Tag Archives: Israel/Palestine

Love in Action at Mennonite Church USA Convention 2017

This year thousands of Mennonites from across the United States gathered in Orlando, Florida for the biennial Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) Convention. The purpose of convention is to empower the church to achieve its vision, purpose and mission. Over the four days, members of congregations from across the country attend daily worship, workshops/seminars, participate in servant projects and delegates from MCUSA Congregations and Conferences attend business sessions. This year there was also the Future Church Summit, “a generative, open space for denomination-wide conversation — to dream together, reset priorities and engage one another in answering the question: How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?”

The week began on Tuesday evening, July 4; several offered greetings, including Mennonite Church Canada’s Executive Minister, Will Metrzger. Recognizing July 4 as the United States’ Independence Day he stated, “while some are celebrating with bombs bursting in air, we are celebrating the explosion of God’s grace.”

The theme for this year’s convention was Love is a Verb. Worship speakers focused on this theme, and workshops spoke of how we can live out the love of God, covering topics of church safety, patriarchy, racism, Israel Palestine,  “Keeping the Church Weird” and hearing God’s call, among others.

Sometimes love as a verb means recognizing and acknowledging when we have not loved. Ted & Company, in their new show Discovery: A Comic Lament, shared the Doctrine of Discovery and how even we as Mennonites have played a role in justifying the taking of land from the indigenous people here in the United States. It was a sobering reminder as we began the week.

Maria Hosler Byler and Joe Hackman, Salford congregation, celebrate their nomination.

Wednesday brought the Dove’s Nest awards celebration, recognizing churches “that did something courageous to keep children safe.” Salford Mennonite Church was one of the three nominee finalists. They were nominated for their service that happened at the end of March, which focused on the journey of abuse and healing as reflected by the Ezekiel 37 passage about the valley of dry bones. This service included voices of lament, hope and direct statements from survivors of childhood sexual abuse. More resources and information on how this service was put together can be found at http://franconiaconference.org/church-safety/. Wednesday also brought a time of connecting for those from across Franconia Conference, as we gathered together for food, fellowship, and music by The Walking Roots.

Thursday contained two big events: voting on the Seeking Peace in Israel Palestine Resolution and the kick off of the Future Church Summit.  Two years ago at the Kansas City Convention, a resolution regarding Israel Palestine was tabled. Since then a three-person writing team and a ten-person reference team worked to draft a new resolution, the Seeking Peace in Israel Palestine Resolution. Prior to the vote on the resolution, delegates heard from the writing team, discussed in their table groups, and then heard comments, concerns and questions. There were overwhelming comments of support for the resolution which ultimately passed with 97% in favor.

The Future Church Summit was a new addition this year to Convention. It was a time of dreaming and visioning, and discerning how God is leading us to follow Jesus. Delegates were joined by others from throughout MCUSA including high school students who had been chosen to be part of the Summit. The first day was spent getting to know one another by answering questions such as “When did you feel most connected to the Mennonite Church? What nourishes your spirit by being Anabaptist?” There was also a time of grounding participants in the history of Anabaptism and Mennonites, drawing learnings from our past.

Convention continues Friday and Saturday morning. You can find out more about each of the days’ highlights on the Franconia Conference Facebook page or through the MCUSA daily recap newsletter here: http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/news/.

Palestinian and Jewish Voices for Peace

By Peder Wiegner, member at Norristown New Life and of the Conference Israel/Palestine Taskforce

Franconia Mennonite Conference (FMC) together with Living Branches hosted the Palestinian and Jewish Voices for Peace Tour on Saturday, April 22. The FMC Israel Palestine Task Force was key to organizing this event together with Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA).

Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian Mennonite and human rights lawyer, together with Rabbi Linda Holzman of Jewish Voices for Peace and organizer of the social justice community in Philadelphia called Tikkun Olam Chavurah, shared their stories, experiences, and analysis of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This was a key time to hear their stories and experiences as in July, Mennonites from around MCUSA will be voting on an important resolution at the MCUSA Convention in Orlando, FL.

The FMC Israel Palestine Task Force’s Preston Bush welcomed the thirty or so guests to the event and introduced the speakers, while everyone enjoyed a delicious breakfast.

Rabbi Holzman spoke of her journey in the Jewish community as it relates to the context of Israel and Palestine. Holzman highlighted that there are a wide range of views about Israel/Palestine among the Jewish community, while speaking of some of the things she was taught as a child she had to unlearn in order to be able to see the reality of the oppression of the Palestinian people. One of those teachings was that the land of Palestine was empty before the Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine, and another was that the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily, giving the land as a gift to the newly arriving Jewish settlers. Both of which she later learned to be false, as Palestinians were living there and had been working the land for centuries. Those who fled what is now Israel proper had their land taken from them, forcing them to become refugees never allowed to return home.

