Confessions of a Conservative Christian

By Tim Stoner, EGM Contributor

This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series on film screenings in Israel and Palestine. If you missed the other posts, click here.

Gary Nelson traveled with the EGM team to the premiere screenings of Little Town of Bethlehem in Israel and Palestine. A member of EGM’s advisory board, this was his first “in-country excursion” with the nonprofit film company. When he was younger, Gary served as Chief Petty Officer on a Navy destroyer in the Mediterranean. He was well aware of the hostilities in the Middle East. “At the time, in my opinion,” he said, “justice in the region should come off the barrel of a Navy ship.”

By his own description, Gary is a conservative Christian. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment. “In my church, we would always hear about how great Israel was. We never heard anything about the Palestinians.” Before accompanying the film team to the region, Gary had little, if any, knowledge about or sympathy for the Palestinian people. He just assumed they were out to harm, even destroy, Israel.

What struck him as he arrived in the Holy Land was the number of armed soldiers, who were young men and women holding automatic weapons. Later, he would encounter the serpentine lines of Palestinians waiting hours at checkpoints to enter or exit Israel for work. “I’m in the birthplace of Jesus, and we’ve run into this?” he thought, “this is more like a military state!”

Throughout the week of the screenings Gary and the team were guests in homes of both Palestinians and Israelis. “To be honest, I did not expect the Palestinians to be so warm and hospitable to me. A recurring question I heard was, ‘Why is your government doing this to us?’ This was one more thing I was not expecting!”

Listening to the audience discussions following the screenings, he began to realize that there was more than one side to this issue. What shifted his paradigm was the realization that Palestinians also had legitimate claims to the land and valid concerns about how they were looked upon and treated as a people.

Gary tells me that as a result of his week in Bethlehem and Israel he has had a profound change of heart. “I’ve been dead wrong,” he admits. “Property has been confiscated, homes lost, and jobs taken. People have essentially become prisoners in their own land.” He wonders, “How can the right to ensure the safety and security for one group come at such a high cost to the freedoms of another?”

During his prayer times, he has had to ask forgiveness for his prejudice and ignorance. Gary shakes his head sadly as he considers his past disregard for Palestinians. “I realize now that this is not how Jesus would feel about them nor how He would respond to the situation.” And while Gary is quick to clarify that he has not become anti-Israel, he simply recognizes that the Palestinian people deserve to be heard. “Now that I have been there and experienced the conflict firsthand, I can no longer ignore it.”

Gary is already planning his return trip to the Middle East. He particularly wants to visit several Bethlehem families whose hospitality had amazed him. “They were so warm and kept offering us this delicious food,” he says, then stopping for a moment to relive a fond memory. Perhaps in his mind he has already returned. “I now have friends there,” he concludes with a wistful smile.

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  • Bryson

    That’s really thinking out of the box. Thanks!