“Hope is what you do”

Telos | December 2023

All Out War

‘Peace’ seems unutterable these days. A third rail. A lightning rod. Like it’s too distant to keep hoping for. Even praying for it—with all weeping and the help of heaven’s power—feels somewhat foolish, childish. How suddenly our feeds became floods of carnage and vitriol. How quickly we lost hopeful footing and got swept. How many times in recent years has this been true.

Talk of dignity and lines of demarcation are duly drawn. Exceptions are suggested, lest we be seen as siding with ‘them.’ Stand for solidarity with those who suffer on every side and you’re thought spineless. Ridiculed. ‘Love your enemies’ has never sounded so heretical. “Surely not,” they must’ve thought. “Surely not,” we think.

Several months ago, a BitterSweet team journeyed through the American South with Telos, a nonprofit forming communities of American peacemakers across lines of difference to bring healing to intractable conflict at home and abroad. This ‘ReStory’ experience was born from pattern. Participants of Telos’ many dozens of listening delegations to Israel/Palestine over 15 years returned to the States eager to engage as peacemakers in the deepest injustices and generational traumas of their own country.

We had decided to focus on that dimension of Telos’ work because of its resonance and relevance to the domestic divisions we are experiencing. Need I mention the 2024 election cycle? Yet, since our team joined that ReStory experience, full scale war has broken out in Israel/Palestine. So we find ourselves as writers and soulful creatives straddling a massive chasm, wishing only to be useful in rejecting cynicism, defying apathy, and celebrating good.

The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well-known and thoroughly documented, albeit with many millions of voices shouting to clarify and challenge most every detail. Naive as it might seem, I am compelled to host the unutterable conversation. Perhaps the least popular one at this moment. The whispered one that’s held its tune through the terrors of many millennia. The dangerous one that offers only the most difficult invitation.

The nonviolent one—a different way of being in the world, modeled at great personal cost (and lasting effect) by Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai, and many, many others.

It seems to me a different future might only be possible when we finally believe, as Bono, a lifelong peace activist himself, said and sang: “There is no them. There is only us.”

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Lily DeCort

Our Telos is Mutual Flourishing

In 2007, Bassam Aramin’s 10-year old daughter Abir was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet outside of her school. Still dressed in her school uniform she had been on her way to buy candy with a friend. After war broke out on October 7th, Bassam was asked in an interview what he would tell other parents who have lost their children in the ensuing violence. His voice heavy with emotion, he shares “I know this pain. It’s unbearable plain... This pain has a power to create a bridge, or to create more graves.”

This tearful refrain has been recited as a guttural hope by many who have lost loved ones through this long conflict. For 25 years, hundreds of bereaved families ‘on both sides’ have knitted and knotted themselves together to seek reconciliation and a path of nonviolence, even through unspeakable grief. The Parents Circle—Families Forum, it’s called—a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization with only one criterion for membership: having lost a direct family member in the conflict. This coming together despite unimaginable pain was initiated in 1995 by Mr. Yitzhak Frankenthal, the father of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier kidnapped and killed by Hamas.

Robi Damelin has been an active participant for several years, even speaking internationally to bereaved families living through other conflicts. “All bereaved mothers are immediate sisters without a bridge,” she says. Robi’s two sons, David and Iran, were both required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces like all other children raised in Israel. "I remember saying goodbye to Iran—who's the oldest—when he was standing at the bus stop and looking at my child and thinking, How can it possibly be that my child will carry a gun?"

After finishing his initial duty David returned to university to earn a master's in philosophy of education. It was then he was called up to go to the reserves. "He really didn't want to go," she remembers. He’d said, "’If I don't go, what happens to my soldiers?’—he was the officer‘And if I do go, I'll treat people with dignity and so will all my soldiers.’"

“When the knock on the door happened, they didn't have to tell me that David had been killed by a Palestinian sniper,” Robi says. “Apparently one of the first things that I said is, ‘you may not kill anybody in the name of my child.’” And that began Robi’s journey of seeking reconciliation and advocating against the perpetuation of violence.

