DOC/UCC Leadership Pilgrimage to the Middle East Blog

DOC/UCC Leadership Pilgrimage to the Middle East Blog

At General Synod and General Assembly 2015, Global Ministries is launching the Middle East Initiative. The Global Ministries Middle East Initiative invites the whole church to focus on the region of the Middle East for the next 18 months, through the end of 2016. Through highlighting aspects of mission and partnership, the Initiative offers an opportunity for the church to become familiar with the range of denominational partners in the region, the issues they face, and the context in which they face them.

leadershiptrip.JPGWhile this initiative is being led by Global Ministries, the whole church is invited to participate, including general ministries, Regions and Conferences and, of course, local churches. In anticipation of the launch, various leaders from both the UCC and Disciples are traveling to the Middle East to visit partners that work in the region, learning from them about their contexts, how they are seeking to address vital issues, and how we can all walk together in solidarity with one another.  We will begin our trip in Amman, Jordan, and we invite you to journey, learn, and be inspired with us by the faith and lives of our partners.

Trip participants include:

Jon Barnes, Executive for Mission Education, Global Ministries
Ron Degges, President, Division of Homeland Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Pat Donahoo, Executive Director, Disciples Women
Chris Dorsey, President, Higher Education and Leadership Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
Peter Makari, Executive for the Europe and the Middle East, Global Ministries
Katie McCloskey, Director, Social Responsibility, United Church Funds
James Moos, Co-Executive of Global Ministries and Executive Minister, Wider Church Ministries, UCC
Sharon Moos
Anthony Moujaes, United Church News
Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, United Church of Christ
Paul Tche, Moderator-Elect, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Bernard Wilson, Chair, United Church of Christ Board

We hope that you will participate with us in these coming months as we seek to build on an enduring legacy, sustain hope for the future, and envision together a just peace for the region and our world.

Follow DOC/UCC Leadership Pilgrimage to the Middle East Blog in the coming days to share in the learnings of this trip.

By Jon Barnes, Executive of Mission Education, Global Ministries

Read an Article about our journey today posted on the UCC News website.

Day 1:

We stood nervously in line at the immigration control desk at the airport in Amman, Jordan, waiting to be given permission to enter the country for a visit with church partners.  This group of thirteen seasoned travelers, leaders in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), had all the necessary documents in hand.  Yet, I found myself swaying from foot to foot as each person in the group stepped up to the desk to receive that stamp on the passport indicating we could cross over into Jordan.  The relief felt physical as I picked up my own bags and joined colleagues in stepping officially over the international border into the beginnings of our eagerly anticipated solidarity and accompaniment visit in the Middle East.

The experience made me reflect once again on the journey of refugees.  What would it feel like to journey toward, and hopefully across, that international border without documents or not sure if your temporary documents will be accepted once you step up to the officer?  We arrived for two weeks with multiple bags.  Refugees arrive with what can be carried. We left loved ones safely at home and miss them.  Refugees leave loved ones in unknown or continuing dangerous situations and miss them.

Peter_and_Priest.jpgMy reflections on refugees crossing borders were reinforced during visits arranged by the Orthodox Initiative of the Middle East Council of Churches.  Throughout the day, we met with refugees and with those in Jordan who work long term and tirelessly with them. We sat in a church parlor with families from Syria and from Iraq, both Mosul and Baghdad, as they told us their stories. They were stories of experiencing violence and extreme fear.  We heard of the love of parents for their children and fear for their safety and for their futures.  And while expressing gratitude for Jordanians offering immediate safety and refuge, frustrations poured out about the long wait for resettlement possibilities and the lack of work visas or residency permits in Jordan.  Wafa, the head of the Orthodox Initiative spent much of the day translating between English and Arabic languages.  At times, she would add her own commentary, “These refugees from Syria and Iraq are just like us.  They are at home eating and working and going to school and suddenly they are fleeing with their home burning behind them.”

This despair, hopelessness and frustration is very real. No easy answers exist in this complex and complicated reality.  We saw the faces, heard the stories, hugged the shoulders and kissed both cheeks of those who struggle.  But that is not all we experienced today.

karak_center.jpgThe delegation also visited a youth community center near Karak, a couple of hours’ drive south in Jordan from Amman.  The Orthodox Initiative is working with a local university to establish a residential youth center to address the long term needs of refugees and the host community.  This youth center will build bridges between distinct groups – including participants who are Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees, and Palestinians who were refugees in 1948 and 1967 and now are Jordanian citizens.   It will build bridges of hope.  This is a poor area of the country with few employment opportunities.  Jordan does not have the infrastructure to enable the refugee youth to attend school.  Fears of extremist groups luring youth through social media with enticements of payment and purpose lay heavy on the hearts of adults in their lives. This youth center will provide education, vocational training, mentoring by those who can guide them in ways other than extremist groups, opportunities to play ball outside, and the possibility to make new friends.  At the heart of this work is the dignity of each person and of all the community together.  It is a long-term, whole-person, and community approach.

wafa_at_center.jpgWhile with the refugee families, we thanked them for strengthening our faith through their witness, promising our continued advocacy on their behalf for peace in the region and for resettlement opportunities.  When one in our delegation asked, “What do you ask when you pray to God?”  The reply was, “Forgive me if there is anything wrong I have done.  Help all the poor people.  Help all those suffering from illness and poverty.  And never let my enemy see what I saw when women and children left home in fear in the middle of the night.” 

