Kevin Antonio Smallwood is a seminarian at The School of Theology at Sewanee, T’19. He traveled to Palestine/Israel earlier this year with EPF PIN members and friends. He reflects on his time on the ground.
It has been about fifteen weeks since my time in the Holy Land and while the days have passed the journey of the pilgrimage remains in my mind and close to my heart. This is the first time that I am publicly exposing my thoughts and feelings concerning some of my experiences and I must say that it is both a beautiful and heart-breaking process as I recall my time in Palestine/Israel. As I began to think of how and where I would start my reflection I became overwhelmed with the numerous possibilities. I could have started from the moment I began to pack my luggage or at the point when I met with Michael Kurth, a fellow pilgrim, at the airport, or when I landed in Tel Aviv, Israel. I could have started at one of those points but they do not feel like the starting points for this particular reflection. No, I want to start with the words that have been stuck in my head since March 2017 which are “Don’t call it a conflict.”
“Don’t call it a conflict” was the response of Fayrouz Sharqawi, an activist and member of Grassroots Jerusalem, “a platform for Palestinian community-based mobilization, leadership and advocacy that helps Palestinian communities in Jerusalem strategically address the humanitarian, developmental and political issues which systematically disempower and dispossess Palestinians across the city.” Fayrouz’s response was to the question I asked her, and many others that I met before her, which was “Where do you find hope in the midst of conflict?”. Hope was and still is the focus of the work that I conducted while in the Holy Land. I was interested in where and how hope manifests itself in the face of violence and oppression within the specific context within Palestine/Israel. However, I was not conscious of my word choice and it was not until Fayrouz called me out on using the word conflict to define the situation in Palestine/Israel that I became aware and sensitive to my approach as an American, Christian, outsider. It was in that moment that I truly began to be transformed by the pilgrimage, my awareness opened in a way that I had not expected it to. To be conscious of how we engage as allies, supporters, activists, and reconcilers requires us to be aware of what we do and don’t do, but also what we say and don’t say. As Christians we are charged with meeting people where they are and in the full context of who they are in terms of their language, culture, social location, religion, race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. We must come in a posture of an open mind and heart, for it was this openness that encouraged me to take Fayrouz’s correction as a bridge building moment, not an attack on me as a person. Fayrouz went on to gently yet passionately explain why calling the struggle, the occupation, a conflict, which rests on the fact that the oppression of Palestinians is systematic at its core and that to call it a conflict would suggest that both sides have an equal standing point in their opposition to each other. For the remainder of my time there I no longer called the occupation a conflict.
“Don’t call it a conflict.” These words race through my mind as I continue to think of ways in which we tend to misidentify struggles and oppression in other countries but also in our own. Language can be just as oppressive as physical violence; it can be systematically manipulated to keep groups of people seen as the ‘other’ from having access to life’s necessities such as water and food. Awareness of language, word choice, and syntax was the beginning of my transformation and I encourage all who read this to challenge yourselves to be conscious of the words you use for they can either add fuel to the fire or help build a common bridge. Remember to always ask questions and do your research, stay connected to sources of support, and be gentle with yourselves as you take up your cross and bear the role of a reconciler in the name of Christ Jesus. Peace be with you!