For nearly eight years, Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Va., has had an interest in the Middle East, especially Israel/Palestine. This summer, that interest led to a time of partnership, outreach and fellowship for American and Palestinian teens.
Grace Presbyterian’s Middle East Working Group grew out of a class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict taught at the church in 2004. With help from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission office, the group formed a partnership with sister congregations in the West Bank — St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nablus and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rafidia. Both churches are led by Father Ibrahim Nairouz.
This summer, Nairouz — along with seven youth from his churches — spent about two weeks in the United States, getting to know the Grace youth while working together to renovate homes in the Springfield area.
“They had a wonderful time,” said the Rev. Jay Click, pastor at Grace. Although there were some language and cultural barriers, the youth soon realized that “‘teenager’ is a universal language,” he said.
The group participated in the Tri-Cities Workcamps, a yearly mission opportunity for Grace youth. The weeklong work camps coordinate home repairs and provide worship and retreat opportunities for youth.
For the Palestinian youth, the camp provided a new sense of pride. Paraphrasing from Nairouz, Click said that the youth are often made to feel “less than” at home because of their religion and nationality.
“But through the power of the church, they can do things they never thought possible before,” Click said, adding that Nairouz hopes to bring that model home, with the youth repairing Palestinian members’ homes.
But the trip was not all about work. The Palestinian visitors had several opportunities to explore the Springfield area, including trips to the National Zoo, the Washington National Cathedral, Luray Caverns and Shenandoah National Park.
“It’s just a really wonderful, enriching relationship for both of us,” Click said. “It’s really energized my church.”
Being in relationship with Palestinian Christians has been an eye-opening experience for Grace, he said, especially because many in the United States equate the Middle East with Muslims.
But Christians, although a minority, are also present in the Middle East.
“They have a very rich sense of what it means to be a minority Christian … and that’s something most Americans haven’t experienced,” Click said. “I think God always blesses that and brings something good out of that kind of Christian exchange.”
Every three to four years, Grace also makes trips to its partner’s home. Click encourages other U.S. congregations to make such trips and seek out relationships with partners in the Middle East and around the world.
“This is what it means to be church,” he said. “You’re not alone. It can be better — with the grace of God.”