Rabbi Holzman reminded those present that criticism of the oppressive Israeli government does not come from Anti-Semitism; on the contrary, there is a wide variety of opinions and views within the Jewish world about Israel and Palestine. Not everyone is on board with supporting the oppressive regime.

She affirmed something that we Mennonites often declare. She said, “What I learned as a Jew was that everyone is created in the image of God and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. The Jews were enslaved in Egypt, and so we should never let others be enslaved. The Jews were strangers in the land and so we should treat strangers well.”

Rabbi Holzman closed by talking about intersectionality being the recognition of oppression of different kinds as being connected and also layered. For example, being a woman in a male-dominated society brings certain disadvantages, but those disadvantages are compounded for women of color in a society dominated by white privilege such as the U.S., or for a Palestinian woman in Israeli society. We need to open our eyes and see that the struggles of Palestinians are like those of people of color in the U.S. and like the struggles of indigenous groups all over the world.

Jonathan Kuttab then spoke about the current situation in Palestine today, the Kairos Palestine Document, the MCUSA Israel Palestine Resolution, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality holding to the principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. Palestinian civil society organizations have called for a nonviolent resistance strategy to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Part of this strategy includes the BDS movement. Yet many in the West are critical of this approach despite the fact that it is nonviolent. The BDS movement is a moral and ethical critique that bothers Israel. It bothers Israel so much that Israel has dedicated three government ministries to fighting it. That seems to be an indicator of the capacity of BDS.

Mr. Kuttab observed that Western Christians tend to hold Palestinians accountable when it comes to violence but often turn a blind eye to the violence perpetuated by Israel. Yet, they still have not supported the Palestinian-led non-violent strategies.

Many Palestinian Christians were shocked when the Mennonite church – a peace church – failed to pass a resolution in Kansas City in 2015, addressing the injustices perpetuated against the Palestinians. However, the new resolution being presented for the 2017 Convention provides an opportunity for Mennonites to end their silence on this issue and commit to being part of a just and peaceful solution in Israel/Palestine while at the same time speaking out against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other hateful ideologies in our churches and society.

This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Will we sit back and let the oppression of Palestinians continue without making a statement? We, the Task Force, invite our Franconia Conference delegates to Convention to support the Seeking Peace in Israel Palestine Resolution.

You can listen to a recording of the April 21st Palestinian and Jewish Voices for Peace Tour event at Germantown Mennonite Church here.

Toward a pro-Jesus approach: Visiting Israel & Palestine

by Yvonne Platts, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life

This week, we are sharing several reflections from participants on the October 2014 “Come and See” tour to Israel and Palestine. The tour is part of a broader initiative by Mennonite Church USA which encourages Mennonite pastors and leaders to travel to the region, to “come and see” what daily life is like for those who live there. 

Yvonne Platts. Photo by Sheri Wenger.
Yvonne Platts on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. Photo by Sheri Wenger.

In reflecting on my experience on the Come and See learning tour to Israel-Palestine this October, I find my heart pounding and thoughts racing. They are racing over what feels like an overwhelming sense of duty to help others connect to the struggle and plight that our Palestinian sisters and brothers are enduring.

I went on the tour in response to an invitation to Mennonite Church USA leaders (pastors, denominational leaders, others) to join learning tours to Israel-Palestine in response to the Kairos Palestine document. This document serves as a call to Christians throughout the world to come and see what is happening in Palestine and to stand with Palestinian Christians against injustice and apartheid in their region.

I was excited to have the opportunity to visit holy places such as the birthplace of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of Olives, and I was filled with curiosity about what was really going on in Israel and Palestine. I have come to realize that our U.S. news media does not always provide the most accurate reporting on the issues.

I was very intrigued by our goal of meeting with people “on the ground” to gain a better understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and realities, as well as learning about Palestinian and Israeli organizations that are working for peace and justice—including those with whom Mennonite agencies are partnering.

Another goal/expectation was that we would return home with a commitment to engage in education and advocacy regarding justice issues in Palestine and Israel, with the hope of moving toward a pro-justice, pro-peace and pro-Jesus approach—rather than simply a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian one.

Prior to this invitation, I never considered visiting the region and was mostly unaware of the degree to which Palestinians are subjected to injustices on a daily basis. Right away, my mind, body and soul identified similar patterns of oppression, abuse, labeling and discrimination that African Americans in the United States experienced during Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. I was reminded of the times of slavery, where families were separated and there was a deliberate movement by slave owners and the dominant culture to destroy people’s language and culture.

