Photo by courtesy of Stan Noffsinger
Church of the Brethren leaders have returned from an ecumenical delegation to Israel and Palestine with a renewed commitment to a place sacred to the Brethren faith tradition, and a call for the expression of love to all the people involved in the violent struggles ongoing in the Middle East.
In an interview made after their return to the United States, general secretary Stan Noffsinger and associate general secretary Mary Jo Flory-Steury commented on their experience of joining with other Brethren leaders and a group from the American Baptist Churches USA in an ecumenical faith pilgrimage earlier this month.
Along with the general secretary and his wife Debbie Noffsinger, and Flory-Steury and her husband Mark Flory-Steury, the Brethren delegation included Keith Goering, Andy Hamilton, and Pam Reist, who are members of the Mission and Ministry Board. The total delegation numbered 16, and included American Baptist general secretary Roy Medley.
In addition to an opportunity for a first-hand view of the situation in Israel and Palestine, and chances to meet with and talk with people on all sides of the conflict there, Noffsinger and Flory-Steury emphasized the value of renewing relationships with the American Baptists. The two denominations have a long history of working together, but in recent years the relationship has not been maintained as closely as in past decades.
In addition, the two church leaders said they benefited from the opportunity to better prepare themselves to speak publicly on behalf of the denomination about the realities of a Middle Eastern situation they characterize as complex, with geo-political as well as religious dimensions.
The delegation was led by three people representing the three main faiths in the region–Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The experience was “an immersion into the life of the living stones” of the Holy Land, Noffsinger said, and included visits with Israelis and Palestinians who are active religiously and politically. The range of people the group visited represented “a broad spectrum” that included peacemakers as well as those holding more extreme views.
The group also visited historic sites important to the Brethren and Baptist traditions, such as the place where it is thought Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. At each historic site, they read scripture, prayed, and had a meditation. They also began every day together with worship, with a key scripture coming from Isaiah 11:3-4a. On their last evening together the group shared in a Love Feast with feetwashing. The experience of an intentional ecumenical faith journey has sparked other ideas for getting groups of Brethren and American Baptists together in the future, Noffsinger said.
Photo by Stan Noffsinger
Learnings about a complex land
Both Noffsinger and Flory-Steury commented on the importance of the experience for their personal spiritual lives, as well as for their professional development. A key aspect was increased understanding of a complicated place that is yet so important to the Christian faith.
“One of my learnings is the very small percentage of people in the land that are Christian,” Noffsinger said. He noted that only two percent of the population is Christian, and that percentage has fallen dramatically in recent years. “But they’re a vibrant community,” he added. He heard from the Christians with whom the delegation met “a desire to find a just peace for all peoples.”
“Everybody there is tired of the peace process, because it has not worked and there is a lot of distrust,” noted Flory-Steury. One key learning for her is that problems surrounding the peace process are linked to the increase of growth in Israeli settlements. Also, Christians expressed to the delegation the conviction that there is no one solution, nor an easy solution, to the issues they face.
People of all backgrounds talked to the delegation about the importance of caring for the needs of all the human beings involved. One speaker told them, “As Americans, don’t love one of us and hate the other. Love the people of the land, both Israeli and Palestinian,” Noffsinger quoted from his notes.
Flory-Steury remembers a leading Lutheran pastor asking the group to urge American Christians to reflect on their theology in relation to the people of the Holy Land. The pastor pointed out that some theological attitudes held by Americans are doing harm to Palestinian Christians.
Another Palestinian Christian leader, the president of a Bible college, said to Noffsinger: “The decision to be a Christian is something I consider daily as I cross the border (into Israeli controlled territory). I choose to show the poor young Israeli soldier Christ’s peace and love.”
Civil, human, and equal rights are of high importance, Flory-Steury said. These rights should include equal access to holy sites, as well as equal access to water, she added. One issue that has not gained much space in the news is the problem of who controls the water, she said. Another issue noted by Noffsinger is the inequalities experienced by Palestinians living in Israeli territory, who pay taxes yet may not receive equal services.
Meeting with parents who lost children to the violence
The last people the group met with were bereaved parents, who had lost children to the violence ongoing in Israel and Palestine. From her notes, Flory-Steury quoted one woman who spoke with the group: “There is either compassion or revenge after the killing of a child,” she said. “The seeking of revenge kills you because there is no revenge. Forgiving is giving up your just right to revenge.”
Noffsinger quoted the words of a man whose daughter had been killed: “Letting go and forgiving gives you the freedom to move on.”
Photo by Stan Noffsinger
Following is the letter that Noffsinger and Medley issued after they returned to the United States, which has been delivered to the White House:
Dear President Obama,
We write to you with the highest sense of urgency about the situation in Palestine and Israel to plead to you for a strong voice against the establishment of a Jewish settlement in the E-1 area. We write as religious leaders who love Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We write as religious leaders who love the Palestinians and pray for the fulfillment of their yearning for self-determination. We write as religious leaders who are committed to peace and whose denominations have long supported a two-state solution.
We have just returned from a joint visit to Israel and Palestine. We have spent time with Israelis and Palestinians in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. We came with open hearts and minds as we have sought “the things that make for peace.” We have encountered courageous people in every place who are working to bridge hatred and animosity with love and respect, affirming the image of God in each and every one.
In every place we visited we were met with a growing alarm that the two-state solution is being dealt a death blow by the announcement that a Jewish settlement will be built in the E-1 area. There is strong consensus that without strong intervention by yourself and our government to oppose this and to bring the parties together to do the hard work of negotiating a peace, the legitimate desires of both people to live in security and freedom will be dashed, the forces of extremism will be strengthened, and catastrophic armed conflict in the area will ensue.
Therefore, we urge you to act firmly to bring the power and influence of the United States to bear by clearly and forcibly stating our opposition to the expansion and by opening serious discussions that will lead to a negotiated settlement based upon a two-state solution that guarantees the rights and security of both Israel and Palestine.