Two Independent Updates
July 4, 2006
As we prepared to send you our thoughts on the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Birmingham, the news was filled with a violent downturn in the situation in Gaza and the rest of Palestine and Israel. Amid the strife, our dear friend Father Firas sent us a message about the situation in Zababdeh, his hometown and our home from 2000 to 2003. The words are spellbinding, challenging, and yet oddly hopeful. And they are especially timely for us to hear on this day, when Americans celebrate 230 years of independence. Today, we give thanks for the courageous people who envisioned and fought to make a nation of justice, equality, and liberty. As we do so, let us not forget that there are still millions of people in Zababdeh and around the world who yearn for rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In this email, we have included two pieces: first, the message from Fr. Firas and second, reflections about the divestment issue at our recent General Assembly.
With many blessings,
Marthame and Elizabeth
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The Conviction of Things Unseen
When we met him in August of 2000, Firas dreamed of becoming a priest and reopening Zababdeh’s Melkite church, which had been closed for fifteen years. He periodically prayed alone in the abandoned building, but most of his days were spent trying to support his small family by sewing in an Israeli-owned sweatshop. In 2001, he found himself out of work when the sweatshop closed citing political and economic problems. In spite of the seemingly desperate situation facing him, Firas never lost hope. What followed was nothing short of a miracle. In December of 2002, Firas the unemployed father of three became Father Firas, the Melkite priest. The abandoned Melkite church reopened its doors and heard the gospel for the first time in nearly twenty years.
Since we left Zababdeh, we have stayed in touch with Fr. Firas, always moved by his steadfast faith and resilient ability to hope, both of which infuse the following letter he recently sent us about the current situation. (Minor edits for clarity have been made.)
Dear Marthame and Elizabeth,
The life is very bad; the economy is very bad; and the people are losing hope. Some are beginning to speak words that make me angry: ‘We have nothing to lose, so let’s do it; let’s really go war, let’s fight.’ In Zababdeh and in the Jenin region, the people are very angry, and they feel that there is no future. In the last four months, we have faced more Israeli checkpoints between the towns of the West Bank, even between Zababdeh and Jenin (which are five miles apart). Government employees have not received their salaries: teachers, doctors, nurses, even retired pensioners. They can’t pay for their children’s tuition, for food, for utilities, for their families. Some government employees have begun to sell their jewelry and gold in order to buy groceries. Some have even sold their land. Everyone is tired.
Our lives have become even more dangerous, as both Hamas and Fateh are trying to increase their power – through political support and strength of arms. I wonder: are we on a train headed toward civil war?
As for the Christians of the northern West Bank, we don’t really know what will happen. A few families have left for Ramallah; many of the young men are living now in Ramallah and Bethlehem. I am personally afraid that we will be forced to leave because of the spread of violence between the young men. Even the children are facing more violence because of the stresses of the situation.
Israel’s intention seems to be to divide the northern West Bank from the south. You need permission to go from Zababdeh down to Nablus or Ramallah. And in the last four months, the Israeli punishment of the Palestinian population has taken an historic turn: our supply of gasoline has been cut; our water is shut off a few days every week. In Zababdeh last month, we had no gas or water. This has gotten better over the last few days, however.
And yet, the Israeli attacks against the Palestinian cities have not stopped at all. Instead, they have increased; especially at night. This has brought fear to our children and to all of the people.
The end result is that we have lost our hope to bring peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. We have lost direction.
But if you live in the Holy Land, you must ask yourself about the dream of peace. We are living in the middle of war, and yet I still see peace coming through the eyes of the children. This is not my dream; it is my faith.
We Palestinians are looking for peace. We don’t have the same hope for the future that we had four months ago. We do live in the middle of a war zone. But I still say this: peace is coming. There is something inside of us that compels us, and this is only the first step. This peace is not merely a dream; it is the movement of history.
Please share this message with whomever you can: despite the war and violence and hopelessness, we can still see peace at the end of the tunnel. Why? Because when we pray, we pray for peace; and this prayer is rooted in the certainty of peace, both within and without. And we are not alone, because when God is with us, we gain our strength and peace from the Lord.
