Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #25: "To All the Waiters": Bethlehem Advent

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #25: 
“To all the Waiters…": Bethlehem Advent

A Guest meditation by Jameel Brenneman*

Editor's Note: Ben Camino asked his friend Jameel Brenneman to send him an ironic advent meditation from his present home in Bethlehem, where he's teaching at Hope School as a Mennonite volunteer. Last spring, Jameel and I were attending a Pacers playoff just about the same time he was finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan. I met Jameel through my good friend Edwin Woodruff Tait (who wrote yesterday's guest meditation; yes, Ben Camino is getting lazy). He's a really fine young man, making a difference in the world, and he made me cry twice this week. Once when I first read this piece. And again tonight as I'm posting it in a fast food joint in Texas trying to get to Austin. Oh, also, Jameel is about as crazy about the NBA as my daughter Jennifer and I are. And that's pretty crazy. Occasionally, from Bethlehem, he posts some sweet Cleveland Cavalier highlights. His bio follows his meditation.Take it away Jameel . . . .

Maybe as a volunteer I’m supposed to romanticize the place where I’m working, but it’s clear that Hope School is not perfect. One of the first things I noticed was that it was loud. For one, the stone architecture and tiled floors do nothing to dampen the acoustics; everything is loud, and every sound carries from one side of the school through the halls to the other side, which happens to be where my apartment is, so yeah, I get to hear everything. 

But secondly, the people inside the school are loud, too. The students are rambunctious and boisterous, and the teachers only succeed in capturing their attention by being the loudest voice in the crowd. It creates a vicious decibel cycle but it's one that the teachers have been able to master. It’s very impressive to me when Miss Dani, a diminutive Arabic teacher not much over 30, belts “خلص / khalas!” (Arabic for enough/shut up) so strongly that I find my mouth clamping shut, even though I’m safely encamped in the teacher’s break room, so you can imagine its effectiveness on students in closer proximity.

The student body is far from placid. A few weeks ago, some of my choir girls, Nora and Sammy, got into a beef with each other and weren't talking and didn't want to sing together. The boys fight constantly: at best, it is good-natured but reckless; at worst, punches are thrown, or stones. Students get kicked out of class for being disruptive; some have been sent home for the day; some have been expelled.

In regard to student-teacher relations, respect (الاحترام / al-ihtiraam) is not a given. Wait, that's not fair. There is respect, but it is questioned, scrutinized, poked at. Maybe it's right to say that there are instances of disrespect, but there is rarely a complete lack of respect. The bell has to ring six times, not just once, to get students to line up. And I already discussed the shouting matches. No, it's not clockwork, but the students eventually line up, just as they eventually pay attention in class.

Hope School considers itself a "second chance" school. That means few students would be here if it were up to them. They'd rather be in wealthier private schools with more resources, up-to-date computers, sports facilities. But it doesn't work out that way. Some aren't strong enough students to make it. Some don't get along well socially at another school and choose to leave. Some have parents that can't afford to pay such high tuition. Some don't have parents to pay for anything.

When I mentioned it wasn’t perfect, part of that is intentional. In its mission, the school in some ways is intentionally stooping down to pick those who have fallen and looking to lift their heads. But with that focus, it's no surprise that there are some "difficult" students. 

I mentioned before the issue of respect. I think one thing that makes it easy to give respect is if there are many role models around you, people to whom you offer your respect free of reluctance. Many of the students suffer from a lack of such inspiring figures. Parents? Many students go home to hear their parents fighting every day. Over money. Over in-laws. Over whether or not the husband should sell out and go to Israel for work. 

Cultural leaders? The head of the Palestinian Authority 
 has long been considered weak, except in regard to every other Palestinian politician, none of whom offer him any competition. What respect does that inspire? And then of course there is Israel, whom these students have grown up learning to defy and rebel against. Combine this with a struggling economy which can't guarantee career success after college, and you can see why some might be a little reluctant to sit and do what 
their told and get a solid education.

And yet. Just as Israel has failed to do away with the Palestinians in general, who remain and find ways to thrive amid the occupation (الاحتلال / al-ihtilaal), Hope School also has found ways to thrive. The same teachers who are shouting at their students during recess are getting through to them in the classroom and gradually winning over their respect. This respect comes from not breaking, and as the teachers seize that respect, they also teach their students what staying power looks like. 