International border crossings are rarely easy.  Fleeing violence and living an uncertain future are incomprehensible to one who has not experienced such uprootedness.  What our new friends found in the local and wider church in Jordan though is a safe space that offers a place to wait and to hope – a new kind of home.  The prayers of all of us continue together.

By Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, United Church of Christ.

Read an Article about our journey today posted on the UCC News website.



Day 2

Baptisms, Borders, and Bridges

ELChurch.jpgWe began the day with driving west from Amman to visit the site where Jesus was baptized on the Jordan river. That is to say, it is the site where most archeologist and scholars say he was baptized. The area is called “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” and near the baptismal site the King of Jordan set aside land to be made available for a number of churches with a historic presence in the region to build churches there. The scene is spectacular.

The site of the churches sits high on a hill overlooking the Jordan river valley. From this site you can look down into the valley and across the river you can see the Israeli occupied territory of the Palestinian West Bank. Our guide was pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He led us down a quiet winding path toward the baptismal site. Along the way he pointed out some of the additional features of the area, which included baptismal pools, hermitage caves, and the ruins of 5th century monasteries. The facility around the baptismal is designed to accommodate a constant parade of a thousands of Baptismal_site.jpgvisitors a day. Today there are only a few of us, so we are able to explore the area at a leisurely pace. After we see the baptism site, we walk further down toward the riverbank. There we see the border between Jordan and the Israeli occupied territory of the Palestinian West Bank.

At this point of the Jordan, the river is no more than 30 feet across. The barrier between the countries consist of a pool type line of ‘floaties’ that presumably couldn’t keep even a child from crossing over. But there are cameras watching and undoubtedly there are armed guards nearby, out of sight, who would appear instantly if someone were to try to cross. But, for the experience of the visitors, the area must look and feel as peaceful as possible: the way Jesus would have experienced it. Looking across the barrier there is an Israeli controlled visitor center and a steady stream of tourists who are visiting what they are told is the site where Jesus was baptized. They come from many different countries, don baptismal gowns and wade into the water, there at the border to experience and connect with the One who routinely transgressed borders (both geographical and social) to speak of peace, justice. But no one dares cross this border.

As we leave the site, we walk back up toward the hill we came from and across a small wooden bridge. Our guide makes the comment. The problem with this region is that there are many borders and people are very good at constructing barriers and walls, but there aren’t enough bridges. We returned to our vehicles to prepare for our journey across the renowned King Hussein / Allenby bridge into the Israeli occupied territory of the Palestinian West Bank.

The process defies sufficient explanation. We had to check in on the Jordanian side with passport control and have our bags scanned before loading onto the bus. Having heard stories of the challenges of getting through the checkpoint, we were all anxious about the journey across the bridge. As we drove toward the occupied territories, this border was very different from the serene and minimally secured border near the baptism site. There were concrete barricades, barbed wire fences, and very visible guards with military grade weapons throughout the area. The bus arrived on the other side of the border and began the entry process of winding our way through passport control, magnetometers, and other elaborate border control measures. One thing became clear, the Palestinians who were making the journey were being put through additional measures and interrogation along the way.

Having made it across the bridge and after successfully completing the entry process, we boarded a private bus to travel to the next stop on our trip: Jericho. Jericho is said to be the oldest continuously settled city in the world. There we encountered bridges of a different sort.

YWCA_Jericho.jpgOur first stop was at the YWCA of Palestine. We had the chance to see the facility where volunteers and clients learn to prepare and package food to be sold in the region. It is an empowerment and training program specifically designed to help women, while providing opportunities for self-sustaining food independence in the region. We also heard about the history of YWCA and the many other programs they support. These program help women and their families deal with the harsh realities of living in the occupied territory. They connect women with resources and with job opportunities. The other site we visited was a youth service center for youth and young adults that was run mostly by young adults. It was a place where young Palestinians can go to socialize, learn life-skills, and get connected with educational and job opportunities. These represent bridges to a more hopeful future.

We left Jericho to complete our journey for the day by driving to Jerusalem. It was an interestingly complex day. A day of baptism, borders and bridges.

