By Jonathan McRay 

ABU SHADI SITS in his plastic chair like a king at his castle. But he does not reign over subjects like a monarch. Maybe he is master of his house, but this does not quite fit either. His wife Noha often seems to run the show. Instead, he sits like a member of his place, in a plastic chair on the patio, someone who worships his paradise which is the ground under his feet and the trees shading his receding comb-over.

Abu Shadi is a colloquial name translated as “the father of Shadi,” the name of his oldest son. Abu Shadi is also called Abdullah Awwad. He was a thick quick man until stomach cancer slowed him down even as it made him lighter. His voice became tired and thin like his body. That voice was always strained, plucked by enthusiastic vitality that made it ring high like a small bell and then lower and chime, croak almost under the cracking force of his grand energy. He always excitedly shook his fist when he saw me approaching and stood to embrace me.

Some years ago, two friends and I worked in Palestine and planned to live with the Awwads. Then they learned of his cancer diagnosis and the idea of hosting three young Americans became too stressful. Instead, we found a fine stone house just over the hill. After his surgery in Germany and his return home, Abu Shadi’s bursting energy started returning also, like the breaking of buds on branches in spring. Abu Shadi began humming again between deep-bellied grunts as he ate pita, always under his breath, la la-la la la! I often laughed because in Arabic he was humming no no-no no no!

My family has a lengthy history in Israel and Palestine, beginning with my archaeologist grandfather over forty years ago. Like many American Christians, my family championed Israel despite knowing little about Palestinians, despite having Palestinian friends as long as we had Israeli ones. We studied Jewish theology, read influential Jewish writers, learned about Jewish shoahs, emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity, all profound and enlightening. We also believed that befriending Jews meant befriending Israel. However, over the last decade-and-a-half, my family’s perspective shifted from an ignorant support of nation-states to an empathetic support of people, especially as we learned about expulsions, land theft, home demolitions, checkpoints, night raids, abject poverty, and towering walls. Evictions and diasporas are now executed on others like a negatively-spun gift economy: because it has been received, so it must be given.

In 2008, I spent several months as an advocacy journalist for the Palestine Monitor. I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose ancient olive groves and roads were fractured by the construction of the Israeli Separation Wall, twice as tall and three times as long as the Berlin Wall and rarely following the internationally-accepted border between Israel and occupied Palestine. I documented, and participated with, the efforts of villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently resisting the confiscation and devastation of their land. And I watched and experienced police and military repeatedly respond with raids heralded by teargas, rubber-coated bullets, and live fire. Colonization uproots people and I saw the literal uprooting and burning of orchards on terraced hillsides. Along with young Palestinian men, I tried to extinguish the flames by flinging dusty soil on burning branches.

The next year I worked as a writer and editor with Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which tries to unite Israelis and Palestinians through a common faith. I interviewed Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians and then incarnated my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other. Along with Musalaha and volunteering with direct action collectives, I spent time each week with the Al Basma Center, a supportive place for people with developmental disabilities, founded by Noha and Abu Shadi. My family has been close friends with them for years.

Abu Shadi studied English Literature in Turkey, where he fell in love with poets like William Wordsworth and Robert Herrick. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!” he often said, especially after his surgery. Abu Shadi has been barred from entering Jerusalem of his call for justice and the end of the Israeli Occupation. He and his wife once escaped from an African country after serving as a press secretary for a revolutionary movement gone bad. With savings from his job, he and Noha started a small community center devoted to caring and sharing life with people society often excludes.

JEAN VANIER WRITES about sharing life together and about the vulnerability and brokenness at the heart of community. He writes simply and he writes gently. There is tenderness in the composition of his sentences. I do not only mean the thoughts he communicates, which find grace for and within the weakness of our bodies and the fragility of life. I also mean that tenderness is in the way his sentences are formed, the grace that is style and sound. Vanier’s writing reads like a soft familiar conversation.

Indeed, gentleness defines the world of L’Arche, communities Vanier helped start where people with different mental, physical, and emotional abilities live and work together. L’Arche fosters friendships between people with varying abilities so that a diversity of gifts is recognized as central to community life. Gentle friendships like those at L’Arche are cultivated by tending to the ordinary, actively caring for things nearby. These sets of practices – cooking, cleaning, washing, growing, crafting, storytelling, music-making – sustain conviviality and cooperation, which do not erase weakness but instead welcome it. Laws never mandate these practices, an indispensable form of politics in their own way, but they are required in order to live well together. Gentleness is important because it redefines power and rule through the concrete love of friendship.

