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Sunday, March 20, 2005


'Great Success' For Palm Sunday Pilgrimage

Cheering from Birmingham

A Chat with Sis Levin

At 10:30 am on Palm Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama, news of the action in Bethlehem has barely begun to appear in media reports, but Sis Levin has read one email account from an American participant, and she is feeling good about what happened.

“We had a message forwarded by John Stoner. It was a great success” says Sis Levin over the phone from Birmingham, Alabama. Stoner is the Pennsylvania peacemaker who helped to organize American participation in the event under the umbrella of his fledgling organization, Every Church a Peace Church (ECAPC). In an AP photo of the Bethlehem action, a bright yellow sign announces that ECAPC is there. “There were 300 participants, and it sounded great,” says Levin, “just what the world needed to see, a wonderful statement.”

And with the pride of a teacher, Levin declares, “It was my children’s idea!” Levin is the “volunteer” that organizers talk about when they recount the history of the idea for the Palm Sunday action. Today she is at home recovering from a scheduled surgery.

“It was about two years ago at Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour, and I was just beginning to work on a peacebuilding education from Kindergarten through University,” explains Levin. Shepherd’s Field is one of two locations where Christian tradition says that angels brought news to shepherds that Jesus had just been born. Today a chapel stands at the site.

“We were working with four-year-olds on an old Quaker exercise about two donkeys tied together and two piles of hay. At first the donkeys pull toward different piles and of course neither one gets anything to eat. Then they figure out if they go together they get one pile and then another. It’s a classic exercise, and while teachers and students were talking about it I said, well you know Jesus rode a donkey to Jerusalem. And there was a great sadness in the room as the children said, “We can’t go to Jerusalem.” From the statement of sadness came a question of hope, “Why can’t we go to Jerusalem?” and the idea for the Palm Sunday action was born.

When Sis returned to the USA from Bethlehem, she had a speaking tour lined up in California, and she told the story everywhere she went. Sis and her husband Jerry have been activists and lecturers in Middle Eastern affairs since Jerry, a former CNN bureau chief, was held hostage by Hezbollah in the mid-1980s. Sis became an activist in order to get Jerry out of captivity, and Jerry came out with a conversion to nonviolence.

At first, the idea was a “what if.” What if the children rode donkeys to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, confronting Irsaeli checkpoints along the way. Sis talked about it in imaginary terms, because it seemed too dangerous. But at some point she was told that even if the action had danger in it, if the children wanted to make a nonviolent statement, she should let them. Which was a profound suggestion to make to an activist from Birmingham. After all, without the children of Birmingham joining in and going to jail, the great campaign for downtown de-segregation might not have been victorious. So Levin broached the idea with Stoner, and international support for the children of Bethlehem was mobilized.

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