Group travels to peace conference in Palestine
By Holly McCray
"It’s complicated." That one phrase dominated in separate interviews with six Oklahoma United Methodists who attended "Christ at the Checkpoint," a justice and reconciliation conference in Bethlehem, Palestine.
Joining Bishop Robert Hayes for the weeklong forum in March were laywoman Kelly Junk and clergy members D.A. Bennett, Matt Judkins, Linda Harker, and Jeremy Basset. President Bishara Awad of Bethlehem Bible College invited their participation when he met with Bishop Hayes in Oklahoma last year.
They were six of only 10 United Methodists, among about 600 participants.
The Oklahoma Conference is working to strengthen relationships for the purpose of mission, Rev. Bennett noted.
For him, this first trip to the Holy Land "was a very intense experience," he said. "The context does give a better understanding of the struggle between Israel and Palestine. Looking at Jerusalem, I had always dreamed about how in awe I would be, but my heart was filled with sadness."
He continued, "I understand there are extremists on every side. I didn’t feel anybody was asking me to choose sides. They just wanted me to hear their stories."
The wall that divides Israel and Palestine, meandering through cities and countryside, was a central subject in all the Oklahomans’ stories from their trip.
Walking beside that wall in Jerusalem’s Palestinian section, Bennett noticed a three-story house. Windows on its top floor were blocked, preventing residents from seeing over the wall and into the Israeli section.
Bishop Hayes pointed out wire mesh stretched over some Palestinian streets beside the wall in Hebron. He said it blocked objects thrown from Israeli settlements.
Hayes said, "When you actually stay in Palestine, not just visit as a tourist, you get a sense of what it’s like to be walled in, to be isolated there."
Junk appreciated "the opportunity to spend time in education and discussion with the bishop and other clergy that I respect." Just prior to the trip, she completed a Disciple Bible Study.
During a time of intercessory prayer at the conference, Junk watched people of differing nationalities and faiths get on their knees. "For me, the Lord said, ‘I am encouraging you; when I wake you in the night to pray for peace, you have a context for what that looks like.’"
She also said, "It was one thing to read about the wall. It was surreal going through it."
Watching Palestinians move slowly through a checkpoint in the wall at Bethlehem, to enter Israel, she imagined "just wanting to go to your job, to get across that checkpoint and live your life, not get involved in the politics of it all."
In Hebron, at Abraham’s tomb, Junk saw bullet-proof glass dividing the site into a synagogue and mosque. There was no shared entry.
Rev. Judkins’ experience "crystallized in the contrast between the desire for peace and the general anxiety in the communities." One conference speaker absolutely expected more conflict. "He was fearful. You heard that from him as a Palestinian, and the people on the Israeli side have fears as well. Jesus says not to fear, but then you hear the stories," Judkins said.
"I tried to put myself in the shoes of people on either side, as an Israeli parent who lost a child in a bombing or a parent in Palestine who experienced loss of land or a child. How would I feel toward the other group?"
Rev. Harker said, "There are no easy answers. I left with more angst in my soul for the people and became more fervent in my prayers for peace. We are called to love, honor, and respect all God’s children because we are all created in the image of God."
Several of the travelers named the Palestinian Christians, albeit an extremely small minority in the land of Jesus’ birth, as key to reconciliation.
Rev. Basset said, "The hope I draw on is that Jesus started with 12 disciples. It’s not about numbers; it’s about authentic witness."
The Oklahomans attended "to increase our experience and understanding of the issues in the Holy Land," he said. "It doesn’t mean the group agreed with everything. We were asked simply to listen, learn, and let this shape our own life and witness."
The Oklahoma Conference’s mission connection with the Bible College and Awad family is long established. VIM teams have served in both Israel and Palestine. In 2011, Kristen Brown of Oklahoma was commissioned as a missionary in Palestine. Rev. Brown accompanied the group at the conference, and they encircled her and prayed before parting.
The bishop summed up, "When we see those walls that are physical, maybe we can better come to understand the invisible walls that exist in Oklahoma. We have work here to do dismantling walls that are spiritual, that divide communities, races, denominations. Hunger, isolation, deprivation go on right here and everywhere around the world.
"I’ve got to bring back what I understand to see my own checkpoints and walls and how to dismantle them. This was about hope, peace, love, and how to get Christ into the midst of conflict. That’s why I went!"