Covenant Presbyterian Church took a new tack this year in its effort to promote peace and understanding across cultures.
In May, the church sent 12 college students to Israel and Palestine to spend a week and a half meeting people and listening to their stories.
This week, the church will welcome nine students from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, who will join in the Festival of Bright Lights, a celebration of food, arts, music and teaching open to the community.
“The festival will be a time of rich learning, good fun and a chance to solidify relationships with a population not always understood,” the Rev. Bob Henderson, senior minister of Covenant Presbyterian, wrote in an email.
Covenant Presbyterian’s Holy Lands Peace Seeking ministry has worked for several years to build relationships and ministries with Israelis and Palestinians. The group has traveled to those countries and hosted speakers to bring attention to peacemaking work and show how U.S. Christians can play a role.
This year’s trip was the first specifically aimed for students from the U.S. to get to know people in the Holy Land. Nine students are part of Covenant’s college ministry and attend schools all over the U.S.; four attend Queens University of Charlotte.
Some students spent their first night in refugee camps, while others stayed with well-off families. One group spent 90 minutes driving 12 miles to a home, delayed several times at checkpoints.
“It was a very intentional opportunity for these young people,” said Covenant’s mission and outreach director, Carla Leaf, who also made the trip. “We tried to expose them to different faiths and the way different people live so they could appreciate the diversity of the stories that were being told. It was an incredible, powerful trip.”
Emily Hamilton, a Clemson University student and member of Covenant Presbyterian, wrote in an email that while the participants heard stories of anger, betrayal and anxiety, the people they met also talked of peace, graciousness and hope.
“The ordinary, everyday people living in the midst of this war, who are not always interviewed and broadcasted in our media, have hope for a peaceful future,” she wrote. “Hope that they could return home, hope that the other soldiers would realize their harshness, hope that children could run the streets freely, and hope that the governments could make a statement of peace.”
Dustin Saunders wrote of hearing a Muslim shopkeeper talk about valuing people, even those associated with an unjust system, and of a Palestinian man in a refugee camp dedicated to activism even though his brothers had been arrested for similar actions.
“Others taught me the importance of fellowship through finding unity in diversity,” he wrote. “Their charity and love for neighbor gave me hope that one day peace will prevail, just as Jesus proclaimed there three millennia ago.”
While in the Holy Land, the U.S. students met Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and president of Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem, who is visiting Charlotte with nine Palestinian students.
Raheb’s group will spend a day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center and visit Festival in the Park at Freedom Park, Leaf said. She said just walking around freely would be a new experience for them.
The students and Raheb also will share music, filmmaking and culinary gifts at several events in Charlotte.
Raheb will give a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Covenant Presbyterian called “Faith in the Face of the Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes.”
• At 7 p.m. Sept. 25, internationally acclaimed musician Georges Lamman and several Palestinian students will perform “Hope in the Holy Land: A Musical Witness from Bethlehem” at Queens; tickets are $10 at the door.
• On Sept. 26, chef Basem Hasbun, a faculty member at Dar al-Kalima, will prepare a Holy Land feast, followed by music, a film festival and remarks from Raheb at the church. Appetizers begin at 6:30 p.m., and tickets are $25.
• Raheb also will speak during Covenant Presbyterian’s 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday worship services Sept. 28, and Palestinian students will play music.
For reservations to the dinner Sept. 26, visit www.covenantpresby.org or call 704-333-9071. Covenant Presbyterian is at 1000 East Morehead St.