Nora and Sammy ended up making up before the school day was even over, and in the afternoon they were practicing together and teaming up to tease me about my Arabic mistakes. For every "difficult” student, like Mo, a short eighth-grader with a huge Napoleon complex, there are brilliant ones like Tania, who struggled academically at her previous school but is now top of her class. Many students, ornery and well-behaved, have talked about how much their education (التعليم / at-taliim) has improved since coming to Hope School. 

I guess I should relate this to Advent (المجيء / al-majii, although the English “advent” is often spoken, too) and Christmas (عيد الميلاد / iid al-miilaad) now. I think the best way I can do that is to point to the waiting (الانتظار / al-intithaar). Living in an imperfect world means we strive after goodness, but we may experience significantly more striving than goodness. But we continue nonetheless. In faith (الإمان / al-iman). With staying power. Even when it's not pretty. We do good because we know it is right, not because we think doing so will achieve for us some end with a neatly-tied bow.

I think about the ancient Waiters. The prophets (الأنبياء / al-anbiyya). The wise men. Those who believed Goodness (الصلاح / as-salaah) / Truth (الحقّ / al-haq) / Beauty (الجمال / al-jamaal) would come to earth but didn't know how or when. I'm sure it frustrated them and led them to doubt (الشك / ash-shak) every now and then--at least I hope it did, because then I can relate. But they didn't let the uncertainty destroy their faith. When we choose to live for goodness, we become waiters of a sort as well.

I think Hope School is full of waiters. Teachers who are going to teach not knowing if their students are going to come around. Students that are going to study not knowing if it will lead to a better life. All of them Palestinians living on not knowing where their country is headed.

This holiday season has been hard for me in the sense that I've been away from my family and friends, but it has also been one of the more festive seasons I've experienced, and that’s with Christmas still a week away (as I’m writing). As teachers gather in the break room after administering final exams, we partake in bread and falafel and sweets and whatever someone felt like bringing that day; everyone's in a generous mood. There is intense group participation to solve Arabic crosswords, the latest app that has several employees addicted. Ayma (english) and Mona (biology) play and contribute the most but they often consult Mahmoud, the Islam teacher, or Hanny, who is devoutly Orthodox, for assistance on the religion questions. And the laughs are at an all-time high.

This mood is not confined to Hope School, either. Crowds gather in Manger Square, Bethlehem for the lighting of the Christmas tree; they will do the same in nearby Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. One lighting just isn't enough. Monday the 19th is a day off in celebration of St. Nicholas, a major occasion for the Orthodox community, which comprises a large amount of the Beit Jala Christian population. Speaking of the Orthodox, they will be celebrating their Christmas later, so along with three Christmas lightings and St. Nicholas day, Palestine is witness to two Christmases.

The teachers celebrate, hoping, but not knowing, if their students will come around. Palestinians celebrate, hoping, but not knowing, if their situation will improve. And neither group will be moved. The steadfastness, the staying power, is very present. And it is in this faithfulness amid uncertainty that I am experiencing Advent this year.

So here's to the Waiters. Everyone living for and believing in Goodness, despite the doubts and the immediate world before us pointing to the contrary. Say it with me: Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Come, thou long-expected Jesus (تعال أيها مسيح منتظر / taal ayoha masiih muntathar).  We await you (نحن ننتظرك / nahnu nantatharuka).

 *Jameel Brenneman is a graduate from Huntington University from an Ohio family of Mennonites consisting of two brothers, an American father, and Palestinian mother. He is currently working in Beit Jala, Palestine as a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee, fundraising and teaching English and Music at Hope Secondary School

Jameel says, "My interest in Palestine is three-fold: family connection, Mennonite/service connection, and an Arabic connection which started after getting a master’s degree from University of Michigan in Middle Eastern studies, which included three years of Arabic study. I love sports, playing guitar, crossword puzzles, and good barbecue. I like it when Ben Camino gets me Pacers tickets [may have been added by the editor for local interest]."

Jameel blogs at:
For more info on Hope School, see our website at:

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