We have spoken often of bringing groups together as a foundational part of reconciliation. Yet in situations where there is an imbalance of power, or inner-group misinformation or discord, there is also a need to strengthen each side prior to bringing the two groups together. We currently do this with Palestinian Christian women on their own, separate Palestinian Muslim and Christian groups, and we hope to start an Israeli Messianic Jewish women’s group very soon.
In our Bridge Building program we bring together people from different faith backgrounds, as achieving reconciliation in our society is dependent on reaching all aspects of our greater communities. During some of our Bridge Building initiatives, we have noted that compared to other areas, Bethlehem Christians face a lot of division and lack of cohesion in their community. There is division along denominational lines, as well as between dominant families, and the families that came to Bethlehem as refugees during previous wars. Bethlehem has also lost many leaders due to emigration, leaving the Christian community weakened. As a result of these issues, this past April 18-21, we took 24 young community leaders, including business men and women, teachers, and lawyers to the desert in Wadi Ram. Many current leaders in the Messianic Jewish and Palestinian Christian communities have noted how their desert experience as up-and-coming leaders of their community positively influenced their outlook on the other, and enhanced their spiritual life and relationship not only with the other side, but with the Lord as well. We embarked on this desert trip with the hope that this experience would make an impression and heal the divide between the various Bethlehem Christian communities and families represented.
We explored and learned about the desert together, and encouraged relationship building as we do on these trips. Our teachings focused on three primary passages, The Lord is My Shepherd, The Lord’s Prayer, and the The Sermon on the Mount. While these are passages with which we are all familiar, we encouraged participants to look at them in a new way and allow our togetherness and setting in the desert to influence our understanding. When we read through Psalm 23, we reflected on God’s provision for us, how he cares for us and heals us. Applying this to the challenges this group faces in their relationships in Bethlehem, we thought about how God is with us and seeks to guide us, bless us, and instruct us. Then, we turned to Matthew 6:9-13 where Jesus taught us how to pray. Many of our participants from more traditional churches were accustomed to reading through this passage quickly as a part of liturgy, yet when we read it together, we asked participants to read it slowly, line by line, and think about the depth of meaning in the words. It was amazing to hear the participants’ response. For many, this was the first time they thought about how this passage applies to their daily lives, and they found a new comfort in this scripture. They reflected on how they need not be fearful of the future, including the political context we face. They also noted how forgiveness is a strength, not a weakness, and the implication this has on their lives and the life of the Christian community. Finally, we turned to Matthew 5 and part of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. We applied this to our situation, and how we are to relate and respond to others, even in times of conflict in between our Christian community, and as well as Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general.
We also spent time performing a SWOT analysis of the Bethlehem Christian community. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and is a method of evaluation we use in many of Musalaha’s projects. Thinking carefully and critically about our current situation, we discovered many more strengths in our community than we originally anticipated, which was encouraging. It helped us reflect on the positive aspects of our community more so than the negative aspects that so easily come to mind when dealing with groups facing division and inner strife.
One interesting part of the trip we did not expect, but were pleasantly surprised by, was the familiarity of traditional church members with evangelical Arab worship songs. They knew the words and tunes, and obviously used this in worship in the past. This was encouraging for those of us from evangelical backgrounds as we can explore more venues to spiritually impact others in coming closer to the Lord through our worship.
Prior to leaving, our participants strongly emphasized their desire to learn more and grow deeper in their spiritual lives. We were overwhelmed at the positive response of participants in this regard, and the spiritual hunger they expressed. Christians from Bethlehem often hold this aspect of their identity as a badge of honor – they are a living and continuing testimony of faithfulness and continuity in the place of Jesus’ birth – yet our participants recognized that this is not enough. They realized they need to develop and cultivate their spiritual identity, and many of these young leaders exhibited a hunger to know more about Scripture and its teachings. Scripture has a message for us today in our current context and situation, and the Christian community’s future depends on cultivating its Christian identity, both individual and communal. We at Musalaha are excited to be a part of this as this group has requested ongoing spiritual input and Bible study from us in follow up meetings, and we look forward to how God will strengthen the Christian community of Bethlehem.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D