Vanier has written that love is not doing heroic acts; it means “knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness” (Community and Growth, 1989, Paulus Press, p. 220). Tending is the act of doing those tender ordinary things, and Wendell Berry offers descriptive support to this understanding. Berry is a close kin to Vanier. They both concern themselves with community, healing in conviviality, the gifts of mutuality, and the wisdom of care and fragility. Tending, as the Kentucky farmer understands, implies learning practical skills and livelihoods that are attentive to differences. According to Berry, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” he inherited is often inadequate for this task for two reasons. Firstly, the otherworldly focus of much Christian theology distracts people from caring for the close-at-hand. Secondly, the Bible and much religious literature are “so strongly heroic.” We are too concerned with the actions of great men, supposedly extraordinary because they are supposedly rare. Their actions hardly serve as examples for ordinary lives, which Berry believes inhabit a very different genre:

The drama of ordinary or daily behavior [like the heroic] also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance. (“The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, 1981, Counterpoint, pp. 276-7)

Heroism is deeply inspiring; it can unsettle the rigid and stale drama of the ordinary, especially when that drama becomes repressive. But, according to Berry, heroism does not live with the questions of long-term devotion and right livelihood. “True community,” Vanier insists in agreement, “implies . . . a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round” (Community and Growth, p. 109). Heroism does not teach us how to actively care during diurnal rhythms when the crowds are no longer watching.

Mainstream politics are almost entirely about heroism, mostly dependent on sweeping platforms backed by deep pockets. For the most part, political debates ignore difficult questions of disability, questions that change depending on time and place. Modern political discourse operates with a strong underlying assumption in the rationality and free will of political actors, or what is philosophically called liberalism. In the liberal mind, people with disabilities are lacking. Political decision-making assumes that only those without severe physical or mental impairments can meaningfully participate, an assumption that not only reinforces anthropocentrism but a dangerously reduced one: only human needs are valuable, and only those that we understand. Liberal politics excludes the disabled because it depends on generalizability; in order to be applicable at a large scale, it must avoid the messiness of context and ordinary emotions, which means it must avoid bodies and earth. Liberal politics attempt to generalize the heroic by enthroning reason as the ultimate human trait, which is ultimately dehumanizing.

I have friends who believe that the world would be better if people were more rational. I often agree, but I am also convinced that we would be better off if people were more compassionate, more generous, more communal, more committed, more open to their senses and the experience of others. Some Christian philosophers, incredibly intelligent men and women, claim that belief in God is the only rational decision. Some atheist philosophers, incredibly intelligent men and women, declare that the existence of God is entirely irrational. Whose definition of reason is the most reasonable? Not all opinions are equally valid, but reason is not a pure substance or an undefiled method that inevitably leads all adherents to the same conclusion. This is a pointless quest that goes nowhere but our own navels. One of the hallmarks of humanity is rationality, but if that is the only defining characteristic, then many people are not human. If the actions of world leaders are any indication, we might suspect that another major hallmark of humanity is irrationality.

Martha Nussbaum, still allied to liberal political theory, introduces a guideline for the indispensable form of politics, those sets of practices, that sustain community life. She suggests that focusing on capabilities might help us acknowledge that rationality is only one part of our embodied lives (Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, p. 160). Capabilities focus on particular practices with specific people and their varying gifts and needs. Addressing capabilities means addressing actual bodies and actual places. Reason is rooted in our sensing bodies and the living earth that orients them. The literate and the logical grow from sound and the sensuous. We cannot define the meaning of life together without actually sharing life together in particular places. Capabilities force us out of safe abstraction by making friendships with unlikely people. Vanier notes that the Hebrew word hesed means both fidelity and tenderness (Community and Growth, p. 63), and with good reason. Sharing life together inevitably dredges up old hurts and will inevitably inflict new ones. Sticking around for the long haul requires more care than transience.

Vanier says “Our world is waiting for communities of tenderness and fidelity. They are coming” (Community and Growth, p. 63). Some of them are already here.

