While I’m very grateful for the experiences of the last couple of weeks, I certainly don’t think I’ve suddenly become an expert on Palestine or the Middle East. In any case, as Sami El Yousef said to us in his briefing on Gaza (and this senior Catholic aid and development worker is referred to constantly as “the expert on Gaza”), “There are no experts. We are surprised every day.” (He did not mean “surprised” in a nice way.)
But although while I’m still mostly baffled and troubled by the situation in Israel and Palestine, I’ve been listening as carefully as I can to what our sisters and brothers in the Palestinian Christian community have been saying to us – about their social and political situation, and especially about their experience of participating in the mission of God in their very conflicted region. Listening, and thinking about what they are teaching the church in Australia.
I’ve posted a couple of blogs already, and will try to do some more once I’m home. But while I can still stay conscious on this long flight, I’ll just comment on one thing: the Palestinian church is calling us today to a deeper sense of being one Body of Christ.
The warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their gratitude to us for coming to visit them was humbling. They would not have judged us if we’d cancelled the visit because safety concerns. (And, although we were fairly safe most of the time, the first sounds of gunfire and the whiff of tear gas certainly made us second guess ourselves for a moment.) But they were genuinely excited to have us with them, even briefly.
Being there in person said to them more clearly than any email or press release from Australia that we knew they were there, that we knew they were struggling, and that we love and care about them.
It’s very easy to become completely preoccupied with the challenges and opportunities of your own local congregation, or to think no more widely than the UCA or perhaps the Australian church in general. It’s easy to forget that we are part of one Body of Christ, which includes these “limbs” and “organs” struggling and suffering in the Middle East. And ” if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians12:26).
They can’t forget us, because they rely in many ways on the ongoing support and encouragement of the church around the world. But it’s dangerously easy for Australian congregations to forget that living connection. Even a congregation in a prolonged process of decline in Australia can have resources and advantages that enable it to decline in isolation from the pilgrim people of God – a very sad scenario.
It struck me very powerfully when I saw some graffiti art in the Ayda refugee camp that simply said “We are all Gaza”. Its immediate message, of course, was that the Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in the West Bank are one people involved in one struggle with the Israeli occupation – despite the Israeli policy of separation. But I thought also of what we’d heard of the life and witness of the Christian minority in Gaza, the importance of their relationships with the Christian community throughout Palestine and Israel, and the urgency of their claim on the church worldwide – to remember them and love them. In Christ, we are Gaza too.
I commend to your congregations the work of UnitingWorld UnitingWorldand the many opportunities it offers to help local Australian congregations to know about and have relationships with our partner churches around the world. That’s not just a “program” you might enjoy tapping into. It’s about being who we are, members of the one Body of Christ.