I can relate to the cries of people asking for justice to be done. What good are international laws if they cannot hold the government accountable?

What I saw and recognized was that despite an intentional and strategic plan to force people from a land and inflict upon them daily humiliation through checkpoints, to create purposeful hardships through the closing of significant streets, and more, a fearless spirit abounded of resistance and hope that people will be able to overcome these struggles.

Palestinian Christians are counting on people like me and you to support their efforts for peace. If you haven’t yet read the Kairos Palestine document, please do so. I encourage you also to support Mennonite Central Committee and their partner organizations that are doing good work in helping to restore humanity in the region.

Yvonne Platts is the minister of youth and community outreach at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. This piece originally appeared in “On the Way,” a publication of Mennonite Church USA. Reposted with permission. 

“The earth is the Lord’s”: Visiting Israel & Palestine

This week, we are sharing several reflections from participants on the October 2014 “Come and See” tour to Israel and Palestine. While Joy Sutter participated in the spring 2014 tour to Israel and Palestine, we wanted to include her reflections, which were shared with her fellow Mennonite Church USA executive board members at their June 2014 meeting. 

Participants in the Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Graber Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
Participants in the Spring Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Graber Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

“Come and see” were the prophetic words of an amazing journey I experienced with other Mennonite Church USA leaders in Israel-Palestine this spring. This simple invitation, to come and see, changed my worldview of the people, the politics and the pictures that I had formed in my mind prior to my visit. I always knew there was conflict happening in the Middle East, but until I was able to see it in person, I did not truly understand it, and it did not penetrate my soul.

I needed to come and see for myself so that I could better understand that the conflict in Israel-Palestine is:

  • both ancient and modern. It is deadly serious, and it is silly.
  • religious and secular.
  • fought with words, weapons and incorrect information presented in Western media.
  • about land, the air above it and the water below it.
  • about hoarding water, tearing down olive trees and building separate roads for Israelis to return to their settlement homes.
  • about 430 miles of a 20-foot-high wall with electrical fencing.
  • about watchtowers, tear gas, young Palestinians being detained and thrown into jail, interrogation and humiliation.

I heard the words of Jeremiah all the more clearly when he said, “They say peace, peace, when there is no peace” [6:14], and was reminded of Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”

A closing prayer

Leader:       We pray for laborers who cannot enter their place of work. We pray for youth and young adults who are losing hope for their future. We pray for mothers who are fed up with the bloodshed and killing and the constant use of military might. We pray for families who have lost loved ones.

Group:        Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader:       We pray that you would open the eyes of the world—of Israelis, of Palestinians, of Americans and Canadians—to this injustice. Help the world to see that the security and freedom of one people depends on the security and freedom of others.

Group:        Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader:       We pray for politicians, that they may realize that the security and peace we all long for will not come from the use of military force, but by assuring justice for all. Help us to be bold to speak for peace achieved through nonviolence as the only way for all peoples to work together for an equitable and just future.

Group:        Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader:       God, you have called us to be followers. Give us wisdom. Free us from hatred and bitterness. Fill us with agape love and a passion for justice, so that we might respect the rights and dignity of all. Help us to see your divine image in everyone.

Group:        Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

All:               And all God’s people say, “Amen.”

Joy Sutter, of East Norristown, Pennsylvania, is a member of the Mennonite Church USA executive board. This piece originally appeared in “On the Way,” a publication of Mennonite Church USA. Reposted with permission. 

Pastors, leaders travel to Israel and Palestine

by Brook Musselman, for the Come and See tour

This week, we are sharing several reflections from participants on the October 2014 “Come and See” tour to Israel and Palestine. The tour is part of a broader initiative by Mennonite Church USA which encourages Mennonite pastors and leaders to travel to the region, to “come and see” what daily life is like for those who live there. 

Our group of 12 pastors and leaders–from Atlantic Coast, Eastern District and Franconia Mennonite Conferences–traveled to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, having intellectually prepared ourselves by reading the history of and various perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We weren’t prepared for our encounter with the hard realities of life in this country that would shake our hope in humanity and reshape our worldview.

Photo by Sheri Wenger.
The group sits on steps outside of the Damascas gate, Jerusalem. Photo by Sheri Wenger.

One day, we were taken to a shrinking, dusty Palestinian village that sat in the shadow of a recently-built Israeli settlement. Our guide showed us the farm land that had been confiscated from the villagers for the use or disuse of the settlers. We saw the pond where the village children used to swim in the summer heat before they were chased away by armed settlers who came to the pond for their own recreation. We passed the entrance to the village where a checkpoint was often set up that made access to the outside world incredibly difficult.

