Oakmont activist splits time between East Jerusalem and Western Pa.
October 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Tina Whitehead, the widow of the former pastor of the United Methodist Church in Oakmont, describes how she spends six months of every year working in East Jerusalem to help people understand the Palestinian issues.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every year around this time, 67-year-old Tina Whitehead leaves quiet Oakmont for troubled East Jerusalem, where she spends the next six months crisscrossing some hotly contested territory.
From a base in the majority-Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, she bops between the Temple Mount and Bethlehem, and into and out of the West Bank, where checkpoints divide areas according to the degree of Israeli control. She joins Palestinians who have to walk through mazes of turnstiles to cross into Israeli-administered territory. She rides buses from which Israeli soldiers empty all young Palestinian men for ID checks.
“I have to go through the same things, but I don’t get treated the same way,” she said. “I’ll never know what it feels like to be a Palestinian.”
Raised in Edmonton, she married Tom Whitehead, a pastor who led United Methodist Church congregations in Uniontown and Oakmont before his death in 2005. Though Mrs. Whitehead worked many jobs and volunteer roles, she was mostly the pastor’s wife. Always concerned with social justice, she was energized by the 2002 fatal shooting, by a state trooper, of 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe, a member of their Uniontown church.
By that time, Mrs. Whitehead had been to Israel several times as a holy site tourist and had become well-read in the history of the region. Her reading led her to the book “Blood Brothers” by Elias Chacour, the former Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of the Galilee, and a voice for reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews.
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She joined a group based in Portland, Ore., called Friends of Sabeel North America, created by Palestinian Christians to raise awareness of the situation in Israel and the West Bank.
Now she spends half the year teaching adult education classes at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and the other half in East Jerusalem leading tours and organizing conferences focused on Palestinian life.
“The occupation has been so oppressive that [Palestinians] can’t function there in a normal way,” she said. She described the life of a close friend, a 78-year-old former teacher and sometime tour guide who lives in Jerusalem’s Old City, where his family has been for more than 1,000 years.
“He speaks seven languages. He’s brilliant,” she says. But he can neither afford to retire nor find meaningful work. “He sits at the coffeehouse all day.”
Most nights he tries to go to Palestinian-controlled Ramallah for tea, and sometimes Mrs. Whitehead accompanies him. “Some nights, you can’t even get in” because of the back-ups at checkpoints, she said. At best, the trip of a few miles is a humiliating hassle, she said. “Having to go through checkpoints, 18-year-old soldiers telling him where and when he can go,” she said.
Back in Oakmont, reaction to her activism is mixed.
“Everybody has feared for my safety,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who disagree with what I’m doing and who I’m advocating for.”
She said an American friend recently offered that if her husband was watching, “He’d be so proud of you — or he’d think you’re crazy.”
Coming this afternoon: Building business in the Palestinian hub.
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