“If you’ve never been there, why do you care?” Anna Johnson asked Kelsey Cramer (my sister-in-law) and me on our way from South Bend to Goshen, Ind., in a 12-passenger van to pick up the rest of our carpool heading to Washington, D.C., on a subzero January morning.
Anna is a Ph.D. candidate in peace studies and sociology, researching the possibilities of peace-and-justice tourism in Palestine. Having grown up Lutheran, she became Mennonite after encountering Mennonite Central Committee workers in Palestine, where she lived for seven years.
For Anna, the atrocities in Palestine are personal. But why, she wondered out loud, were we joining her in an act of civil disobedience?
Kelsey described how her heart broke for Palestinians as she watched the atrocities on social media. I stumbled through a response, but the question haunted me throughout the whirlwind of the next two days.
We drove 11 hours through snow to a church in Washington, where Mennonites from across the country were gathered. The next morning, we gathered at another downtown church. The mood was both festive and tense as we ate breakfast. Participants had already decided whether to join an outdoor service or enter the congressional building for civil disobedience.
After prayers and instructions, we were off in groups, adrenaline rushing. I partnered up with Ana Neufeld Weaver, a music education major who had been tapped as a song leader. “Have you ever done anything like this before?” I asked. “I’ve led music plenty of times,” she responded, “but never like this!”
We passed through security checks and wandered the halls like tourists. Then our group leader signaled for us to enter the rotunda, merging into a stream of Mennonites. We unrolled banners, opened song books, sat in a circle and began singing, “Lord, listen to your children praying” — all before the police knew what was happening.
They soon learned, as we transitioned to chanting, “Let Gaza live!” They surrounded us, one warning us to disperse over a megaphone, drowned out by our singing, “We are marching in the light of God!”
After a final warning, they moved in, grabbing banners and going for song leaders. We tried to tighten the circle, but they threatened to increase charges if we resisted. As they removed song leaders, new ones kept emerging.
I was nearly unable to sing, filled with a surge of solidarity and joy. Tears in our eyes, we sang “The world is about to turn!” in harmony unbroken by the removal of friends.
An officer tapped me on the shoulder and zip tied my wrists behind me. We continued to sing as we were invasively patted down. “This will be uncomfortable for both of us,” an officer said before feeling my crotch.
Still singing, we were taken down an elevator to await transportation. On the ground level, an officer commanded, “Stop singing!” We complied.
Loaded into a windowless police vehicle on a bench with barely enough room for our knees, we craned our necks to introduce ourselves and encourage each other through the claustrophobia and increasing wrist and shoulder pain.
After what felt like an hour, the back door opened, and we were led into a warehouse to be patted down again before having zip ties removed, only to be zip tied again from the front. “You’re on my time now,” an officer taunted.
Seeing others from our group already sitting in rows of plastic chairs, I was heartened. We sat and talked as names were called to come forward for a mugshot and processing.
My seminary dean, Bev Lapp, called to me, “If I wasn’t on sabbatical, I would let you cancel your Thursday class!”
An officer began calling out names of those processed. When my name was called, I got zip ties removed, received personal items, paid a fine, signed and received a release form and was sent out alone through a back door.
As I exited the warehouse, familiar faces greeted me with cheers, snacks and a ride back to the church, where others greeted us with applause and hugs. We shared stories over pizza until everyone was released.
Driving home the next day, the answer to Anna’s question hit me. It’s Anna.
At a local Mennonite action in December, Anna had shared about the suffering of her friends in Palestine. Here before me was a Mennonite sibling asking for her pain to be acknowledged. How could I keep from acting?
Mennonites often talk about unity, which can’t be forged by talking about it. When Paul writes of unity, he makes it tangible: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
I participated to weep with Mennonite siblings who weep for Gaza. What I discovered was this: The Spirit binds us together when together we are bound — in zip ties and in love.
David C. Cramer is pastor of Keller Park Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in South Bend, Ind., and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.