I wanted to prevent that pain for others. I didn't care where they came from or what color they were or what subtle prejudices I had before. I know that every mother shares the same pain when she loses a child.

Robi Damelin

It was by no means immediate healing, but through the Parents Circle, Robi met Palestinian mothers and realized they shared the same pain. “I also realized that if we could speak in the same voice for nonviolence and reconciliation,” she says, “that we could be the most incredible force because if we could do it, then surely that would be an example to other people.”

Robi was recently interviewed by CNN on whether the war has changed her perspective. She shares, visibly shaken, “There’s a siren. There’s rockets outside my house. And this is the way we are living now. And it is of course very frightening. And I think fear in many ways is creating this hatred. But I don’t see a time now to give up. This is a time where we have to stand up... We can’t go on living like this. We have to find another way.”

I wonder if these are the only credible voices able to lead through present darkness to light. Words fall short, of course, but it seems there is yet a growing choir with a heartbreaking chant—further violence heals nothing. We must refuse to be enemies.

Robi, Bassam and the Parents Circle have long partnered with Telos and hosted many American delegations. These groups come with two objectives—to listen and to learn. “Our primary invitation,” says Telos co-founder Todd Deatherage, “is to open yourself up to see the world in a more holistic way, to understand the interconnectedness that we all have. To understand that our own flourishing is connected to the flourishing of our neighbors and to the flourishing of others, even if our neighbors are adversaries.”

Telos facilitated 15-20 trips to Israel/Palestine each year prior to Covid’s stranglehold on travel. Jack Saba, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, has overseen those experiences as Telos’ country director for nearly a decade. The most transformative conversations, he says, happen around a table, over a meal: “They're sitting together in communion and they're processing. Sometimes there's opposing views and it gets heated and intense, but it's always so refreshing.”

Refreshing, he said. I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling like that result has become rarer and rarer in recent years—rage and canceling seem more common outcomes. Recent studies have even shown that in America people are increasingly moving from red to blue or blue to red states in order to be in proximity to others who share their ideologies. Studies also show that a generation or two ago parents felt great anxiety if their child chose to marry someone of a different religion. These days the greater anxiety is a child marrying outside of the family’s political tradition.

“Ideologies have become the center part of our identities for too many of us,” says Todd, “so when our ideologies are challenged, it's an existential threat to who we are."

It’s no small wonder then how Telos co-founders Todd—a white, conservative, Evangelical Christian from Arkansas—and Greg—a progressive Palestinian American lawyer-activist—came to be bonded in this work.

A Prisoners Hope

A Prisoner's Hope

Lily DeCort

The Beginnings

"Telos in a way was completely unexpected," says Greg. Fresh out of Yale Law School, his first professional challenge was to advise Palestinian leadership (PLO) on negotiations with Israel. Like many Palestinians with family roots in Bethlehem, Greg and his family are Christian. Bethlehem is in Palestinian Territory, in the West Bank, and is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world—an unbroken chain of believers since the day of Pentecost described in the second chapter of Acts.

In his role, Greg began hosting highly influential leaders from the West and briefing them on the negotiations. Todd was one of the first. He was working at the State Department on issues of religious freedom at the time. "These were congress people, parliamentarians, business leaders, you name it," says Greg. "I would take them around and brief them on the reality on the ground." Most of these leaders held some type of Christian identity and yet were surprised to learn of Palestinian Christians.

Over four years working on the negotiations, having hosted more than 1,500 leaders, the prospect of a nearly negotiated two-state solution was growing dim. “It felt like this was going to grind into a very dark place unless we changed the dynamics that influenced these leaders,” says Greg.

"Part of the reason that there is an issue in Israel/Palestine is America's relationship to it. Our country is a co-author of that conflict," says Greg. So he came up with a creative solution: connect as many American leaders and their communities as possible to both Israelis and Palestinians. Immerse them in the multiplicity of realities on the ground such that those life-changing transformations could build into a movement for peace back in the States.