By Chris Dorsey, President, Higher Education and Leadership Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Read an Article about our journey today as well as the work of the YWCA Palestine


Day 3

Walls and Bridges

The visit to the Middle East is so full of experiences and thoughts it is difficult to try to put them together coherently. We bounce from the weight of all the history of this region to the awe of the details of our faith story tied to every location we visit.

We knew that sometimes the crossing from Jordan to Israel can be very slow, detailed, and frustrating. We also knew that sometimes, the answer is “no.” While we visited Jordan the anticipation of that time hung in the back of our minds. 

We walked the path down to the baptismal pool where historical evidence of churches and shrines marks what is believed to be the place where Jesus, against the Baptizer’s objections, was baptized by John…where the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. It was a time to remember our own baptisms as well as the significance of this place. The path that led there required a slow pace which presumably gave Jesus some rare time alone which, perhaps, prepared him to make this request of John.

Jordan_river.jpgAs we walked further on to the place where the Jordan River separates Jordan and Israel we were surprised to find that at least in these times of troubled ecology and lack of water the river crossing was small enough we could walk across it. Of course our political times would not permit this. On the Israel bank was a large ornate modern building where tourists came out in large groups, some jumping in the water in their underwear and others wearing white robes to be baptized in that part of the Jordan River. We meditated on the contrast between the wilderness walk to the baptismal pool and the more commercialized feel of the opposite side…the two sides separated by a rope…a wall but no bridge.

We met with the pastor of the Lutheran church there near the baptismal pool and he remarked, “we have too many walls and not enough bridges.” Exactly what that separation at the Jordan River symbolized.

As it turns out our crossing into Israel was uneventful…a bridge performing the function of a bridge.

Tear_Down_Wall.jpgToday we went into the walled off area of Palestine. We traveled through a checkpoint and followed a wall that seemed endless…a wall that separates God’s people from God’s people. We took some pictures of the wall where the Palestinians had tried to make it a wall with a new purpose…there was artwork, social commentary, nonviolent resistance, pleas for change, etc. One particularly notable message was “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall” recalling another wall that divided a people. There were beautiful designs and scriptures but the message was again “we have too many walls and not enough bridges.” 

For us as people of faith the walls that need the most attention are those walls we build in our minds and in our hearts. We build walls of ignorance and think we know a person’s situation by what others tell us about that person. We build walls of racism or xenophobia because we are told only the negative story of a group of people…not even knowing if those stories are true or if it is “spin.”

Wall.jpgThe story of the people of the Middle East reminds us of our American story…we build walls much more efficiently than we build bridges.

The bridge in our experience so far is what we were most anxious about. And, yet, the bridge allowed us to view the region from both sides of the Jordan River and was a blessing to our growing understanding and our experience of faith in the  Holy City of Jerusalem. 

Is this the story of who we are? Do we find security in walls and anxiety and fear in bridges? Is this who we are called to be? 

Tonight I am considering what walls I build and if they get in the way of my bridge building. 

By Pat Donahoo, Executive Director, Disciples Women

Read an Article about our journey today posted on the UCC News website


Day 4

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hebrews 13:1-2

Hospitality is one of the most important aspects of many cultures around the world.  Having lived internationally in southern Africa, I have had the opportunity to experience the warmth and grace of strangers opening their homes, sharing a meal and offering an invitation to engage deeply in conversation and life.  Sometimes these are once off experiences and one is grateful for paths crossed.  Other times, hospitality leads to lifelong friendships of love and care that are true gifts to all involved.

EAPPI.jpgToday our delegation visited Hebron.  It is a place filled with history.  As the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs, it is considered a holy city for Jews, Muslims and Christians.  It is specifically associated with Abraham and, for Muslims and Jews, the Ibrahimi Mosque and Abraham’s Synagogue.  However, it is also a place filled with a history of violence and pain, including the massacres of both Jews and Arabs in 1929 and 1994.  

Unfortunately, violence and pain continues today.  While we have heard much about life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories since our arrival two days ago, we experienced this in a much more profound and visceral way as we were led through the city by young people working with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a church program that places human rights monitors in the Occupied Territories to document and report cases of human rights abuses. The city is divided into areas of control, with the Palestinian Authority overseeing some zones, Israelis in charge of settlements in and around the city, and some areas of divided control.  To regulate the movement of Palestinians, there are eighteen checkpoints throughout the city, run by the Israeli Defense Force.  Today, our group experienced life in Hebron in a small way, accompanied by EAPPI monitors, who helped us navigate both the winding streets as well as the armed checkpoints. 

Hebron_check_point.jpgAs we walked, they shared their experiences over the past weeks of serving as human rights monitors.  We heard about the growth of Israeli settlements and the displacement of Palestinian families.  We heard about the daily harassment of Palestinians, including children on their way to school.  They shared their personal experiences of interviewing youth as young as 15 years old who had been arrested by security forces, emotionally and even physically abused, and sometimes even imprisoned for simply responding to settler provocations.  Everywhere we walked, we saw evidence of the occupation in the form of armed soldiers, watch towers, barbed wire and barricades, all part of the profound subjugation of Palestinians living in Hebron today.  As we walked, one person in our delegation remarked to me that “I can feel the oppression around us.  It is palpable.” 

