ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Church USA) — Nearly four years ago, Mennonite Church USA members were invited to “Come and See” the situation in Israel/Palestine for themselves. In the time since, a series of learning tours have enabled 112 church leaders to meet Israelis and Palestinians and learn from their realities.
The roots of the initiative go back to October 2011, when Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman wrote an open letter on behalf of the denomination’s Executive Board, responding to a cry for help from Palestinian Christians. The letter pledged to “promote and expand opportunities for our leaders and members to visit you and learn firsthand about your suffering.”
A “Come and See” committee that included Executive Board staff along with staff from Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Everence was charged with giving guidance and oversight to this initiative. The “Come and See” committee developed goals and funding for the tour, and collaborated with MCC staff in Jerusalem to create an itinerary. One of the goals called for sending at least 100 leaders on the tours within five years.
The first tour group, composed of agency board members and senior staff, made the trip in February-March 2014. A positive experience led to continued development of the tours, and more soon followed: two more in 2014, three in 2015, four in 2016 and two earlier this year. Most of the tours ranged in size from 12 to 15 people. Many were done in partnership with area conferences or Mennonite mission agencies, and one with Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas). The final tour included primarily Hispanic leaders from across the church; in all, more than 30 percent of tour participants were leaders of color.
The committee provided a $1,000 scholarship for each participant in the official tours and $500 for pastors who joined other tours that met the “Come and See” criteria. Additional need-based aid was given in some cases. Participants, in turn, were asked to do some preparatory reading and to identify at least two venues where they could share about their experience after returning.
“I think these tours were often quite transformative for participants,” said Andre Gingerich Stoner, who served as Director of Holistic Witness for Mennonite Church USA through last year and has continued to help coordinate the tours. “And we have now achieved our goal, having sent 110 leaders on these tours in the past three and a half years.”
Participants came from a variety of settings. Area conferences were key partners in the effort, recruiting pastors, board members and other leaders. Mennonite mission agencies, colleges, Hispanic ministry leaders and others were also partners. More than 30 percent of participants were leaders of color.
Heidi Regier Kreider of North Newton, Kansas, conference minister for Western District Conference (WDC), went on the April 2016 tour. She had traveled to the region previously, but she says the variety of people in the “Come and See” group added to the experience this time.
“I was enriched by the opportunity to share travel experiences with others in our tour group, persons from different ethnic, cultural and theological backgrounds who brought a range of different perspectives and insights,” Kreider said. “As we together reflected on complex issues in the face of violence and oppression, the group also offered pastoral care and compassionate listening to one another.”
After returning, Kreider and other tour participants led joint presentations and did a workshop at the WDC assembly. Many also did individual presentations, and WDC has hosted expert speakers for other sessions on the topic.
“WDC’s mission is to ‘Empower congregations to witness and invite others to faith in Jesus Christ, dwell in just and loving relationships, and connect to God’s mission in the world,” Kreider says. “For me as conference minister, the tour was a way to live out the third part of that mission — to connect to God’s mission in the world. It gave our conference an opportunity to be part of Mennonite Church USA’s response to the conflict and oppression in Israel/Palestine, and to see ourselves as part of a larger community of faith.”
Ana Alicia Hinojosa, Immigration Education Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States in Brownsville, Texas, went on a more recent tour, traveling with a group of Latino and African-American church leaders this past March. It was her first experience in Israel/Palestine, and she says it was eye-opening.
“I will admit that I was not very informed of the conflict in Palestine/Israel, except for what I had learned through history books in our public education system,” Hinojosa said. “As I prepared for this tour I began to see the injustice that has been happening for decades in this country. I experienced fear, anguish, sadness and anger, sometimes all at once. I left with so many questions to ponder and what we could do to help. Not a day goes by that I don’t pray for this conflict. My heart has been moved to action, to actively educate people of about the truth of what is truly happening in this part of our world, to be a voice for those who have no voice in this country of injustice and conflict.”
Hinojosa says she encountered particular resonance between her work with immigration in the United States and what she saw along the border areas of Israel/Palestine.
“This was the biggest and scariest area for me to realize,” Hinojosa says. “I live one mile from the US/Mexico border ‘fence’ and two miles from a US Border Patrol Checkpoint, so seeing what walls and checkpoints have done in Palestine/Israel was mind-numbing.”
Hinojosa noted a quote from Jamal Jumá, who is part of an organization called Stop the Wall: “All we want is our freedom. You will never know what it is like to lose your freedom until it is taken away from you.”
For Kreider, the experiences of the tour left her with a mix of emotions.
“At times I felt paralyzed by the overwhelming complexity of the situation,” Kreider says. “Yet, I also was inspired by the persistence and courage of those who continue resisting oppression and working for creative and life-giving transformation in Israel/Palestine. And I cherish the many signs of goodness that we witnessed on our tour, in the hospitality we experienced, the delicious food we enjoyed, the natural landscape and creativity of art and architecture, the generosity and beauty of people.”
Mennonite Church USA and its related groups have been engaged with issues in the region in a variety of ways, including the presence of mission agencies, training for peacemakers and educational programs, including a Jewish and Palestinian “Voices for Peace” tour this spring. While the “Come and See” tour program has concluded, those other efforts will be continuing. Delegates at next month’s Mennonite Church USA convention will also consider a resolution on Israel/Palestine that has been refined and expanded since being tabled at the 2015 convention in Kansas City.
In the midst of it all, Hinojosa called for ongoing awareness and prayer for the people of the region.
“My prayer for all of us is to continue to speak out to educate everyone of the reality of what the people of Palestine/Israel encounter every day,” she said. “I ask for us to pray for peace in this country and for our country and its leaders.”
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