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Correction and Note:  Though we have visited Beit Jala (near the Israeli settlement of Gilo), we live and work in the northern West Bank town of Zababdeh.  Two-thirds of  Zababdeh's 3000 people are Christian.  Marthame attended the University of Chicago Divinity School following his 1993 trip to Ramallah, which sowed the first seeds of our work here.  The photos accompanying the article are from Zababdeh.
photo: religion

Side by side are a mosque and Melkite church, a reminder that Christians and Muslims as well as Jews also lay claim to the ancient lands of Palestine, an area sacred to all three world monotheistic religions.
Photos provided by Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders

Palestinian Perspective
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Missionaries find Arab Christians get little attention from Western churches

A-J Religion Editor

While growing up in Lubbock, Elizabeth Andrews Sanders likely never imagined she'd end up teaching school in one of the political hot spots of the world.

Sanders is a 1994 graduate of Yale University in Connecticut who majored in environmental biology.

She and her husband, the Rev. Marthame Sanders III, a 1992 Yale graduate, are missionaries in Beit Jala, one of the few predominantly Christian Palestinian communities remaining in Israel. The village is near Bethlehem as well as near the illegal Israeli settlement Gilo.

photo: religion

Beit Jala villagers hold olive branches as they await the Palm Sunday procession at the Church of the Visitation.

Nine months into their 3-year term teaching school, the pair are home for a visit with relatives and to report and raise funds for their continuing mission.

Living within the Arab population brings a different perspective to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighting the complexity of the situation for the non-Jewish people who have lived in the area for centuries.

"Politics is not the focus of our ministry, but politics shape and color everything," said Marthame, a tall, slender man who looks more like a schoolboy himself than a teacher and minister.

photo: religion

Children at the Catholic school carry palms and flowers for the annual Palm Sunday procession, when Christians of all denominations process from church to church.

Marthame quotes an example of a changed perspective from Donald E. Wagner, one of his professors at North Park University in Chicago. The story is told in Wagner's book, Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000.

Someone at the Presbyterian church Wagner attends asked his friend, a visiting Palestinian, when he became a Christian.

"Thinking the answer would be to the credit of Protestant missionaries of recent vintage, the questioner was completely thrown off by the response: 'Well, I grew up in Nazareth, and we were told that our family was Christian since the time of Jesus. In fact, my great, great grandmother, many times removed, used to baby-sit for Jesus when he was a little boy.'

"Of course," Wagner writes, "the comment was tongue in cheek, but he made an important point. Palestinian Christians believe they are part of an unbroken historical continuity that dates back to Jesus and the first disciples."

photo: religion

Christmas school party is a gift from Roswell Presbyterian Church near Atlanta, Ga.

The question uppermost in the minds of Palestinian Christians to Western Christians, is "do they know we are here?" Marthame said.

"We are the spiritual descendants of the Christians in Holy Land," he noted.

When a shell comes whistling through your home labeled "Made in the USA - Not to be Used on Civilian Personnel," it is hard to justify the uncritical support the U.S. government gives Israel to the tune of $6.3 billion, half of that in military hardware, he added. Compare that to the $250 million in aid from the U.S. government to Palestinians.

These questions to the missionaries come only after they establish a certain level of friendship. They make no attempt to argue the case.

"I can't justify our government's policies in Israel and Palestine," he said.

photo: religion

Elizabeth Sanders plays a game with a third-grader. 

"We haven't suffered anything dangerous, but people are angry," Elizabeth said. "A lot of animosity is building."

Oddly enough, she said, the dialogue in Israel is broader and more open about the destruction of Palestinian homes than in the United States.

"Here (in the United States), it's almost a gag rule," she added.

Some Israeli groups "have fought against the destruction of homes," Marthame said.

photo: religion

Marthame Sanders shows a group from Covenant Presbyterian Church the site of his work with Arab Christians. Young people from the Lubbock church are in a pen-pal program by e-mail with Palestinian high schoolers.
A-J Photo/Robin M. Cornett

News reports from the area "mask over some of the questions of justice, dismissing it as a fight between Muslims and Jews," he said.

The couple is teaching and working in the parish at the invitation of a Catholic priest rather than as missionaries supported by their Presbyterian denomination. When violence escalated, the missionaries in formal relationship to the church were removed, but the Sanderses were able to stay.

The village has three churches, St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, St. Matthew's Anglican Church and the Catholic Church of the Visitation.

The tradition, Marthame said, is that the Catholic church is built at a place where Elizabeth and Mary had visited before Jesus was born.

In Beit Jala, which has a population of 3,000, there are 2,000 Christians. Half are Catholics, and about 150 attend the Anglican church.
photo: religion

Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are equipped with maps of the Israeli-Palestine area to help family and mission supporters locate the village and parish where they continue a three-year teaching stint. A-J Photo/Robin M. Cornett

The school has 750 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Half are Christian, and half are Muslim. Elizabeth taught English to all grades, but in the fall she will teach grades three through seven. Marthame teaches religion for the Christian students.

He grew up at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and attended the non-denominational University of Chicago Divinity School with the intention of becoming a pastor.

photo: religion

Elizabeth Sanders' necklace dangles over map of Israel and Beit Jala, where she teaches English in a Christian Palestinian school.
A-J Photo/Robin M. Cornett

Marthame's interest in the Middle East was inspired by a young adult summer trip to Israel in 1993, just before the Oslo Accords, which brought a relative peace to the area. It was also the summer before he entered seminary.

"I was fascinated with it," he said, noting that he stayed at Ramallah, next to the Israeli police station in an Arab school run by the American Friends' Service Committee.

At seminary, he was impressed with the work of Wagner, who, in addition to being an associate professor, is also executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.

Although a just resolution to the situation between Israelis and Palestinians looks impossible from a human perspective, Marthame said, "I am essentially optimistic because I believe in the Resurrection."

Beth Pratt can be contacted at 806-766-8724 or

Mission project bridging two cultures

Presbyterian missionaries: Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders
Purpose: help Western Christians learn about Christians in Israel
How: Internet technology
What: pen-pal project by e-mail, called e-pen-pal
Who: 12th-grade Palestinian students and Presbyterian Youth Connection, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Lubbock
Results for churches: mission becomes alive and tangible for supporters
Results for missionaries: less isolation with daily prayers from members of supporting churches