Bethlehem, West Bank — More than 30 Mennonites and Brethren in Christ from North America encountered kindred spirits March 7-10 at the fourth biennial Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, hosted by Bethlehem Bible College at the Orient Palace Hotel in the town of Christ’s birth.
The theme was “The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism,” a topic that reflects the current context of the Middle East but has special meaning for Palestinian Christians.
The number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has diminished significantly in the past two decades as the churches face Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, a choked economy and violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The conference — named to highlight the barriers Israel has erected along the borders of the occupied territories — brought together more than 500 participants from 24 countries, with the largest numbers coming from the U.S. and Europe. About 80 participants were locals from the West Bank and 40 from neighboring Israel.
In plenary sessions, worship times and intervening meet-the-speaker conversations, delegates wrestled with theological and practical responses to religious violence, whether by Christians, Muslims or Jews.
An array of more than 25 speakers included Fuller Theological Seminary’s president, Mark Labberton, who gave daily Bible studies on the Sermon on the Mount.
At least half the speakers were Palestinian or Israel-based theologians and peace activists — Munther Isaac, Salim Munayer, Jonathan Kuttab, Yohanna Katanacho and Jack Sara of Bethlehem Bible College and Jesuit theologian David Neuhaus. Others were visiting professors and church leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S. (including African-Americans Regina Henderson and Lisa Sharon Harper, speaking out of the context of the civil rights movement). There were also representatives of Messianic Jewish communities who are seeking common ground with Palestinian Christians.
More than previous conferences, this one also included voices from outside the mainstream Christian community, including Muslim theologian Mustafa Abu Sway, American activist and Jewish rabbi Arik Aeschleman and Lisa Loden, a Messianic Jew from Israel.
Thirty-three participants from Anabaptist churches in North America attended. Most were part of two learning tours — one initiated by West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and the other jointly sponsored by MCC Alberta and Mennonite Church USA. Three couples were on short-term volunteer assignments in Palestine and Israel.
Sherri Guenther Trautwein, assistant pastor at Edmonton’s Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church, came because she wanted to understand firsthand what is going on between Israel and Palestine. She said meeting Palestinians and hearing their stories “helped to shed light on why it’s so complicated, more complicated than I had imagined.”
A number of tour group participants were intrigued, even surprised, at the conference’s consistent emphasis on peace, nonviolence, humility and love.
John Hawbaker, a regional missions administrator for the Brethren in Christ, found it encouraging that the Palestinian Christians attending and hosting the conference showed so little spirit of revenge in their biblical teaching and in the stories they shared.
“I was really struck by the emphasis on nonviolence, love of enemy and the search for a way of peace and not becoming what we hate,” said Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada. David A. Shenk, veteran speaker and author on Christian-Muslim relationships, agreed. He was particularly encouraged by the presence of other Christians who “walk with an Anabaptist commitment; it can be lonely [for us Mennonites].”
A hopeful spirit
Scott Holman, pastor of Butler Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Fresno, Calif., wants to take the Palestinians’ hopeful spirit back to his own congregation, which worships in a neighborhood where there is poverty and violence.
“I want to bring encouragement from Palestine to Fresno that says, ‘Don’t give up; there is reconciliation,’ ” he said.
The MCC worker who coordinated the tours was pleased with the combination of learning tours and Christ at the Checkpoint.
The worker, who is not named for security reasons, said, “I think it’s great to have such a good number and variety of Mennonites and Anabaptists at the conference [who will] go back to their own communities and share the story of what’s going on here, as well as the message of the church in Palestine.”
Epp-Tiessen summed up the resolve that many of the tour participants expressed at the end of the conference: “Palestinian Christians are getting smaller in number, and yet they are a vibrant community with a vibrant faith. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to amplify their voice and share their hope.”