I FIRST HEARD about Jean Vanier in occupied Palestine. I was working at the Al Basma Center in the village of Beit Sahour, “House of Vigilance.” This ancient village sits in a valley on the east side of Bethlehem, between the hills rising to Jerusalem and the desert of the Jordan River Valley. Started in 1987 in collaboration with the Arab Women’s Union, Al Basma (which means “the smile” in Arabic) had almost no funds and no tables or chairs, and so the six students sat on the floor. Now, around thirty students walk or ride a small bus to a stone building where the edge of town begins to fade. They still have few funds, but their creative programs include olivewood carving, making fuel from olivewood sawdust to heat the center in winter, recycling paper for making Christmas cards, weaving rugs on traditional looms, drama and exercise, speech therapy and hygiene classes, and counseling services for mental impairments and the inevitable trauma of living under occupation. The students learn beautiful and useful skills and the belief that they are vital members of their community and have gifts to offer it. Their work helps sustain the center.

At the time I worked there, six women were the leaders and teachers and, like the students, half were Muslim and half were Christian. These women sometimes sacrificed their paltry pay so the center could continue each month. The days were filled with good work, with laughter and explosive arguments and then laughter again. The work tables were transformed into banquet tables where they ate modest vegetarian feasts because meat was too expensive. And then they removed the tables at the end of each day and danced to Arabic pop music between the pink walls. “A community that does not celebrate,” Vanier argues, “is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done” (Essential Writings, 2010, Orbis, p. 97). The next day, this routine began again, moved by the skill and perseverance of ordinary courage.

The teachers and I came out of the little office to greet the students when they arrived in the mornings. Nizaar crouched down, overcome with excitement, and shouted “Habibi! My love!” and spread his arms out to hug me. Nizaar frequently came through the small patio to the open pink door of the office, sometimes dancing as he came, watching as my friend Patrick printed words on the recycled cards after I cut them to size. Nizaar repeated our names over and over until we finally looked up at him. Then he raised his hand dramatically and belted operatic vibrato as he hopped up and down clapping, then whispering falsetto melodies with knees bent and eyes wide. His body and voice rapidly bound and unleashed a vibrant energy.

Sana was spry and thin and he knew everyone and everything in Beit Sahour. He entered every room saying his name in a shrill nasal voice as a greeting announcing his arrival. His name and his presence were a unified event with a mischievous grin. He lent his dramatic gravitas to the role of Little Red Riding Hood in the center’s plays. Sana sat quietly outside the kitchen whenever the teachers and I ate breakfast, folding and unfolding and refolding an old handkerchief. His scruffy unibrow furrowed as he attentively watched the pita and eggs disappear. Then he swooped in and snatched a piece of bread from the table, scurrying out with crumbs falling from his salivating mouth.
Issa always slapped my hand as he entered the center. He enjoyed squeezing my hand like a vice. Issa was the finest dancer, and he seemed almost entranced by the traditional Palestinian rhythms of his feet and the flick of his hands above his head. Sometimes he and I sat in the grass and laughed about nothing in particular. He spoke as if he had pebbles in his mouth. His family worried that their daughters could never marry because of his disability, so they hid him in a cave. Teachers from the center found him and taught him to eat and speak. They also found that he was skilled at weaving. When I met him, Issa was an artisan who worked the loom with memory and intelligence. He clamped his tongue between his teeth in determination. He also lived with his family again.

Khalil’s facial features were characteristic of Down’s syndrome, but I remember his beautiful round face for his incessant smile. His short, stubby body shuffled toward me and his crinkled eyes stared up at me as he took my hand. He often said nothing, smiling with his tongue between his teeth. I regularly watched Khalil push another student named George in a wheelchair up the ramp to the center’s entrance; Khalil stoops down to talk with his friend but the wheelchair starts swerving and they almost run into the railing with bursts of laughter. He blew kisses at the teachers and me through the window of the bus as he left in the afternoon.

Each afternoon we sat outside in the courtyard. Confined energy quickly turned into laughter or intense arguments across the patio. I saw Vanier’s point, applicable to many others, that we shouldn’t be idealistic about people with disabilities: “Some have been victims of so much contempt and violence, which they have stored up inside themselves, that there can be an explosion of violence” (Essential Writings, p. 112). I often became impatient with the students and their furious shoving and constant chaotic noise. In my annoyance I noticed only their disability. Where is meaning and purpose in George’s body? His mind will never be abled and his limbs will never be straightened; he twists and jerks in his wheelchair and can never sit still. He drools garbled words.
In the midst of my self-absorbed resentment, Khalil often sat next to me like the missing character of Job, the friend who does not moralize but sits close in silent company. Khalil and I could not really speak to one another, which meant I risked projecting my own words onto him or, worse, assuming that he had little to say for himself. I could then keep him disabled and keep that disability at arm’s length. But Khalil spoke to me with touch, a fragile language that I could brush off like a whisper, like the weakness of God. God does not exist until Khalil sits next to me, incarnation over declaration. “I am very sensitive to the reality of the body,” writes Vanier with a similar sentiment. “Many of our people cannot speak, but all express love and fear through their bodies. The body is more fundamental than the word. The Body of Christ is more fundamental than his Word. Many handicapped people cannot understand the Word but they can eat his Body” (Community and Growth, p. 197). I too became struck with the sensitive and fundamental love of the body.

