NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The experience of participating in the 2011 Jerusalem Seminar sponsored by Bethel College and Tabor College caused Tom Harder, a Wichita pastor, to “lose my religion,” he said.
But it also renewed his faith.
Harder and his wife, Lois, co-pastors of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, were two of several pastors (including Kathy Neufeld Dunn, pastor of First Mennonite Church of McPherson, and Katherine and Peter Goerzen, youth pastor and lead pastor at Grace Hill Mennonite Church in rural Newton) who participated in the biennial interterm class.
The group – co-led by Patty Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel, and Doug Miller, professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor – also included 11 Bethel students, five Tabor students and 13 others from California, Kansas, Manitoba, Minnesota and Nebraska.
So deeply affected were the Bethel students by their encounters and conversations with Palestinians in Bethlehem, Hebron and Jerusalem, they decided to organize a meeting and invite anyone in the Newton-North Newton community with interest in the region and its issues to attend and talk about possible actions. The gathering, which took place Feb. 28, drew 50-60 people in addition to Shelly and most of the Bethel students from the trip. (The Tabor students had been invited but were unable to attend.)
At that meeting, Harder recalled the group’s visit to Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology center in Jerusalem with the purpose of working for justice, peace and liberation in Israel-Palestine.
“The director [of Sabeel] said outright that the Holy Scriptures are part of the problem,” Harder said. “That was jarring to me as a pastor who preaches from the Scripture each Sunday. Yet that is what Israel feels gives it the right to take the land from the Palestinians. So much injustice is done in the name of religion – we all use Scripture for our own ends.
“Yet God and Jesus are still present,” Harder continued, “and still weeping, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. God still empowers people to be signs of the kingdom. I lost my religion on this trip but my faith was revitalized.”
A common theme among the students’ sharing of their experience was learning to see from different perspectives.
“Here at home, all I hear on the news is about terrorist attacks on Israel, Israel as the victim,” said Emilie Doerksen, junior from Newton. “And visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, gave me a completely new perspective on the Holocaust.
“There are more sides to the story than I could ever have imagined. There are two narratives, struggling with two similar, but opposite, stories of suffering.”
Renee Reimer, sophomore from Sioux Falls, S.D., told of riding the tour bus into Bethlehem. “I always had a view of Bethlehem from the Christmas carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’” she said. “It was a holy place. As we drove into it, we came to the Separation Wall [built by the Israeli government to divide Palestinians from Israeli Jews]. Two guards got on our bus with their big guns. I was just sitting there, listening to my iPod and I looked up and there they were. The song took on a whole new meaning.”
Martin Olson, freshman from Denver, added, “The wall was so big, so much taller than the buildings [nearby]. It’s separating people, cities, into two groups, one with power and one with none. It struck me how wrong that was.”
Other students talked about the stories they heard from Palestinians who had tried vainly for years to get the necessary permits from Israeli authorities to build homes or add to existing ones, some who had seen their homes demolished, often multiple times.
“We have a lot of Western guilt about the Holocaust,” Naomi Graber, junior from Elkhart, Ind., pointed out. “We don’t want to downplay that, but we want to tell other stories that have happened and are happening – about genocide, hatred, about trying to destroy a whole people.
“We need to remember the past in order to influence the future and change the world around us.”
After an hour of sharing stories from both Jerusalem Seminar members and others, the group spent a second hour talking about possible community action in response to some of the injustices involving Palestinians.
Graber shared examples of how students at Eastern Mennonite University, which also has a regular Middle East travel course, and Goshen College, where the daughter of a Palestinian the group met with attends, have responded.
“It’s appropriate for a Mennonite college to be a voice and active for peace,” Graber said. “There are historical roots for both sides of the [conflict]. Our role as Christians is to be active for justice and bring Jesus’ message of hope and love.
“It does mean speaking politically,” she continued. “My tax dollars support wars I don’t believe in. Seven million dollars a day [in U.S. aid] to Israel is a lot of money when we’re talking about cutting vital services to our own citizens.”
“As Christians, we need to find a way to engage one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, D.C.: evangelical Christians,” Patty Shelly noted. “We could be having conversations in our churches, our neighborhoods and our local ministerial alliances about both anti-Semitism and Christian Zionism.”
Some of the suggestions included Bethel students getting involved in a proposed action at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh in July; exploring Bethel College investments and advocating for divestment from Israel if appropriate; hosting a five-film festival of Palestinian films later this spring; a letter-writing event aimed at lawmakers; and holding a vigil to pray for peace.
“We’re a people of faith and so are many Bethel supporters,” said Allison Schrag, junior from Newton, who suggested the prayer vigil. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.” Harder added, “One of the things Jesus would have us do is weep and pray.”
He also pointed to the example of two Catholic nuns who were serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron when the Jerusalem Seminar group visited.
“They modeled what Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount,” Harder said. “‘Love your enemy and resist evil.’ There is a need and a call to be prophetic – what makes the Jesus way different is it’s done in love.”