Tour Day Nine: Oklahoma Christian University

by EGM contributor Tim Stoner

More news about the Jewish Boat to Gaza has been filtering in to us. According to Israel’s Ynet News, an unnamed ministry official stated that Yonatan Shapira “has joined the ranks of Hamas.” We are watching in real time the heavy cost of engaging in non-violent resistance—not only to one’s reputation, but also to lives and livelihoods.

This morning we flew south from Detroit Metro to Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. It was grey and gloomy when we left and hot and dry when we push our bags out of the terminal. Except for the rain we left, the weather during the tour has been nearly perfect. When we arrive at the Homewood Suites, there is precious little time to check into our rooms, freshen up, change clothes, and get back on the bus.

On the Oklahoma Christian University campus, a private reception is underway. Because this is home to the film’s director Jim Hanon and producer Mart Green, and is the headquarters of EthnoGraphic Media, the guests include many of their friends and family, along with school officials and community leaders.

I catch up with Rabbi Avi before the screening begins. I am interested in his opinion of Little Town of Bethlehem and the reason for his decision to join the tour. “It is a helpful and unbiased vehicle for promoting dialogue,” he said. “I think it’s an important film, because it exposes people to the reality in the Middle East in a voice that creates much less antagonism than many others.”

The most impactful part for him was “the connection it made between the psychological trauma of the Holocaust and the existential fear of Israeli society.” The Rabbi explains that he saw participating in the tour as a logical continuation of his commitment to peace activism and, just as importantly, to interfaith dialogue.

Tonight’s screening is hosted by Oklahoma Christian University (OCU) and sponsored in part by Southern Nazarene University, Southwest Christian University, Multi Media Institute-Interactive Media, and Oral Roberts University. More than 420 people are in the audience when the film begins.

Serving as moderator, following the film, Jim fields questions from the audience. The discussion is honest and open. A student wants to know how you can teach nonviolence in a conservative religous context where supporting Israel’s claims for the Holy Land is perceived as virtually a duty for Evangelical Christians.

Sami responds by saying that he, as a Palestinian Christian, he learned the same Bible stories as the American evangelicals did. He stresses something that is rarely mentioned in the debate: “Jews and Arabs have lived together for centuries in Palestine. It is simply not correct to regard the present crisis as an historic conflict between two warring and irreconcilable factions.” He speaks forcefully and the audience listens intently. They recognize that his is a voice that speaks out of their same tradition. “There is truly enough space and room for both to live in the land. Both have historic claims and neither will ever be able to convince the other that ‘my claim trumps yours.’ God’s will is that His peace would rule there and that that peace will be a light to all the nations.”

Rabbi Avi reinforces Sami’s words by reminding the audience that Jews, Muslims and Christians have the same basic narrative. “We all love this land and each call it the ‘Holy Land.’ However, unless we are able to deal with deep-rooted issues like fear among the Israeli community, and mistrust by Palestinians, and pervasive feelings of inequality, there cannot be a solution that will benefit both communities.”

“We want people to pray for Israel and Jerusalem,” Sami continues. “It is the Holy City, the city of peace. We want God to bring His peace there.” Repeating a mantra he has used throughout the tour, Sami insists, “If after watching this film you leave feeling you are more pro one side or another, or anti one side or the other, then we have failed. We want you to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and most of all, pro-peace.”

As the night is wrapping up, I find an opportunity to speak with Dr. Michael O’Neal, the president of OCU. He is emphatic, “This was highly educational. The profound thing about Little Town of Bethlehem is how the message of the Prince of Peace is so subtly woven throughout. The message He taught of loving one another is central and offered as an answer to the crisis. The film showed the need to forgive and fully recognize the humanity in each other, regardless of our differences.” The film has clearly impacted him. “And, it shows that we must be willing to sacrifice for one another. That was powerful.”

On the bus back to the hotel I look at the schedule. It’s going to be another short night. We’re meeting in the lobby at 4:15 AM to drive to the airport for our flights to Los Angeles. I’m starting to forget what a “typical” night’s sleep feels like.

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