Where How Jesus Walked
“From search for wealth and power and scorn of truth and right; From trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night; From pride of race and station and blindness to your way; Deliver every nation, Eternal God, we pray.” I listened to the notes of the familiar hymn echo through the sanctuary as we sang them together. It was a Sunday morning during the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation against Gaza the summer of 2014.
The Arabic-speaking congregation where I worship, Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem, is so hospitable to foreign visitors that they provide English translations of prayers and hymns so we can follow along. The often-familiar words take on a poignancy and relevance in this setting that is unlike anything I experienced before. Even on Sundays that occur during times without active warfare, it feels audacious to proclaim God’s faithfulness in the middle of a city surrounded by military checkpoints, a 26-foot-high concrete wall, and highways that are off-limits to most congregants. Last summer, with its endless body count updates, rocket sirens, and daily anxious phone calls to see who survived the night, it felt downright radical. Yet worship is transformative. A hymn like “O God of Every Nation” both requires and provides the courage and faith necessary to sing it in this context, where bombs do fall and power rules harshly.
When we try to define God’s ‘mission’ for the Church, we rarely think of Sunday mornings. Yet here in Israel-Palestine, worship itself is a mission.
When we try to define God’s ‘mission’ for the Church, we rarely think of Sunday mornings. That word is generally reserved for the transformative work God does through the Church outside its doors. Yet here, where Christians are fewer than two percent of the population, where they are members of a people without citizenship or state, where daily they face discrimination, violence, incarceration, and displacement—here, Sunday morning is itself a mission. Worship brings a shrinking and struggling people together and reminds them they are not alone. It invites them to tell their own story as people of God, in a place where their own Bible is regularly used against them. And, in the midst of arguable evidence to the contrary, it assures them of God’s presence and love. If mission is how the Church participates in God’s work of healing the world, then here in Israel-Palestine, worship counts.
Our historic mission partners here also engage in more recognizable forms of mission, of course. They care for the elderly. They teach children. They empower women. They support clergy. They tend to the earth. They advocate for justice. They heal the sick.
And here as elsewhere, every aspect of mission is affected by the context in which it takes place. Clergy support groups struggle with how to proclaim the gospel under Israeli military rule. Summer camps at local farms teach children not only about sustainable farming practices, but also about the threats encroaching Israeli settlements pose to Palestinian agricultural livelihood. Church schools care for children traumatized by the loss of an incarcerated father or a demolished home. Church hospitals treat youth shot by soldiers and mothers who gave birth at checkpoints. Somehow, despite the circumstances, the Palestinian Church does all this and more.
Sadly, most Presbyterians who come here have not participated in this mission. Too often, U.S. Christians treat the Holy Land as if it was a museum, displaying a historic God who used to be present here – two thousand years ago. Yet, as in all places, the living God is here today, sustaining and redeeming the local Church, empowering it to be a witness to Christ’s transforming grace.
Here as elsewhere, mission is affected by context…Church hospitals treat youth shot by soldiers and mothers who gave birth at checkpoints.
We Presbyterians try to be a part of that witness when we travel as churches to Guatemala, or Malawi, or Peru. We meet fellow Christians, learn about the obstacles they face, and join with them in their ministries. We believe that encountering the Church in different contexts will enrich and challenge how we do church in our own context. Yet somehow, when churches travel to Israel-Palestine, we tend to take a break from mission. We stop seeking out our brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t make the effort to learn about their lived reality. We ignore the many gifts the Palestinian Church has to offer ours. Instead, we find ourselves saying things like, “I’m here to walk in the footsteps of Jesus,” and proceed to visit buildings and gaze at landscapes, often without any thought of engaging the local people whose congregations are the living remnants of Christ’s ministry here.
This practice is painfully ironic, for it stands in stark contrast to the way Jesus himself walked in this land. Jesus’ travel was marked by the way he noticed people, listened to their stories, cared for their suffering, and addressed the root causes of that suffering. I’m not suggesting that spiritual pilgrimages, or even sightseeing tours, are not inherently valuable. And I acknowledge that this particular conflict makes any engagement controversial. Yet, when we travel together as churches, we shouldn’t take a break from being the Church.
Next time you plan a trip to the Holy Land, instead of an itinerary that consists solely of historic sites, I invite you to consider a more authentic pilgrimage. In addition to seeing the Church of the Nativity, why not visit a Christian hospital that cares for the children of the area today? After sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane and contemplating Jesus’ prayer, go worship with a local Palestinian congregation, like the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. After you visit the Zacchaeus tree in Jericho, plant an olive tree at the Tent of Nations Farm. Before you head off to the Galilee to commemorate the meal of loaves and fishes, share a bountiful feast with the women of Aida Refugee Camp, who teach cooking classes to raise money in support of their families with disabled children.
Too often, U.S. Christians treat the Holy Land as if it was a museum, displaying a historic God who used to be present here – two thousand years ago.
In fact, you don’t have to wait for a pilgrimage to begin engaging with mission in Israel-Palestine; you can do a great deal to be in solidarity from your own home. When your congregation’s children learn about Jesus’ childhood, connect them with children who live in the Holy Land now. During Advent, say a prayer for the babies born in Jesus’ birthplace today. Invite a Palestinian mission partner or me to Skype into your Sunday school – I’ve done it many times! Begin a partnership with one of our mission partners and learn about and contribute to their transformative work. Reach out to our mission partners in Gaza who are so rarely able to receive visitors or leave the Gaza Strip, like those who serve the Al Ahli hospital or the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children. Follow action alerts distributed by our denomination’s UN and Washington offices. (Editor’s Note: You can start by reading Kate’s account of her visit to the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, summer 2014.)
There is something special about following in Jesus’ literal footsteps. The gospel stories come to life with a three dimensional backdrop once you’ve dipped your toes in the Sea of Galilee, walked through olive groves, and gazed out over the desert wilderness near Jericho. But God’s calling to the Church is not to walk where Jesus walked, but to walk the way Jesus walked. Whether we are at home, on a so-called ‘mission trip,’ or heading to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, let us never abandon that calling.
AUTHOR BIO: After volunteering and living there twice before, Rev. Kate Taber is now a PC(USA) mission coworker serving in Israel-Palestine as Facilitator for Peacemaking and Mission Partnerships. She resources Presbyterians to enable them to engage in effective Christian witness and peacemaking opportunities related to Israel-Palestine. Kate maintains and develops relationships with organizations and individuals across Israel-Palestine who partner with and resource the PC(USA). She joins mission partners in their work sharing the good news, helping alleviate suffering caused by conflict and poverty, and working for a peace that brings security and justice to all.
Contact Kate if you are interested in making your Holy Land pilgrimage mirror Jesus’ time there a little more closely. She would love to connect you with mission partners while you visit. She invites you, “Come and see that God was not just in the Holy Land back then; God is here now!”