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Run Back to Prayer (10.11.2023)


When I was growing up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio there was a very nice elderly Jewish couple that lived next door to us.  At the time we moved to this suburb from the inner city of Cleveland, there were very few minorities, especially African Americans in the community.  They said we moved from the ghetto, the inner city to the suburbs, but the real truth is we moved from the ghetto to a real ghetto.

                The definition of a ghetto as a noun is a poor urban area occupied primarily by a minority group or groups.  The definition as an adjective is something that resembles or has the characteristic of its inhabitants. The definition as a verb is something that is restricted to an isolated or segregated area or group.  Lastly, if you look at the word historically, it referred to the Jewish quarter of the city.  In modern times it moved to represent the African American culture.  Both are powerful.


                I wish I could say that everyone was welcoming, but there was something special about this elderly Jewish couple.  They both would allow me to cut their grass just so I could spend more time with them.  Sometimes I would get some milk and cookies, but the real gift was their fellowship and time.  Then the stories they used to tell me about the Holocaust.  They had been married for over 70 plus years, but had gotten separated during the Holocaust.   They both showed me the tattoo of the number that had been put on their arms identifying them as a number and not a human.  She had told me of the family they lost, some of things they had seen, pain they had felt, and how on one occasion they had broke her back.  How she still walked bent over, could not stand straight, but she was alive, and at the time that was all that mattered.


                Although it was many years ago it seemed so ever present when they shared their stories with me. Why were they so mistreated?  Mainly, because they were different.  Just like I was different from all my neighbors in our community.  They encouraged a little African American boy that it’s alright to be different.  They will try to break your back, hopefully not physically, but break your spirit, but keep on living.  There is a brighter day ahead!  Just keep on living.


                I will never forget the day she died.  My friend, my encourager, was gone. It happened so quick.  It was almost like she said, “I have done enough; it’s time to go to my eternal home!”  Although I did not have that much experience with death at the time, it really hit me hard.  I did not know that in a couple of years my mother would die at the age of 36 when I was turning 16.


The pain went to another level, when my Jewish neighbor’s husband returned home from her funeral, and that night he went on to his reward.  I asked their son, what did your father die of?  What sickness did he have?  What diseases took his life?  The son said, “as far as we can tell, it was just loneliness!”  They had lost each other before, during the Holocaust. They had gone through so much pain and suffering apart and then found each other again.  He did not commit suicide, he just laid down and died.  Maybe God just took him.  I don’t really know, but they both left something inside of me.  The majority of the city was Jewish Orthodox at the highest level. During that time, our school did not get out for Christmas and Easter, we got out for Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, and Purim.  Hebrew was a language taught in school like Spanish and French. 


So, when I had a chance to go to Israel, the homeland they used to talk to me about, I took it.  At the time it was a 16-hour trip from Wheeling to Tel Aviv; it did not seem like a long time.  The lessons that I learned during the trip have helped shaped my life.  Now that I am a pastor the trip has meant even more to me. 


I have been blessed to go to Israel more than once.  The last time I was blessed to be the guest of a Zionist organization during a week-long period set aside in the country to observe and remember those who fought and gave their lives for Israel.  During that trip we were given the opportunity to meet with Israeli soldiers who were open to sharing their experiences with us. I could not help but notice how young they were, and how much they truly loved their country.  The other thing I noticed at the time was how happy they were, not sad or depressed as I might have expected.  They had learned how to make the best out of what at times were bad situations. 


I remember meeting a number of soldiers at the Western Wall commonly known as the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem that forms part of the larger retaining wall of the hill known to the Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount.  Soldiers in full gear praying at the wall.  Being a solider was important to them, but holding on to their religion was just as important. At one point I was told there may have been up towards 3,000 people in the area just to pray.  Not to see a concert, hear a great speaker, or some kind of sporting event or giveaway.  They were all there just to pray.  They stood there for what seemed like hours. They would sing and dance in the spirit of the moment.  I remember seeing people dressed up running to get to be a part of the prayer service.     


Last week, I was sad to see that Israel was under attack again.  I know I don’t know the whole story, and there are always two sides to every story. It breaks my heart to see war break out again for any reason.  It is my prayer that the whole world will one day experience peace.  Maybe one of the things we should do is run back to prayer.