It is appropriate that today’s gospel involves boats and fishing nets, objects that have been a part of life in Gaza for thousands of years.
Although today the people of Gaza are severely restricted in accessing their seacoast as a result of a brutal siege imposed by the state of Israel, the scene evoked in today’s gospel is one that the people of Gaza would understand and appreciate.
Before discussing the situation in Gaza in the context of today’s gospel, however, I would like to raise a few questions that might help us look at this gospel in a different way than we are accustomed to.
The primary questions I would like to ask are:
“Who’s in the boat?”
“Do we need to allow ourselves to be caught before we can catch others?”
In short, “Is this gospel reading a call to conversion for us? An invitation to leave behind our own boats and dive into the deep so that we can be caught by the nonviolent Jesus and by our sisters and brothers who are struggling for peace, justice, and freedom?”
Ultimately, I think that this gospel along with the first reading from Isaiah is a call to conversion, to transformation, to obedience.
Like Isaiah, we recognize that we have unclean lips ourselves and that we live among people with unclean lips, yet we hear our names being called and, despite our feelings of unworthiness, we respond.
Like Simon, we come to God with empty nets and discouraged hearts and find ourselves invited to go deeper into discipleship. We accept the coals to the mouth and the rocky waters as part of the journey and pray for the grace to follow in ways that we do not fully understand.
At the beginning of the gospel story, the fishermen, including Simon, are washing out their nets after a night of unsuccessful fishing. Given their failure, we can imagine the disappointment they must feel despite their best efforts and expertise as seasoned fishermen.
This scene is so familiar to us in our work for peace and justice. We work hard, giving our time and energy to one project or another, only to come up empty-handed. When our best efforts prove fruitless and unproductive, we are sometimes tempted to abandon our nets and walk away entirely, or we stubbornly grit our teeth and continue to anchor our boats in familiar waters that yield no catch.
Perhaps what we really need to do in this case is get out of the boat.
In the gospel story, things do not change until the fishermen are on the shore and Jesus gets into one of the boats and begins to teach.
It is interesting that in both Greek and Latin, the word “obedience” is related to the word “listen,” something that is instructive for us when outcomes are not when we expect and when our work seems for naught.
We believe that we are captains of our own boats, capable of charting a course of our own design, but this so often leads to disillusionment, if not despair, when things do not go as planned.
Maybe when this happens we need to give up the role of captain and agree to be captured by something bigger than ourselves. In short, sometimes we just need to get out of the boat.
This is exactly what happened when six of us from the Michigan Peace Team joined 1,360 others from 43 different countries in Cairo, Egypt for the Gaza Freedom March just over a month ago.
Initiated by Palestinian civil society and hundreds of human rights activists and organizations around the world, the march was modeled on Gandhi’s Salt March and on the U.S. civil rights movement.
The march was planned to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s assault against the Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 Palestinians – a grisly number that matched – almost to the person – the number of internationals who joined the Gaza Freedom March.
In addition to using U.S.-manufactured white phosphorus and Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) against Gazans in last year’s attack, Israel destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, including 700 factories or places of business, 24 mosques, 34 health facilities, and 10 water or sewage lines.
As a result of the invasion, 50,000 Gazans were left homeless and 400,000 left without running water.
In an area that is approximately the size of Detroit with a population of over 1.5 million, the Gaza Strip is completely sealed off from the rest of the world – by land, sea, and air.
This is why the people of Gaza were compared to fish in a bucket during last year’s assault: they literally had nowhere to go in order to escape the bombing.
Pictures of the wounded taken by a delegation from the National Lawyers Guild shortly after Cast Lead defy the imagination.
The use of white phosphorus which clings to the skin and burns from the inside out and the highly-carcinogenic DIME bombs that sever limbs cleanly resulted in horrific injuries.
The more we came to understand the extent of the death and destruction, the more we felt called to participate. For those of us committed to the March from a faith perspective, the words of Isaiah became our mantra: “Here am I; send me!”
Our plan was to meet in Cairo, cross the Sinai, and then break the siege by entering Gaza through the Rafah border. On Dec. 31 we planned to join over 50,000 Gazans for an historic march through the Gaza Strip – the Gaza Freedom March.
Although we were to bring in a load of humanitarian aid, especially school supplies and winter coats, our primary objective was to break the crippling siege that has been imposed on Gazans since 2006.
Relevant to today’s reading, we were to meet with specific groups from Palestinian civil society including teachers, doctors, farmers, and fishermen. We also had plans to meet with representatives from the United Nations and to join our voices simultaneously with marchers who would be marching on the other side of the Erez Crossing from Israel.
Organizing the Gaza Freedom March was no small feat. An interactive and constantly updated webpage was set up, affinity groups were organized, and lengthy weekly phone conferences were held. March organizers had people on the ground for in Egypt for months where our entry into Gaza through Egypt was negotiated with the Egyptian government.
All of our personal information, including passport numbers and hotel reservations, was given to the Egyptian authorities as a way of offering transparency and as a gesture of good will.