Hebron_host_family.jpgNear the end of our time, we were told that, before leaving, we would eat lunch together.  We followed our guides off of a larger road to a side alley and then up a narrow flight of stairs.  At the top of the stairs, we entered into a large, welcoming room that had been prepared for us.  I don’t know about others in the group, but as I was invited to sit and to eat, the oppression and hatred that had been felt so profoundly melted away.  And as we sat and talked, learning each other’s names, sharing about our families, learning from one another’s stories, a peace came over that place. 

Hospitality humanizes and invites us to share our lives with others.  In the midst of oppression and open hostility, we were invited into a sacred space of welcome and peace that was simply overwhelming.  Is it possible for peace to come in Israel/Palestine?  While walking the streets of Hebron today, it seems difficult to imagine.  But we also experienced hospitality and grace.  We experienced openness and care.  We experienced, in the home of our Muslim host family, an encounter with the holy.  And, even in the midst of oppression and hatred, it offered us a word of hope.   

By Jon Barnes, Executive of Mission Education, Global Ministries

Read an Article about our journey today posted on the UCC News Website


Day 5

Let’s Go


Yallah.” In every place we’ve been, this has been uttered nearly constantly. It’s Arabic for “Let’s go”  which can be used, for example, to indicate that chit chat over breakfast is finished and the group must hoof it somewhere. But as our learning and sharing has deepened in the Middle East, yallah is taking on another meaning – a reminder that time is fleeting and action must commence.

Most things here in East Jerusalem are complicated. Time is no exception. Many Palestinians here “have too much time on their hands” because the conditions on the ground prevent the creation of a meaningful job market and they don’t have the right to travel freely to find work or new opportunities. On the other hand, we are told again and again by our partners in the region that on a daily basis the lucky, employed Palestinians face hours of waiting time to go through checkpoints to get to get to their (mostly agricultural) jobs in Israel. These people wake in the middle of the night to ensure that they get to work on time so as not to jeopardize their work permits.  So time also comes at a premium here. 

Rawdat.jpgThere is no exception for children. After meeting the children at the vibrant primary school Rawdat al Zuhur (Garden of Flowers), a partner institution of Global Ministries, it is hard to imagine that these kids may wait hours to get through checkpoints to get to class. Inside the walls of the school these children bloom. The school has modern amenities while maintaining traditions. We were delighted to watch girls and boys dance the dabkeh, a high-stepping line dance. 226 children from kindergarten through grade 6 learn English, Hebrew, the arts, math and science in this wonderful haven. Many of our delegation will long feel the bittersweet emotion of joining a classroom of Palestinian children singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Munib.jpgThe Tantur Ecumenical Institute, on a hill in Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem, welcomed us next. We learned about this place of scholasticism and retreat before being honored by the opportunity to speak with the Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. We had a far ranging conversation – but the highlights were his requests of us, American Christians:

  • Speak about Jerusalem and the injustice and encroachment that is happening here
  • Stop the settlements in any way you can – including boycotting those products made in settlements
  • Speak about the inequity in resource sharing – especially water
  • Support the right of return for Palestinians
  • Don’t accept “aspirin for cancer” by applauding acts by politicians that are so diminutive as to make no difference to the situation on the ground

Before we parted, we expressed our excitement for his upcoming address at the Global Ministries/Council on Christian Unity dinner at the Disciples General Assembly. 

Mt_Olives_2.jpgWe stopped at a tiny falafel shop near the Mt of Olives. Israeli Police presence was inexplicably heavy as middle school and teenagers walked home from school, and then tensions rose as the police donned riot gear and made a show of having their tear gas guns and machine guns raised and ready. When they walked down the road a bit, 30-40 nursery school children came out of the school that the police had been right in front of. A young Palestinian man watching our delegation said to us “You should go away now if you don’t want to get shot. Go into your church and pray.” Despite his warnings, we stayed. By standing there a little while longer, we learned that a 17 year old boy had been shot 10 times at point blank range by the police there a week ago.

This event laid heavy on our visits to the Mt. of Olives, the Garden of Gethesmane, the Church of All Nations, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The sites of Jesus’s persecution and death continue to be linked to persecution and death. 