One day, Khalil took my hand in his squat fingers with darkened knuckles and I knew that I was handicapped. I was disabled and I still am. With my intellectual and physical abilities, I am the mess because I often do not know that I am broken. I have dodge vulnerability by hiding behind accusations of the brokenness of others. And yet a necessary connection exists between love and vulnerability, between tender affection and openness to those around us. The more we love the more vulnerable we are. A correlating connection exists between the denial of death and the denial of the body. Al Basma reminded me that I have my own inabilities, that my experience is inescapably embodied, which means limited. The place reminded me that I, too, have a body that will become frail and impaired. Someday I will not be able to perform roles and tasks expected of me. To accept our bodies is to accept their fragility and their eventual death.

I am not suggesting that my friends’ disabilities are blessings in disguise, or that I know what they experience because of an existential realization of my limits and future death. I am suggesting that our bodily senses are the grounding instrument through which we engage this cycling and circling earth. Capability varies widely for touch and taste, smell and sound, but through proximity and vibration I can feel with others. My friends can do that too. Moreover, a disability in one place might not be entirely determinate in another. Disability changes form and meaning within hospitality, where people are cared for, their needs and gifts are valued, and they can learn to be themselves. Vanier knows that his friends with disabilities need his help, but at L’Arche he discovered that the opposite is also true: “People who are powerless and vulnerable attract what is most beautiful and most luminous in those who are stronger: they call them to be compassionate, to love intelligently, and not only in a sentimental way . . . The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives, which they often hide behind masks” (Essential Writings, pp. 100-101).

We need places and cultures where people are not simply disabled or abled but welcome to be themselves, who give and receive, who have deficiencies and have gifts. Places where some people need more help in some ways than others and are still called friends. I gave to Khalil and he gave back. I showed him love because he first loved me. The more time I spent with him, the more I cared for him, the more times he screeched with laughter as we made silly faces, the less he was a person with disabilities and the more he became Khalil. Everyone else became themselves too: George, Munther, Jael, Abed, Mustafa and Waafa, Muhammed and Rushdie, Ramsy, Basma and Jamla, Noor. I also started becoming myself. We are a vulnerable communion (to borrow from a title by Thomas Reynolds) trussed together by the inescapable fragility of life. According to the Apostle Paul, faith, hope, and love remain at the end of the day, but the first two are byproducts of love, because love comes first. To hell with hope if it means the present is meaningless without the future. We only hope for what we love.

Al Basma taught me that listening well is part of the gentleness of life. It looks like the women who run Al Basma sitting and crying with the students. I am still learning to listen to the wreck and gift of the beautiful risk of life. Listening is a weak force compelling me to surrender my illusory control and move gracefully. The same grace in Vanier’s words is in Khalil’s clumsy gait as he pushes George up the ramp:

We need to touch the truth of who we are,
It is then, as we grow gradually
into the acceptance of our wounds and fragility,
that we grow into wholeness,
and from that wholeness, life begins to flow forth
to others around us. (Essential Writings, p. 86)

AL BASMA ONCE had a greenhouse on a small rise above a rusty playground and broken gazebo. The greenhouse contained one of Palestine’s first aquaponic systems, which mixes aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (plant cultivation in water). Accumulating excrement in the water is toxic for fish, but provides vital nutrients for plants. In a closed-loop aquaponic system, water cycles to the plants where it is cleaned and then recirculated to the fish.
When my friends and I first arrived in Beit Sahour the greenhouse’s crumbling rows were empty. Patrick, Paul, and I took pickaxes and hoes inside and began to churn the clotted earth. Basma, the calm and beautiful director who has been with the center since its beginning, sent us out in hesitant English to “break up the ground so the farmer can bring the planets.” We laughed together as Patrick drew a picture explaining the syntactical difference between horticulture and astronomy. Soon, the cucumber cotyledons would be placed in the ground. Soon, water from drip-irrigation pipes that rested on the rows would seep into the ground and the plants would grow. Soon, we would be wrapping strings, tied between the ceiling’s spines and the pipes, around the growing plants. And soon, we would be picking the cucumbers from whiskery leaves and eating them with warm pita, tomatoes, and eggs. But now, we needed to sift rocks from the dry soil and pull and compost weeds.

