Planting gardens in difficult days

By Jeffrey Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
– Jeremiah 29:5, NIV

These are strange and difficult days. If you are like me, this year is not turning out like you had hoped. (This may be the biggest understatement ever!) My travel plans for the Global Food Initiative (GFI) in the spring and summer were cancelled. Our family’s spring break vacation was taken off the calendar. I was planning to host visitors from Haiti and Nigeria this summer, and that did not happen. COVID-19 brought many inconveniences for us; however, the reality for our international partners involves very real hardship, not just a change in schedule. 

A pastor in Honduras reported that there have been families in her community who cannot go to work and cannot purchase diapers or food for their children. A friend in Ecuador shared how fear swept the country after a rapid spread of the virus and many lives were lost in a major city. In Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti, stay-at-home rules from the government were not accompanied by relief bills, unemployment checks, or any form of assistance, and therefore, staying at home meant going hungry.

Through the bad news and uncertainty about the future, I am encouraged by our partners around the world who have unwavering faith and hope that God will bring us through. They share the belief that it is important for Christ-followers to witness to their neighbors in word and deed, especially during these times. Like the Israelites exiled in Babylon, they continue to plant gardens and fields. This is also true here in the US where churches are using GFI grants for community gardens. During this pandemic, people are committed to doing more, reaching out more, and serving their neighbors sacrificially. Please prayerfully consider how you can help our sisters and brothers during this time of great need.

Your generosity to the Global Food Initiative prepares us to respond. Over the past year, we responded to requests for assistance from 27 partner organizations in 10 countries and in the US. The total amount provided in grants was more than $200,000! In 2020, the GFI continues to receive calls for support at a time of a global financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you for being part of this important ministry and empowering many to plant gardens in these difficult days.

Learn more about the Global Food Initiative of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/gfi or support its ministry today at www.brethren.org/givegfi.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

The road that makes all the difference

Photo by Traci Rabenstein

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
-Matthew 4:1


During my junior and senior years in high school, I joined speech club. We would select readings (whether original pieces or stories, published articles, or famous poetry) to present for a panel of judges who would critique our delivery. Competitions were placed in categories, and the one I fell in love with, and participated in the most, was poetry reading.

While in speech club, I found Robert Frost. He had a few poems published in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it wasn’t until his family moved to England that he wrote and published two books of poetry that were successful immediately. In 1915, he returned to New England and continued to write. He won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and became the Poet Laureate Consultant for Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1958-59. He recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Out of all his work, my favorite was (and still is) “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In the September 2015 issue of the Paris Review online magazine, David Orr wrote a review of the poem in which he said, “Most readers consider ‘The Road Not Taken’ to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion… but the literal meaning of the poem’s speaker tells us … the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.”

I see parallels of this in my own journey. There are times when I stand before two decisions, two roads, and have to determine which one to take. Sometimes, after making a decision and heading down one pathway, I wonder what might have been if I had made the opposite decision. Would it have been easier to travel on the other road?

Over the past several months, we have found ourselves on a road not traveled often. One where we have had to shelter-in-place, wear masks when we are in public places, and learn how to stay connected in new, virtual ways as families and congregations. For some, this has been a season of slowing down and reflecting, taking time to identify what is most important. Some of us have been taking measures to slow down after realizing that the pace we had been living pre-pandemic was not the road we necessarily wanted to be on.

I’ve also been thinking about the road Christ journeyed. In the 40 days after Jesus’ baptism, he traveled into the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke provide examples of how Satan tried to entice Jesus into revealing himself as God’s son before the appointed time. I marvel at the willpower he had as someone who had been fasting and wandering alone in such a solitary place. Satan tried to divert him to another path, but he stayed the course of preparing for what was to come and taking the road “less traveled.”

In our own lives, when the hardships of humanity seem to hold us back, pressuring us to take “the other (road), as just as fair / And having perhaps the better claim / Because it was grassy and wanted wear,” we can look to the temptation of Jesus. From him we find how to address the stresses of life, face daily temptations, and find solace.  By following the path of Christ, we remain near to God and find strength and hope to stay in tune with his will and recognize his movements in our lives. This is the road, the “one less traveled by,” that makes all the difference.