BDS.jpgWe then boarded the bus to Ramallah to meet with Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of BDS Palestine. The BDS Palestine movement has grown in leaps and bounds since its inception in 2005, asking for the international community to boycott products, divest of companies, and call for sanctions against the Israeli Occupation. Part of the growth of support for these actions can be attributed to what the world saw happening in Gaza last year, Dr. Barghouti explained. He reminded us that John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Israel-Palestine said the “litmus test for human rights” is Israel Palestine. If you fail here, you fail on human rights. His thoughts and information were especially helpful in light of the UCC General Synod Resolution that will be deliberated in June, but he also illuminated for us that doing right by the Palestinians was in accordance with, not opposed to, doing right by the African American communities in Ferguson, Baltimore, and all the places in our country that are seeking justice from racially motivated oppression.

Jean.jpgWe ended the evening by sharing a meal with Jean Zaru, the clerk of the Friends Meeting in Ramallah and a long-time collaborator with Global Ministries. An outspoken advocate for Palestinians and women, Jean is the only female head of communion in the Middle East. Jean’s deep faith and intellect captivated our group and left us wiser. Two things Jean said are particularly instructive to our delegation: “God will not choose you at the expense of the liberty of others” and “There are many things in the Bible that need to change with the times.”

So here we are again at the crux of it: Time is pressing in and changing circumstances and calling us to act. We have been tasked. Yallah.

By Katie McCloskey, Director, Social Responsibility, United Church Funds

Read about the work of the YMCA in East Jerusalem


Day 6

Dome_of_the_Rock.jpgWe have left Jerusalem, a city at the heart of what is typically called “the Holy Land.”  For centuries, Christian pilgrims have come to the Church of the Holy Sepulture.  Within its expansive space tradition locates the places of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  The most sacred site in Judaism is the Western Wall, a retaining wall dating to the time of King Herod; it is thought to be the closest place to the former temple.  Jerusalem is also home to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, which are among the most sacred sites for Muslims.  All of these holy places are located within a few blocks of each other.  And yet, it is precisely holiness that is in desperately short supply in this land called “holy.” 

Mt_Olives_1.jpgIn east Jerusalem, where these and other sacred places are located, Palestinian residents have a precarious existence.  While their ancestors may have lived in the city for centuries, they now must have residency permits, permits that are subject to revocation without notice.  Here, as in the occupied territories, Palestinian houses are regularly demolished and Palestinian children grow up passing through military checkpoints, even on their way to school.  We ate lunch standing on a street where, last week, a 17 year old Palestinian boy was shot and killed at point-blank range by security forces.  Police carrying automatic weapons and tear gas launchers stood nearby as we ate.

Throughout our visit to Israel and Palestine, we have heard many stories of injustices and we have seen some of those injustices with our own eyes. Clearly, Palestinians bear the brunt of the suffering, but Israelis are also negatively impacted.  The occupation is a cancer on the soul of Israel which seeks ever elusive security through violence and repression.  Among the other pieces of graffiti on the separation barrier at Bethlehem, I found this message from a Palestinian to Israel: “We may be trapped by your wall, but you will always be trapped by the truth.” 

btselem.jpgIt’s important to note that there are Israelis who recognize the injustice of the occupation and are committed to action.  We were pleased to visit Global Ministries partner B’Tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories whose work informs the global advocacy movement. 

However inspiring the stone edifices that pilgrims and tourists alike flock to, they are not the source of true holiness.  Christianity, Judaism and Islam all recognize the prophetic tradition, which has a clear message of justice.  Justice demands an end to the occupation for the sake of Palestinians and Israelis, and for the sake of regional and global peace.  It is only when justices is restored that the Holy Land will live up to its name. 

By James Moos, Co-Executive of Global Ministries and Executive Minister, Wider Church Ministries, UCC


Day 7

Building Projects

pyramids.jpgFor over 4,500 years, the Great Pyramid of Giza has stood as a testament to the engineering prowess of ancient Egypt. This morning we made a brief visit to the pyramids of Giza and also saw the Sphinx. As the tour guide talked to us about the construction of these wonders, it was clear that they represented the astonishing gap between the wealthy and all-powerful pharaohs and slaves and poorer labor that built them. The irony of the geometry of the pyramids was apparent.

We had a full day ahead of us so we visited Giza before the crowds arrived. In fact, we were there so early that as we were leaving, we saw many of the vendors just setting up for the day. Tourism and the accompanying commerce is an important part of the Egyptian economy, second only to the revenue from the Suez canal. But we are not here to be tourists, so we didn’t spend much time at Giza. We loaded up the vehicles to drive across town to visit one of the smaller communities of northern greater Cairo where one of the Global Ministries partners provides load assistance in poor communities.

The drive across town was informative. We passed through areas of relatively advanced infrastructure that was indicative of the wealth that is very much a part of modern Egyptian society and we also passed through impoverished areas where people still wash their clothes and dishes in tributaries and off-shoots of the Nile river. Animals are also bathed nearby and this is a problem. When one thinks of the modern metropolis of Cairo, one doesn’t think of this. We made our way through the interior streets of Cairo, through neighborhood after neighborhood. The landscape vacillated between middle class well-resourced communities and poorer overcrowded communities.

ceoss_1.jpgWe arrived in one of the poorer communities to the north of Cairo. There we visited with the people who work on behalf of a program offered by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). The program provides loans for some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the community. The loans are offered to build housing or renovate existing housing. The goals are to help more people live in safe and environmentally healthy houses with good ventilation, clean water, effective sewage systems, separation between humans and animals, and with facilities that are secure against crimes.

