Karen Smith (left), Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, moderates a panel a discussion with Palestinian Christians.
United Methodists Covenant with Palestinian Christians
By Melissa Hinnen*
As people around the world are preparing for the World Week of Prayer for Palestine and Israel, hundreds of United Methodists in the United States have made new covenants to put into action.
They were part of a two-day conference at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church called “Walking with Palestinian Christians … for Holy Justice and Peace,” an event co-sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries. Palestinian Christians shared their experiences of what it is like to live in a land that is under occupation and their strategic dreams for working toward peace. The event took on special meaning with the violence in Gaza happening at the same time, affecting many of the participants’ loved ones.
Missionaries, bishops and other church leaders explored ways that God’s people can effectively respond with non-violent resistance to the conflict in a region that is known as the “Holy Land.” In his opening welcome, Thomas Kemper, who leads Global Ministries, said, “We know from long, painful centuries that conflict and warfare are not holy — in the Middle East or elsewhere. We are on a prayer pilgrimage, a prayerful quest for peace and justice in an important land with holy roots and holy possibilities.”
Bishop Ivan Abrahams, General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, reflected on his experience of apartheid in South Africa and compared it to Palestine, saying, “People are exiled in their own land. This cannot and must not be ignored by peace-loving people.”
Walking with Palestinian Christians
Wisam Salsaa is a Palestinian artist and tour guide who described Bethlehem as an open-air prison because of the separation wall that surrounds it. He asked participants to be a voice for Palestinians. “We have families. We love to live. We are different than we are presented in the media.” He continued, “Living in Palestine is living under the shadow of the cross all the time.”
Kemper emphasized the importance of hearing specifically from Palestinian Christians, saying, “We join hands with fellow Christians, Palestinians … . It would be quite unthinkable for us not to meet with other Christians in this cause.”
Echoing this, Abrahams gave thanks for the document from Kairos Palestine. “The Kairos document is a gift from Christians in Palestine,” he said. “Any theology that includes occupation is not consistent with Christian teaching.”
Strategies for Promoting Peace and Justice
Through workshops, prayer, plenary sessions and round-table discussions, church leaders prayerfully discussed strategies for promoting peace and justice. Participants lifted up the importance of raising awareness, preaching about justice, visiting Palestine, divestment options, engaging with the U.S. Congress, and listening to voices of peace from Israelis and Palestinians. The Rev. Mike Slaughter, senior pastor at Ginghamsburg Church, committed to educating his local church and community, offering opportunities for going to Palestine and building relationships, and identifying acts of mercy and justice that the congregation could engage in.
Many participants discussed how to best introduce legislation at annual and general conferences that would encourage divestment of United Methodist pension funds that contribute to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Kairos Palestine has asked The United Methodist Church to specifically participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, an action that strategically targets three prominent corporations. This action was not approved at the 2012 General Conference, though a number of annual conferences do have legislation that encourages divestment.
Representatives from the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits helped to clarify their position and commitment to minimizing human rights abuses while maintaining their fiduciary responsibility. The head of the agency, Barbara Boigegrain, said, “We care deeply about the plight of Palestinians and of Christians who are persecuted around the world.”
The Rev. Michael Yoshii from the California-Nevada Annual Conference led a workshop called “Save Wadi Foquin: A Palestinian Village Under Siege.” Wadi Foquin is a Global Ministries community development site that provides training for income-generating skills such as beekeeping. Because it is so close to the Israeli border, the community has faced increased harassment in recent years. At the end of August, they received notice that the land was being confiscated to build an illegal settlement. In a recent press release Yoshii said, “We have an opportunity to help Wadi Foquin with this while also creating venues to facilitate the voices of its people being heard.”
Covenant for Peace and Justice
Slaughter reminded the gathering that the early church was “called out to create a corrective politic.” He continued, “You and I are creating a corrective politic of the Kingdom of God.”
He invited conference participants to “tear down the wall of hostility in shared mutuality” by writing down an action plan and committing in specific ways to work for holy peace and justice. At the closing worship service, each person filled out a covenant form that they submitted as an offering.
The Rev. Alex Awad is a Global Ministries missionary and a Palestinian Christian serving at Bethlehem Bible College. Making the connection between Herod’s massacre of children and the massacre of children in Gaza, Awad said that people must start dreaming about Palestinian and Jewish children playing together without “refugee camps, segregation walls and tanks.” He asked the conference participants to “leave with a vision for a bright future in the land we call holy.”
*Melissa Hinnen is the Director of Content & Public Information for Global Ministries.