Working near Jerusalem in the West Bank community of Beit Sahour, Marta Erling Spangler started to see the world through the eyes of the Palestinian Christians and Muslims around her.
One of the first participants in the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) service program when it opened sites in the Holy Land in 2008, Erling Spangler had plenty to see.
While she could visit Jerusalem whenever she wanted, her students at the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour needed permits to enter. Few could secure them. She took her access to higher education for granted. Checkpoints and conflict stood between her students and university degrees.
Erling Spangler’s growing awareness of her own privilege drew her to focus on social justice after her year of service ended.
Some years later, after volunteering with AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh; earning a master’s degree in ethics, peace and global affairs; and working for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Geneva, she is in Jerusalem again, serving as resource development and board liaison officer with Augusta Victoria Hospital. Operated by the LWF on the Mount of Olives, the hospital offers health-care services otherwise unavailable to the Palestinian community.
Understanding life in the region
Since 2008 nearly 40 young people have spent a year in Jerusalem and the West Bank as part of the YAGM program. Erling Spangler is one of four alumnae from that group who have returned to work for church institutions in Jerusalem.
In addition, Karis Ailabouni, a former YAGM who was stationed in Madagascar, is in Jerusalem serving as program director for the University of Notre Dame’s study abroad program.
What they all share is a passion for helping others comprehend the complex reality of life in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“So many North Americans don’t even realize they have Christian brothers and sisters who are Palestinian,” said Anna Johnson, who was a YAGM in the Holy Land from 2009-10. Since then she has spent almost four years planning and leading tours that connect visitors with “the living stones of the land.” Her hope is that guests go home ready to share stories and affect broader change.
Janelle Neubauer’s work is similar. She said one of her responsibilities at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute is helping people from around the world “witness the Holy Land both in terms of Scripture and biblical geography but also geopolitical realities.”
As a 2010-11 YAGM, Neubauer learned that “as a U.S. citizen, I am part of what is happening in Israel/Palestine regardless of how I feel or whom I support.”
Experiencing for just a year what Palestinians grapple with their whole lives was devastating, she said. “I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t fix it. That was the moment I realized that my hope is in God, and my power in being part of the companion relationship is through advocacy and awareness-building in my own population,” Neubauer added.
The fourth-year seminarian is using her time in Jerusalem to unpack what she learned from her recent internship at All Peoples Gathering Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. The city’s racial disparities reminded her of life in Palestine.
“I feel like I can process them more actively in Jerusalem, in an environment that continues to challenge me to have different eyes for how to be a voice in the U.S.,” she said.
‘Called to live and lead by faith’
Living with families and serving in Lutheran schools clustered around Jerusalem, all YAGM participants are immersed in life in the Palestinian community.
“YAGM come to walk with us, to worship with us, to struggle with us, to rejoice with us, and to be part of the transformation of peace and justice that is happening in this place,” said Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. “They come, not just for a personal spiritual journey, but to stand in solidarity with us as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
For help with the journey, Neubauer, Erling Spangler and others turn to mentors like Imad Haddad, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah.
“He took me in with such great hospitality and a deep honor and respect for mutual sharing,” Neubauer said. “We spent many afternoons sitting together eating barbecue and talking about how we are called to live and lead by faith.”
Haddad said he has seen the YAGM alumnae “growing in understanding the culture, growing in their faith, and in how they used their faith while serving. Coming back is a testimony that they really understood the message.”
Today, walking alongside the Palestinian Lutheran community as professionals on the payroll is a new role for the women. Kaitlyn Baldridge made lasting friendships in Beit Jala in 2013-14. “Jerusalem is a big city, and it’s harder to find a local community here,” the LWF program assistant said.
Erling Spangler said, “The community I was serving is now on the other side of the [separation] wall, and most of them can’t come visit me.” With no vehicle and a 9-to-5 schedule, she can only visit on weekends.
On the plus side, Erling Spangler feels like she is making a difference: “I’m not making decisions for others. I’m assisting what Palestinians have already decided is necessary, what they are dreaming for society. It feels great to be in that position again.”
Johnson agrees: “[This area] is a place and a people that become a part of who you are.”
For more information about the Young Adults in Global Mission program, visit ELCA.org/yagm.