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    United Methodists of Upper New YorkLiving the Gospel. Being God's Love.

    news article

    Commentary: The woman at Rafah

    June 11, 2024 / By Noelle Stevens / .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    The following commentary is by Noelle Stevens, a wife, mother, and palliative care physician in northern New York. The views expressed in this reflection are her own, not of Bishop Burgos Núñez or any Upper New York staff member or team.

    On February 6, 1993, during a visit to Gaza with the Near East Council of Churches, Noelle Stevens captured a photograph of a woman in Rafah waiting to see her sister across the border established by Israel following the Camp David Accords.

    I am Noelle Stevens, a wife, mother, and palliative care physician in northern New York. I took this photo the year after graduating college. My notes from this moment state:

    I do not know this woman’s name, but I will never forget her story. She and her sister met regularly at this Rafah-Egypt border to reconnect as family and share news, yelling across the wide barricade. They were separated in 1982, when Israel withdrew from the Sinai. Rafah was split into an Egyptian and Palestinian side, dividing families, separating them by barbed-wire barriers.

    This photo captures a moment in Rafah over 30 years ago. The framed photo remains in a prominent space in my home. It serves as a daily reminder. I honestly do not know that I can adequately convey exactly what the reminder is, as this changes over time.

    Sometimes this is a reminder of how complicated the history is. Despite my efforts to understand, there are thousands of moments and decisions that led to this woman sitting here, waiting for her sister. This overlaps with a sense of responsibility as an American for this situation, given our integral involvement, not only with the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, but so many other political, social, and economic steps throughout the 20th century until now.

    The photo reminds me to remain connected to the ongoing history created there: repeated violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and international law – collective punishment, denial of access to water and medical aid, torture of prisoners, targeting civilians, intentional interference with humanitarian assistance, disproportionate destruction of hospitals and schools, strategic establishment of settlements, and so on. In the past 30 years, there have been so many moments of heightened awareness of the terror in Gaza. During 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, the photo was a stark reminder of the attacks by the Israeli offensive force, killing thousands of people in Gaza in a concentrated period of time.

    Since 2023, the photo prompts me to pray for the people of Palestine. This woman’s image reminds me that action in the face of oppression is critical. This is a disheartening reminder of my role as a taxpayer and constituent in the death and destruction of a people. I am also reminded that our elected officials are accountable to us, as voting citizens. Our young people have proven over time that we can alter the course of economic influence. The photo makes me cry and feel genuine hope all at the same time.

    This photo is a strong reminder of my privilege. I could move freely amongst people living under a military occupation. It is true that Israeli soldiers often threatened me and made my life inconvenient. This treatment pales in comparison to what it was like for a Palestinian to live in that same space that is their home.

    My privilege allowed me to travel to the Holy Land during college. My first trip was with a United Methodist Church (UMC) group that included Bishop Forrest Stith. Subsequently, I was selected by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) as a Person in Mission at the Amira Basma Centre in Jerusalem. My charge was to live, work, and study in Jerusalem, so I could share with fellow UMC members the plight of the Palestinian people and the role of the United States in perpetuating an oppressive military occupation. I returned to the United States to attend medical school, while also fulfilling my Person in Mission work, continuing to share with UMC groups my experience living in occupied Palestine.

    How was I so blessed with this privilege? Bishop Stith was key in facilitating the creation of this position with the GBGM. I also received immense support from my local congregation, including Ronald Bretsch and Hubert Clark who gifted me the Nikon camera to capture many photos of my experience. I would not have traveled without my parents’ (Shirley & Garrie Stevens) unwavering encouragement to work in Palestine and learn as much as possible.

    I cannot emphasize enough how great the impact of The United Methodist Church has been on my personal and professional growth. This photo is a representation of immeasurable influence over my development as a human, wife, and mother, a physician, a voting citizen, and a community member locally and globally. I am blessed to have witnessed Pastor Gary Bergh’s work on the United Methodist Task Force on Peace with Justice in Palestine-Israel. He believed that a way for many people to learn about the actual situation in Palestine is for them to go there in person. His legacy through the Gary Bergh Scholarship Fund is to facilitate human connections by removing financial barriers and encouraging travel to Palestine. The objective is to engage with Israelis and Palestinians who long for a fulfilling human existence while they live through this brutal military occupation and destruction.

    I believe strongly in Pastor Gary Bergh’s message. I believe in establishing strong values and critical thinking that can be shared with generations to come. For Mother’s Day, I received this message from my child - “...thank you for teaching me to be strong but vulnerable, be positive and caring towards others, and inspiring me to be the best version of myself.” In the midst of tears and heartache for the people of Palestine, I have hope for a better future.

    I encourage you to pray for peace with justice, vote with your heart, support your local peacemakers, connect with your neighbors near and far, and encourage critical connections in Palestine.

    TAGGED / Advocate / Communications / Taskforce for Palestine Israel

    With more than 100,000 members, United Methodists of Upper New York comprises of more than 675 local churches and New Faith Communities in 12 districts, covering 48,000 square miles in 49 of the 62 counties in New York state. Our vision is to “live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places."