Nobody ever said it was easy raising a family, paying bills, or dealing with daily life, especially when it can be capricious and unpredictable. But imagine for a moment sending your children to school knowing they would have to pass through checkpoints, sometimes being body searched, sometimes being detained, sometimes being pushed around by armed guards. Imagine knowing your kids are in a schooyard where tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets may be shot. Imagine having your older children or siblings arrested during a raid on your home. Imagine trying to keep your shop open when the military has closed down the street where you have your storefront or trying to get to a job where the military has closed off your route to work. Even halfway around the world, people like you and I are trying to make a life while facing challenges far beyond our own experiences.
These challenges are part of the situation that Michael Himlie sees up close in his role on the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) in Palestine. His is a complex story full of trauma and beauty, oppression and resilience, awareness and empowerment. Right now, he is home from Palestine for a month where he will take time to care for himself, to regroup, and to advocate for the work of peacemakers.
You may know Michael. He grew up in Harmony and graduated from Fillmore Central. He has always loved the outdoors, finding a refuge there. He bikes, swims, runs, and “boulders” (more spontaneous than rock climbing, bouldering is finding boulders that call to you to climb and climbing them). As a child, Michael often went on “educational trips” with his family, usually to national parks and other areas of natural beauty that made a great impression on him. From the age of nine or 10 he was also influenced by elders in his church who had done work as members of the Christian Peacemakers Team. “CPT started in 1984 within the Mennonite Church,” Michael explains. “It started with a series of questions and challenges to those that claimed values of peacemaking.” In response to these challenges, CPT was formed by what is commonly known as “The Christian Peace Church,” which includes the denominations of the Mennonite Church, The Church of the Brethren, and the Friends (or Quakers). The major question that sticks with the organization now is, “What would it look like, in the world, if we as people who believe in peace, trained for peace just as much as soldiers train for war?” The response has taken shape in a variety of ways. It has evolved and progressed throughout the years. But the vision, the concept of an alternative form of living as shared by the elders – the people who were there at the very beginning – appealed to Michael. And as he grew up, Michael pursued his vision of peace roots. In respect to the work he does, Michael says that he wants to “see difficulties in the world, to notice those difficulties, not focus or dwell on them, but see the ways that we, as natural and compassionate people, can do things about them.”
People who are part of the Christian Peacemakers Team are called “CPTers.” Their mission is to “build partnerships to transform violence and oppression,” says Michael. CPTers do this through nonviolent intervention. They send “violence reduction teams” to war zones around the world. CPT was born out of the United States and Canada, which are part of the “Global North” which has more locations of power, resources, privilege, and the ability to take action as compared to the “Global South” where much of the work is done. Not to say that there is not work to be done in the Global North as well (there is a CPT location near Winnipeg Canada). “When we go in,” Michael points out, “the people there, who are living under oppression, are already doing important nonviolent work and leading their own movements within their own lives and communities. We find that where governments and large multi-national corporations have a lot less power, such as in the Global South, they create war to gain power within their own political contexts.” They push people off their lands, violate human rights, and sometimes go so far as genocide. “We are one small piece in a large network,” Michael says with humility, “The work we do on the ground is being allies to those who are oppressed. We are foreigners that can partner with those who are being oppressed. We can also collect their data and their stories and share them with the world.”
Michael has not been a stranger to volunteering. After he graduated from high school in 2012, he had a year of university in Kansas, then spent six months working for Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS – similar to the Peace Corps), rebuilding homes after Hurricane Sandy. After that, he worked six months for New Community Project in Virginia, a sustainable community whose mission was to look at the world and the ways we live in the world in order to live more sustainably. It was after his time in Virginia that he went to Palestine for two weeks, for an experience CPT calls a “Delegation.” The Delegation is a time to see if you and CPT are a good fit. All of these experiences caused him to see “more options in the world,” and he returned to school, completing his Bachelor’s degree in Peace Studies at Manchester University in Indiana. His studies focused on Interpersonal Mediation, Feminism and Womanism, Philosophy and Theology and Tools of Nonviolence in the Middle East specific to Palestine.
With his degree, Michael was ready to continue his CPT work. CPT currently has locations in Colombia, Kurdistan, Iraq, Canada, and Palestine. It is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization with about 40 members who work full or part-time on stipends and small groups of Reservists who live ordinary lives but commit to working 2-6 weeks out of each year. Situations of violence can change quickly and teams of reservists allow CPT to respond flexibly to what is happening in the world. Before becoming a CPTer, you go for an introduction, known as a Delegation, to learn about the work. If it seems like a fit, you apply for training. Training consists of a one-month assignment where you learn more about the work you would do, evaluate the program and have the program evaluate you. Michael attended his training in Chicago. If you want to continue, as Michael did, and if you are accepted by the program, you are invited to be a Reservist. Reservists make a three-year commitment. There are also a few part-time and full-time positions within CPT. Michael is now working full-time.
