BY ANNE PLESTED, MISSION PARTNER IN BETHLEHEM
I have gradually come to realise that my calling, and encounter with God, is worked out in the accompaniment of God’s people.
Throughout my working life I can see a thread of accompaniment in what I have chosen to do – or rather, been drawn into.
Years ago, I went to The Gambia to share skills, but recognised that a lot of the time it was me who was learning and receiving. My faith was the reason for being there; and, although there was much activity, on reflection I believe the primary requirement was to be present – to share in the life of the people in that place.
To me, my faith is incarnational – in theology, in form and in witness. I see accompaniment as a way of living out my faith.
Later, I returned to the UK to be with my parents in their final years. I then spent time at Pilsdon, a Christian community which offers a safe place for people living with a crisis and space to work through these issues.
Author and journalist Tobias Jones, who spent time at Pilsdon while writing his book Utopian Dreams, noted that, “one of the strange things about living here is that it’s not just that the weak need the strong – but the strong need the weak. It’s not to do with feeling smug because one is being charitable, but something very different. Almost exactly the reverse: one feels exponentially less conceited. Those who have been emotionally skinned, who are in exposed agony, have a gift. They break down the prison of prestige.”
The word “accompaniment”, derived from the Latin words “com” (with) and “panis” (bread), literally means “sharing bread”. This, of course, extends to the sacramental presence in our accompaniment of those living on the margins. Jesus is present at such times: “whatever you do for these, you do for me.” We are the Body of Christ on earth today.
Accompaniment is often mentioned in Scripture.
In the Old Testament God accompanied the Hebrews as they left Egypt – in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13).
Through the incarnation God came to be with us in Christ Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus accompanies the disciples on the post-resurrection walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). The disciples were in the depths of despair following the crucifixion. They lived under Roman occupation, and had hoped to see the redemption of Israel through Jesus. However, this seemed not to be. Jesus accompanies them on the way and encourages them. He is able to reveal to them the mysteries and realities of the Scriptures about himself.
To accompany brings a move away from isolation. Jesus strongly associated with the excluded, entered into their situation and often became one of the excluded himself. It would be wrong to assume that those we accompany are dependent and in need of rescue. As noted by Tobias Jones, we need each other. For example, in The Gambia I worked with very able and wise people, who knew what was best for their communities. However, various economic and political forces would make solutions less easy to come by. I am reminded of Paul’s image of the body: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
What accompaniment means to Ahmed
Ahmed, a Palestinian shepherd in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, grazes his flock on his family’s land, which exists in the shadow of an Israeli settlement.
In 2000, Israeli settlers started to grow vines on the land and a dispute arose over who had a right to the land.
After a lengthy court case it was ruled that the land belongs to Ahmed’s family, but this didn’t stop Israeli settlers from trying to drive Ahmed away. He told the group of ecumenical accompaniers I was with how he had suffered serious harassment, culminating in being held at gunpoint by armed and masked settlers.
After this, we regularly accompanied Ahmed when he grazed his flock on this land, purely to be there: to observe and record and report incidents, not to confront or argue. The settlers still came, but not with the same violence, and Ahmed was not driven from the land.
For Ahmed, accompaniment meant he was able to graze his flock on his land.
So, this thread of accompaniment continues up to now, as I am in the Holy Land with the people of Bethlehem and staying at the Bible College. I help students with English and support the ministry of the college. However, I see my ministry mainly as being there – in accompaniment. It is my joy and privilege to be there.