For the fourth time this decade, the Rev. Nancy Fowler is leading a mission trip of people from Southern California to Palestine-Israel to walk with Global Ministries' partners, to experience the challenges of peace in the Holy Land. But the real challenge begins when the group returns, as Fowler and the others work to raise awareness of the Middle East conflict with their friends and allies at home.
"This is my fourth time to take a group and my fifth time to be there," said Fowler, co-chair of the Disciples of Christ Global Ministries Committee of Southern California. Global Ministries is the shared overseas ministry between the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ. "I take people because I want people to know what's really going on over there."
The trip comes at a particularly complicated time in Palestine-Israel ahead of Pope Francis' scheduled May 24-26 visit to the Holy Land. Some Jewish organizations oppose the Pope's visit and plans to hold mass at the location of Jesus' Last Supper, which is adjacent to David's Tomb, the place Jews believe King David buried.
The 10-day itinerary, which began Wednesday, May 21, will take Fowler and six others to three areas in Palestine-Israel. There are visits to Bethlehem—including a night's stay in the home of a Palestinian family—Nazareth and Jerusalem. Among the sights and places the group will visit are the Church of the Nativity, the Sea of Galilee, and Palestinian refugee camps. They'll see military checkpoints and the wall that separates Jewish and Palestinian communities, both symbols of the occupation.
Peter Makari, Global Ministries' executive for the Middle East and Europe, believes that mission trips like these not only raise awareness of Middle East conflicts, but can be a faith-formational experience and an opportunity to ignite advocacy efforts for peace in the Holy Land.
"Global Ministries encourages members of the UCC and Disciples to encounter the Christian community and denominational partners when they travel to other parts of the world," Makari said. "In Israel-Palestine, we have many [partners], and it is important to combine the very moving spiritual journey to the places of our faith history and encountering the worshipping and witnessing community of Christians that trace their roots to the beginnings of Christianity. To experience with them the context in which they live is integral to our understanding of our faith."
The journey is planned to provide travelers an opportunity to be an eyewitness to the current situation in Israel-Palestine, to recognize the challenges of peace in the region, and to continue to advocate for peace here at home.
"The occupation really needs to end, and the oppression of human life is not being told here," Fowler said. "We're trying to understand the struggles of people who need peace and justice."
Fowler has taken larger groups in the past, but enjoys the interaction that happens in the smaller groups of travelers, highlighted by a "great connection between individuals."
"I try hard to help them process what's happening while they're there," Fowler said. "We do so much in a short time that we don't often process what is happening. But toward the end of the trip, I ask them, 'What are you going to do when you get back?' We can be writing letters to our representatives, we can be writing the story of the people there and publishing it."
The mission group will also work closely with B'Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli organizations that advocate for peace throughout the nation.
"The people on both sides are good. It's the government—theirs and ours—that supports the occupation financially," Fowler said.
On that point, the UCC has pressed the Department of State to continuously mediate and engage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work for peace. The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, was one of 33 interfaith leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious organization to ask Secretary of State John Kerry this week to fulfill his commitment of resolving the conflict.
"Peace between Israelis and Palestinians continues to demand urgent attention, so that both Israelis and Palestinians can enjoy their full rights," Makari said. "This letter is recognition and affirmation by leaders of the three Abrahamic faith communities in the U.S. of that urgency. Resolution of the issues is certainly in the interests of the communities there, and would have undeniable benefits for many around the world."
For now, Fowler and her fellow travelers will embark on their visit to the Holy Land, eager to share their stories of what they witness.
"In years past when you ask Palestinians, 'What do you want from us?' they usually say, 'Tell our story,'" Fowler said. "The more people go and are changed by the experience, at some point we'll reach the tipping point."