Following university, Michael had a “quick” Reservist position (lasting two months in 2017) on the Island of Lesbos in Greece. This island has a refugee camp where asylum seekers, refugees, and displaced peoples flee North Africa and the Middle East from the coast of Turkey, usually on rubber rafts. When they come to Lesbos they are taken to a government-run refugee camp. Greece is paid by other European countries to take in refugees who seek asylum in Europe. But once there, Michael tells us, they rarely make it off the island. “They keep the refugees on the island. They can’t get off the island to file their cases. They keep them seeking asylum which they will likely never get.” This camp can hold 1,700 refugees but there are over 7,000 people currently in this camp enclosed by fences and barbed wire – in effect, “caged.” It is winter on Lesbos but refugees are housed in summer tents. It snows there sometimes and, like on most islands, it’s very windy. There are many deaths. Michael worked as a CPTer in partnership with Pikpa, a small non-government camp for the most vulnerable of the refugees – women with children, pregnant women, families with young children, members of the LGBT community, and others who needed greater care, “though everyone needs greater care than what they receive in the camp.”
As a full-time employee, Michael is on location for a series of three three-month periods, coming home for one month in between. His chosen location is Palestine. Palestine is the longest running CPT Project. It started in the city of Hebron (pop. 300,000) in 1994. “That’s 24 years in the same community,” Michael exclaims. For the past several months, Michael has lived in South Hebron in H2 (the Old City controlled by the Israelis). The apartment building where he and other CPTers live overlooks Shuhada Street in the center of town. In 2001-2003, during the 2nd Intifada (translated as “uprising”), Israel took over the entire town center, closing off the street and shutting down over 1,600 shops. The military removed people from their homes and businesses, welding windows and doors shut. Some former residents, however, still return to their city center shops. “They are a large part of the community,” says Michael, “their shops can’t get business and don’t earn money, but these people know what Hebron and Palestine looked like before the occupation and showing up is their practice of being resilient, an act of resistance. It takes a family effort. Their children support them. Michael says that he is touched by the hospitality of these shopkeepers. “They invite us to join them for coffee or tea about five times a day.” Michael is studying Arabic so he can converse in their language, although he says most of the people he meets are much better at English than he will likely ever be in Arabic. Michael related that “CPTers have developed a fun relationship with a neighbor. She used to access her house from Shuhada Street but when the street was closed off and the buildings were welded shut she had no way to get into her home. This woman used the entrance off an alleyway shared by the CPT building. She blasted a hole into her house and goes in and out through that hole… Well, it’s a place to live,” says Michael, “but also it’s an extreme act of resistance. Between the buildings, in a courtyard they share, she has created a beautiful garden.” There is a tone of admiration and awe in his voice.
These are the kinds of stories Michael seeks to share with his community. He is much more comfortable talking about CPT and the work of the organization than about himself. “It’s not about me,” he insists. In spite of that, his background demonstrates that he has insights and a maturity far beyond his 24 years. He has something to say. So far, Michael has made presentations at the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center in Decorah, Iowa, and at Greenfield Lutheran Church in his home town of Harmony. He has future presentations in North Manchester, Ind., February 11-14. He also is the speaker at programs Sunday, February 18, at Big Canoe Lutheran Church near Decorah and 2:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
If you go, you will see photographs and some video. You will hear a brief introduction to Palestine and Israel along with a discussion of CPT and their work. Michael will try to “bring realities to light and share the beauties that prevail in spite of the situation.” He will talk about “what we can easily do in our own lives to effectively work against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. (Such as the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions Movement, BDS) If we become aware of the context, we help just by changing the way we talk about the U.S., our involvement in the Middle East and the ways that we play a role politically,” he says, adding that when you go to a presentation like this, “It’s the first step to realizing that we all play a significant role in what’s happening in the rest of the world… It’s worth giving an hour to experience cross cultural connections to people who live halfway around the world and who are, really, not that much different from us.” Michael insists that we are connected to each other and to events. “It takes going halfway around the world to see that we ourselves are not far away from being the occupiers. I think of the Dakota Sioux and the Potawatomi tribes for examples. These are peoples who lived on the lands where we live now, far more sustainably than we do, prior to the colonizing of the land. It took going to Palestine for me to recognize the things that happened right here.”
What comes after CPT for Michael Himlie? When asked, he hesitates. Part of it could be that he is focused on people other than himself, problems bigger than his own, the world and his responsibility for it. “I think I see more responsibility for every one of us,” he says, sifting through the enormity of what he has learned, “and that’s the change my experience has created.” But it is likely his hesitation is also influenced by his experience of living in a war zone. “In Palestine,” says Michael, “we can’t even see halfway through tomorrow.”