I believe that people of faith can work more for the cause of peace than the politicians. I am not a politician, and perhaps I have no solution to the Palestinians’ problems. But I have my witness: and that is to help the politicians fear the God of peace; this will compel them to make peace. I am convinced, in the end, that small hands around the world, working together, can ultimately bring peace to the whole world.
Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is
At the end of June, the 217th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met in Birmingham, Alabama. As we heard news about the proceedings, we were flooded by memories of two years ago, when we completed our coast-to-coast speaking tour by attending GA in Richmond, Virginia. What a sight to see! The city was thronged by thousands of Presbyterians, easily identifiable by the red woven Guatemalan bags we each received to hold registration materials. We were energized by being there, by observing the workings of our church’s polity—committee work has never been so exciting! Commissioners prayerfully considered scores of proposed actions, from the death-toll in Juarez to educational materials for evangelism, from fighting AIDS to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The last, of course, was of special interest to us, and we were pleased by the 2004 Assembly’s concern and unity of spirit as it passed four actions almost unanimously (read the actions at www.pcusa.org/worldwide/israelpalestine/gastatements.htm).
At this year’s Assembly, again there were overtures related to Israel and Palestine, many addressing the church’s process of corporate engagement with companies active in that region. This process (technically called “phased selective divestment”) was approved in 2004, with the hope that we might change problematic practices of companies in whom we’re invested. That is, if their behavior contributes to injustice and violence among Israelis and Palestinians, we want to help them change; if they refuse to work with us toward these goals, then our church can consider divesting of their stock.
Since 2004, an unprecedented lobbying campaign developed around this
process, and it looked as though there would be a heated battle at this
Assembly. We feared that this issue had become, like sexuality and abortion,
a wedge in our denomination. We feared that our church might be pressured
away from the principled and prophetic stand it took—of putting our money
where our mouth is, as it were. General Assembly attendees driving
into Birmingham were met with the billboard message "Divestment is an obstacle
to peace." High profile activists, such as former CIA head James
Woolsey, came to Birmingham to add their clout to the campaign around the
We should not have been shaken; we should have rested firm in the message of angels throughout scripture: “Fear not!” On June 21st, by an overwhelming margin of 483-28, the General Assembly's commissioners approved an action which maintains our commitments to peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, to integrity in our financial investments, and to nurturing interfaith relationships. (The full text is available at http://les-pcusa.org/Item.aspx?IID=90& - please note: the resolution passed by the General Assembly is that under the heading “Committee Recommendation”). Indeed the Spirit was at work in Birmingham!
We observed all this from a distance, reading articles and watching
live web-casts, the reason for our absence a joyful one. One very small
person kept us home in Atlanta—one very small person whom we’re thrilled
to introduce. Our son Ramsay Marthame Sanders was born on April 20, weighing
7 pounds, 14 ounces, with red hair and 21 inches length. In Arabic, his
name means “my sign,” as in a symbol of faith or a sign from God. The name
also connects to Marthame’s family roots in Scotland (where it means “wild
garlic island”). Ramsay’s eyes are still blue, and in the past few weeks
he has learned to smile, giggle, laugh, and coo. We are utterly transfixed
and filled with joy. Praise God.
Ramsay arrives at a new phase of our lives. As you know, this past autumn, Marthame left his position as missionary-in-residence to accept a call as pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. And as of the end of June, Elizabeth’s appointment as a missionary-in-residence (the last part of which she spent on family leave) has come to a close. She’s not seeking employment for now, content (and plenty busy) being a mom.
Even though we have both moved on from our positions as mission personnel, we remain deeply and fully committed to continuing relationships and efforts to support Christians in the Middle East through our words and actions, through our film, our website (www.saltfilms.net), and hopefully through visits.
And so we invite you to join us as we continue to pray. We pray for the weapons of war to be turned into instruments of harvest and means of sustenance. We pray that the arrogance of the powerful and the desperation of the weak be seen in the light of God’s justice. And we continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.