Over the course of the program’s presence in the area, they have helped over 250 families. Even though the program is offered by CEOSS, the loans are coordinated locally by a community committee. This helps to make the people administering the program more invested in the success. They have a zero loan default rate. Most importantly, the fact that this program helps the most marginalized in the community means that helps promote dignity and prosperity among the poorest population in the area.

We left the community and traveled to the main offices of CEOSS to hear about all of the programs and initiatives overseen by the national office. For over 60 years, CEOSS has been providing social services in Egypt and works in a number of communities throughout the area. Some of these programs include agricultural programs, literacy programs, interfaith understanding, and the micro-loan programs we hear about in the village we visited. These programs are having a direct impact on the lives of the individuals who participate in the programs, but it is have a larger impact on Egyptian society as a whole.

ceoss_2.jpgEgypt still faces significant challenges following the tumult of the last few years, but CEOSS is committed to being part of the ongoing building project of helping the country move forward. Economic disparity is still a problem in Egypt as is it is much of the rest of the world, but the building that is taking place as a result of the programs offered by CEOSS point to a more hopeful future. These are different building projects than the ones we saw at Giza and perhaps far more impressive. They are contributing to the dignity of the people. It is a testament to the determination of the Egyptian people.

By Chris Dorsey, President, Higher Education and Leadership Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Read an Article about the work of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS)


Day 8

Millions in America celebrate Cinco de Mayo today! In joy, piñatas are broken open and margaritas are lifted to honor our neighbors to the south as well as those millions who contribute to the American dream. In joy, we celebrate even though we know that the dream is only partially fulfilled. We still have a long way to go.

seminary.jpgThousands of miles away, in the Middle East, our United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) delegation hear words from our sisters and brothers in the Coptic Christian community in Cairo, Egypt. They stand in ecumenical solidarity with other faith partners and NGO’s, like the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) with whom we visited yesterday, the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary and the Coptic Orthodox Bishopric for Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services (BLESS), with whom we visited today. Each church and organization works in partnership with one another to move the proverbial needle forward toward the emergence of a new Egypt.

The message is one of improving the quality of life and opportunity for the poor, marginalized, women, children, people with disabilities, and others in need of support. The message is a call to be a faithful voice that is inclusive and empowering, always advocating for a more just society for all. It is at the center of this most utterly complex and fragmented part of the world that we have heard over and over from our partners the need for humility by all parties, the desire to find a peaceful way forward, and continued accompaniment by all people of faith and good will.

Dr. Atef Gendy, President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary and Professor of New Testament Studies, said that the role of the seminary is to prepare leaders for the church in Egypt, the Middle East, and Arab congregations in the west. He detailed the numerical decline of Christian populations in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, and said the seminary is working to reverse these trends. The seminary has a total of about 340 students and has re-envisioned itself as both a Christian campus community as well as a distance learning community, using current technology to spread the message of the gospel. Dr. Gendy said, “We have a revival of the church these days as the church goes out to the world.”

bishop.jpgFrom the Seminary, your delegation walked to the Coptic Orthodox of Cairo, Egypt, and learned about “BLESS,” the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical & Social Services, which is the diaconal and development arm of the Coptic Church. BLESS reaches out to all people with God’s love, restoring human dignity through social justice and helping create sustainable communities that create a better way of life. His Grace, Bishop Youannes,  the General Bishop of Public and Social Services, hosted a gathering of the Middle East delegation at the Cathedral, carefully explaining in detail the work of BLESS and the positive impact it has on individuals and communities throughout Egypt. We were each gifted with the BLESS Development Manual, selected writing of Bishop Youannes, and a beautiful Coptic Orthodox Cross.  

As we near the end of our visit to the Middle East in a few days, each of us will bring back first hand experiences that have shaped our understanding of the Middle East, broadened our theological perspectives, and touched our souls. Those whom we have met are like us, only more so. We share a common human lot. We also share an extraordinary future potential. This potential is all tied up in our hope for a better tomorrow.

We do not only wish that life for our sisters and brothers in the Middle East will be better in days and years to come. Instead of wishing, we continue our commitment to work together alongside them until their partially fulfilled dream for freedom, peace, harmony, and opportunity for all, becomes a reality. They still have a long way to go. We still have a long way to go. And together we pray that God, in God’s mercy, hasten that day when the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so!

