Washington, D.C. ? Thanks to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the term evangelical is usually associated with a pro Israel political agenda and fundamentalist dispensationalist theology. Nevertheless, one of the most vibrant and thoughtful church organizations in the United States is Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.
"Evangelical is a term designating roots in the gospel," notes cofounder Ray Bakke of International Urban Associates. "We are deliberate in using this term in its broadest sense. Where else will you see such a diverse group of people coming together Presbyterians, Methodists, and Mennonites as well as Baptists and members of fundamentalist churches who feel more inclined to association with the historically grounded Arab churches of the Middle East. Their mission statement reads: EMEU is an informal fellowship of North American evangelical Christians committed to dialogue which seeks mutual understanding, respect and friendship between Middle Eastern and Western Christians.
The organization began fifteen years ago when Bakke and Don Wagner spent a sabbatical in the Middle East visiting with church leaders and government officials concerning the role of the American church in relationship to the Middle East. Because the so-called evangelical churches have no formal ties to these Middle East churches, the decision was made to make a deliberate effort to increase awareness concerning Middle East Christians.
Thus the name Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.
Bakke notes that in some ways they fell short in meeting their goal. "Our strategy was to find evangelical leaders and seminary presidents and to take them to the Middle East to meet with Christian counterparts and to begin a network of cooperation." Yet the alliance of Christian fundamentalism and the Zionist agenda in Israel has continued as a baffler for many in establishing the intended dialogue. Traditional evangelicals remain only a minority in participation at conferences and in leadership in EMEU. Instead EMEU has succeeded in bringing together a wide range of participation.
Its board of directors include EMEU president Don Kruse from National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., Harold Vogelaar from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, David Neff from Christianity Today, Gary Burge from Wheaton College, Marilyn Borst from First Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, and Walt Eckelmann, from Rockport, Texas.
The annual EMEU conference was held in Evanston, Illinois on Nov. 2-4,2000. The theme, "The Spiritual Riches of Middle Eastern Christianity," was highlighted with presentations by Middle East visitors ranging from Gendi Rizk on the role of monasticism in Egypt to Abdul Massih Saadi on the literary contributions within the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch to Mitri Raheb and Bishara Awad concerning the resilient faith of Palestinian Christians in the face of adversity. American speakers in turn focused on what they had received from their encounters in the Middle East.
One of the noticeable features of the EMEU conference is the spiritual dimension of participants through prayer, Bible study, and song. British troubadour Garth Hewitt was on hand both to entertain with his ballads and to involve participants in group singing.
Dr. Kenneth Bailey drew upon decades of experience teaching New Testament in Egypt and at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut to lead morning Bible studies on the parables through Middle Eastern eyes.
Representatives of a variety of congregations reported on partnership programs and exchanges they had developed in Jordan and Palestine. Others, such as Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness described efforts to get beyond the sanctions in Iraq and to provide aid. Workshops focused on "What can I do?" in terms of advocacy, education, development, pilgrimage, and sister churches. Following the closing session, participants were treated to a performance of the play, "The Longing," written on the basis of oral histories concerning the Palestinian al-Nakhba of 1948 by Dr. Robert Hostetter of North Park University.
"Participants come away feeling nourished and encouraged," noted Don Wagner "There is a lot of heavy stuff that goes on at these conferences and it would be easy to get weighed down and discouraged. Yet the conference builds community and sends people home with new ideas and new energy. That's something unique about EMEU." Conference presentations are available on the EMEU website http://www.emeu.org. The EMEU Journal is published quarterly. "2001 will be a crossroads year for EMEU," notes Ray Bakke.
"After fifteen years it is time to take stock and to do a lot of listening before plotting out the future of the association?' One immediate change is that Don Wagner, after years of service as EMEU Director, is stepping back and North Park University in Chicago will no longer serve as the administrative center During the transition Dr. Gary Burge, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187, is serving as interim director. Since EMEU had its beginnings in dialogue with Middle East Christians, the 2001 conference will be held in Amman, Jordan in November "One of the things we want to examine;' says Bakke, "is how to involve more traditional Evangelicals who have sympathies with the Palestinian church."
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