Written by Anthony Moujaes, UCC News
A 21-person delegation made up of leaders from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is set to travel to four Middle East countries at the end of this month, part of an ongoing expression of solidarity with Middle East Christians.
The upcoming pilgrimage marks the first trip to the region for the Rev. John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the UCC, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, acting executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries. They will be joined by the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ.
"I am going to see what God is doing in that part of the world, and to listen and to learn," Blackmon said. "I go there with that stance, and I am excited to meet with our partners who are working for peace and justice in that part of the world, and to see their work up close and personal."
Peter Makari, area executive for the Middle East and Europe, is taking his largest delegation to the Middle East for two weeks, from Feb. 28 through March 11, to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine.
He described the trip as an "opportunity for conference and national leadership of the UCC and Disciples to meet partners, see the context in which their work takes place, and to express solidarity with Middle East Christians in a time of great stress with the Syrian refugee crisis still ongoing."
"Our partners in the region are eagerly anticipating this visit, and they've expressed their appreciation that the delegation represents the leadership of both churches," said Makari.
In addition, seven UCC conference ministers, six regional ministers from the Disciples of Christ, a representative from the United Church of Canada, and two representatives from the United Congregation of Churches in South Africa are making the trip. The UCC conference ministers include: the Rev. Jim Antal (Massachusetts Conference), the Rev. Ed Davis (Southern Conference), the Rev. John Deckenback (Central Atlantic Conference), the Rev. Campbell Lovett (Michigan Conference), the Rev. Rich Pleva (Iowa Conference), the Rev. Franz Rigert (Wisconsin Conference), and the Rev. Kent Siladi (Connecticut Conference).
Siladi, who traveled to Israel-Palestine about 15 years ago, said there is a specific reason he wanted to return. "It’s due to the buzz created by the General Synod resolution around divestment from organizations profiting from the occupation, one we were a co-sponsor of," he said. "A lot of my pastors and churches had various opinions of the resolution, and when the question was raised whether or not I should go, there was a resounding 'You need to go and see what is happening.' We will see the impact of how the United Church of Christ's witness of Israeli-Palestinian issues is playing out."
"Knowing Peter is leading this delegation, and to go with trusted colleagues to learn what is happening on the ground, is invaluable in light of current circumstances in the region," Siladi said.
Pleva has also visited the Middle East, once on his own and another time with an ecumenical organization. "I'm a curious sort and I'm interested in the seemingly intractable troubles in the Middle East," he said. "I figured this was a good opportunity to be exposed to yet more perspectives on the situations in the Middle East. I do love the UCC — I'm a former member of the Board for Wider Church Ministries and so this is an opportunity to see the Middle East through UCC-ish eyes."
With Dorhauer and Blackmon traveling to the Middle East on this trip, all four of the UCC national officers will have visited the area within the last year — the Rev. Jim Moos and the Rev. J. Bennett Guess made the journey in April 2015.
The pilgrimage comes in the middle of the Middle East Initiative, which the UCC and Disciples kicked off last summer, inviting the wider church to focus on the region for an 18-month period before concluding in December 2016. Through mission and partnership, churches can learn more about the dozens of denominational partners in the region and the issues they face, learn about how the UCC and Disciples of Christ continue to build on the long-lasting history of engagement, and become active in education and advocacy efforts for peace and support various programs.
Throughout the initiative, both denominations are emphasizing partnerships in nine countries: Armenia, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Turkey. There are opportunities that support refugees and migrants, education programs, healthcare programs, justice and peacemaking efforts, and the Christian presence and witness there.
Said Siladi, "There is a responsibility, once you return, to share what you experience. These trips have so much value to our local settings to give witness to peace building. It's a privilege to be able to do this."