing that. Instead, you come here, and you are interested in learning from us, and listening to what we have to say.”
“Is that unusual?” I sheepishly reply.
“All I can say is… you are the first one.”
The Northern part of Galilee is a war torn area along the border of Lebanon. It is an area forgotten by Catholic and Christian pilgrims. These are not the villages that attract the tour busses and guides. There are no famous churches, or mystical wells that bring miraculous healings. There are just people, and it is by the request of Archbishop Abuna Chacour that I was sent to meet them.
I visited two villages in Northern Galilee, Tarshikha (St. George Parish) and Fasuta (Mar Elias parish). I had only a map with the names of the towns to visit, and was hoping that once I got to the village, I would be able to find the churches. I had no addresses, which meant I had to search the village once I arrived. I discovered an interesting way to find the location of a church when you don’t speak the language, follow the people who have a Rosary hanging in their car window.
Let’s start with that little fact. Did you know that people had car windows in Israel? And the car windows are attached to cars… that drive. Fascinating, isn’t it? And there are people who drive those cars. Who would have thought?
My facetious nature is being used to get at a point. There are people here, even when we hear news reports (like we did last year) that bombs are dropping and tanks are rolling. While we are picking up the dry cleaning, and going to work, scrubbing the bathroom and mopping the floor, there are people in these villages who are trying their best, just to do the same.
Fasuta is about three kilometers from the Lebanon border. It is high on a hill in a mountain pass. Its location is pretty much the reason why the village has been spared by the Israelis during the wars of the last century. It is a village of 3,000, all Melkite Catholic. There are only two villages in Israel that are still 100% Catholic, but that doesn’t mean that other Catholics come to visit them very often, or anyone for that matter, you have to choose to go to Fasuta.
“The media is an evil, evil thing.” Joseph continues. “They show you only what they want to show you. Last year, do you remember what the media said about the Israeli forces? They said that they were avoiding civilian areas. But let me tell you one thing, the roads of this village were lined with tanks all around. The mayor of the town went out to the general who was ordering the tanks to fire. He said to the general, ‘what are you doing?’ The general replied, ‘If you don’t like what we are doing then you can leave.’” Where does the media report that story? Where does the media report my story?”
Before meeting with Joseph, I was in the village of Tarshikha at St. George’s parish with Abuna Jubran Morani. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of the parish by clicking here. This community is a bit farther away from the border with Lebanon than Fasuta, but has similarly felt the impact of war and the threat of war for decades. Just to ask Abuna Morani about the wars of the past is difficult, it brings up a hidden fear that, in the tick of an eye, I can tell he would rather suppress. But he reminds me too, that they are doing the best they can to carry on with life.
And as I walk outside the rectory, I see the abundance of life this community has to share. Today, they have thrown a special party for children under the age of three. They have hired a DJ, a clown, and all the equipment to turn their parish courtyard into a festival of youth and vitality. Moms and Dads throw their children in the air and dance with them as the music blares us all to near deafness. It is hard not to smile. It is hard to not feel overjoyed that a Catholic parish is taking this effort to celebrate the infants of their community. I don’t even know of Catholic parish in the United States who would put this kind of effort into kids who can barely even talk. But here they do, they celebrate life. I guess celebration is a basic need when the threat of war is ever present.
It is both the threat of, and presence of war that conjures up in us the idea that these villages are merely abandoned, lifeless, ghost towns where even the roses dare not bloom, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The trees blossom, the vendors sell their goods, and parents dance with their children in the street, giving thanks that they have another day to breathe the air. People live here.
“Do you know what it is like to not be permitted to go to Mass on a Sunday morning because public gatherings are forbidden by the military? I work in Haifa. I could not go to work. I merely sat in this village day after day. I would try to sleep at night... Do you know what it is like to be waken twice a night by a half hour of mortar shells exploding from the tanks? Night after night?” Joseph says as he drifts off into a slight trance, accompanied by the humming rhythm of the computer fan blade.
I have seen this gaze before in others. It is the look of those who have seen the madness of war. Sometimes as they are talking, they stop and peer into the sapid stillness of silence. It is as if they can see the explosions and hear the bombs in a microcosm of a moment.
“Can you understand what I am saying?”
“Joseph, I have heard what you are saying, and I want to pretend that I understand, but if I said I did, I would speak falsely. The truth is that I cannot understand.”
“You are right.” Another, more pronounced moment becomes rich, the silence of truth.
I taste the sadness of my own limitations and reach for solace as I reverently break the silence with a few, humble words, “But I can listen.”
At this point, I was very tired. It has been a long several days, but Joseph asked me to stay through to the evening. “There would be something quite remarkable.” He said as he described to me what I knew would be a Marian procession to celebrate the month of May.
I didn’t want to stay. I have seen many a Marian processions. I have said the Rosary before in the presence of many cultures. I know all that stuff. I just want to go to bed… and by the way… it is June 1, what are you doing having a Marian procession to celebrate Mary’s month, the month of May, while we are in June!
I searched deep within me and realized something. I didn’t know when the next time I was going to be able to say the Rosary with Arab Catholics three kilometers from the border with Lebanon, where only a year prior, tanks surrounded the village, and launched fear, like raining shrapnel, through the skies? I had to stay, and walk with my brothers and sisters, and pray.
It was a tremendous display for this small village. The Scouts lined up. The band played. The women and the children carried the statue of the Virgin, singing and reciting the Rosary. The sun was low in the sky, and I was clearly the only American who had come to pray with them in this manner… well, maybe Joseph was right, maybe I was the first, I don’t know.
What I do know… is that people live here.