|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.|
Missionaries find Arab Christians get little attention from Western churches
By BETH PRATT
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org
|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