The Office of Mission Advancement works to cultivate passion for the missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren.  If you have any questions or if there is any way they can support you in this season, please reach out to MA@brethren.org.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Simple Living and Consumer Culture

As the pandemic brings to light the injustices that were for so long swept under the rugs, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Perhaps these injustices were always there in broad daylight- but the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives gave us an excuse to avoid thinking about things much further. In a blog earlier this summer, Susu Lassa wrote, “COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the various systemic problems in the U.S and worldwide, and police brutality and racial injustice were once again cast into the limelight…” This pandemic has also pulled back the curtains on the economic injustices as while over 40 million Americans filled for unemployment over the past couple of months, billionaires added a staggering $637 billion to their wealth. Looking at figures like these it seems more necessary than ever to reflect and reassess the choices we make with regards to how we live and how we consume. Over the next few blog posts, we will explore and reaffirm simple living, stewardship, just dealings, and mutuality as they relate to economic justice and economic peacemaking; especially as we go forward during this pandemic. This first post in a series of four, explores simple living in a time of consumerism and consumer culture.

Simple Living

Over the years there have been numerous Annual Conference Statements on Christian living, stewardship, and creation care -all of which, I believe, point to the importance of simple living. A 1980 annual conference statement emphasizes simplicity as a Christian way of life. But what is simple living?

Not to be confused with minimalism, which often refers to simplicity as it pertains to physical possessions; Simple living refers to a mindset focused on reduced consumption, with value placed on essentials and things that bring us joy. (Babauta) Simple living is more than just a cleared-out closet and rejection of luxury goods. It is a mindset in which value is placed on finding joy in our human connections, our community, and nature. In his book Freedom of Simplicity, Richard J. Foster argues that simplicity is “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.”

By choosing to live simply, we make mental and financial space to develop our spiritual life. We shift our focus from finding ways to preserve our affluent lifestyles, to working to grow our understanding of God and all creation.

Consumer Culture and Consumerism

“Consumer culture denotes a social arrangement in which the relations between lived culture and social resources, and between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, are mediated through markets.” (Arnould and Thompson, 869) Rather than being a means of reflecting cultural values, consumption has become a culture value, contributing to the ever-expanding list of our needs and desires. (Goodman and Cohen)

Be aware of Consumer Culture and intentional in how you navigate through it.

Most things we do are a matter of habit, conditioning, training, and unconscious imitation. We are programmed by culture, family, and media, seldom questioning why we act as we do, or whether we are doing the things we value most. Many of the Influences which shape our behavior – hedonism, triumphalism, cynicism, legalism – run counter to the lifestyle of the kingdom of God which Jesus lived and proclaimed. (AC 1980, Christian Lifestyle)

Author Kit Yarrow in her book Decoding The New Consumer Mind writes that studies show that hidden, unconscious cues such as scents, colors, product placement, and how words sound, are now more influential to our purchase decision process than ever before. We are told what we need and increasingly our ability to discern our needs from our wants is fading -or at least it seems to be. As such, there is great power in awareness because only when people become aware of a habit are they able to make intentional decisions to combat it.

As I finish up writing this piece, I realize just how all over the place it is. But isn’t that more telling of the interwoven nature of our lives? How our choice to live simply will not only benefit us spiritually and financially, but can also benefit the community, the environment, and the next generation. For a BVS’er like me, on a tight budget, practicing simple living is the only choice. But I hope I develop a way of living that extends beyond my year here. I want to make sure that I do not take up more space and resources in this world than what was allotted for me; so that others who share this Earth with me and those coming after me can enjoy it as I have.

Suggested Reading: Consumer Culture by Goodman and Cohen

Sources

The masterpiece of a simple life | Maura Malloy | TEDxIndianapolis

Babauta, Leo. “The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life.” Amazon, Publisher Not Identified, 2009, www.amazon.com/Simple-Guide-Minimalist-Life/dp/1455831972.

