(PNS) A group of Presbyterian clergy and members, including Co-Moderator Denise Anderson, has wrapped up the Mosaic of Peace Conference to Israel/Palestine. The conference, sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, included visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee, meeting with Palestinian and Israeli leaders working on justice and peace issues, as well as touring holy and historic sites.
This is the third time the Peacemaking Program has led a delegation to the region. The conference was held in 2014 and 2016.
For a few, it was their second or third trip, while others were experiencing it for the first time.
“I chose to take part in the Mosaic of Peace because I knew I would be getting a different kind of trip than if I went with a traditional tour group to see all of the holy sites,” said the Rev. Sarah Bird, associate pastor at Sewickley Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. “I was impressed by the people we had the chance to talk and listen to. And I’m still processing all of the information we’ve been given.”
Bird said she was privileged to hear from leaders on both sides of the Palestinian issue as well as people from different walks of life.
“I was hoping I would go home with more answers than questions, but that’s not the case,” said Rev. Charissa Howe, pastor of Emsworth UP and St. Andrews Presbyterian Churches in Emsworth, Pennsylvania. “My reading list is twice as long as the optional list I was given before we came. However, we have a much better context of Palestinian life now.”
The Rev. Judith March Hardie, pastor of Willow Creek Presbyterian Church of Argyle in Caledonia, Illinois, visited Israel/Palestine when she was a teenager and felt the trip picked up where she left off before.
“I have found a deeper connection that I expected between our world back home and this world,” she said. “We are not here to hop off a bus, take a picture and leave, we are here to engage and connect and recognize the living stones that are here, connecting to the incarnate.”
The visit also allowed participants to take part in hands-on activities such as learning handcrafts from local artisans and “exploring the flavors” of the region with local cooks.
“I was fortunate to take part in a cooking course at Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. In two and half hours, we went from having raw ingredients to a feast in front of us. We also learned how the income from these cooking courses helps support groups in and around the camp,” said Rev. Lawrence Bartell, pastor of Oxford Presbyterian Church, Oxford, Ohio. “It was an extraordinary experience to be greeted on the streets of the camp and learn about the people there.”
Howe recalls speaking to a man from Aida who shared the concerns of his children.
“He told me that when his wife was pregnant with their fourth child, his three daughters were praying and hoping it would be a girl because they were afraid the soldiers would take their brother away,” she said. “These are real people with actual stories. We know so little about what they experience here and we can get so wrapped up in our own problems, we forget about a whole world of people. It’s important for us to be more educated about what’s going on here.”
Jeff Geary, senior pastor of White Plains Presbyterian Church in White Plains, New York, joined the group after spending eight days with Bike Palestine, traveling along the West Bank.
“It was an opportunity to experience life outdoors, visiting refugee camps, moving at 14 miles an hour and getting a feel for the land and weather,” he said. “I told my congregation I was coming here to be a witness and to hear and experience how the occupation has impacted both Palestinians and Israelis. I will be unfolding what I experienced in my sermons over the next year.”
Geary joined several other members of the group after the trip to hike the Jesus Trail for four days.
Doug Dicks is a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, assigned to the region.
“It’s a real joy to help people see this for the first time, watching the transformation of people and providing the opportunities we are given,” he said. “We recognize the importance of visiting holy sites, but this is not a Holy Land trip. We want people to look at contemporary life and engage with the people and the issues. The experience people get from a trip like this is far richer than a simple visit to the Holy Land.”
Organizers hope the participants will remain engaged in efforts for peace and justice in the region.
by Rick Jones, Presbyterian News Service