The three of us bent down to our knees and began ripping out weeds along the far translucent wall of the greenhouse. For some reason, this particular area was extremely overgrown. The strong roots of the weeds were deep and stubborn, connected like webs twisted around larges clumps of hardened dirt. My hands were soon blistered and bleeding as I weeded the rocky soil, but I breathed deeply and happily. There is goodness in dirt and breath and in people who come from dirt and breath, which is everyone. We hope for what we love, and I love good soil and the vulnerable communion of my friends.

The land is a gift, and it gives gifts because it gives life. Much of this gift is stolen in Palestine through a spreading colonialism until eventually only patches like the greenhouse will be left for the people who live there. Colonialism steals land but it also steals water. I heard about a family in Beit Sahour who, like many families, lost their water for days as their reserve tank ran low because the irrigation systems favor the web of illegal settlements that twist around the clumped hilltops. The family once relied on an old well on their land when the water was shut off, but returning home one day they found the Israeli army digging up the pipes and rerouting them toward the settlements for swimming pools and lawns.

Many people cannot perform the roles and tasks expected of them because the land and water cannot either. People are handicapped when the land and water are impaired. Disability is another name for the theft of soil and water and for the displacement of people. To a certain extent, we describe both people and places with the word disability – resulting from genetics, storms, pollutants, accidents, or armies – when we have not yet discovered their hidden capabilities. We reveal gifts when we love someone or someplace, when we name them as beautiful and useful. In greenhouses and olive groves on terraced hillsides, in stone buildings heated by sawdust, around work tables and on dancefloors, ordinary people hope for what they love by tending, gently caring for the nearby, for the earth and their friends. We treat the world as we treat each other, as we treat ourselves.

THE FOUNDER OF Al Basma and his wife live on a steep hillside where they planted gardens and orchards of grapes, oranges, apricots, pomegranates, olives, lemons, almonds, figs, thyme, mint, and flowers from Gaza. Over homemade wine, Abu Shadi exclaimed to me, “This is my paradise, and I want to die in it! My rocks are more beautiful than the green of Sweden. I don’t mean to be rude, but when I am gone I miss my rocks! If you take me out of my land I am like a fish out of water. I don’t want to drive Israel into the sea, so we must give peace a chance!”

He repeated the same refrains because they never became less true for him: “I want to live on my land, with dignity and self-respect, in my soil and my house. We belong to the land, in the soil, working in the garden. Why should a Jew from Russia or Bulgaria get to take my home?” He often claimed he could trace his ancestors back to the shepherds visited by angels who announced the birth of an indigenous peasant.

When I said goodbye I told them how sad I was to go, that I wanted them to visit me in my land.
“That is life, dear Jonathan, to say hi and bye,” Noha said, her hand on my shoulder. “Better for you to come here then for us to go there. It is too hard for us.”

She and Abu Shadi love the center and the students with a consuming passion. “The most important thing for us to do,” Abu Shadi insisted with tears in his eyes, “is to tell them they are needed. We give them love. They are not parasites. They are a part of this society. Believe me, when I was in surgery I was thinking about these children.”

“Believe me,” he constantly implored.

Abu Shadi occasionally shouted out Shakespeare from his veranda with his arms spread toward the Jordan River Valley:

Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

            He always repeated the final lines, with a slight amendment, in a hoarse whisper: “Here, I hope, we shall see no enemy but winter and rough weather.”

About the Author:


Jonathan McRay is a farmer, facilitator, and writer. His work is rooted in agroecology and restorative justice. He grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and worked in Palestine/Israel and Mozambique. He is the author of You Have Heard It Said: Events of Reconciliation, a contributor to the anthology Watershed Discipleship, and has published essays in The Other Journal, Geez Magazine, Permaculture Design Magazine, and State of Nature. Jonathan lives in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was a founding member of Vine and Fig, a sustainable living center and therapeutic community that cultivates and celebrates works of mercy, social justice, and ecological health. He is now cofounder and caretaker of Blacks Run Forest Farm in Harrisonburg, Virginia.