Eric J. Arnould, Craig J. Thompson, Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 31, Issue 4, March 2005, Pages 868–882, https://doi.org/10.1086/426626

Goodman, Douglas J., and Mirelle Cohen. Consumer Culture: a Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Yarrow, Kit. Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2014.

Together: Living unto the Lord


www.brethren.org/missionoffering
Photo courtesy of Ruch Matos and Santos Terrero 

By Carol and Norm Waggy, interim directors of Global Mission

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”
~Romans 14:12, NIV

We live in very trying times. With each passing day, it seems that there are ever more opportunities for disagreement and division. How do we respond at different stages of the pandemic? What should we think about social unrest? Who should we call upon for leadership? Even with much communal reflection and discussion, these topics can lead us to more questions than answers, and when disagreements occur, it can seem easier to find comfort with like-minded people than find common ground with those who think differently.

In Romans 14:1-12, Paul encourages the church in Rome to address differences and conflict with forbearance. We all belong to the Lord and we will all be accountable to God. Therefore, we should not pass judgment on our brothers and sisters when they make decisions that differ from our own. Again, examples of these differences abound and include:

– responses to COVID-19 restrictions (Is it the weak or the strong who wear masks?)
– theological differences (How do we love those who differ from us in our interpretation of scripture?)
– political differences (How do we function in unity as we approach an increasingly divisive election?)

On these issues and more, we are accountable to God when we make observations or decisions. William Greenway in Feasting on the Word shares:

“If you see any controversy dividing today’s church as a basis for exclusion of fellowship, Paul is speaking to you. Paul is not suggesting that we should stop advocating for our respective views. …Paul’s concern and passion here is the spirit of Christians who are arguing, not the rectitude of their position” (p.62).

As long as this life lasts, tension and conflict will exist. However, through loving one another and surrendering ourselves to the Lord, we can live as the body of Christ in the world. May the words of Paul both challenge and comfort you and your congregation in these (and future) trying times.

This reflection was written as a sermon starter for the 2020 Mission Offering of the Church of the Brethren. Find this and other worship resources or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

As the world changes… our goals stay the same

Read a Brethren Volunteer Service reflection by Alexander McBride
Alexander McBride from Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 322

By Alexander McBride, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 322

Life at my project at Snowcap Community Charities has drastically changed in the past couple of months. Back in March we were able to bring clients into the pantry where they could select what food they wanted. However, within a couple of weeks our operations completely changed because of the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep our clients safe, we began distributing food boxes to them outside of the building and added changes to volunteer scheduling meant that there were some friends I did not see for several weeks. All of this coincided with a major adjustment to my living arrangement as my housemates were all recalled home early to Germany because of the virus, leaving me by myself. In a matter of a couple of weeks, the world around me had completely changed. How things were in February started to become like a distant memory.

Regardless of these changes, the core mission of SnowCap remains the same: providing food to those in need. Now more than ever, people need help to have enough food to make it through the week. It is wonderful to provide some food security during these tough times. The pandemic has even opened some new opportunities to provide food aid to more people. Earlier in May, Snowcap teamed up with the city of Gershan to hold a distribution drive, handing out food boxes to locals who needed them. Even during a time of great turmoil and change, my project’s mission has not changed, providing some form of stability in my changing life. Our lives may be going through a period of great change, but we must never lose focus of our goals in life. We must always strive to humbly serve those in need and bridge the gaps of inequities.

Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service at www.brethren.org/bvs or support it today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Hope in every seed


Marigolds from Nancy McCrickard’s home garden.

By Nancy McCrickard, Mission Advancement advocate

During the “safer at home” restrictions this spring in response to COVID-19, did you plant anything—in the ground or in pots? For the first time in over a decade at our home, we planted various vegetable plants and several types of flowers. We even planted a few of them from seeds. This reminded me of growing up on a farm in West Virginia when we grew plants to sell to folks in the community.

Each spring, my family planted a variety of seeds in our two large greenhouses, transplanted the seedlings into our outside gardens when it was warm enough, and then tended the plants all summer – harvesting the produce as it matured, eating it fresh or preserving it for later consumption by canning or freezing. In addition to the vegetable gardens, we also planted numerous pots and areas of our yard with a variety of flowers (including some of my favorites like zinnias, scarlet sage, petunias, and marigolds).

