Thursday, August 21, 2014

Palestinian Christian Conference Challenges United Methodists

Rev. Alex Awad, Palestinian Christian missionary, greets Lisa Bender of Susquehanna Conference at a recent conference on United Methodist’s role in the Middle East held at Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Lisa Bender.

By Lisa Bender, Shopes UMC, Hummelstown, Pa.

Close to 300 United Methodists and faith partners from around the world gathered recently at Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio “to join hands with fellow Christians, Palestinians, in considering how our faith commitments can contribute to holy justice and peace for all the people of Palestine and Israel,” according to Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), and co-sponsor of the conference with Rev. Mike Slaughter and the host church.

Addressing the conference’s theme, “Walking with Palestinian Christians in Holy Justice and Peace,” Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Church stressed that it is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Conflicting narratives require listening with discerning ears. While there are divergent theologies of the land, Biblical theology leaves room for Palestinians and Israelis to live together in peace, she said.  Violence and violations of human rights creates insecurity on both sides.  She believes that violence doesn’t reflect the hearts of people on either side. In her many trips to Israel/Palestine, Hybels has met with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peacemakers who are working for transformation.

In response to Hybel’s keynote, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the North Carolina Conference and President of GBGM, and Bishop Ivan Abrahams, General Secretary of the World Methodist Council further encouraged participants to help bring peace to the region. Rev. Abrahams, a South African, quoted poet June Jordan with “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” He encouraged us to work for “dignity, justice, and a just peace for all God’s people by using every form of non-violent means we can.”

Participants at what was called the largest gathering of United Methodists on a single social issue heard presentations from a number of Palestinian Christians, including Rev. Alex Awad, who with his wife Brenda have served as United Methodist missionaries for 25 years in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As a child he was warned not to get involved in politics, but realized that God calls the church to action. His examples included Moses, the judges, the prophets, and especially Jesus. “We must dream of a future without refugee camps, without separation walls, without separate roads. We must imagine a future living in peace with equal rights, with peace, justice and security for all.”

Other Palestinian Christians included Wissam Salsaa, one of only 42 Palestinian guides permitted to travel throughout Israel and Palestine compared to 15,000 Israeli guides with the same privilege. United Methodist Holy Land visitors are encouraged to use Palestinian guides, provided through the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem. Wissam stands in line each morning for two hours at a checkpoint on his way to work.  He refuses to travel with his young children as he doesn’t want them to see him humiliated. “We Palestinians are human too,” he said. “We love to live.  We want to live.  We are different from the way we are presented in the media.”

Zoughbi Zoughbi, director of Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, believes the occupation demoralizes both Palestinians and Israelis.  He updated the group with statistics on the current situation in Gaza, where one quarter of the population are displaced with no water, electricity or sewage.  32,000 homes have been destroyed, with nearly 2,000 persons killed and close to 10,000 wounded.  “Tell the world we need a safe haven,” he urged.

A viewing of the poignant and disturbing film “Where Should the Birds Fly” about Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, was narrated by its filmmaker, Gazan journalist Fida Qishta, who was brought to the conference and introduced by United Methodist Women Executive Harriet Olson.  Fida touched hearts with “The camera is the only weapon I have. I know if I am shot the camera will capture the bullet that kills me.”

Nora Carmi from Kairos Palestine, the group that issued Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth in 2009, explained that kairos means the right or opportune moment. The document, written by Palestinian Christian clergy, is a call for the world’s help, including use of nonviolent options like boycott, divestment and sanctions. She believes “we see the glory of God even amongst the pain and suffering.  We are called to be changed, to act, to be transformed.” Study guides are available for groups reading this document.

A plenary on United Methodist positions included thoughts from general secretaries Barbara Boigegrain of the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, Susan Henry Crowe of the General Board of Church and Society and Thomas Kemper of the Board of Global Ministries.

Subdued worship experiences led by Jorge Lockward and The Ginghamsburg Band included messages from Rev. Mike Slaughter and Dr. Wendy Deichmann, President of United Seminary in Dayton. Participants held lighted candles as they prayed.

In addition, thought-provoking workshops were led by leaders of partner organizations and by general secretaries and staff of the GBGM, the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits.  Topics included Christian Zionism, how occupation changes reading of scripture, Holy Land travel, corporate engagement, boycotts and divestment, and Congressional advocacy.

Palestinian Christians invite us to come and see then go and tell.  Most participants had traveled to the Holy Land, where their hearts were captured by the plight of the Palestinians.  Several Susquehanna Conference pastors are leading upcoming trips to the Holy Land.  For more information, contact Pastor Kurt Herzberg (kherzberg@susumc.org), Rev. Dennis Derr (dderr@susumc.org), or Rev. Gary Weaver (gweaver@susumc.org).

Immediately following the close of the conference, 86 participants gathered at the conference's partner event with United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), also held at Ginghamsburg UMC, August 8-9. UMKR is "an international peace movement in the United Methodist Church responding to the urgent call from Palestinian Christians for effective action supporting a just peace in Israel/Palestine." Participants at the UMKR Summit 2014 spent Friday evening and all day Saturday hearing more from Palestinian Christian guests and UM missionaries serving in the Holy Land, and discussing plans to expand the work of UMKR throughout the Connection. Those plans included reaching more United Methodists with the information presented at the Walking with Palestinian Christians conference and the reasons behind decades of UMC General Conference opposition to the Israeli occupation. More information about UMKR may be found at: www.kairosresponse.org.

For general information about the conference or about the Middle East conflict, contact Lisa Bender at lbender@susumc.org.

The Susquehanna Conference Divestment Task Force continues their study of how best to make an impact in the region.  For questions about the Task Force, contact Rev. Phyllis Bowers, Chair, at (pbowers@susumc.org).

To hear Alex Awad speak from Bethlehem, click on these links:
Gaza: The Real Story and Standing with Christians In Gaza


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