For the Ivyland Presbyterian Church, the Middle East was something many members read or saw in the news. There were no personal connections to the refugee crisis and displacement of Christians overseas. Members weren’t connected to the trials and tribulations facing people in war-torn regions.
However, the small Pennsylvania congregation had a change of heart when it came across the International Peacemakers Program in 2014. Each year, a number of Christian leaders and activists from around the world are invited to the United States and scheduled to speak across the country in churches, synods and presbyteries.
“We received a postcard at the church promoting the peacemakers’ visits, inviting churches to schedule a speaker,” said the Rev. Sarah Weisiger, church pastor. “I talked with my session and then my husband and I decided to sponsor a speaker to see what it would be like. We had no idea what to expect.”
Weisiger says she and her congregation were pleasantly surprised. The Rev. James Ninrew, liaison officer for the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCoSS) in Juba was selected to speak at Ivyland. Ninrew is a human rights activist with a focus on the environment and extractive industries and serves with a number of ecumenical groups seeking peace in a region impacted by civil war.
“It was a good visit. People really enjoyed the opportunity to hear what it is like to be a Christian in another part of the world,” Weisiger said. “We learned a lot about the work in South Sudan and the environment in which he works. We came away from the experience committed to do it again.”
Last year, the church re-applied for a speaker and the session funded it. The Rev. Rami Al Magdasi, a pastor with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Syria and Lebanon was the guest.
“The people truly loved Rami’s visit. Our church took him under their wing while he was here. I actually didn’t get to spend that much time with him because my church members stole him away,” she said. “It was really encouraging to see so many people interested in the work he’s doing. It was incredibly timely because the visit took place just as the Syrian refugee crisis was generating some public attention. People here were more aware of the situation than they would have been otherwise.”
Weisiger says Rami’s visit humanized the refugee crisis by describing what it was like to live in a camp and how lucky he was to be able to leave when he did.
“He put a face on what it is like to experience violence in the Middle East and be a person of faith and to care deeply about peace there,” Weisiger said. “For a lot of people, there is a sense of hopelessness and no avenue for peace in Syria and Iraq.”
While state and national government leaders debate on the acceptance of refugee families, Weisiger says it didn’t take long for her church and five others to begin work to resettle families in their community. Community connections were made as a result of peacemaker visits that have enabled the church to continue engaging in the work of peacemaking in their own backyard. The Peacemaking Program connected the church not just to the wider church, but to refugee resettlement agencies and interfaith organizations engaged in peacemaking in the heart of Philadelphia.
In the six months since Rami’s visit, the momentum continues. Weisiger says the church is hoping to be on the list for another peacemaker visit in the fall of 2016. Presbyterian Peacemaking staff say information will be going out soon about this fall’s visits. Peacemakers are currently scheduled to visit U.S. churches, presbyteries and synods between September 23 and October 17.
For churches debating whether to request a peacemaker, Weisiger says give it a chance.
“It’s like having your family come visit you, you just don’t know your family yet,” she said. “It was the easiest thing in the world to sign up for. We were willing to give it a try even when we didn’t know what the outcome might be. It’s something new and you might come away completely changed.”
Ten individuals have been selected to participate as International Peacemakers this fall. Funded in part by donations to the Peace & Global Witness Offering, they come from Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Hungary, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, Niger, South Sudan, Syria and Uruguay. For more information about the Peacemaking Program and the upcoming visits, click here.