As we go into this New Year of 2008 together, what is more appropriate than to remember the message of hope that we have encountered in 2007 in so many variations? An encounter of this sort that stands out more than others was the visit of Rev. Marlin Vis with our congregation on Dec 9th. At the same time, we were privileged to host a delegation from First Reformed Church in Astoria, Queens. Astoriaâ€™s Pastor Rev. Dwayne Jackson gave us a very encouraging sermon that day. Together, we welcomed Marlin Vis.
Marlin is a missionary of our denomination, the Reformed Church in America. He and his wife, Sally, live in Jerusalem where they work side by side with Palestinian Christians. In Jerusalem, Marlin and Sally embody the care and concern of North American Christians for their brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine.
Marlinâ€™s presentation was most interesting and was much talked about in the days that followed. As we had heard from our Lebanese friend Rev. George Bitar earlier this year, the number of Christians in this troubled part of the world is declining rapidly. In Palestine/Israel, there were between 18% and 20% in 1949.Today that number is between 1.5% and 1.8% of the total population.
Consequently, Marlin spoke to us of people forced to do everything in their power to provide an overseas future for their children because there is so little future in the land. He spoke of a middle class seeing their homes taken by others because they are now located in the wrong neighborhood of town. He told the story of family fathers facing the ugly crossroads of either saying â€œI forgive themâ€ or â€œI will kill themâ€. And he talked of a people whose potential for hope has been exhausted because they have learned that they will be hurt again.
Yet Marlin did not end with these very difficult experiences. He moved on to convey to us a warning he had received from the Melkite Bishop Elias Chacour when first arriving in Jerusalem: â€œIf you have come to take sides, donâ€™t come. We have already too many of those here. But you are welcome if you want to serve as a bridge. We need people like you.â€
Marlin then went on and shared with us that the Palestinian Christianâ€™s contribution to society is enormous: in the West Bank, for example, they are 1.5% of the total population. Yet they educate 25% of all children in the West Bank in their schools. These Christian schools are very special, because they are relatively free from political bias. Their textbooks tell Palestinian children of the Holocaust that brought many of the ancestors of their Jewish classmates to Israel. Likewise they tell the Jewish children that their Palestinian classmates are not just â€œArabsâ€ but belong to a people with its own identity and its own need for a home land.
What could be more important than to be a bridge when cultures, political agendas, and religious biases clash the way they do in Israel and Palestine? We learned so much through Marlinâ€™s words that day, and our interest and care for this particular region of our planet has certainly increased.
But we also learned something about ourselves. Bridges need to be built in our communities as well. The Sunday morning de-facto segregation of our worshippers remains largely unchallenged; the interfaith movement is still in its infancy; special needs people live separate and oftentimes shunned lives; and year after year our rotating Homeless Menâ€™s Shelter gives us glimpses into a very different world. Bridges are needed here as well. As we now proceed into this New Year of 2008, I invite you to pray with me for Godâ€™s Holy Spirit. May God continue to use us as a good and sturdy bridge here in the city of New Brunswick!
In closing, I would like to thank the two committees of our church that were most involved in preparing for the events on Dec 9th, Christian Education under the leadership of Lauren Bernhofer and Invitation & Outreach chaired by Joan Fekete. Thank you to all of you who supplied wonderful meals and served our guests.