EAPPI Anniversary Sermon: Bishop Munib Younan
“As they came near the village. . . they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” Lk 24:28-29
At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans (15:23-27), he announces his plan to travel to Jerusalem with a delegation from churches in a show of support for the mother church which originally had sent him to carry the Gospel to the regions of the northern Mediterranean. This is a true example of accompaniment. This is a response of Paul’s admonition to bear one another’s burdens, because all the churches have been on the receiving end of God’s gracious gift of his son, Jesus Christ.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme continues this model of mutual support, prayer, and concern begun by St. Paul two millennia ago, when a man from Macedonia appealed to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
In 2001, during the second Intifada, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem in their Easter message urged the worldwide Christian community to take real action and not simply issue more statements of concern. In response, the WCC conceived of the idea of providing a human chain that would become the eyes and the ears, the hands and the legs, of the world-wide church in Palestine.
I wish to acknowledge the contribution of a number of individuals during those early days when we began to envision this program. Ms. SalpyEskedjian of the WCC, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, and also Bishop RiahAbu Assalof the Anglican Church joined with me in brainstorming and dreaming about the possibilities that might emerge. Every step of the way Salpy was careful to sit with the Orthodox Patriarch and all the Heads of Churches, so that every Church was consulted and that we all agreed on all the important details. This would indeed be an ecumenical program. It is also a model of cooperation between the global and the local church. This is the strength of the program: The WCC is responsible for administering the program, but ownership rests in the local churches, among whom accompaniment takes place. Our local reference group includes Jews, Muslims, and Christians, all committed to justice. If we can learn from this model, I believe that we will affect change in this country.
One of our partner churches has adopted a social statement titled “For Peace in God’s World.” Not only does it provide guidance how we can work to avoid conflict and war, but it teaches us how we can create a culture of peace. Many of our countries train and send soldiers in to parts of the world. We also need to send teams of peacemakers, who foster a dynamic vision of diversity in unity, who promote respect for human rights, who counter and transform attitudes that encourage violence, teaching instead the way of non-violence, who strengthen the will of people to resolve conflicts peacefully. Such an army of peacemakers is what we find in our Ecumenical Accompaniers.
During the Intifada, an American Congresswoman, Lois Capps, was walking along with me in the West Bank when we encountered soldiers driving a military tank in a residential section. She asked me, “What can I do to help you?” I responded, “Tell the Congress to give me the cost of one tank, and I will invest it in schools, day care centers, after-school sports programs for our youth. By this we contribute to the quality of life, as Jesus promised that we can have life, and have it abundant.”
As a pilgrimage center, millions of visitors come to Jerusalem and Bethlehem each year. Church delegations arrive on fact-finding trips. Governments send teams to monitor the situation. Yet the situation required something more. What model is provided in the New Testament? The answer was right there in the opening verses of the Gospel of John: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . . .” (John 1:14). God did not appoint a committee or send a fact-finding delegation or a group to carry out an evaluation. God sent the Son to live among us. Today the incarnated presence of God comes to us in the form of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
One of the expressions repeated in the Gospel of John is “Come and see!” These were some of the first words spoken by Jesus when he encountered the disciples Andrew and John after leaving John the Baptist and the Jordan River (John 1:39). Yet seeing involved more than just a quick glance or a few photos. The disciples asked for more, “Where are you staying?” And the evangelist reports that they responded by staying with him.
This interchange is repeated later in the words of Philip to Nathaniel (John 1:46) and of the Samaritan Woman to her neighbors in the Samaritan village (John 4:29). Seeing is made complete when the villagers invite Jesus to stay with them. They sit together, eat together, talk together, experience daily life together. This is what comes with that invitation to “Come and see!” They “abide” with Jesus.
At the beginning there was a lot of debate as to what to call these volunteers. Many suggested “monitors” because they would spend much time simply observing. However, “Accompaniers” suggests much more than observing. They are to walk with the local Christians, to live in their midst, “to eat bread together”—panis—as is the Latin root of the term accompany. What a joy it is early every morning when our EAs come out of their house in the poor village of Yanoun, and the women of the village share with them fresh warm bread coming straight out of the common village Taboun oven. And so they become companions in their daily walk.
This is the model of accompaniment, with the classic text coming at the end of Luke’s Gospel in the story of the Emmaus disciples who walk together and talk together on the road with the risen Jesus (Luke 24). They listen to each other, empathizing with their concerns,their burdens, their confusions, and the queries that each carries on their hearts. They reflect together on the words of Scripture and their meaning for the present age. They offer words of hope and encouragement. They may not have easy answers or ready solutions. Theirs is a ministry of presence. And so they offer the invitation, “Stay with us!” And when bread is broken, their eyes are opened to really see. In the end, they hurry back to Jerusalem to share with the others their experience.