Around this time, as the Lehman Brothers failure triggered a rockslide financial crisis, Todd was leaving the Bush administration with 20 years of experience working in senior levels of government. “This is when you go off and make the big money in Washington, DC,” explains Greg, “because you go into these plum consultancy jobs—a lobbyist, whatever.” With four kids in school, that path undoubtedly had its upsides.

Yet at a Starbucks in Washington, DC one brisk day in late 2008, Greg pitched his concept to Todd. "I had a very similar idea,” Todd admitted. “I've been seized with this ever since our meeting. My community is partly responsible, but we also have a lot to offer here." And that was the beginning. Telos was born in January 2009.

“We didn't have a dollar in the bank,” says Greg. “And not only did he forego the ability to make quite a lot of money for his family, but he decided to go in with me—a former advisor to the PLO, a Palestinian, a liberal.” In the 15 years since, Telos has facilitated thousands of exchanges between Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians with that vision for broadened relationship and multidimensional understanding.

"I have changed my mind and I've changed my heart a number of times, but it's not because I was presented with alternative facts,” says Todd. “It's because I had an experience or I had a relationship, friendship, or encountered a story. Those are the kinds of things that open us up to see differently.”

“It’s a vision for how we should be living,” says Jack. “You meet these people along the way, like Daoud Nassar at Tent of Nations and people from the Parents Circle… You find them in the U.S. South and in Northern Ireland and in South Africa. You meet these people that—through the worst pain and grief—are living in other ways, in the third way. And you see that, actually, they know something a lot deeper than most of us and most of what we've been told. If we can share that, if more people can be involved in that, it's a world where there's so much opportunity—but it's gonna take a lot, a lot of work.”

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Lily DeCort

Practices and Principles

“Wage peace,” they say, lest we think peace might mean passivity. Quite the contrary. As Joanne’s story exemplifies, there perhaps is nothing riskier. Through thousands of hours of listening and many years of layering relationships with peacemakers, Telos has codified its peacemaking approach into six principles and six practices.

The principles are simple (not easy): We can change; we can want for others that which we would want for ourselves; we can heal; we can intentionally build relationships across lines of difference; we can resist violence nonviolently; and we can work for the mutual flourishing of all. Each deserves robust contemplation and study, but it’s the practices that need the mic at America’s next presidential debate or anyone’s next neighborhood council meeting.

The practices begin with listening to understand. As channels and chatter intensify, resisting reflexive reaction becomes more demanding. Yet when we endeavor curiosity and allow ourselves the spaciousness to unknow what we know, the energy of soulful learning rushes in to meet our vulnerability. Deep connections fuse and empathy buds.

“Empathy is even if I don't agree with you, I'm willing to listen. And that's really the main thing about everything that we do in the Parent Circle,” says Robi.

When we listen to understand, we become immersed in the swirl of competing perspectives. Narratives we lived by soften to accommodate new companions—equally valid truths that enrich, if we let them. This practice teaches us to hold competing truths in tension, not rushing to reconcile or reduce them. Let them be, both true.

“If you cannot make an emotional breakthrough in the heart of somebody who doesn't agree with you,” says Robi, “then you must look at yourself to see where your prejudice is. Why can't you see their humanity? Why can't you understand their pain? And that's an exercise.”

With expanded understanding and a growing ability to hold competing truths in tension, we are invited to ask new questions of our role and responsibility. Explore your personal agency, recognizing the possibility of causing unintended harm and the responsibility to help repair. As we learn from the experiences of others, we engage new promptings for action or solidarity, remaining faithful to the relationships formed and the stories that have changed us.

Along the way, notice how the leadership and voices of the marginalized are (or are not) centered in the groups you’re a part of or the narratives you encounter. Peacemaking conversations hinge on questions of equity. “We often talk about equality,” says Greg. “Equality asks, who's at the table? Equity asks, whose table is it? It's a fundamental shift.”

Key to peacemaking is the practice of self-interrogation, which is to wonder about our own points of view, holding them up to the light for examination and challenge. We ask, How did you come to believe that?—not just of others, but of ourselves. Ancient wisdom instructs we must remove the plank in our own eye before finding the speck in someone else’s.

