Congregation Inspired by Peacemaker Visits
June 24, 2016
For Ivyland Presbyterian Church, the Middle East was something many members had simply read about or seen on the news. There were no personal connections to the refugee crisis or to displacement of Christians overseas. Members weren’t connected to the trials and tribulations facing people in war-torn regions.
However, members of the small Pennsylvania congregation had a change of heart after an experience with the International Peacemakers Program in 2014. Each year, a number of Christian leaders and activists from around the world are invited to the United States and scheduled to speak across the country in churches, synods and presbyteries.
“We received a postcard at the church promoting the peacemakers’ visits, inviting churches to schedule a speaker,” said pastor Sarah Weisiger. “I talked with my session and then my husband and I decided to sponsor a speaker to see what it would be like. We had no idea what to expect.”
Weisiger says she and her congregation were pleasantly surprised. James Ninrew, liaison officer for the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan in Juba, was selected to speak at Ivyland. Ninrew is a human rights activist with a focus on the environment and extractive industries and serves with ecumenical groups seeking peace in a region impacted by civil war.
“It was a good visit. People really enjoyed the opportunity to hear what it is like to be a Christian in another part of the world,” Weisiger said. “We learned a lot about the work in South Sudan and the environment in which he works. We came away from the experience committed to do it again.”
Last year the church reapplied for a speaker, and the session funded it. Rami Al Magdasi, a pastor with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Syria and Lebanon, was the guest.
“The people truly loved Rami’s visit. Our church took him under their wing while he was here. I actually didn’t get to spend that much time with him because my church members stole him away,” Weisiger said. “It was really encouraging to see so many people interested in the work he’s doing. It was incredibly timely because the visit took place just as the Syrian refugee crisis was generating some public attention. People here were more aware of the situation than they would have been otherwise.”
Weisiger says Al Magdasi’s visit humanized the refugee crisis because he discussed what it was like to live in a camp and how lucky he was to be able to leave when he did.
“He put a face on what it is like to experience violence in the Middle East and be a person of faith and to care deeply about peace there,” Weisiger said. “For a lot of people, there is a sense of hopelessness and no avenue for peace in Syria and Iraq.”
While state and national government leaders debate the acceptance of refugee families, Weisiger says it didn’t take long for her church and five others to begin work to resettle families in their community. Community connections were made as a result of peacemaker visits that have enabled the congregation to continue engaging in the work of peacemaking in their own backyard. The Peacemakers Program connected the church not just to the wider church, but also to refugee resettlement agencies and interfaith organizations engaged in peacemaking in the heart of Philadelphia.
For churches debating whether to request a peacemaker, Weisiger says to give it a chance.
“It’s like having your family come visit you,” she said. “You just don’t know your family yet.”
Rick Jones, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
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Gracious God, we plant and water the seeds, but you alone give the growth to our mission and outreach projects. Keep us faithful in our work in your vineyard. May our labors bear fruit as we help others discover and develop their God-given gifts. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.