While the growing process begins with planting the seeds, nourishing and tending those seeds (and subsequent young seedlings) to optimize their ability to produce a harvest or a beautiful flower is also important. As a youth, I can remember spending countless hours in our gardens, cultivating the soil and pulling the weeds that seemed to grow nonstop. In order to grow and produce a harvest, seeds must also receive sunlight and water. Overall, tending seeds or seedlings requires diligence and patience.

As we read scripture, we often find references to planting seeds of faith. Once Jesus was teaching and said:

 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. . . . (and) the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:11, 15; NIV).

From a Church of the Brethren perspective, how might this be applicable to daily life? How might this be embodied, for example, by a denomination that upholds “doing what Jesus did,” often through acts of service?

From my viewpoint, placing a value on service does not just happen spontaneously; we need to plant seeds of faith and service in those we encounter and then nurture those seeds. Whether vegetable seeds, flower seeds, or seeds of faith, tending those seeds happens over the lifetime of the plant (not just once) and is a continual process!

Did you know that plants can influence one another? l did not realize it at the time, but when planting our vegetable and flower gardens, my parents often did some “companion planting.” This method involves placing certain plants together to both improve growth and repel insects.

Like plants, people also can influence each other. In terms of “companions” and “influencers,” Dr. Laurent Daloz performed a study of people who lived lives of service to others and noted that “generosity was something learned in the first three decades of life” (“Can Generosity Be Taught?” Essay on Philanthropy No. 29. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1998).

The study also noted that the following was true of those generous individuals:

  1. They grew up in a home hospitable to the wider world.
  2. They had a parent that was publicly active.
  3. They had participated in religious or youth groups.
  4. They had contact with people who modeled public service.

According to another report (“Next Gen Donors: Respecting Legacy, Revolutionizing Philanthropy.” Allendale, MI: Johnson Center for Philanthropy, 2013) research further indicates that individuals involved in service are influenced extensively by:

  • Parents (89%);
  • Grandparents (63%);
  • Close friends (56%); and
  • Peers (47%).

In short, all of us have a profound impact on those near and dear to us. When we nurture generosity in our own lives, we can inspire others to do the same.

As a Mission Advancement advocate, I advocate for and strive to nurture generosity on behalf of the ministries of the Church of the Brethren: generosity of time, generosity of talent, and generosity of resources—all forms of service. I am, essentially, a generosity cheerleader!

Recognizing how important it is to do this work together in community, I invite you to join our Church of the Brethren cheer squad and consider your own “call to service.” How might you serve as a “generosity seed planter” for those you encounter? How might you be a role model/companion plant for generosity of time, talent, and resources? How might you help produce a bountiful crop?

Remember, there is hope in each seed! Happy planting at any time of year!

Learn more about the life-changing ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org or support them today at www.brethren.org/give .

On Growing Pains

I have done a lot of growing in this year of service.

And no, it’s not the kind of growth that takes place with a background of sunshine and rainbows and peppy music, but the hard, achy kind of growth. Still I walk around with these growing pains, sitting with questions that push at my own personal perceptions of peacebuilding, service, and what it means to actively build the kind of peace that mandates liberation for all.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the struggle of maintaining resolve in the face of what seems like a stagnant, and in some cases regressive, time in our political climate. In the time that since that piece, I know that my resolve has weakened, and naturally, anger was poised to take its place. COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the various systemic problems  in the U.S and worldwide, and police brutality and racial injustice were once again cast into the limelight (with the help of live social media documentation of a phenomenon that is as old as the institution of policing itself).

In bearing cognizance of my anger and the ire that burns hot in my belly, I wondered what to do with this fire. After getting tired of letting it burn me out and leaving me weak, through the help of Audre Lorde, I came to realize its refining power. Through her words, I came to see the malleability of anger and its ability to be used as a powerful source of energy, and I utilized its energy for reflection.