By Ron Degges, President, Division of Homeland Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Day 9

Grand_mufti.jpg“We are on the road together for peace with justice,” ended the remarks of the Grand Mufti of Sunni Muslims in all Lebanon as he warmly received our delegation for a visit in Beirut.  His Eminence Shaikh Abd al-Latif Darian clarified what he meant with the observation that those hurt worst by violence and war usually are the poor and those already marginalized.  He shared with us the action of all the recognized Christian and Muslim groups in Lebanon in issuing a statement declaring that extremist groups currently operating in the region are not real Muslims.  The Grand Mufti told us that as he was briefed in preparation for our visit, he became eager to meet us when learning of the strong justice stances of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the past toward Palestinians and other oppressed groups.  It was an honor not only to meet the newly elected leader of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, but to have the opportunity to sit with him, ask questions, and converse with him about our common goals of love, compassion, and the common humanity of all.

Presbyterians1.jpgThis was the crown to a day filled to the brim with conversations with Global Ministries’ partners about the situation of violence in neighboring Syria, the uprootedness of people, and of deep, courageous and faithful responses.  The uprootedness is personal.  Two senior staff members of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon had just returned to Beirut yesterday from a four-day visit to Synod churches in Syria. They shared stories of the permeation of violence and of the courage of local church pastors continuing to visit their members and to lead worship.  Dr.  Mary Mikhael, coordinator of the Synod’s work in Syria, past president of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, and past member of our Common Global Ministries Board, recently had received a message from a pastor who spent long and dangerous hours making sure an elderly woman in his congregation had water.  It is a difficult life and many are choosing to emigrate from Syria. Dr. Mikhael repeated several times, “We (Christians) want to live here.  And we do not want to live here alone.”  The Synod is working to support people, Christians and Muslims, so they will choose to stay in the region, knowing that is a hard choice to make.

We heard of the hubs of material aid – food, blankets, cash for rent and a well in Aleppo – in local churches facilitated by the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Congregational & Presbyterian).  Distributions by churches are not questioned by the Syrian government nor by resister militias because it is viewed as the church doing what the church does.  Reminders still ring in my ears from these partners, however, that such distribution does not always mean the people coming to a central place. Sometimes providing food and blankets means following and finding people who are on the move, escaping their homes.  Larger food basket distribution programs broaden the impact of another Global Ministries’ partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) as Christian and Muslim staff seek to train Muslim and Christian young adults in skills for peace-building and negotiation with the goal of reconciliation and co-existence.

sabila.jpgI come away from the day pondering the “permanent temporariness” I sense among the people. Lebanon itself is full of “permanent uprootedness.”   In 1948, after being forced from their homes by the state of Israel, many Palestinians found their way to Lebanon.  Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps, meant to be temporary, are still home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugee families now in their second and third generations.  With the upsurge in Syrian refugees since 2011, these camps have swelled. In all, probably 52,000 Palestinian refugees from Syrian have made their way to Lebanon, many finding family members to take them in.  Lebanon’s recent history of Civil War (1975 -1990) saw groups switching loyalties frequently and the deliberate killing of 1700 people in the Shatilla Palestinian Refugee camp in 1982.  This history and its still visible reminders, reinforces the unsettling existence of living in the midst of permanent temporariness.

JCC.jpg“Permanent temporariness” is an unsettling existence that makes even more important the work of the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) in Beirut that gives the opportunity for young men of 15 years to learn to repair cell phones and TVs and perhaps start their own business someday.  In class, they learn this employable skill and connect with teachers for support that just may keep them from turning to extremist groups.  Nursery school children come to school with brightly painted walls to read and write, sing and dance, as an escape from the dreariness of their enclosed homes in order to laugh and play and dream in dignity.  Older women gather for classes on food provided by the center, but really to support each other in their daily lives.  In the next classroom, another group of women empower themselves by learning to read and write. 

How do you live with dignity and hope when uprootedness and temporariness seem permanent?  No easy answers seems such an understatement, it seems wrong to say it out loud.  And yet, somehow, life and dignity find a way because such complexity does not mean inaction.  The Sunni Grand Mufti of Lebanon, the teenagers in training and women in literacy class, and the pastor in Aleppo, Syria, all call us to be on the road together for peace with justice. It seems a “walking the talk moment.”   Good thing we have on our walking shoes.

By Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, United Church of Christ

Day 10

In the United States, sadly, there exists this nagging, prevailing and exasperating notion that Muslims, in general, and Islamic organizations, in particular, never speak out in opposition to acts of religious terrorism.  Moreover, by virtue of their faith, Muslims – some Americans portend – are somehow unable, incapable, or unwilling to engage in critical self-reflection as a society or as individuals of faith. 

