by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – About two-and-a-half years ago, Renee Reimer, senior from Sioux Falls, S.D., came back from a journey through Israel and Palestine profoundly changed.
“Being there really opened my eyes to a different view on the world,” she says. “I saw the conflict up close and was able to decide for myself how I felt about it, rather than having the media shape my opinion.”
Reimer was part of a January 2011 interterm group that included other Bethel students as well as local pastors and community members.
After returning to Kansas, Reimer, a music and education major with interest and experience in theater, struggled with how to express the things she was thinking and feeling. Then her theater professor, Megan Upton-Tyner, handed her the script for My Name is Rachel Corrie.
Reimer sat down and read the script straight through. Then she read it again.
“I wanted so badly to say the things [Rachel] said,” Reimer told an audience at Phoenix 2013, the Mennonite Church USA biennial convention, “but I wasn’t able to do it as beautifully and poetically as she did.”
My Name is Rachel Corrie is a one-woman play based on the journals and e-mail messages of an American college student who, in early 2003, left her hometown of Olympia, Wash., to join the International Solidarity Movement in the Gaza Strip. On March 16, 2003, she died in Rafah after being run over by an armored bulldozer operated by the Israeli Defense Force, while trying to prevent a home demolition.
This past February, two years after her visit to Israel-Palestine, Reimer performed My Name is Rachel Corrie as an independent study project at Bethel College – which, as it turned out, was only the beginning.
One of Reimer’s fellow travelers in 2011 had been Tom Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita. One way he took action was to encourage his congregation’s Peace Committee to become a chapter of Friends of Sabeel, North American supporters of the international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.
Harder began communicating with Joy Lapp, former chair of Friends of Sabeel and a Mennonite who now teaches Bible and religion at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant.
Lorraine Avenue’s Peace Committee did join Friends of Sabeel, the first church group to do so. And Harder’s and Lapp’s conversations eventually expanded to include Andre Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, and Jason Boone, who directs MC USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network.
With the blessing and support of Gingerich Stoner and Boone, Harder and Lapp launched a new organization, Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network, or Menno-PIN, at Phoenix 2013.
The launch event took place on Thursday evening of the convention, after Reimer had performed My Name is Rachel Corrie to a packed house that morning.
The desire of many who had viewed Reimer’s first performance of the play to see it find a wider audience helped make it one of the “Learning Experiences” for Thursday morning of convention.
And Lapp’s connections brought two special audience members to Phoenix – Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, who still live in Olympia.
The Corries started the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice after their daughter’s death, and have traveled widely, in the United States and across the world, speaking out for peace in Israel-Palestine and justice for Palestinians as they believe Rachel would have wanted.
Through Friends of Sabeel, Lapp had met the Corries in Denver, where she lived and taught before moving to Iowa.
In addition to attending Reimer’s Phoenix performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, the Corries were available for conversation in the afternoon and attended the Menno-PIN launch in the evening.
Cindy Corrie told those who came to the afternoon session that she and Craig have seen the play many times (starting with its premier in London with Megan Dodds in the role of Rachel and actor Alan Rickman directing), all over the world, in a number of different languages, including Arabic, French and Icelandic.
Cindy Corrie also expressed “thanks to Renee Reimer and her lovely family. She is a very brave young woman for taking on the role of Rachel. I can speak from experience to say she does an extraordinary, thoughtful, beautiful job of expressing my daughter’s words and messages.
“It takes courage to do it in front of the parents of the real person. Thank you for the opportunity to let Rachel’s words wash over us again.”
Corrie also noted a question she was asked at Phoenix and which, she says, she’s been asked numerous times.
“I know it’s very emotional when people see [the play],” Corrie said. “They say, ‘I can’t imagine how it is for you to see this.’
“Craig and I, we’ve had over 10 years now. [In that time], we have really embraced Rachel’s story, the message, the work she left us to do. [Seeing the play] is not a painful experience any more. It’s very moving and parts of it touch me deeply every time I see it. But it’s embracing the challenges she left us with.”
A conversation attender pointed out that Rachel Corrie, in her words that come near the end of the play and that she wrote close to the end of her short life, talks about the many ways she anticipated speaking and acting to help achieve justice for Palestinians when she returned home to the United States. My Name is Rachel Corrie and the Rachel Corrie Foundation have carried on Rachel's work, the attender said.
After pre-Phoenix performances in Newton and Wichita, plus the convention performance, Reimer took the play on tour to Mennonite churches in California and South Dakota.
“I’m amazed at the opportunity Rachel’s writing has given for young women like Renee,” said Cindy Corrie. “I see Rachel’s words as a gift to these young actresses. I think she’d be so proud and pleased.”
“I want to share Rachel’s story and start conversations about peace,” said Reimer. “I have a dream for peace, a dream for ending war, murder and the constant power struggle in Israel-Palestine. I want to devote my life to making these stop.
“Rachel Corrie is an inspiration to me. I’m honored to be able to share her story.”
(To read Renee Reimer’s blog on the experience of preparing and performing My Name is Rachel Corrie, see awalkwithpeace.wordpress.com.)
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.