Since the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March had gotten delegations into the Strip before, they were fairly confident that we would be allowed access as well, especially since our delegation included several well-known people, including Alice Walker, European members of parliament, several high-profile religious leaders, and well-respected human rights organizations.
Shortly before people were to begin leaving for Cairo, however, we were told that after all of our preparations and negotiations, Egypt was going to prohibit us from entering Gaza.
In short, we had let down our nets, but had come up empty.
By Christmas morning – the day that we were to fly out from Detroit – Egypt was warning marchers to stay home – a warning that we ignored.
Instead, we left for Cairo in the hope that with enough international pressure, Egypt would relent. Like the fishermen casting their nets in the same comfortable spot, we remained in the boat and grimly stayed our course.
When we got to Egypt, however, we realized that we were being called to leave the boat that we were on and board a new vessel – literally.
Since Egypt had decided to block us from entering Gaza, the march organizers decided that we would board several flotillas docked on the Nile River in downtown Cairo and hold a solemn lantern ceremony commemorating the dead.
Egyptian police and security immediately surrounded us, blocking us from boarding the boats and threatening to take our cameras and notebooks. For several hours we were ringed on the street by an absurd number of Eyptian policemen and plainclothes security people – a scenario that would repeat itself throughout the week.
We were also told that night that several of the Gaza Freedom Marchers who had set out on their own for the Sinai were being held under house arrest in a resort town about 40 kilometers from Gaza and that a law was passed stating that the authorities will be summoned – usually in full force – whenever six or more are gathered on the streets.
We quickly understood that the boat we thought we were on when we said our Yes! to the Gaza Freedom March was being steered in a direction that we had not anticipated.
We were frustrated and angry and deeply, deeply saddened by the turn of events, but ultimately, came to understand and accept that we were perhaps being called to lower our nets in deeper waters than we had planned.
As a person whose work for peace is rooted in the gospel, I struggled to listen for the voice of Jesus in all of this. The place where we were being asked to lower our nets was murky and unclear, but we acted on faith.
Rather than traveling to Gaza for the Freedom March, we ended up staying in Cairo for the week where members of our delegation engaged in an intense series of actions that included demonstrations in front of the United Nations, a hunger strike led by Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Hedy Epstein, and an encampment in front of the French Embassy.
We were followed everywhere we went, encircled by security every time we moved, detained at the U.S. embassy, and locked down in our hotel at one point by the Egyptian authorities.
A couple of us joined Hedy, Fathers John Dear and Lous Vitale and Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, Martha, in the hunger strike and were greeted with excessive force when we gathered for press conferences in Cairo.
Toward the end of the week, some of the women in our delegation negotiated a deal to allow 100 of our group into Gaza. Organizers were notified in the middle of the night that they had two hours to select 100 people who would then have only a few hours to prepare to leave by 7 AM.
As the 100 delegates were boarding the bus for Gaza, the Egyptian morning papers hit the streets praising the 100 delegates as the “good” people and the rest of us as “hooligans and troublemakers.” This, of course, was a manipulative move on the part of Egypt to divide our ranks.
The few among us who were allowed to enter Gaza witnessed the destruction and devastation in Gaza as well as the resiliency and hospitality of the people. One woman talked of the family whose father lives on in a Tupperware bowl filled with blood-stained sand while another spoke of the art produced by children whose trauma suggests psychosis.
While we stood by our formal statement condemning Egypt for its refusal to allow all of us in and for orchestrating dissension among us, we were glad that some among us were able to bear witness to the reality of life in the Gaza Strip.
I said earlier that rather than captain our own boats we sometimes need to allow ourselves to be caught so that we can be converted and this is what happened in Cairo.
The boat we initially boarded was one that we had built for ourselves, but perhaps the one we ended up on was better suited to the waters in which we found ourselves.
Our plan was to march through the streets of Gaza . . . not find ourselves barricaded on the streets of Cairo.
The net we had dropped yielded nothing, but by allowing ourselves to get caught up in a net cast by Someone other than ourselves, perhaps we were standing in solidarity with the people of Gaza in a way that was, in the long run, better than what we had planned.
I was shocked when we were told that Gazans were grateful for our presence in Cairo and that they were saying that the real Gaza Freedom March was taking place on the streets of Cairo where it was forcing a crisis of conscience in Egypt and garnering international media coverage.
At that point, I realized that while I was selfishly heartbroken about not getting into Gaza, I was content to drop my nets in the place where it would do the most good from a boat that I would not have chosen for myself.
In the end, as the gospel says, it’s all about following the One who tells us not to be afraid, but rather, to follow Him – even if that means settling for Cairo rather than Gaza…
The One who nudges us overboard into ever deeper waters and who hauls us in when we are over our heads.
The One who challenges us to cast a net of peace and justice and freedom wide enough to catch all of humanity and who opens our hearts so that we might be caught in the net of solidarity dropped by our sisters and brothers both here at home and around the world.
At the end of the day, it’s about saying “Here am I; send me!” to the One whose boat is far bigger than our own. Amen
Reflection given at St. Peter’s Episcopal, Detroit, January 2010