Information from a press release issued by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading was used in this report.
The mostly quiet, suburban landscape of Reading is a far cry from the arid and rugged terrain of war-torn Afghanistan, but that isn't stopping one local minister from making the journey east.
Rev. Tim Kutzmark, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, will be departing this week for the mountainous, land-locked country, as part of a three-person delegation studying how women are working to bring about societal, educational and economic change in the conflict-stricken country.
Known as the "Afghanistan: Women Making Change" delegation, the mission they will pursue is both powerful and infinitely important.
After three decades of warfare—beginning with the Soviet invasion in the late 1970's, and continuing to the present day—Afghanistan continues the long road to reconstruction, despite waning support from the NATO-backed government and the Taliban insurgency.
Within this difficult environment, Afghan women are taking reconstruction into their own hands—while also working towards creating meaningful social and economic change.
The delegation will be learning more comprehensively about these efforts.
Rev. Kutzmark explained his desire to travel to Afghanistan, saying the region had always held allure for him.
“The modern Middle East and the Afghanistan/Pakistan connection fascinates me on so many level, he said in a press release. "The dynamics of poverty and economics, colonialism, Islamic fundamentalism versus progressive religious and secular influences, violence and war, the impact of Israel/Palestine on the region, and the rich history animating the present reality are complex."
Kutzmark also stated that this won't be his first excursion into an area wracked by violence.
"My passionate interest has twice taken me to the Occupied West Bank (Palestine), where I’ve spent time with Palestinians and Israelis: from business leaders to politicians; from street youths to an Eastern Orthodox priest of a village church," said Kutzmark in the release. "I’ve met Jewish Israeli peace activists and Palestinian economic development planners. I’ve walked through refugee camps and visited NGO schools. I’ve stood with Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire at the Erez crossing point into Gaza, while Israeli airplanes cut across the sky and Palestinian militants fired rockets."
He said these past experiences have helped to bring the conflicts—and associated humanitarian tragedies to a more human level.
"In these types of experiences, what are usually ‘headlines’ become completely human," he said in the press release announcing his trip. "You are touched, troubled, and your heart and mind open to the more human dimensions of world events. But understanding more fully the complexity of the Middle East and its peoples necessitates first-hand exposure to countries beyond Palestine/Israel, and I want to learn more and experience more in a broader context. And Afghanistan is key to it all.”
Kutzmark continues: “What I’ve seen is that much of the work to create change is never reported in the mainstream media. It is happening at the grassroots level, in villages, refugee camps, living rooms and street corners. Ordinary people—with extraordinary courage—are challenging the power structures and customs that suppress human dignity. I am honored to have the opportunity to travel and meet some of the brave women and girls of Afghanistan who, in the face of violence and fierce cultural resistance, are doing just that!”
Rev. Kutzmark’s time in Afghanistan will be quite full. He’ll visit various Women’s Rights Organizations, and talk with their courageous leaders and other civil rights activists. He’ll be visiting newly rebuilt schools for girls, and meeting students and teachers (some who teach or attend school despite the threat of death from the Taliban).
The delegation will also visit the Red Cross Rehabilitation Clinic for Mine victims, learn about the lives of Afghan street children, meet with female judges, visit Kabul University, explore micro-financing for small businesses being formed by women, and visit the Afghan Widow project. Rev. Kutzmark also hopes to also visit the refugee camp where recently, due to lack of heat, a number of infants and children have frozen to death during the cold winter nights.
To make this trip, Rev. Kutzmark was awarded The Natalie Gulbrandsen Ministerial Scholarship Fund for International Studies, and this will cover a portion of his travel expenses. The Gulbrandsen Scholarship Fund was established to provide opportunities for Unitarian Universalist ministers to engage in meaningful ways in a developing country for academic, interfaith or social justice purposes. The grant is given to clergy who wish to broaden their liberal religious knowledge and understandings, and strengthen their international sympathies, by immersing themselves in or studying in a developing country.
The recent unfortunate and allegedly accidental burning of several copies of the Koran by U.S. Military personnel, however, cast some doubt on whether Kutzmark's trip would happen.
“Of course, Afghanistan has again burst to the top of the headlines this past week with the unfortunate accidental burning of several copies of the Koran by US Military personnel," he said in the press release. "I wondered if our delegation to Afghanistan would still depart, given the fierce civil unrest and increased terrorist activity that has resulted."
Rev. Kutzmark contacted the delegations Afghani guide in Kabul via email, and learned that the trip was still on, that Kabul was "calm and safe."
"And so, with my visa in hand, I set off to see Afghanistan, said Kutzmark. "As the Afghani people say: 'Khoda Hafiz tan!' (Goodbye and be in the safety of God)."