On a beach in the Sinai peninsula, a group of Christian believers prepares for a most unusual Communion service.
"A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup," someone reads from First Corinthians. "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself."
What makes this service so different is not the setting so much as the participants: Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians whose common faith in Jesus has given them the courage to cross the political and cultural mine fields between them.
As the bread is being prepared, one of the men gets to his feet. "I have something I need to confess," he says quietly. All motion stops. The air is charged as he continues: "I've been holding something against my brother."
In a moment of holy courage he calls the other by name. He reaches out. "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" And the tension dissolves.
"It was powerful, beautiful," says Nizar Tuma, a Jerusalem pastor. "Something was set free in all of us. It was a night of confession and repentance, a real move of the Spirit. I saw people embracing, men on their knees, weeping, or just praying quietly. This is what Musalaha is all about."
Musalaha, an Arabic word meaning reconciliation and forgiveness, is also the name of a Jerusalem-based ministry that has been bringing groups like these into the desert since 1991.
Salim Munayer, director, explains, "In the beginning, the whole concept of Jewish believers was so new, it was a real surprise. The Palestinian Christians thought, 'Oh, they're Christians, they'll understand.' But we didn't realize how complex their relationship was with the historical church, even with the word Christian.
"It got to the point where believers didn't want to meet together because of all the arguments. So when we formed Musalaha, we started to think about how to provide a healthy framework for Jews and Arabs to come together, to experience the reconciliation that we have in Christ. We were looking for a situation that would force people to change."
The desert provides that framework. "It's not Jewish, it's not Palestinian, it's not a classroom or a church. We're stuck there, we can't run away." Salim smiles, remembering. "It's like putting a man in a microwave. We've seen people with really extreme political opinions—after one day in the desert, there's a real change, a visible openness. It's amazing: you throw them in the desert, and something happens."
The heat is on
It is late spring in the Negev, and there are two people for every camel. One is Palestinian, the other Israeli. One rides, the other walks. The leaders call a halt: "Trade places!" The rider swings down, his weary partner gratefully taking his place. Miragelike, identities begin to blur.
They rest beside an ancient well, where Salim reads aloud from the Bible. Genesis 26, the story of Isaac's struggles with Abimelech over the wells of the Negev. Precious water is passed around, and the message gets through: We need each other.
"It gets intensely hot out there," says Evan Thomas, pastor of a Messianic Jewish congregation in Netanya. "It's not a game, this is reality."
Musalaha tries to bring that reality home from the desert. "When you get back, there's a lot of pressure to go back to old ways of thinking," says Salim, "so we've had to find ways to keep the relationship alive and growing."
The emphasis on follow-up seems to be working: a number of participants have formed solid, lasting friendships in the desert.
Tanas, a young Palestinian man who works with World Vision, had never met a Jewish believer before his first desert trip. "It was kind of a shock to see the way they feel about Christ. It really made a difference.
"There was this guy about my age named Avichai, he was a soldier. He asked lots of questions about what it's like to live in the territories, and I asked why the soldiers treat us so bad. He was surprised and hurt; he really didn't know these things were happening."
The two kept in touch after the trip. "At first my family was afraid that other Palestinians would call me a traitor for being with a Jew," says Tanas, "but after they met Avichai and saw what a loving Christian friend he is, they stopped worrying."
"We try to provide people with tools," says Salim. "We did a two-year series on what the Bible teaches about peace, and we are hosting twin seminars on dealing with anger and conflict resolution.
"We also have conferences to introduce people to each other's culture and history, and the desert trips help in this, too. For example, we had a second-generation Holocaust survivor share her experience at one of the conferences."
The real "peace process"
"We want to reach every congregation in the country," says Salim. "To become a movement instead of just a ministry: that's the key."
There are signs that this is happening: the Church of the Nazarene and Kehilat HaMashiach (Christ Church), both in Jerusalem's Old City, have formed a permanent bond, with members attending each other's home fellowships.
Recently, Musalaha sponsored their first desert trip for youth. "Parents were coming up after the conferences," says Salim, "asking us how to teach their children not to hate.
"Israelis go into the army when they turn 18, and they're not really allowed to have relationships with Palestinians; they have to report it. The social pressures are so intense from age 18 to 21 there is no positive communication possible."
Musalaha decided to take the youth on a three-day hiking trip in the Judean desert. Many of the kids had never been with believers from the "enemy camp" before, and at first there was a tendency to split into two groups. But the desert demands cooperation.
"We were climbing down this really steep canyon," recalls Salim, "and we had to use ropes and spotters, a real team effort. At one point there was a 60-foot rope ladder. I was standing at the bottom, just praying, and suddenly the kids were working together, encouraging, calling out each other's names. It really broke down the barriers."
Tanas, now a youth leader, was amazed at the enthusiasm generated by the trip. "For me," he says, "that trip was the final proof: this is really working."
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