The Journey

Michael Schmautz Empathizes with the People of Palestine
By Ninita Sporseen

Michael Schmautz, '08, helps Juju dress, shower and prepare for the day at 7 a.m. each morning.

Juju and Schmautz live at the House of Hope, a home and school for blind and mentally handicapped children. The house is located near Manger Square in Bethlehem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Schmautz serves as a house parent and 9-year-old Juju is one of the students. The tiny, happy child with dark hair, bright eyes, and a big smile giggles often when he hugs the adults at the House of Hope.

Schmautz and other house parents spend their days with children like Juju. They make sure they are well fed and dressed. They play with the children in the House of Hope yard and on the playground. And sometimes house parents take the students on rides around Bethlehem, down streets lined by rows of olive trees.

In the evenings, Schmautz helps lead a devotion time for the children. The devotion time is a circus because the quirks caused by the children's disabilities come out, Schmautz said. Some rock themselves back and forth. Others spin circles around the room. Juju moves from person to person, cuddling and hugging each one in turn.

Schmautz said he sought out the chance to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories because he wanted to learn to emphasize and be compassionate with suffering people. Through the House of Hope he is involved in both a practical and spiritual ministry serving needy Palestinian children.

"This is the type of place where people like me, who come from another type of place where there are so many ways to twiddle our toes in the pool of compassion and love and justice and yet never really jump in, can finally take the plunge," Schmautz said.

Making the jump wasn't easy and Schmautz didn't want it to be; his goal was to live and work outside his comfort zone, rather than to submit to his own fears of the unpredictable and unknown. He wanted to make decisions that weren't influenced by a desire to achieve success and security.

"What I do know is this, which is what I have known: I want to be a peacemaker and I want to be creative in that process," Schmautz said.

Schmautz's life in Bethlehem is full of challenging days. He chooses to love children who are not his, even on the days when he wakes up with a headache and a tired body. He cares for them on the days when he feels burnt out from living in the turmoil of Palestine. He isn't doing the kind of work that allows him to check out mentally and simply go through the motions. He must engage. Schmautz works daily to have an embracing and compassionate heart toward the children at the House of Hope.

Schmautz's experience with his own family has helped prepare him to work at the House of Hope. His sister, Malai, has a 4-year-old son named Jackson and an infant named Eva. Schmautz has seen Malai work through the struggles of learning to be selfless because a child depends on her. Schmautz is determined to model his relationship with the House of Hope children after the relationship his sister has with her children.

At times being attentive to the needs of the children can be difficult, especially because he has no freedom to choose whether to be, Schmautz said. Working with handicapped children presents a unique array of challenges. They cannot communicate with him in the same way children without handicaps are able, and the way they behave is often difficult to understand.

"Sometimes I just want to walk away and other times I cannot figure out why they are acting as they are," Schmautz said.

But he doesn't leave or give up. He continues trying to learn how to care for and love the children at the House of Hope and the people who live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

That's not easy in a war zone.

The war between Israel and Hamas continues in the Gaza strip. More than 800 Palestinians have died in the conflict since Dec. 27, 2008. Approximately half of those casualties were civilians living in Gaza.

Schmautz sees evidence of the conflict when he makes trips to Jerusalem to coach a soccer team at an international school. On the trips he must pass through checkpoints and watch the Palestinians being humiliated by discriminatory practices. Schmautz said he sees the young Israeli soldiers become less human as a result of the acts they must commit to do their jobs. They spend their days checking and rechecking Palestinians, interrogating them, suspecting them and, at times, killing them.

And Schmautz can't even get away within the walls of his home. He sees images on television of children who have died because of the war in Gaza.

Schmautz has to work to keep himself from emotionally disengaging from the conflict. Sometimes he wants to be able to stop thinking about the war and the process required to create peace, he said. And the question of how to love his enemies is present in a very real way.

"My heart is at the place where I hope for justice for these people and I hope for people to break down the huge wall that separates Israel and Palestine, them and their enemies," Schmautz said. "For people to see the humanity in the other. For soldiers to walk to the Dead Sea with their weapons in hand and throw them in to rust forever."

People in Bethlehem often ask Schmautz how long he will be in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They ask because they are used to foreigners coming and going. He said he doesn't know exactly what the future holds, but he is happy with his decision to live a life of service in Bethlehem.

"I do not know how these people live this way," Schmautz said. "But I am prepared in one way, which is that I want to be here. I am willing to let things go and embrace others because I really love this place."