The purpose of the Tree of Life Conference, started by First Congregational United Church of Christ in Old Lyme, Conn., hasn't changed since it began almost a decade ago. Tree of Life provides an interfaith gathering to educate participants on how to make the world a more peaceful place.
What has changed is the magnitude of the Tree of Life event. This fall, the three-week series of conferences, which began on Oct. 13 and ends Nov. 3, set out again to raise awareness around the social and human rights issues of the people of Palestine-Israel, and ways to help broker peace in the conflict. At one recent discussion on Oct. 20 at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, more than 200 people from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths came together to learn about the conflict, talk about how they might react to it, and share a meal together.
"The whole issue with Israel-Palestine is something we all need to be educated about," said the Rev. Rebecca Crosby, an associate minister at First Congregational UCC. "A huge component of this is education. There are not many people who realize the reality of the occupation and how it affects Palestinians and the degree of human rights abuses it has on Palestinians.
"For us, it's an issue of bringing that reality to the American people, to our congregation and getting them informed on it, and having them realize this is what their [taxpayer] dollars are paying for."
The Tree of Life Conference, now in its ninth year, has expanded from one event in Old Lyme in 2005 to 14 events in 2013, being held in 10 locations from New England to Georgia. The conference brings together Protestant, Methodist and Episcopal churches, as well as groups from Muslim and Jewish faiths, to work together as faith communities in addressing the issues dividing the Palestinians and Israelis.
The General Synod of the United Church of Christ has adopted several resolutions on Palestine-Israel that supports working for a peaceful outcome. The Tree of Life Conferences is a witness for a just peace in the Middle East through their educational and advocacy efforts, explained Derek Duncan, UCC associate for global advocacy and education.
"The UCC has engaged in witness for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine for many years, supporting a vision of two states living side by side with security, sovereignty, dignity and full rights for all," Duncan said. "We have a history of Synod policy that promotes peaceful engagement in the region, and a commitment to working not just with our historic global partners, including Palestinian Christian churches and organizations, but also with Muslim and Jewish partners committed to peace, both in the region and in the U.S."
Crosby thinks that the best way to understand the problems dividing the region is to see them for yourself and that the best way to broker peace is through our government representatives.
"Part of that is to learn more about it and talk to our representatives," she said, "and question why $12 million of U.S. money a day supports the occupation."
There are 10 more Tree of Life conferences are taking place from Oct. 24 through Nov. 3, most of which are in the New England area, and one in Atlanta. There is also a journey in March 2014 to Palestine-Israel and Jordan where travelers can see some of the issues firsthand, and hopefully return ready to take action toward peace.
Tree of Life Conferences take place in other faith communiteies outside the UCC. First Presbyterain Church in Americus, Ga., is hosting a forum with dialogue and discussion to work for peace in the Middle East on Oct. 31.
Crosby spoke about some of the issues raised during the Old Lyme conference, particularly the wall that separates Palestinian territory from Israeli territory. Palestinians who live behind that wall have to pass through constant checkpoints, and some families even live on opposite sides of the wall. That, she says, is an injustice to that society.
"All those issues are important for people of our congregation and people in this area," Crosby said.
The conference at First Congregational included guest speakers, a bazaar to sell Palestinian-made products such as soap and olive oil, a music concert and a dinner.
"The feeling in that dinner is wonderful, to see Jews, Muslims and Christians sitting together," Crosby said. "It's a view of what life could be like in the Middle East. It is possible for all of us to get along."
"We sat quiet during the time of the Holocaust, and we speak out against Darfur and other human rights atrocities," Crosby added. "This is one that is right under our nose and we don't know it."