This summer, Spencer Cantrell went to Palestine to move stones.
It was July, and the youth minister from St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ooltewah had traveled to Bethlehem to join 150 other young adults from dozens of countries for a global conference on conflict, justice and faith.
One day they traveled to the razor's edge of the West Bank and walked among the no-longer-standing Palestinian homes and buildings that had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers.
"A pile of rubble," said Cantrell, a philosophy major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
In this striking image of global peace-making, Cantrell and the other young men and women began to excavate, piece by piece, these Middle Eastern stones. Passing them, like an assembly line, from one pair of hands to the other, they began the work of rebuilding this cement home by first getting rid of the rubble.
"We actually made it happen," he said. "The structure was rebuilt in two and a half days."
It was crazy work, really. Not far away, in this land soaked in religion and God, was evidence of so much not-God violence.
"Across the way was a military outpost. A large flag. Military vehicles. Razor wires. You kind of realize what you're doing is right in the face of all that," he said.
And that face can get pretty ugly. That house they were rebuilding? It had already been torn down before. Not just once. Or twice.
"This was the seventh rebuild," Cantrell said.
So why rebuild it? That's the question, it seems.
Cantrell and the others were invited there by Sabeel, a Palestine-based organization that means "the way" in Arabic. Its mission is rooted in liberation theology: to foster reconciliation, justice and peace among people in that land.
"To live into the idea that God's work happens through our hands," said Cantrell. "Give us this daily bread. Hopefully this happens through our hands."
For more than a week, they visited with and listened to the stories of people in that area. They traveled to fifth-generation olive groves, spoke with human rights lawyers, prayed with one another, all these young people from across the world.
Funny thing. There in Palestine, Cantrell, who turned 21 on Sunday, encountered the whole world.
"The interesting thing about Israel and Palestine is it is a tiny little example of all these things the whole world is dealing with," he said. "Economic justice. Human rights. The prospect of environmental stability. Neoliberalism and militarism. Normalized violence in the lives of everyday people."
And then he says this:
"All of life is sacred and all of life is mournable," he said. "If it's happening to one of us, it's happening to all of us."
There are the stones we can see and pick up and hold in our hands. Then there are the stones on the inside. Many are jagged, heavy and old, so very old; at least, the ones in my heart are.
Cantrell's words are like this spiritual jackhammer: For us to fall into the idea that we're all linked together and all part of the same humanity, then something inside's got to crack. And shift. A big boulder has to move, and sometimes it feels not unlike the door to a tomb.
Maybe the stones are too heavy. Maybe we're like Sisyphus, and the things we move keep falling back into place. Maybe that's the reality of being human. It is so in my life.
But Cantrell teaches us that we still must try. We keep moving stones and rebuilding homes, even when the bulldozers come.
Because at some point, we may find, buried under all that rubble, something precious.
"Faith," Cantrell said.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329.
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David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...