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Big Tent workshop offers stories and struggles of reconciliation around the world

Features work in South Sudan, Cuba and the Israel-Palestine

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Victor Makari presenting at Big Tent 2017. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

ST. LOUIS – In some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world, Christians share a common goal — a witness not of anger or violence, but with the law of love.

At Friday’s Big Tent workshop, The Church’s Stories of Struggle and Reconciliation, representatives of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s (PMA) World Mission talked about the accompaniment of global partners in the work of peace-building in South Sudan, Cuba and Israel-Palestine.

The Rev. Peter Tibi, director of RECONCILE International (Resource Center for Civil Leadership) was scheduled to speak about his organization’s work in discouraging armed conflict, negotiating humanitarian access and preventing revenge killings, but was unable to leave South Sudan for the U.S. Stepping in for him was the Rev. Debbie Braaksma, coordinator of PMA’s Africa area office. She knows South Sudan well. She lived there for five years with her husband and worked at RECONCILE.

Since South Sudan’s birth as a nation in 2011, estimates are that over 50,000 people have been killed, more than 1.9 million have been internally displaced and 1.8 million have fled the country. Under the threat of international sanctions, President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in August 2015. Machar returned to Juba in April 2016 and was sworn in as vice president. Just three months later, violence broke out again between the two factions. Both sides blame the other for violating the ceasefire.

Although the situation in South Sudan remains dire, Braaksma said she is proud of the way that three different entities of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are working together for the people of South Sudan. Through the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project, World Mission is working to accompany the global partners, provide a faithful Christian witness, and engaging in both peace building and education. There are currently five mission co-workers serving in Juba.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has provided funds and support for church partners to respond compassionately to the needs of the people. An epic, man-made famine is already gripping the country. Opposing forces more often hit civilians rather than one another. In South Sudan, they have raided cattle and burned homes and fields. Because so many have been forced to flee, people cannot plant crops or must abandon them. Famine is declared when people are literally starving to death. Estimates are that about 100,000 people face immediate starvation and more than 1 million people are in danger.

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the Office of Public Witness are working on the macro issues, joining other religious and non-government organizations in advocating for important economic measures and protecting human rights. Ryan Smith of the U.N. office meets regularly with the U.N. security council working group.

“We are able to do mission with integrity because of the work we do together,” Braaksma said.

David Cortes-Fuentes and Josefina Saez-Acevedo talked next about Cuba. They are the first missionaries living in Cuba since the revolution with the permission of both countries. Fuentes is a professor of New Testament and Greek at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas and Acevedo is teaching English to first-year students at the seminary and using her experience in Christian education for the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cuba, a PC(USA) partner.

Refusing to succumb to political upheaval, economic uncertainty or mass emigration, the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Matanzas, Cuba, has remained open and focused on preparing the next generation of ecumenical leaders.

Last October, a large contingent of current and former students, faculty, staff and faith leaders celebrated 70 years of continuous operation at the seminary.

The Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches founded the Evangelical Seminary in 1946, one of only 10 Christian seminaries in Cuba and the only one operated by different denominations. It is governed by a board of directors elected from two of the establishing denominations — the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. Enrollment has included students from all of Cuba and 18 foreign countries from more than 30 different denominations and religious institutions. There are currently 52 Presbyterians enrolled.

Today the seminary’s mission is “promoting experiences that allow for transformation of church and society in the obedience to the reign of God and God’s justice.”

The husband and wife have now served in Cuba for 16 months. “We are both blessed and honored to be the first missionaries living and working in Cuba since the revolution,” Fuentes said.

Victor Makari, mission co-worker in Israel-Palestine, was the last speaker of the workshop. Allotted only about 15 minutes, he gave an overview of both the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and talked briefly about where things stand today … no small task for a situation that has spanned hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the subject.

Makari serves under ecumenical appointment from four different denominations, working primarily on “religion and state in the Middle East, more specifically the Arab World.” He said it is not a program aimed at resolving the conflict, but rather a quest for full rights and the quality of life, the dignity of every human being for which a constitution should be a guarantee and the rule of law should be a protection.

Despite continued military occupation and the futile efforts toward peace to date, church partners work toward the goal of both Israelis and Palestinians living free of fear and oppression. “This is a steadfast hope that many have committed their lives to,” Makari said.

One source of hope are schools affiliated with PC(USA) partner churches. Those schools rank among the highest in performance, but they also promote peace and nonviolence, character-building and development of leadership capacity.

“The schools are a witness not to the sword, but with the law of love,” he said. “Love and peace stand for justice. Love must always win. They learn the gospel values without being taught religion.” He said the waiting list is very long for getting into these schools and many are Muslim parents.

Rather than rely on what people say, Makari encouraged everyone to read reliable, well-researched information before they draw conclusions. He recommended Uri Avnery, an Israel writer and founder of the Gush Shalom Peace Movement. He embraces Zionism, but favors a side-by-side state. He writes a weekly column and has written several books.

He also recommended writer Gary Burge, who after 25 years of teaching, is leaving Wheaton College and moving to Calvin Seminary. At Wheaton, he was a professor in the Bible and Theology Department and known for his passion for the Middle East. Burge has written several books, including a work of historical fiction called A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion.

He also recommended work by Oxford professor Colin Chapman as well as and, the website of a nonprofit organization that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the foreign policy of the United States regarding the Middle East.

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