Rev. Chris Holland traveled to Israel twice in 2017. Something, it seemed, kept pulling him back to the Middle Eastern country.
“It takes a couple of times to… not fully get your arms wrapped around what’s going on,” he said, “but at least begin to digest it. Coming home the second time I just, to some degree, felt helpless. I wish there was more that could be done, more than just the dialogs that we were having, which were good.”
What Chris, the pastor at New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, learned is there were children in Israel and Palestine being used as part of those nations’ military forces and being dehumanized by educational literature and curriculum.
What has transpired since Chris has returned is the creation of an overture by the Presbytery of Philadelphia that will be presented at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis in June. As the overture advocate, Chris has provided much of the energy behind the overture that is titled “For the Protection of the Children of Israel and Palestine.”
The overture asks that the General Assembly “cease support for those entities that continue to put children in harm’s way” and “support efforts to bridge divides through the creation and implementation of coexistence and engagement programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian children to study and grow together.”
Chris realizes it’s a tall order to try to change the culture of what is happening in places like Israel and Palestine, but he isn’t about to sit back and do nothing.
“What kind of impact can we actually have?” Chris asked. “It would be great if we can do something that isn’t divisive, but to really look at the broader picture to how we can actually be the hands and feet of Christ to potentially make change where we can.
“There’s so much happening in the Middle East and around the world. What can I truly do to change perhaps what a government will do versus what can I do to touch a life that’s actually on the ground?”
There are certainly plenty of issues occurring in the United States that could use everyone’s attention, and Chris feels the ones in the Middle East aren’t that unrelated to what is happening here.
“I think what’s going on in the United States and what’s happening in Israel and Palestine are directly related,” he said. “As I’m speaking about working with children and helping promote peace in those communities, I actually do that here as part of my work in the states.”
New Spirit Church in shared ministry with the Common Place, a community faith-based 501c3, provides holistic care to the children and families of southwest Philadelphia through educational programs, social service, collaboration and faith formation. This program helps to promote peace in that part of the city, much like the overture is requesting be done in the Middle East.
“As an African-American male growing up in this country and having seen the loss of some of my friends living in the neighborhood and/or seeing how some children are treated by others, all of these things in a world view are connected to me,” Chris said. “Leaving that place, I felt connected to what the children and families were going through there – somehow related to what we are going through here.”
Despite the good intentions of the overture, the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy and Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns are advising that the overture not be approved. Also, the Presbyterian Mission Agency finds the overture to be “problematic,” saying, “We are already engaged in addressing the issues related to the safety and well-being of children in Palestine and Israel in response to the 221st General Assembly (2014) action.”
Should the overture be turned down, it won’t affect Chris’ ambition toward helping children in the Middle East have better lives.
“The work doesn’t stop for anyone who wants to truly help children on the ground,” he said. “These organizations are already in existence. The work is already being done, so it doesn’t hinder anything. But with it actually going through, it does lift up a larger issue that I would hope there could be some consensus around and actually taking the next step further that we can all work together on something.
“It doesn’t stop for me, it doesn’t stop for my congregation, it doesn’t stop for those colleagues of mine who talk about these things and try to understand how what is happening in the Middle East impacts what is happening in this country. We need to continue to be the ones Christ is calling to do the hard work because if this was easy, everyone would be doing it.”