Beirut_Mosque.jpgI have long known this isn’t true.  For years, as a religious leader and communicator, I have witnessed firsthand how Islamic organizations in the U.S. and abroad loudly condemn acts of terror, except that their statements are rarely, if ever, picked up by mainstream U.S. media. Instead, ironically, their thoughtful reflections are more likely to be drowned out by the very voices clamoring for them to speak, those who wish only to portray Muslims as negative, monolithic stereotypes.  The result is that, largely, the only voices we hear in the United States are those who wish to portray all Muslims as violence-infused religious fanatics, who are either afraid or incapable of speaking their own minds.

While I knew and know better, my being part of this Global Ministries’ Middle East delegation to Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon cemented in me a first-hand experience, right here in the Middle East, of an Islamic society and people who are eager to talk with one another and with those of other religions,  especially with us as Christians, about what they really believe as Muslims and how their dreams and hopes as people of faith really do not differ from us, nor the rest of humanity.

While meeting together, dining together, and touring together, our Christian delegation had multiple opportunities to experience and talk with Muslims and Christians alike whose lives in the Middle East are spent in close proximity on a daily basis.  My first-hand experience here reveals much-different realities than what we’re subjected to regularly by/in our news media.

NEST.jpgOn our closing day in Lebanon, the last of our 12 days in the Middle East, we had the opportunity to attend a two-hour dialogue sponsored by the Near East School of Theology, an institution with a long history and association with the United Church of Christ and, now, Global Ministries.  The topic, “Islam, Where to?” was framed as a conversation between two prominent Muslim intellectuals – one Shiite, one Sunni.  It was a provocative, enlightening and genuinely inspiring dialogue about the present/future of Islam and its relationship to contemporary culture, diversity, other religions and the building of civil, peaceful society.

“A just person cannot kill or oppress,” we heard clearly from Ibrahim Shamsaddine, a leading Shiite Muslim intellectual. “Killing is killing and killing does not belong to any faith. Many Muslims are blamed, but if they kill, it is not because they are Muslim, but because they are greedy for power and authority. … Is [violence] representative of Islam? No, never, never, never.” 

I only wish Fox News had been on hand to capture that statement on tape – and, even more so, possessed a willingness to air it.

Muhammad Sammak, a prominent Sunni Muslim intellectual, followed Shamsaddine to the podium, discussing the rapidly changing religious demographics around the world, pointing out that as many as 500,000 to 600,000 of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims now live in places where they are in the minority, such as in North America or Europe and not necessarily in Arab countries.  Likewise, he shared that Christians once comprised 80 percent of Europe’s population, but now two-thirds of all Christians live in third-world countries, especially in the global south. 

“All this [demographic] change is happening very, very fast,” Sammak said, “but a culture of respect and diversity grows much, much slower,” underscoring the need for more intentional cross-religious understanding and deeper interreligious friendship and dialogue.  Again, that’s not necessarily the kind of calm, rationale comments most Americans would expect from a Sunni, following a Shiite, in an open-ended forum on Islam.  We’re not programmed to listen, or hear, that way as Americans.  We tend to expect, and then project, the worst.  

Nest_meeting.jpgSammak emphasized that “terrorism or rejecting others is a corrupt understanding of Islam.”  Reflecting on a recent gathering in Mecca of 600 leading Muslim theologians, he said they gathered purposefully in “self-critique.” To which he added, “There are some Islamic notions that need to be redefined,” after which he outlined several of these “understandings” that he’d like to see challenged and set aside.  Among those on his list?  The notion that the West and Christianity are synonymous (an idea he rejects), or that there exists exclusivity of religious belief in Islam (“The Koran says the Gospel has light”), or that interfaith dialogue means that we must be trying to convert one another (“Dialogue is searching for truth from the vantage point of the other. People misunderstand dialogue.”)  Refreshing stuff for U.S. ears to have the opportunity to hear, if only more had the opportunity.

These reflections, of course, were not offered by some radical leftist stream within Islam, but from two widely respected Shiite and Sunni scholars and practitioners, talking peacefully, honestly, and cooperatively.

“I say this as a fundamentalist Muslim,” said Shamsaddine. “Christianity is part of me, part of my own skin,” referencing the Koran’s built-in respect for Christianity, as well as Judaism. Speaking about the ISIS threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Shamsaddine added, “They are my concern and my nightmare.”

While listening to the forum, I could tell that no one in this Middle East audience was shocked or surprised by what they were hearing, or even the fact that such a forum was taking place in the first place. Most likely, they’d heard it many times before.  What does surprise me, however, is how sparingly, if ever, we’re afforded opportunities by our media, our institutions, to hear the same.

Every religious tradition is susceptible to extremism, and the conditions by which extremism takes root and flourishes are poverty, oppression, hopelessness and despair.  That kind of social and economic malaise knows no particular religion, culture or sect; it’s susceptible to all of us – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise  The challenge, therefore, is to keep the conversation open and continuing, and not succumbing to the nasty – and sinful – stereotypes we are prone to carry and project instead.

By J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