Churches take on Palestinian issue

A panel offers tips for how to get churches talking about Israel and Palestine.

By Bob Allen

Promoting peacemaking in the local church can be tricky when broaching conflicts about which people disagree, panelists advised Baptists in Washington, D.C., attending a Nov. 8-10 conference on "Waging Peace in Palestine and Israel" sponsored by the Alliance of Baptists.

Roger Sundy, a longtime member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., said his congregation’s current interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict began about a year ago when a guest speaker sharply criticized Israel’s policies from the pulpit in a church viewed as overwhelmingly progressive.

“Some of the responses to that sermon were really surprising,” Sundy said. “Strong exception was made to characterizing Israel’s actions as ethnic cleansing, a very powerful indictment. Other members of our community had strong negative reactions to the use of our pulpit for something of this sort. And valued members in our community had family members who had suffered during the Holocaust.”

palestinepanel“It was an extremely difficult message for many folks,” he said. “To me it’s important that in peace work you be sensitive and honor every person and every point of view. It’s not that you agree, but that you give honor to those who may disagree.”

Kay Tarazi, a member of Ravensworth Baptist Church in Annandale, Va., said her congregation’s involvement began much earlier, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Her husband, G.J. Tarazi, a Palestinian-American who chairs the Alliance of Baptists’ Community for Justice in Palestine and Israel, got many questions about what is going on in the Middle East and what is behind hatred of Americans in much of the Arab world.

Those conversations prompted a couple of seminars followed by three trips to Israel since 2005 to witness firsthand problems like water shortages, house demolitions and travel restrictions in the occupied West Bank.

“Two positive fallouts of travel were seeing the occupation up close, and having those relationships with so many Palestinian people and falling in love with them,” Tarazi said. “The traveling has broken any stereotypes we were still clinging to about Palestinians being suicide bombers and more dangerous or hostile.”

Tarazi said she already knew that because her husband and his family are some of the most generous people she knows. “I thought it was his family, and what I learned in Palestine is, oh no, it’s the culture,” she said.

“I remember going into Bethlehem and asking someone at the international center: ‘I want to go down the street — I’m freezing, it’s February — and buy a warm hat and scarf. What’s the going price? Do they barter in Bethlehem like some countries?’ And he said, ‘Well they might, but you can trust what he tells you is the truth and you can walk down there by yourself. It’s going to be OK.’” She said, “And I did, and it was true.”

Rick Goodman, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, said one obstacle in getting a new group interested in Palestinian issues off the ground is that the church is already deeply invested in work with Salvadorans in the community, taking up a lot of energy and time. That obstacle also presented an opportunity, however, when Edgar Palacios, Calvary’s associate pastor for that ministry, immediately got on board.

“He said there are two things in this world we must always work on, Palestine and Cuba,” Goodman said. Leslie Withers, who moderated the panel, added that her church, Oakhurst Baptist, has members who are from Cuba, and they are among the strongest supporters of the mission group focused on Palestine.

Sundy said one of the most exciting things the group at Oakhurst has done is to reach out to a neighboring Jewish congregation. That became a teachable moment, however, when discussions were held about planning an open discussion about Israel and Palestine to be held on the weekend of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day.

“That was a bridge too far,” Sundy said. “It was a subject too raw, a topic too hot for such a holy occasion. Some of us likened it to trying to stage a controversy during the afternoon on Easter. You know how that would go down.”