Left to focus on the intent and motivation behind my work as opposed to the outcome -because the outcomes were increasingly unfavorable- I became aware of how little time and reflection I had devoted to this endeavor. As the observatory lens turned away from what change we could effect and towards the why and the how, I was awash in the light of the selfishness of my approach to service. There I sat, questioning why I was doing this work, and not being thrilled with the answers.

I noticed that my approach to this work centered the things I thought would be beneficial to the demographics that I was advocating for; it didn’t center their own needs, wants, and aspirations, and this was a glaring problem. This was something that I also noticed in various of the spaces that I interacted with while in this position, and I felt comfortable in my criticism of these spaces but remained oblivious to my complicit conceptualization of the very same service that I was engaged in.

It soon became obvious that I needed to look at my motivations for service, first and foremost, as an act of service to those that I am in-service of. I needed to make “basic and radical alterations in those assumptions underlining” why I serve as a peacebuilder, and in utilizing the refining fire of anger, I called out my own biases and began the process of reconstructing my perceptions and motivation around service and peacebuilding. This is an ongoing process, and I hope that it only ends with a world where ALL can grow, because we are not free until the most marginalized within our world is free.

This year has been one of learning and aching, and I gleefully rejoice for the work that I have been able to do on myself while actively in service of others. I came into this position with a reservoir of resolve and energy, and that reservoir has been severely depleted. However, I see this not as a bad thing, but as a necessary pre-condition to the work of understanding the assumptions around why I serve, and what the larger implications of my actions are for the well-being of demographics in which I have an active interest.

I know that in what should be a blog post about the work done in service of others this year, I have spoken more so about myself.

I think that is the point.

Service is a necessary, worthwhile, and laudable endeavor, but doing the work of examining why we serve is an act of service in and of itself. This year has helped to clarify my hazy assumptions and preconceived notions about what it means to truly be in service of others, and in that way has strengthened me as a peacebuilder. This work, for me, took place within my year of service, and while I am thankful that working at OPP provided me the conditions to come to this realization, I am cognizant that this is work that should be intentionally done by all who serve others, in all avenues and capacities.

I am better peacebuilder for working at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy; its been a tumultuous year, but I believe that this refining process has instigated in me a process of discernment that is of paramount importance when working in service of others. I plan to head to Bethany Theological Seminary in the Fall to gain a Masters in Peacebuilding, and I hope to tailor my projects and reading materials to study theology from the perspective of African American Liberation Theology. Afterwards, I intend to continue in the vein of peacebuilding, because this is necessary work.

*Quote from Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”

Building community in the time of a pandemic

The Everyday Ubuntu book discussion group earlier this month.

By LaDonna Nkosi, the director of Intercultural Ministries

The time of quarantine and sheltering in place has given us opportunities to connect and be in conversation together in new ways. Since March, Intercultural Ministries of the Church of the Brethren has been hosting #ConversationsTogether and online discussions about the book Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together the African Way.

I have very much enjoyed hosting #ConversationsTogether.  It has been a highlight each week to gather with people from across the denomination to listen and share stories as we journey together in reading and discussing Everyday Ubuntu. The chapters entitled “Put Yourself in the Shoes of Others,” “Strength Lies in Unity,” “Choose to See the Wider Perspective,”  “The Power of Forgiveness” and “Have Dignity and Respect for Yourself and Others” are just a handful of topics that have guided our conversation. We also were able to have a discussion with the author, Mungi Ngomane, and Brethren from both the US and Africa were in attendance. Mungi is a peace and justice advocate, a board member of the Tutu Foundation, and the granddaughter of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and it was a blessing to talk with her.

Carolyn Fitzkee of Lancaster (Pa.) Church of the Brethren said, “Being an introvert, this online Zoom experience has stretched me out of my ‘comfort zone.’ I have been blessed by meeting new people from across the denomination and challenged in my faith by studying the concept of ‘ubuntu.’ I especially enjoyed finding scriptures to go along with each lesson.” 

Michaela Alphonse, pastor of Miami (Fla.) First Church of the Brethren shared, “The book discussion group has created a space to talk about race and justice, what it means to live in an interdependent society, and what it looks like to be in relationship with one another.”  

