Group Wrestles with Experience on MENA Vision Trip

MENA vision trip group at the Damascus Gate

By Cat Knarr

As the boat rolled along rich, blue-green waves toward shore, Deb Masten’s eyes brimmed with tears. It was her last full day in the Holy Land, and she had been enjoying a peaceful ride on the Sea of Galilee. But then something struck her.

“My expectation was to come to the Holy Land and find Jesus in a deeper way by being here at the holy sites,” Masten said. “But I found Jesus among my Palestinian brothers and sisters. I saw Jesus moving among the marginalized.”

Masten, who serves as the director of missionary personnel for Serve Globally, was traveling with a Covenant group on a Middle East North Africa (MENA) vision trip. Out on the sea it occurred her that she was seeing beauty that many Palestinians had never seen due to travel restrictions. At that moment, the song “Oceans” by Hillsong United played on the boat, including the line “lead me where my trust is without borders,” and Masten thought of all the borders, checkpoints, and walls that divide up the Holy Land.

“The lyrics took on a whole other layer of meaning that came cascading down at that moment,” she said. “It surprised me. It was a holy moment.”

Deb Masten on the Sea of Galilee. Credit: Cat Knarr

Masten participated in the MENA vision trip last month, just a couple weeks after the United States moved their embassy to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel despite the city’s disputed status. The day of the move, May 14, was also the deadliest day in the conflict since 2014, with more than 60 Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza killed by the Israeli military.

For many on the trip, the experience deepened and shifted their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially as they learned the wide spectrum of opinions and empathized with different narratives.  The group attended the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem, listened to talks and lectures from Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, visited holy sites and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, and met with ministries in Egypt.

Taylor Burgoyne, senior pastor of Eastside Covenant Church in Tucson, Arizona, emphasized the importance of listening to learn more about a very complex conflict. He especially encouraged people to seek out Christian voices in Israel and Palestine. “Even in Israeli and Palestinian subsets, there are a variety of opinions,” Burgoyne said. “Pay attention to as many different perspectives as you can. As Americans we have a lot of influence on this situation, and I think that means we have a responsibility to learn.”

Odessa Stotler, who attends Eastside Covenant Church, said the experience led her to a broader understanding of the conflict beyond what she’d seen on the news. She participated in a Christ at the Checkpoint field trip to South Hebron Hills, where she met Palestinians whose villages were under threat of demolition.

“I had always heard about the Israeli side, and coming here, I realized this is what you don’t see on the American news,” Stotler said. “I have more knowledge of the situation and what’s going on, firsthand knowledge. I’ve witnessed it myself.”

For Serve Globally executive minister Al Tizon, the experience solidified his perspective, as he saw checkpoints, settlements, and Palestinian villages with his own eyes. “Being here, seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, it’s become that much more real,” he said. “This is not an abstract justice issue anymore. I met people and heard their stories.”

Seeking Truth

Before going on the trip, Lutheran pastor Kevin Williams from Denver wasn’t sure how to speak about what felt like a distant conflict. He was frustrated with the situation, but he also didn’t realize just how incredibly complex the conflict was.

Taylor Burgoyne. Photo credit: Kevin Williams

“Now I feel more informed,” Williams said. “It’s pretty amazing the number of things we believe without gathering knowledge. It’s important to seek the truth, and if the truth is simple it’s often wrong. There may not be simple answers.”

Janice Tizon, who attends Grace Covenant Church in Chicago with her husband, Al, said that she was very grateful for the experience, although at times hearing people’s painful stories left her devastated. Even so, she encourages others to seek out those stories. “Search for stories and listen to the hearts of people,” she said. “Not just the government view, TV view, or what your church tells you, but listen to people’s stories.”

Burgoyne had a similar reflection on his third trip to the Holy Land.

“Don’t be afraid to embrace complexity,” Burgoyne said. “This situation is anything but simple. But when we try to simplify it, we inevitably dehumanize, because this is a human conflict between people, and people on both sides have experienced a lot of pain. If we diminish people’s pain, we are not honoring God.”

Taking Action

Burgoyne is already planning a vision trip to Israel and Palestine for members of his congregation within the next two years. That will be his church’s first step toward greater engagement in the region.

“I’m moving a little quicker toward asking, how do I act?” Burgoyne said. “I don’t feel paralyzed by the gravity of it. I feel energized by the immediacy of it. How do I best respond to this?”

Covenant pastor Eugene Cho spoke at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference on the whole gospel. Credit: Andrew Larsen

For Burgoyne, taking action is a personal responsibility, both as an evangelical pastor and as a descendant of Messianic Jews. He is conscious of the unquestioning support that evangelicals and Christian Zionists have lent to Israel. He’s also conscious of the fact that his one-eighth Jewish heritage could earn him the right to become an Israeli citizen and even move to a settlement in Israel.

“Compare that to someone on the Palestinian side who’s been there for 2,000 years. Based on a small part of my family tree, I’m given not just as much right but more right to the land,” Burgoyne said. “It’s really insane.”

Covenant missionary Hannah Baker was wrestling with her next steps as she prepared to fly to Egypt from the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. She felt like she was watching the conflict from afar, like an observer on the sidelines of a gray cloud of fighting and chaos, trying to decide whether to step in. Granted, some people were born into that fray, she recognized, and it was a privilege to have the choice to turn away. But as she waited to board her flight, Baker pondered how God was calling her to act, thinking of Jeremiah 6:16: “Ask where the good way is, and walk in it.”

“Maybe the good way is the suffering way,” Baker said. “It’s going to cost you, but the good way is to join in solidarity with those who suffer.”

Cat Knarr is a freelance writer and the project manager of Covenant Kids Congo.   

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