Board, fasten safety belts, go

El Al planes

Everything at Cairo Airport was in Arabic. I never learned Arabic and even though Swahili vocabulary contains a lot of Arabic roots, that is not enough to understand Arabic. As such, I was clueless at the airport for those six long hours.

A few times I thought I heard calls for EL AL boarding and duly dashed to the gate only to find out that it was not an EL AL call. There was a consolation in these false calls though, in spite of the trouble of hauling my over-packed luggage. At the first false announcement, I dashed to the desk where our passports were held. I got back my passport and though the call to board was false I got to keep  my passport – one of the good things out of the chaos.

During one of those false calls I did actually board a plane. Then I heard a steward call as walked down the aisle: “Sanaa! Sanaa!

Dear Lord; Don’t tell me I am in a plane to Yemen! No; not to an Arabian country – even though I am in Cairo (but Egypt is an African country if that is any consolation). O.K. Step back from this plane bound to Sanaa. Let no one see your passport and the visa to Israel.

I was back in the departure lounge faster than I had stepped into that plane. Then a true miracle happened. They announced boarding for EL AL. I couldn’t believe it as I settled into that huge 747 Jumbo jet. I could tell I was surrounded by Jews on all sides, though I was not sure why I believed they were Jewish. Actually, I don’t believe I had seen a Jew before.

Then it was swift. The language was Hebrew, after all. Barukhim baim lesiphon. There were not the usual, long formalities upon boarding a plane. It was essential to depart the airport as swiftly as possible before news spread out that an EL AL jetliner had been spotted. It was a matter of minutes and we were airborne.

You could see a sense of relief in people’s eyes as we approached Ben-Gurion Airport. (By the way, it is Ben-Gu-ri-on with the accent on the last syllable and not on -Gu- as many Americans are prone to mispronounce). As we touched down, there was a burst of applause from the passengers similar to the finale of a concert presentation.


An experience of a modern day exodus from Cairo to Tel Aviv

Jewish colonies and settlements. Tel Aviv. Car...

Jewish colonies and settlements. Tel Aviv. Carrying bricks. Digitized from 1 negative : glass, stereograph, dry plate ; 5 x 7 in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Gurion 2

One of the most successful stories of the State of Israel in the early years was agriculture. We heard of the kibbutzim and the moshavim and how Israel became a fruit and flower producer of world renown. Even more amazing was the ingenuity of the irrigation system that transformed dry landscapes like the Negev into agricultural oases, often using biblical models.

As African nations emerged from colonialism in the 60s, they sought ties with Israel which provided expertise in agriculture. Nevertheless, this changed in the early 70s because of various factors. Among them were Arab pressure to African nations in exchange for oil and financial aid, the Six Day War when Israel occupied the West Bank, and the thorny relationship between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Following the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, 29 African nations severed relations with Israel en masse. Only Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi – three small countries – in sub-Sahara Africa did not sever relations.

That was very much the situation when I first went to Israel to study at the Swedish Theological Institute except that Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel in the Camp David Accords. The only way I could fly directly from Africa was from Cairo – which I did, regretted, and swore never to repeat it, and never did!

I could have flown from Kilimanjaro to Athens, or Rome or Copenhagen, or Frankfurt then directly to Tel Aviv. Indeed, those were my original plans, but somehow I ended up taking Ethiopian Airlines to Cairo. There were stopovers in Addis Ababa and Khartoum and we were shadowed by military jets in rebel-troubled Eritrea air space.

But the real nightmare was in Cairo.

First, we had to surrender our passports. I am assuming “we”, not just me or any other passengers heading to Tel Aviv. Secondly, for security reasons – a fact learned but not announced – flights to Tel Aviv were kept secret until boarding time. So, there I was, at the airport, sweltering in the Egyptian heat and humidity, without air conditioning, and with no known time of departure.

That waiting lasted six hours! Six hours of drama, and when miraculously the announcement came: “Flight to Tel Aviv, Departure Gate G” what followed was a modern day re-enactment of the Hebrews’  hurried departure from Egypt almost 3500 years earlier..

Jerusalem above my highest joy


“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,

If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:5-6)


Going to Jerusalem was my wildest dream come true. Actually I did not have a dream about Jerusalem specifically. How did one get to dream about such mystical places like Jerusalem?

From childhood, I had dreams about places. I drew and painted snow covered hills and mountains of Switzerland. I drew mountains and valleys of New Zealand and estates of English countryside. I thought of someday being in those places. I even developed an interest in journalism as I grew older, so that I would travel around the world.

Yet, Jerusalem was not one of those longed for destinations.

I was a seminarian and Jerusalem appeared several times a week; in scripture reading and hymns and in studies in general. But it was in the Old Testament, in times past and could only be imagined.

When I first heard the news that I had been offered a scholarship to study in Jerusalem, it wasn’t that clear at first. I was chosen by the seminary faculty and the news came to me as an opportunity to study in Denmark. That was quite common actually because there was a student exchange program between our seminary and a university in Denmark.

I experienced that excitement of traveling to a foreign land though not quite overwhelming. There was nothing unique about going to Denmark. After all every other year we had four or five students go there for a semester. By now we had a sizeable alumni group.

Furthermore, this news was still a rumor. It was not official yet and even the professor who gave me the rumor wanted me to keep it secret until the minutes were approved by the faculty, then I would be informed officially. For a week or two I carried this rumor in my head but not quite elated.

Then in a chance discussion with one of the Swedish professors, I got the really exciting news. The scholarship was for study at the Swedish Theological Institute, in Jerusalem! Wow! Not Denmark, but Jerusalem.

Bengt, and that is his true name, knew what he was talking about. After all the Swedish Theological Institute was funded by his home church, the Church of Sweden Mission. But he had never been to Jerusalem. Who had been to Jerusalem anyway?

Not anybody I knew from my part of the world; so that made the whole experience unique. It was only the beginning and much more was still to come.

Other seed fell among thorns

English: An icon depicting the Sower. In Sts. ...

English: An icon depicting the Sower. In Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania. Español: Ícono representando la parábola del sembrador, en la Iglesia Ortodoxa de Helen, en Cluj (Rumania) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)











Meditation on The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-10, 13-20.

Last Fall I took part in a poverty simulation exercise at CareSource – a nonprofit managed health care plan headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. Although the participants were playing a role in these simulations, they were, nonetheless based on real life situations taken from real people in poverty.

I played the role of a single mother with two children in school. There was a list of things to do within specified time-frames, which included going to one agency to pick up a voucher for rent, to another for a voucher for gas, then go to a job fair and fill in an application, and on to a juvenile court for an incident my son was involved in.

One of the lessons learned in these simulations is how chaotic life in poverty is. Although I managed to get the job I applied for, I lost it just as fast because of the chaos in my life. I had vouchers in my hands for help but juggling through the agencies was a nightmare. In the end, I was still staring at some of those vouchers when time ran out.

In this parable of the sower, Jesus said, “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain”.He also interpreted the thorns as worries of this life, and often we interpret them as the worries of the wealthy.

At the clinic where I serve as chaplain, after our morning devotions, I call those patients who filled in prayer request forms to let them know that we prayed for them and to encourage them to know that they are not alone. A few minutes into the phone call and I discover the patient is driving. Others, as we talk about appointments that they missed and I hear, “there is nobody to look after the kids for me to go to the appointment”.

These are the people that Jesus compared to the “other seed which fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain”.