Reading and discussing Everyday Ubuntu has helped us “have a deeper respect for one another, in spite of major differences,” said Eric Anspaugh Central (Va.) Church of the Brethren of Roanoke.  “I am learning so much about myself and experiencing the insights of others.”

Ellen Whitcare Wile of Easton (Md.) Church of the Brethren shared that she has appreciated “talking with others from wide and varied experiences about how it is possible to build unity by working together.” She continued, “In order to live prosperously together, it is so important to reconcile where needed, and be truthful and respectful of each other.”

In what ways are you being in community in this season? How are you, your church, family, or community connecting with others during this time? Churches from around the denomination are connecting online and in other ways to break through isolation and build community. Virlina District and Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke have welcomed more than 50 people in an online book discussion of The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby.  Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren will be discussing this book also.  Peace Covenant (N.C.) Church of the Brethren will be reading and discussing How to Be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

If you’re interested in joining a discussion:

> Connect online for #JourneyThroughJulyandAugust, an online series of racial justice and intercultural educational posts at the Intercultural Ministries Facebook page (www.facebook.com/interculturalcob).  #JourneyThroughJulyandAugust is co-hosted by the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Intercultural Ministries.

> Join us Thursday, Aug. 6, 1 p.m. Eastern Time for “What It Means to Be an Anti-racist Church in These Times,” an interview with Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion.  She is the author of books including Reimagining Spirit, Keeping Hope Alive: The Sermons of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. and co-author of Intercultural Ministry. This event is co-hosted by the Office of Ministry and Intercultural Ministries.

However you are able to connect with us and the larger church in this season, may the Lord bless you!

Learn more about Intercultural Ministries at www.brethren.org/intercultural, receive resources by joining the Intercultural Ministries email list at www.brethren.org/intouch, or support this Core Ministry of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/givediscipleship.

Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit: Equal in God’s Eyes: Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel/Palestine

OPP Report on the Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit by Galen Fitzkee

Representatives of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy (OPP) tuned in to the annual Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) Advocacy Summit on Monday, June 22, to become more educated about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and advocacy efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. We were soon reminded that a virtual conference is not a perfect substitute for meeting together on Capitol Hill, however technical difficulties were resolved in short order and the program commenced. The theme of the webinar was Equal in God’s Eyes, Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel and Palestine and focused heavily on the efforts we can all take to promote a peaceful and holistic solution to the fraught situation between Israel and Palestine.
Jeremey Ben Ami of J Street oriented those of us who were less knowledgeable with a brief summary of the human and political considerations involved in the fight against annexation of Palestine. He shared a message of optimism and encouraged each of us to get involved to change the course of American policy and thus the future of the Palestinian and Israeli people who both deserve a right to control their own futures. Ben Ami answered some questions about the immediate future of the region and layed out points of action that the US can take including clearly defining purposes for financial aid and making fair and balanced criticism of Israeli actions in international bodies.

COVID, Middle East, and Intersectionality

Next, we quickly transitioned into a panel of speakers from all over the world including Jerusalem, Gaza, Geneva, and the United States to talk about the human rights work of their various organizations. COVID-19 is making a tough situation worse throughout the Middle East and all around the world, according to World Council of Churches rep Carla Khijoyan. Jessica Montell, executive director of Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, reminded us that restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus are necessary but can be used as a pretext for human rights abuses and actually exacerbate other injustices. Bassam Nasser of CRS informed us about the current reality of life in Gaza, which has been defined by intense restrictions since before the pandemic. He noted new restrictions particularly affect access to education, which is usually a source of hope for Palestinians looking for a way to overcome their oppression. Overall, they encouraged us to get our information directly from the source and to focus on people rather than politics to both solve a humanitarian crisis and address the systems of power that undermine sovereignty and contribute to instability for all parties.