Note that the name was carefully chosen. It is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program. But it was important to add the initials P and I. This mission takes place in Palestine and in Israel, not in just one or the other. We thought it was essential to ally with every force working for justice and peace among Palestinians and Israelis alike. Such a program can succeed only when its members see the pain of both peoples and when they desire more than anything for both peoples to live in peace, justice, and reconciliation.
The EAPPI makes an important if not unique contribution because it accompanies and works with both Palestinian and Israeli communities and groups committed to justice, peace, and respect for Human Rights. This presence with both communities incarnates the vision of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem for a just peace and reconciliation. EAPPI adds an international, ecumenical dimension to our witness as artisans of peace by supporting nonviolence in the struggle for justice over and above the religious and national divide.
The prophetic role of the Church is to give voice where silence seems to prevail. However, the role of the Church to be peacemakers, brokers of justice, bridge builders, and ministers of reconciliation far exceeds our small size. The voice of Middle East Christians has mostly been ignored in this conflict. The news media have not shown much interest in our churches which now represent only 1.7 % of the population. Tourists often treat us as if the Church is a thing of the distant past and our Churches are now empty museums. Some expatriates seem to wear blinders as if we do not exist. Others want to use the Christians as a political commodity.
However, the role of the Churches as peace makers far exceeds our small size. There will be no peace based on justice in this conflict without the local Churches and Christians being part of it.
The Churches see the fears on both sides of the conflict. We seek to address the fears and insecurity of the Israelis and the need for justice and liberation for Palestinians. We believe that the security of Israel depends on freedom and justice for Palestinians and that freedom and justice for Palestinians depends on Israel achieving true security. The future of the Christian community in the Holy Land depends not on war, arms, or occupation, but on peace based on justice and reconciliation based on forgiveness.
People are also asking, “What can we expect from the Arab Awakening?” “Is it being taken over by extremists?” “Does this mean there will be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” There are many who say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must wait until the Arab Awakening is resolved. However, I believe that there can be an approach with two parallel tracks. I believe that we must continue the process that has been going on for years, one that accepts a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders, with a shared Jerusalem, the sharing of resources, and mutual economic cooperation. People ask if I am optimistic or pessimistic. I answer that I am neither. But we must continue to live in hope, moving forward to a solution of peace based on justice. For hope originated from Jerusalem.
Our EAs come to feel the complexity of this situation. Living among the people of this land, they share in their joys, and also in their sorrows. They empathize with their frustrations, but they also come to know their hopes and their dreams. They are not activists or monitors. They have come only to accompany.
Now after ten year years of the EAPPI, with one thousand EAs, each having spent three months in this 24/7 accompaniment program, they offer an important collective voice of advocacy, neither pro-Palestinian, nor pro-Israeli, but pro-truth, pro-justice, pro-peace, pro-reconciliation.
EAs have come from twenty-three countries. By far the greatest numbers of participants have come from European countries and also from North America. We are heartened to see growing participation from the south, countries like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, and Paraguay in South America, from Australia and New Zealand, from South Africa and the Philippines. In December, we will have our first accompanier from South Korea. On behalf of all the Churches in Jerusalem, we express our thanks to all churches and agencies who have committed themselves to EAPPI and its vision and who have sent EAs to accompany us.
We have been very impressed with the quality and the creativity of the WCC response to our call for accompaniers. This chain of hope needs strong links from the whole Christian family. Our circle of accompaniers has included some who identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. We have also had accompaniers who are Jewish and Muslims. This adds a powerful dimension to our testimony. This shows that this conflict is not about religion. Rather it is a political conflict. We are faced with war, occupation, and extremism versus peace, justice, and reconciliation. The conflict is not about religion, race, or gender. It is about sharing land and water! We hope that the breadth of accompaniers and that number of churches and countries represented will continue to expand. For we continue to believe that there will not be peace in the Middle East until there is peace in Jerusalem.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel is a response to the call from the Heads of Churches to stand with us and with the whole Christian community as we struggle to give birth to a just peace. The Human Chain can be seen and heard. We walk with Israelis and Palestinians. We give thanks to God for the EAPPI. Through the WCC we know that our hands are linked with those around the world who are working for the world God wants—a human chain for justice, peace, truth, and reconciliation.
It is my dream that the day will come that all Palestinians see the image of God in Israelis, and Israelis see the image of God in Palestinians, and both accept each other’s humanity. Only then, they both can mutually recognize each other’s human, civil, national, political, and religious rights. Only then, the Holy Land will become a promised land of milk and honey for both Israelis and Palestinians. I hope that the world can accompany us in this vision. Come and See. Come and see this land. Come and see the living stones. Come and see how peace is possible in Jerusalem!
May the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.