As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to rage on, Chris Hoover Seidel reflects on how she has learned to handle her own grief, while also holding space for those grieving around her.
This blog post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s ongoing Learn, Pray, Join: Cost of War initiative.
Chris Hoover Seidel lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with her husband, Tim, and her children, Kai and Phoenix. Chris works as a spiritual director through Soulence and is part of the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Network. She assists with Eastern Mennonite University’s Sacred Pauses class and helped lead an EMU Intercultural Program to Palestine and Israel in May and June. She serves her local community by working to end family homelessness, through her work as executive director of Bridge of Hope Harrisonburg-Rockingham. She attends Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild. Chris and Tim were co-peace development workers with Mennonite Central Committee from 2004-2007, living in Bethlehem, West Bank, where their son, Kai, was born.
The week of Oct. 7, many friends were checking in to see how my family and I were doing with the news about Gaza. I did what I knew to do — let them know that we were heartbroken but managing, thanked them for checking in and asked how they were. I could already feel myself assuming the position of the space holder. On one hand, I appreciated their thoughtfulness. On the other, I knew that we served as a touchpoint for grief seeking a landing place.
I steadied myself in this position as things got worse. Airstrikes on Gaza are a very real and regular part of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. My husband and I had witnessed the occupation first-hand as MCC peace development workers living in the West Bank. I had walked Gaza’s streets, heard the stories of her people, photographed the rubble and asked people to care. But this October was unlike anything we had ever witnessed. Save the Children reported that “more children had been killed in Gaza in three weeks than the total killed in conflicts around the world every year since 2019.” What was unfolding was utterly devastating.
As with everything in life, I hold two questions: “What is mine to do?” and “What is mine to leave undone?” These questions help guide my presence.
I did not want to invest my energy simply reacting to occupation and violence. Mere reaction tends to amplify an undesired action and often fails to produce lasting change, inside or out. Rather, I listened to what Palestinians were doing — serving their communities on the ground in real and tangible ways. I wanted to invest my energy in love and service.
What was mine to do? Mine was to check in with the Eastern Mennonite University students we had led to Palestine and Israel this summer. Mine was to pray and light candles with Palestinian-American friends. Mine was to hold space with a spiritual directee, who had recently returned from Palestine. Mine was to check in with friends in Palestine and Israel. Mine was to have honest conversations with local Jewish friends. Mine was to sign petitions, call my representatives and share resources.
A week in, I was shattered. I had acted, but I had not given myself enough space to process the grief that was coursing through my broken heart and veins. In tending to what was mine to do, I had not yet given equal attention to the second question of what was mine to leave undone. I had been present with everyone around me, but I had not been present enough with myself. I was holding space but not necessarily being held. In responding to what the world needed, I was subtly holding it at a distance. I felt sluggish, uninterested in going out and lacked the energy to do much of anything.
Grief is nothing if not persistent.
Rather than judge myself, I received a deeper invitation from within my sacred shattering.
Grief is important work, even when we feel that there’s not enough time or space for it. Sometimes we confuse grief with despair, but grief is a teacher that keeps an open channel in our hearts.
Grief is necessary movement and often the only path to possibility. It’s something to be with, to allow, a companion of action. And we’ve been conditioned to suppress it.
One of the things I appreciate most about Mennonites is their service. Generally speaking, Mennonites know what tools to pack and where to show up. Yet we must also be aware of unconscious mindsets that view grief as an indulgence. How might segmenting ourselves undermine our actions if we are not showing up as whole and complex creatures? How do we metabolize liberation as not just our work to do but ours to experience through oneness? How might grief move us beyond despair? How might our actions be amplified if we allow the balm of our weeping, broken hearts to settle us into a deeper form of presence? Can we exchange the deeply rooted savior complex for something emerging from the most tender and vulnerable places within us?
When the al-Ahli hospital was bombed on Oct. 17, I messaged a friend in Beit Sahour. She told me that all of the church bells were ringing, a beautiful expression of grief and solidarity.
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen
This past year I have been in a spiritual program that supports a more centered presence in the world. As someone who has always been poised to lean forward, ready to do, say, create and act, I’ve found that I’m most conscious when I move back to stand upright, with an open heart and open hands, releasing control. More life flows in this state of fullness. When it’s not just up to me, there’s more room for the divine.
Palestinians often cry out, “Ween Allah?” — or “Where is God?” — when they feel abandoned by the world in the face of occupation. We must ask, as part of our response: “Is God with us?” Some of the most profound things that happened in the gospels followed Jesus’ time away, when he was being present to his interior life, tending the tender places.
Being present with our grief is a practice of love, the ultimate transmuter. Unconditional love is ready to meet us in any condition, but we must be prepared to be transformed.
Learn more about Mennonite Church USA’s Israel/Palestine Initiatives here.
Mennonite Church USA invites you and your congregation to get involved in the Cost of War: Learn, Pray, Join initiative as one way to reinvigorate our collective voices against the destructive powers of militarism.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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