CMEP Overview

After a break for lunch, CMEP provided us an overview of their mission and programs that work to Educate, Elevate, and Advocate for the Middle East. Initiatives such as Pilgrimage to Peace Tours offer a first-hand look at the conditions in Israel/Palestine and help build relationships with local peacebuilders. CMEP also has made an effort to bring marginalized women’s voices to the forefront in the peace movement. Conflict resolution, even between extreme ideological groups. CMEP demonstrated that they have meaningful connections with faith leaders all across the region in places like Egypt and Iraq, and our very own Nathan Hosler made an appearance in a picture with members of CMEP and the Assyrian Church in Erbil. CMEP offers a wealth of video resources on their website as well as educational literature and ways to get involved with advocacy for peace. They often use the hashtag #ChurchesAgainstAnnexation on social media.

Protecting our Right to Stand for Palestinian Freedom

In light of the current unrest due to racial injustice in the United States, CMEP welcomed Dima Khalidi of Palestinian Legal Aid to draw parallels between the plight of Black Americans and Palestinians. “We are all held captive by a global system that prioritizes profit over people” she said as she encouraged us to hold fast to the truth about inequality and systemic realities that affect our neighbors here at home and abroad. Once we understand our origins, there is a responsibility to finally react to the work of black artists and organizers that implore us to act. We must follow their lead and listen to the solutions that they require in order to imagine an alternative society that is free of oppression. The response to movements against oppression such as the Black Lives Matter coalition has been and will continue to be repression and mislabeling, which we have seen first-hand in the United States. Palestinians face repression in the fight for their rights too. Leader reputations take a serious hit from smear campaigns and intense legal scrutiny in Palestine just because they speak out in favor of Palestinian rights. These threats and mischaracterizations of Palestine as terroristic or anti-Semitic have increased as grassroots support has grown. Pro-Israel groups have unleashed an assault on peaceful advocacy by bogging down efforts toward progress in legislation and seeking to criminalize and intimidate dissent strategies such as boycotting. While Khalidi wanted to make clear that the root causes of the situations in the US and Palestine are fundamentally different, it is amazing that we are witnessing similar strategies from the US and Israeli governments play out in real time. So, what can we do to stand with those fighting the uphill battle against oppression and subsequently repression? First, we must protect the right of advocacy and free speech rights as ways to dissent and fight for social justice. We should recognize that bold demands will not be easily accepted by the powers that be in either case because they have a stake in the oppression of minorities and the status quo. Finally, we must go back to the roots of the injustice in Palestine and the US so that reform and redevelopment can result in holistic and lasting changes. Khalidi left us to ponder a variation of the following question: Are we willing to listen to the oppressed and give up comfortability in order to finally achieve the worldly embodiment of Equality in God’s Eyes?

Foreign Policy and Election Panel

Since 2020 is an election year and the presidential election is fast-approaching, CMEP Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations Kyle Cristofalo hosted a panel of experts to address United States foreign policy. The consensus of these experts was that the current administration and ambassador to Israel David Friedman have been enabling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s far right policies by encouraging de jure annexation and other illicit activities. They encouraged us to take a look at writings and actions that began at the outset of the administration’s term which include: recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, discontinuing aid to UNRWA and consequently Palestinian refugees, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, D.C., allowing incremental annexation of the Golan heights, failing to recognize violations of international law, and pushing a one-sided peace plan. The pattern of action in US foreign policy has been blatantly pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people and hope for a two-state solution. Going forward, policy considerations should seek to reverse this steep trend towards the annexation of Palestinian territory and depoliticize the policies themselves. We were encouraged to maintain awareness of the human rights abuses occurring in the middle east. We can expect more of the same from a second term of a Trump administration who will likely continue to move the goalposts when it comes to opposing annexation as they seek to make changes irreversible. The speculation is that a Biden administration would not take a firm pro-Palestinian stance but may reengage with multilateral organizations and reverse extreme policy shifts that have occurred. It is likely that if Palestinians were able to vote in the US election that they would support a changing of the guard, however the unfortunately reality on the ground is that the Palestinian people continue to lose freedoms and the sovereignty of their own nation every day.

Closing

In closing, Grace Al-Zoughbi Arteen, a Palestinian Christian and accomplished instructor at Bethlehem Bible College, offered us a moving prayer in both English and Arabic. She reminded us of the meaning of the beatitudes for the oppressed, of our shared humanity and experiences, and of our hope in Jesus who offers us help, peace, and love.