And finally, advocate. This practice might sound intimidating to some who shy away from anything particularly ‘political’. But it might help to think of advocacy as developing an awareness for the underrepresented perspective and lending your voice to it. We are changed by the stories we tell and the stories we’re told. Peacemaking requires that we allow our voices to be layered with the many not well heard, or systematically excluded, where they ought to be centered.

“What about a world in which our cultural attitudes, our institutions, our communities, our governments—our everybody, everything, and everyone—conspires to maximize human agency and human dignity,” says Greg. “That's the world that we're working for.”

Loss and Hope

Loss and Hope

Lily DeCort

“The soil is full of secrets and blood”

Todd stands at the front of the bus and speaks to the ReStory group as they cross state lines from Louisiana into Mississippi: “I'll remind you what Satrina Reid said, ‘There's the warmth of the people and the food and the music, and there's blood in the soil—secrets and blood in the soil.’ There's a lot of complicated stuff in Mississippi. Yvonne will jump on here as we get closer to Jackson and teach us some more things.”

Yvonne Holden has been collaborating with Telos for several years, first as a partner in her role as director of operations for the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana and more recently as director of Telos’ ReStory experience. “The point of it is to connect people with each other and the partners on the ground,” says Yvonne. “Connect, connect, connect, connect. And then people return home, and they start seeing these connections between their lives and the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. They see the connection between their lives in Grand Rapids and my life down here in Louisiana. People start seeing these connections, and it is overwhelming. We need to get to the root cause of so much of this discord—disconnection. That’s the root problem we’re addressing.”

Telos staff member Yvonne Holden, describes ReStory, "This program, at its aspirational best, is an inclusive, holistic story that will resonate deeply with anybody, regardless of what background they come from."

David Lotfi

“ReStory is restoring our understanding of ourselves and this larger narrative to give us more information and context so we can better address what's happening in our communities and in our society today,” says Yvonne. “Starting in the U.S. South is important because this region is so misunderstood.”

Reverend Michael Battle, a student of Desmond Tutu’s and spiritual adviser to Telos, settles on the steps of a modest, mint green home in Jackson. Here, 60 years earlier almost to the day, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated. It was June 12, 1963—the same day President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, calling white resistance to civil rights a ‘moral crisis’. Today the smell of barbecue rolls down the block, carrying the laughter of kids blissful and barefoot, playing—echoing the sounds of Medgar’s own young children giggling in the yard all those decades ago. Medgar Evers—a college graduate and World War II veteran—is considered the first martyr of the movement and his home a historic landmark in our nation’s story.

“Visiting sites, it's really an ancient practice—it's called pilgrimage,” Reverend Battle explains. “It may seem strange to practice pilgrimage in such a new country like the United States, but pilgrimage is something much deeper. It's a spiritual practice—a way in which you go to a place to be changed, never to return the same.”

Civil rights activist, Joanne Bland shares her experience marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Whatever the cost of this freedom was, it was too much for this 11-year-old. I tried to go back, but my sisters wouldn’t let me, trying to coax me across... I went, but I was terrified.”

David Lotfi

In Selma, a key site in Telos’ ReStory pilgrimage, Joanne Bland sits in a wicker chair, water bottle close at hand as she addresses the ReStory group seated in front of her. A Selma native and Telos partner, she recalls her walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a young child in the Civil Rights Movement and the violence she experienced. She concludes, “On August 6th of that very same year, the Voting Rights Act was signed, and they removed those obstacles that prevented us from voting. And that same act has been under attack ever since. Same thing over and over.”

Joanne pauses and looks down at her hands. She lifts her head, addressing the group in front of her: “I need everybody to ask themselves, what are you gonna do?”

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Lily DeCort

“Don’t waste your pain”

“We have a good friend in Alabama, a beautiful woman named Callie Greer who's endured a lot of hardship in her life, including the loss of two children, one to gun violence and one to a really broken healthcare system,” says Todd. “And she says, ‘Don't waste your pain. It costs you too much. Find creative and healing outlets for the energy that is created by your pain and do redemptive things out of your pain.’”

