Fifteen board members and staff representing Mennonite agencies and organizations traveled Feb. 24-March 4 to Israel/Palestine on a “Come and See” learning tour.
The tour marked the beginning of a Mennonite Church USA initiative to send 100 Mennonite leaders to the region on similar tours over the next five years.
Mennonites have been involved in relief work, service, witness and peacemaking in the region for more than 65 years.
The tour was organized in response to a 2009 appeal from Palestinian Christians called “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth,” located online at kairospalestine.ps.
A coalition representing Christians in Palestine — including Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical — issued the open letter to the global body of Christ as “a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.”
They invited Christian organizations and faith groups to “come and see, in order to understand our reality.”
The tour followed the path of Jesus’ life by traveling to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem. Participants visited Bethlehem Bible College, Nazareth Village, refugee camps, settlements and community organizations, meeting activists and villagers and hearing their stories.
In Jerusalem they spent time at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and attended a Jewish Sabbath service. They also connected with people serving with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network and Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Participants were left with much to contemplate and share with their faith communities.
“I am inspired by the steadfastness of Palestinians and Israelis alike in working for peace in the face of many years of disappointments,” said Chad Horning of Goshen, Ind., chief investment officer of Everence.
Horning gained a better understanding of the terms often used to describe life in the region.
“Words like security, wall, border, military, settler, outpost, tear gas, demolition, rubber-coated bullet and confiscation have more meaning when I tell the stories of people we met and who live in the context of these sterile terms,” he said.
Culture and conflict
Participants brought a range of experience and familiarity with the region. Some had visited or served there, but most were visiting for the first time.
Madeline Maldonado, associate pastor of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Myers, Fla., and MMN board chair, was a first-time visitor. Before leaving, she shared, “I hope to experience the culture and the conflict. I hope to feel the pain and frustration that are felt there. I pray that I can see God in what seems impossible for my Western and Latina mind to comprehend. I pray that God opens my eyes.”
Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship and an MC USA Executive Board member, shared reflections four days into the tour: “I’ve seen too much. Towering walls stretching for mile after mile, turning Palestinian cities into open-air prisons.
“Can I choose not to see . . . the used tear gas canisters I held in my hand — used against Palestinian youth, bought with my taxes, manufactured by a U.S. company in Pennsylvania?”
Questions of faith
In addition to questions about the U.S. government’s involvement in the region, the group was encouraged to consider questions of faith in new light.
“Our experience gave us new insight into Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as the current situation,” said André Gingerich Stoner, MC USA director of holistic witness and interchurch relations. “We return better prepared to pray and work for God’s peace and blessing for everyone in this land.”
In 2011, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman — in consultation with the Executive Board — responded to the writers of the Kairos Palestine letter, committing to expand opportunities for Mennonite leaders and members to visit Palestine and learn firsthand about the suffering there.
Stutzman and the board also wrote a letter to MC USA members, asking them to read and discuss the Kairos document, to study Scriptures together on the matter and consider how their financial lives may be enmeshed in the occupation of Palestine by Israel.
In 2013, the board underscored its desire to help the church understand both the Israeli and Palestinian experiences and the role of Christian Zionism in the conflict. A “Come and See” fund was established with initial contributions from MCC U.S., MMN and Everence to offer some scholarships.
The next Israel/Palestine learning tour is scheduled for October and will include participants from Franconia, Eastern District and Atlantic Coast conferences.