Feature

A Gospel of Reconciliation

The Evangelical Alliance Church in the Holy Land sows unity through loving action

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My colleagues and I ministering in Jerusalem have a privilege that few international workers of the C&MA share. For us, it is not uncommon to walk into a marketplace and encounter individuals or groups of believers from just about anywhere in the world. I enjoy interacting with these folks. And when they find out that my family and I are living and serving in Jerusalem, they’ll often greet me with an enthusiastic “Shalom!”

It’s great that these visitors are interacting with the culture and trying to apprehend the language, and I always respond in kind. But I also confess that I’m not a Hebrew speaker, and in fact, a few Hebrew phrases are all that you’ll get out of me even on a good day.

“But aren’t missionaries supposed to speak the local language?” they ask.

“Well, yes,” I respond, “but my family and I are working with the Palestinian people, and we’re part of an Arabic-speaking congregation.”

The CNN Effect

This revelation brings a host of responses. I have found that some Westerners have negative feelings about Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular—even if they’ve never actually met anyone from this background. Perhaps they suffer from what is sometimes called “the CNN effect.” They’ve seen too many news clips, packaged for maximum impact, coming out of the Middle East. For many, the terms “Palestinian” or “Arab” conjure up negative images—terrorism, violence and disdain for Western culture and values. Some wonder, “Will they hate me because I’m an American?” Others are simply surprised to learn of “Arab Christians.” In reality, our love for the Palestinian people is often not a question of whether we can love our enemies, or even our neighbors—but whether we will love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today, there are only about 125,000 Palestinian Arab Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories/West Bank, comprising about four percent of the otherwise Muslim Palestinian people group. Of that four percent, evangelicals account for less than 0.2 percent. So what does such a small group of evangelical Palestinian believers do in this context? Shrink back? Turn inward?

Reaching Out

This has decidedly not been the response of the Evangelical Alliance Church in the Holy Land (EACH). These believers have opted instead to follow the example of their Lord, who announced the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 at the inauguration of His own ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed . . .” (Luke 4:18). In a society embroiled in and embittered by conflict, EACH desires to meet the deep needs of those people. Not content to just tell of His love, the church members are demonstrating it in tangible and sacrificial ways.

Ironically, this church, founded in the 1890s, teetered on the brink of extinction in the 1980s. War and violence not only had immediate effects on society but also left deeper, long-term consequences. As the region was further divided, the humanitarian crisis worsened. In the West Bank unemployment soared, conflict raged, curfews were imposed and movement was heavily restricted. Widespread hopelessness prevailed.

During this time, the doors of this dwindling Arab congregation almost closed. But there was a remnant—some from the older generation, a few committed younger believers and a handful of C&MA workers—who prayed and labored for the congregation’s survival. As it turned out, God was far from finished with this Alliance church in the Holy Land.

Neglected no Longer

When God breathed new life into this church, He also rebirthed an old vision: reaching out to Samaria. In Jesus’ day, this area was despised and neglected by God’s people, yet He ministered there. In our day, this region is shunned by many. As believers with a global worldview, we regularly reference Jesus’ command to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). EACH recognized its strategic placement to answer this call literally. Reaching Samaria had long been a vision of the C&MA in the Holy Land, and now a number of factors make that call more urgent than ever.

For years, local Alliance believers and C&MA workers had been cultivating relationships in the Northern West Bank. In the late 1990s, a community development partnership called Light and Life to Samaria was begun. But there soon came a sense that something more could and must be done. God opened doors that expanded the scope of the development work, and an opportunity arose for believers to respond to the deep physical, emotional and spiritual needs around them. EACH commissioned a relief team to deliver vouchers for food and medicine and to provide counsel and prayer on a near daily basis.

These endeavors became elements of a holistic ministry strategy for the Northern West Bank. EACH leaders and C&MA workers further envisioned a center that would form a physical bridge into the region—a place where believers from Jerusalem and local volunteers could work together to impact Palestinian society. It would provide educational opportunities and job training; it would teach people to support themselves by making olive oil soap and traditional embroidery, raising chickens and learning modern office skills; it would provide a place for short-term ministry teams to present special events, children’s programs, medical and dental clinics and other service projects.

After much work, in 2004 C&MA staff from Holland and national partners moved into a Northern West Bank village, and the Compassion Center opened its doors. Today, under the direction of Alliance leaders in concert with a local board, the center utilizes church and local volunteers to provide opportunities and hope to more than 22 villages in the region. EACH supports a host of additional projects throughout the West Bank, including micro-industry, school renovation and volunteer help for the local olive harvest. These ministries are building bridges and proclaiming the love of Christ—not just in soon-forgotten words but also in the loud and lasting voice of action.

EACH has also grown to realize its responsibility to be a peacemaker in a conflicted society. On Easter Sunday of 2007, addressing a crowd of more than 1,000 Palestinian and Messianic believers overlooking the empty Garden Tomb, Jack Sara, pastor of Jerusalem Alliance Church (C&MA), challenged the group to come together and take big risks for the Kingdom of God. Pastor Sara admonished believers to minister in the unity of the Body of Christ, citing Paul’s words in the Book of Ephesians:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near (2:14–17, emphasis added).

Yes, the Body of Christ is wonderfully diverse. Anyone venturing to the Holy Land need not look beyond the Alliance congregations to see this firsthand. Believers exalt their Savior in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, English and other tongues. And His Kingdom continues to advance despite age-old divisions and strife, because the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church (Matt. 16:18). Praise God for sending persevering workers throughout the years and for the first fruits of what will someday be a bountiful harvest!

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