Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Year of the Onion Flower

My roommates unearthed it, so to speak, from the back of the vegetable crisper. The carrots had started to liquefy—that’s a thing that carrots do—but the onion had developed roots.

In Tanzania at the World Council of Churches, a young woman stands center stage and tells us, “Since I am fifteen, I have a call to be a pastor. But they say to me, you cannot be a minister because you are a woman. I find another church. They say, what can she tell us, she is so young? Because I am a woman, because I am young, I fight twice.” 

This comes two days after another young woman—this one in my Bible study group—is nearly kidnapped and dragged into a van. But she shows up at Bible study the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

 On the last day of the conference, I sit on the steps and talk about women in ministry with an Egyptian Orthodox priest in full vestments. He thanks me for my faithfulness, and I thank him for his.

We placed the onion in a wine carafe and left it on the bookshelf. In a couple of weeks, it sprouted a stem. Attracted by the evidence of life, we moved it to the windowsill…sunshine, right?

At Ramallah Friends School, I meet a little boy with developmental delays and a passionate love for classical music. We listen together to Beethoven, Bach, and Pachelbel, and we practice speaking in English about each. Then, just for something new, I play him “I Got Rhythm” sung by Judy Garland. Laboriously, he writes in my notebook:

IT’s very very very GooD music becauze It is my favorate.

A couple weeks later, I sprawled on the floor reading aloud from a Wikipedia article about onion reproduction while Roommate A washed dishes and Roommate B roasted a chicken.

I read the Bible and the Harvard Business Review, Lloyd Lee Wilson and Malcolm Gladwell and old minutes from yearly meeting sessions. I study systems analysis, sociology, marketing, fundraising, economics and more. I experiment with social media and analyze survey data and consider how discoveries in neuroscience might shed light on community building and culture change. And then, sometimes, I listen to showtunes—in fact, Fiddler on the Roof’s “Anatevka” inspired The Grief and the Promised Land.

Turns out you can force an onion to bloom if you stick it in a refrigerator and then let it out in the warmth of a kitchen. The onion thinks—yup, it “thinks”—that winter’s over and spring has come, so of course it’s time to make vegetable babies.

In Samburu, I hear the story of Loko, where Kenyan Friends built a meetinghouse, a health facility, and a school in 2002. But following tribal clashes in 2006, the structures were destroyed and the building materials carried away.

Three years ago, Friends returned to Loko and started a nursery school there. They’re also using that nursery school as a worship place. The Samburu people are slowly returning.

The day I arrive to visit, twelve children dance to the beat of a drum and teach me to count to five in their language. The community honors me with a warm can of soda. This is living the resurrection.

Within the month, the onion blossomed. No water, no soil, just sunshine and stored-up energy. The stem burst open with a hundred tiny flowers.

I’m in Notre Dame mostly because a flight home from Palestine is cheaper if I spend twenty hours in Paris. It’s December, and a brilliant Christmas star hovers above us all inside the cathedral. I take some time to sit and consider in silence the glorious non-specificity of God’s invitation: “Come and see,” He says. “Follow the Light I’m showing you. Just—come and see.”

That onion flower stayed with us for weeks. Eventually, it wilted, and it’s long since gone. But I can almost see it even now, right there on the windowsill, across the table as I write.

A Song of Peace

Where I’ve Been (November)

I fixed a child’s hair bow. The clip had broken, and I had bobby pins. I pulled one out of my ponytail and slid it through the little red ribbon and reaffixed the bow to its four-year-old owner. If I’ve done nothing else here, I know that I’ve done that.

That’s not meant to sound despairing. It’s just that travel in the ministry is much like any other bit of life, and it’s not always clear what we’ve achieved—so it helps to celebrate little things, like fixing a tiny bow.

I have a little chart next to the light switch in “my” bedroom, here in Palestine. It tells me what time to set the alarm each day. Some days start earlier than others, and no two are the same, so I made myself a chart to simplify things. Of course, this is a chart of normal, and normal rarely happens here, not with the government reorganizing social security, which has led to regular city-wide protests on top of the usual half-days and parties and holidays of school life.  I do the best I can to keep up.

Most days, I work with three or four or five or six kids. With some, my job is to teach some English. With a few of the smallest, it’s help with behavior management. Little S only wants to play with toys (forever). Little L tends to hit. And kick. And spit. Little T is a sweet thing cloaked in dignity; she permits me to assist with homework, but not cuddle. Young A, a middle schooler, is learning that not everyone wants to hug. Last week he told me very clearly to move my chair back “because personal space.” And my new friend B is near graduation. Some academics are out of reach, but she might be a greeter or a clerk in a store. She is learning to say “excuse me” and “how are you?” at all the right times, and in two languages.

Ramallah bustles. I don’t know how to describe this place. Begin with the color gray; then add a great many yellow cabs. Lots of people. The occasional donkey cart. Hundreds or thousands of little shops, many with automated barkers, tape recorders playing through megaphones, “pajama ten shekel, pajama ten shekel,” and the tape recorder never gets tired so it never, never, ever stops. Call to prayer five times a day. Onions three shekels for half a kilo; when I just want one, the vendor laughs at me and says, “Just take it.” With a cone, you automatically get three kinds of ice cream.

I’ve made some new friends. Sometimes I find myself sitting and listening. Grief or frustration or wistfulness—a traveling minister is safe to talk to. One day, I made a Christmas tree out of glitter paper. Another day, I sharpened three hundred colored pencils. Every Friday, some local friends (small ‘f’) feed me and a handful of others some breakfast, pita and hummus and olive oil and vegetables.

Sundays are worship days. Ramallah Friends Meeting has a meetinghouse made—I think—of 1500 stones, not counting the floor, but it’s possible my multiplication is wrong. It feels very safe. The space around the meetinghouse is brilliantly green. “A Song of Peace” is the meeting’s sort of unofficial anthem.

I’m tied to home. This month, from Ramallah, I’ve run Facebook groups and answered emails and clerked committee meetings (thank you, Skype) and worked for New England Yearly Meeting and scheduled fundraising travel for Friends United Meeting. I’ve blogged less often because my writing energy is going into a book. This one’s about Quaker culture and faith. Another one, later, will be about travel in the ministry.

The school’s amazing. I won’t tell you it’s perfect—and if I did, you very sensibly wouldn’t believe me—but it’s really quite wonderful. The families are dedicated. The kids work hard. The teachers care. Last week the college counselor, who lives down the hall, pulled up a photo on his phone to show me this year’s first college acceptance. “And he still has interviews for Harvard and Columbia,” he told me proudly.

It’s easy to forget the occupation…that is, easy for me. I know I can leave this place anytime I like, and if I want to visit Jerusalem, I can take the 218 bus. But my Palestinian friends can’t come with me. I haven’t been to Jerusalem.


Where I’m Going (December)

My flight out of Tel Aviv is December 9, and I’ll stop in Paris for twenty hours on the way home. (Believe it or not, this was the cheapest option!) I’ll be home for a little more than a week and then go see family for the Christmas holiday.