Callie had a son who'd gone off to college. He came home to visit one weekend and was murdered by gun violence on the streets of Montgomery. The police apprehended and arrested the young man who killed him, and it quickly went to trial. But Callie had already made the decision to forgive. “When she was asked to give a victim's impact statement,” says Todd, “she said to the judge, ‘You do your job. You do what you gotta do, but don't do anything because you think I need a long sentence for this young man. I don't want him to have a long sentence. I don't want him to spend the rest of his life in jail. I want him to never do this again, but I don't want him to be incarcerated forever. I've forgiven him.’” The judge honored that and gave a very light sentence to the young man. Upon release a few years later, he approached Callie on the street one day and thanked her for the gift she'd given him. “It took her a minute—she didn't recognize him. She didn't know who he was,” says Todd, shaking his head incredulously. “That level of forgiveness—literally forgetting the face of the man who killed your son—is a remarkable thing to me. But she's the one who says, ‘Don't waste your pain.’” Callie has devoted her life ever since to the work of healing.

Reverend Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian pastor living—like Greg’s family—in Bethlehem under the restrictive reality of Israeli occupation. Miri says he's a purveyor of hope, but he is quick to distinguish that hope is very different from optimism. “Optimism is this sentiment that everything's gonna turn out okay, which is very disconnected from the reality that most of us experience,” he says. “Hope is not a feeling. Hope is what you do.”

Or in Robi’s words, “You ask me what people can do, and I tell you, just get off your ass and do something. Everybody can do something. You don't have to be some great Martin Luther King. You can just be a human being that treats other human beings with respect. You can just do something in your own community.” Last year, on International Women's Day, 200 women—one hundred Palestinian, one hundred Israeli—walked up Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and gave flowers to the public. On each flower was a note, “we'd rather give you a flower than put one on a grave.”

“Don't despair,” echoes Yvonne. “I know that sometimes things seem a little bleak, especially when we're learning about challenging histories or we're having challenging conversations. We're reading books that shift our lenses and really shake us in ways. But all of these things are necessary to get to these places where we wanna see ourselves and our community. And it is a worthwhile path to be on.”

“Telos is an aspiration. It's a charge. It's that very clear determination that we believe that human life—all human life—matters equally,” says Greg.

In the midst of heartbreaking violence and mass suffering, Telos forges a different path forward—a daring path of peace. Telos is an invitation to partner in laying a groundwork of interconnectedness that might make possible a different, better future. To usher in the healing work that’s all of ours to do.

Peacemaking is maybe the real calling of this generation.

Todd Deatherage

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Editor's Note

I want to express a deep, humbling sense of gratitude to Telos. We are grateful for their partnership with us in telling such a complex story. But more than that, we are grateful for their work. It’s in moments like these, moments of cataclysmic suffering when the world tilts a few inches on its axis, when we are more acutely aware of those struggling to keep us righted. We are grateful to this community of peacemakers who, in the midst of unimaginable suffering, offer the world hard-won hope.

We had planned to tell a different part of this story. An important one. And yet, unmoored by war, we found ourselves needing to return to the roots of Telos to better understand how to respond in this moment. And so we extend a heartfelt thank you to David Lotfi, his hard work on the ground gathering footage, as well as his willingness to pivot as the story shifted. Similarly we are grateful to Andrew DeCort, a peacemaker whose insightful questions and research laid the foundation for this story to be told.

Watching the war between Israel and Hamas unfold and its ensuing bloodshed I have been at a loss for words. Nothing has felt adequate. And so I am personally grateful to Kate, whose stunning prose has been a balm, articulating both horror and hope side by side.

Likewise I want to thank Lily DeCort, herself a lifelong wager of peace, for sharing a bit of her soul with us. Through personal experience, she crafted art that animates the ethos of peacemaking, and we're indebted to her for helping bring this story to life.

Our hope—our prayer—is that in the midst of great darkness this might offer a more excellent way.

AM Headshot Eric Baker

Avery Marks

Features Editor

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