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Ahead of the 226th General Assembly, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship holds its online Peace Breakfast

Hymn writer the Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wins the Peaceseeker Award, and a Bethlehem-based peacemaker offers the keynote address

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Levar Travel via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Nearly 50 people gathered online Saturday for Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s General Assembly Peace Breakfast.

PPF’s Peaceseeker Award went to the Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, who’s written new lyrics for about 500 hymns over the past quarter-century.

Gillette credited her parents — “both peacemakers in their own way” — for helping her to “become a good listener and pay attention to people’s feelings.”

In college, she was part of a transformative trip to Haiti, “where I first began to think about how we live in this world.” She’s been to Honduras about a dozen times. One time a pastor there told the visiting church group, “You don’t come here on vacation. You came because God called you, and it’s your job to figure out what that call is all about.”

“That’s our job as peacemakers,” Gillette said.

The Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

In seminary, she started dating the leader of the campus peace group, Bruce Gillette, whom she would marry and become PC(USA) pastors together. Their first date was viewing an anti-war double feature: “Gallipoli” and “Breaker Morant.” She credited her husband of 40 years for “sharing in this work.”

Decades ago, she started writing new lyrics for established hymns, giving many of them to churches for free use. “I think the words we sing get deep inside us,” she said, including hymns of lament. “There is a certain place for lament, for seeing the world is not the place God wants it to be,” Gillette said.

On 9/11, she wrote “O God, Our Words Cannot Express,” and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame sang it along with a church choir.

Gillette noted that theologian Karl Barth once advised clergy to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

“I think that’s how I write hymns,” she said. “I write to make connections between faith and life.”

“When I write, I believe I can make a difference,” she said. A woman once told her Gillette changed her mind on immigration after the woman sang one of Gillette’s hymns.

“That’s what feeds my soul,” Gillette said. “The words we sing get deep inside us and they change us. There’s something joyful about writing lyrics to songs that people sing.”

A keynote address from Bethlehem

Zoughbi al Zoughbi, executive director of Wi’am Conflict Transformation Center in Bethlehem, gave those on the call permission to call him by either his first or last name.

Wi’am centers much of its work on youth and women, he said. “Our context is instability,” Zoughbi said. “We try to have a positive energy to respond to the needs of the local community and connect with partners like you.”

He described the work as “like a sponge, absorbing the anger of people.”

Wi’am offers services including job creation, nonviolent resistance, peer mediation, and trauma coping, in addition to programs tailored toward women and youth. It also provides educational and cultural tours to visitors to the Holy Land, although that’s come to a near standstill because of the war in Gaza.

“This kind of work takes strong faith,” he told those on the call.

Zoughbi al Zoughbi

Zoughbi married an American in 1990, but she’s unable to live in Bethlehem 12 months out of the year. “My wife and I hope we can live one day without oppression,” he said. “This is not a recipe for peace and coexistence.” The couple have four adult children.

Asked where he finds hope, Zoughbi said it’s in “every young American who really struggles for justice and peace, and who tells the truth.” He sees it in his own children, who chose to return home following their education. He sees hope in successful struggles for justice in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

“I see hope in every struggle. I get hope from my Bible, and I see hope in my friends in the office and in every face that’s strong for the cause of justice and peace all over the world,” he said. “And I see it in the Presbyterian Church, which has a prophetic voice and prophetic actions.”

Zoughbi encouraged those on the call to one day visit and see Wi’am at work. “You help me understand my faith better. Your advocacy strengthens us,” he said. “Our message is, please don’t let the olive branch drop from our hands.”

“Two thousand years ago, we made the mistake of saying, ‘There’s no room in the inn,’” Zoughbi said. “Now we have plenty of rooms, but there’s no pilgrims and visitors.”

Matt Black, whose most recent album is “A Little Closer,” provided music during the celebration.

Rick Ufford-Chase

Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), discussed a memorable trip he made in the fall 2004 to Colombia. “We had been in meetings with high-level government officials about human rights abuses,” he recalled. The Rev. Milton Mejía “seemed to turn the heat up a little bit each meeting,” Ufford-Chase recalled. In the taxi, Ufford-Chase told Mejía, “It feels like you are turning the temperature up on a boiling pot of water.”

To that, Mejía, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, told the PC(USA) Moderator, “We are clear what we are called to do. It may feel hot to you, but we have been living with this for a long time. The only question is, will the Church in the United States be with us?”

“We have been bold in so many ways,” Ufford-Chase said of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. “The point is clear: This organization has been leading the entire Church into greater acts of boldness for the collective need for peace.”

“Go, knowing you are beloved, and you are blessed,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Lyter Bright, PPF’s executive director, by way of a benediction. “Let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

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