We heard the perspectives of Jews who are hardened to the suffering they cause by decades and centuries of fear, persecution, and constant threat. They told us of the hope they have because of Zionism and the establishment of their homeland, but we were deeply frustrated to see the harm that this continues to cause nearly 70 years after independence.

Photo by Sheri Wenger.
The group on a tour of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is said to be built over the place where Jesus was born. It was site of refuge for Palestinians during recent violence. Photo by Sheri Wenger.

We also met Jews who love their country but cannot support the oppressive actions of their government, so they endure teargas, rubber bullets, beatings, and arrests by the Israeli Army to stand alongside those without power.

In our brief time touring both sides of the dividing wall, we heard stories from the people that were both encouraging and discouraging. At times, we felt like throwing up our hands and admitting that there is no hope for justice or peace in this place. Each of us felt frustrated by the discrimination, inhumanity, and senseless violence inflicted upon the Palestinian people. We also felt anger toward the international community and especially our own government that acknowledges these atrocities but doesn’t take action.

But in spite of the discouragement we so often felt, we heard story after story showing the tenacity of the Palestinian people and their hope for a future. One of our guides was a Palestinian Christian with ancestry tracing back to the earliest disciples, who works tirelessly and daily risks imprisonment to raise awareness and promote peace in the area. Stories like this inspired us to come home and tell the stories of those in need of a voice and to promote shalom at home and abroad by encouraging all to be peacemakers in our broken world.

“Come and See”: Mennonite leaders visit Israel/Palestine

Participants in the Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Graber Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
Participants in the Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Graber Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

by Jenn Carreto for Mennonite Church USA

Fifteen board members and staff representing various Mennonite agencies and organizations traveled to Israel/Palestine Feb. 24–March 4 to take part in a “Come and See” learning tour; participants included Joy Sutter, a member of Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board from Salford congregation, and Noel Santiago, a member of Mennonite Education Agency’s board and a staff member for Franconia Conference.The tour marked the beginning of a denominational initiative to send 100 Mennonite leaders to the region on similar tours over the next five years.

While 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” (www.kairospalestine.ps).

A coalition representing a range of 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 memories of our experiences keep intruding on my everyday thoughts some two weeks after our return,” reflected Chad Horning of Goshen, Ind., Chief Investment Officer of Everence and a member of the learning tour. “I am inspired by the steadfastness of Palestinians and Israelis alike in working for peace in the face of many years of disappointments.”

The learning tour followed the path of Jesus’ life by traveling to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and finally, Jerusalem. Along the way, they visited Bethlehem Bible College, Nazareth Village, refugee camps, settlements and community organizations, meeting local activists and villagers in each setting and hearing their stories. In Jerusalem they spent time at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and attended a Jewish Sabbath service. The group 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. Horning said he 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.

Participants brought with them a range of experience and familiarity with the region. Some had visited or served there, but most were witnessing the realities for the first time.

Madeline Maldonado, associate pastor of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Arca de Salvación, Fort Myers, Fla., and board chair for Mennonite Mission Network, was a first-time visitor to the region. 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 Mennonite Church 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?”

In addition to questions about the United States government’s involvement in the region, the group was encouraged the 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, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA. “We return better prepared to pray and work for God’s peace and blessing for everyone in this land.”

In 2011, Mennonite Church USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman—in consultation with the Executive Board (EB)—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 EB also wrote a letter to members of Mennonite Church USA, asking them to read and discuss the Kairos document, to study Scriptures together on the matter and to consider how their financial lives may be enmeshed in the occupation of Israel.

In 2013, the EB underscored its desire to help the church more fully understand both the Israeli and Palestinian experiences and the role of Christian Zionism in this conflict. A “Come and See” fund was established with initial contributions from Mennonite Central Committee U.S., Mennonite Mission Network and Everence to offer some scholarships for present and future learning tours. Individuals, agencies and local congregations covered the remainder, according to Stoner.

For more reflections from learning tour participants, see: www.mennoniteusa.org/2014/02/26/israel-palestine-learning-tour-travelogue

The next Israel/Palestine learning tour is scheduled for October 2014 and will include participants from Franconia Mennonite Conference, Eastern District Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. There are limited spots available and some possible financial assistance is available as well.  Contact Steve Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org, to express interest and learn more.  To be considered as part of the delegation, you must contact Steve by April 7, 2014.  This trip is intended for persons who have not previously traveled to the region.