Early in March, I had the joy of being in the mountains of Montana as the first signs of spring were beginning. Looking carefully at the tips of branches, I could see the swelling of buds, waiting for the sun’s warmth and the lengthening light of the days to pull them into fullness. The first day there, I could hear the delightful sounds of water beginning to run under the ice. By the day of departure, ice on the river had melted significantly and the gurgling, rushing sounds were joyful and clear.
Snowshoeing along the edges of the river bank, I could look into the middle of the river and see that while not deep, it was surely COLD, even though the ice was off the surface. I was uncertain if the ice shelf could support me and given the obvious chill that would result from breaking through, I opted to stay safe ashore.
But there are times when the risk of a soaking must be taken if true safety is to be found. Remember the song sung around campfires “Michael row the boat ashore, Alleluia. Michael row the boat ashore…” One verse says, “River Jordan is deep and wide… milk and honey on the other side.” an allusion to the Children of Israel crossing the Jordan River to reach the promise of peace and plenty. A further verse says… “River Jordan is chilly and cold.. Chills the body, but not the soul”. What? A chilly, cold river in a desert? It is my understanding that this song is one of the many songs that were developed and sung by African slaves, and sung to give clues to others escaping into Canada as to what routes to take. Canada was envisioned as “The Promised Land”… the land “Over Jordan”, which may have been any number of the cold, icy rivers that had to be crossed on this perilous journey.
In my home province, we are bracing for the full onslaught of spring… partially presaged by the rising waters of the Red River, and the sandbagging of vulnerable homes, and the inevitable inundation of overland flows that flood farmland. As neighbours gather in support of neighbours, sandbag dikes rise to try to stem the surge of water. The crest is still two weeks away, and the water is doing its damage and the ice jams snap trees and crush small docks and sheds at the river’s edge. On the sandbagging lines, people laugh and joke and work hard, saving the homes and properties of people they don’t even know.
During the days of The Underground Railroad, people saved the lives of people they didn’t even know, simply because of the call to justice. Rowing darkened boats across chilly rivers to bring people to safety. ”Michael, row!!! Sister, help to trim the sail!”
In Israel and Palestine, people work together to prevent the demolition of houses by the tide of hate and violence. Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions is one such group. EAPPI accompaniers also stand alongside the Palestinian people, making their way across the checkpoints and through the Separation Barrier, to carry out their daily activities.
My friends, Lenora Yarkie and Patricia Mercer are both currently serving with EAPPI. Lenora posts as Accompany Me and Patricia posts as Patricia In Palestine. They tell the stories of families affected by the detention of their young sons, of farmer’s who grieve and weep as the roads to their farms are destroyed and their crops uprooted. The joy and rest of a delightful, unexpected rain is disrupted as the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) uses this moment of inattention to plough up a road and prevent access to agricultural lands. The rain in this instance chills both body and soul, in this dry, desert land. What begins as promise with gentle rain ends in heartbreak, and strewn mud.
Currently, much of the Jordan River is neither deep, nor wide. Upstream damming and diversions to supply Israeli agricultural lands and illegal settlements with water has so disrupted flow that through much of the West Bank, the river is a shallow, stony, muddy rivulet.
Most Palestinians do not want to cross the Jordan River to go east…. this would mean leaving their homeland to go into the country of Jordan. At times, this has been discussed as a means of establishing Greater Israel by hardliners in the Israeli government… to ‘transfer all the Palestinians’ out of Israel and into Jordan. That crossing would deeply chill the souls of the Palestinians, and, if accomplished by force, would be a horrible indictment against Israel: mass deportation of a people from a state founded by refugees of mass deportations and their descendants.
There is such paradox in the images and metaphors of a river: the source of refreshment and renewal, the destructive flow of a flood, the way to freedom, the symbol of exile?
“We all come from God… and unto God we shall return. Like a river returns to the ocean… like a ray of light returning to the sun”.
If we imagine ‘milk and honey on the other side’, in abundance for all, what steps can we take to walk into the river faithfully?
At my father’s funeral in November, I sang (pre-recorded ’cause I would have cried too much!!) a song called “My Love Colours Outside the Lines” and it has a line… ”We’ll never walk on water if we’re not prepared to drown”. We need to prepare to take risks: of standing for justice, of being fools for the gospel of peace, of hoping in the face of deep doubt, of witnessing for the transformative power of God’s love. That is what calls me to go and stand in the West Bank, with Israelis and Palestinians, with Jews, Muslims and Christians and with others from the international community who believe that there is a way forward…. to sing through the waters… Allelu..u…ia!
(N.B. Dang…. I hate it when research ruins a good metaphor! I did some digging and found out that the song “Michael row the boat ashore” originated on an island off the coast of South Carolina, during the Civil War, when plantation slaves were abandoned there by their ‘owners’ before a Union Naval blockade. They sang the song once they were finally rescued. Song was first noted by an American historian. Oh well…. my other imagery holds!)