BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – “Draw anything you want to draw,” a teacher in Gaza told her class of small children.
After a few minutes a little girl brought a picture of a man without legs lying in the street. She said she had seen him just outside her home.
In Israel, shell-shocked victims of a bus bombing lay outside a tangled mass of seats and shattered glass, panicked and waiting for medical treatment.
In both Gaza and Israel, life is marked by the ravages of war.
“Those who want no part of the bombings – either from Gaza to Israel or from Israel to Gaza – are caught between the bombs of both,” said Stephen Johnson, an Alabamian who serves as a Christian worker among Palestinians. “The long-term psychological effect is impossible to gauge, but continued warfare is training up another generation of enemies.”
In recent rocket exchanges stopped by a Nov. 21 ceasefire, more than 150 Palestinians and six Israelis died. Israel said its military action, called Operation Pillar of Defense, was in response to 100 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel during peacetime.
And now, in the midst of a tenuous ceasefire, Christian workers wait to see what will happen in the yearning for true peace.
Ben Martin, an Alabamian who serves as a Christian worker among Jews, said, “The attitude in Israel right now is that … the world doesn’t understand what happened and that when they retaliate in response to rockets from Gaza, they are looked down on by the world.”
Meanwhile, Israelis constantly anticipate that things could change.
“They try not to let terrorists disrupt their life,” Martin said. “But when the sirens go off you have mere moments to get into a bomb shelter. In Tel Aviv you have a minute and a half. In Sderot (just outside Gaza) you have 15 seconds. One hundred missiles had already been fired into Israel before [Operation Pillar of Defense] ever started.”
And Gaza is reeling from what Johnson called the “worst bombardment” it has ever experienced. “Destruction is widespread,” he said. “The stakes get a little higher each time.”
Many say they fear the ceasefire won’t last. The tension is a chronic situation, Johnson and Martin agreed. What will stop it?
“Gaza has got to get some hope that their lives can get better,” Johnson said. The more hopeless they are, “the more radicalized they become and the more difficult they are to reach with the gospel,” he said.
But Johnson said he firmly believes many will eventually find their hope in Jesus Christ. “We are sharing our lives and His love,” he said, “so that when the time comes, they will know the source of all hope.”
People on both sides express gratefulness when Johnson, Martin and others choose to stay with them when the bombs are headed their way, Johnson said.
“For those [Christian workers] on the field who are new, it is a challenging time of reconsidering their call to the field,” Johnson said. “It’s a fairly sobering experience. We are blessed to know that our new workers counted the cost and chose to stay in spite of difficult circumstances.”
Martin urged Baptists to be in prayer, especially for them not to pick a side.
“This is not like a football game where we choose a side we’re for,” Martin said. “This is a situation where we have to be for both of these people groups and for their salvation. This is about choosing the Lord’s work.”
Botrus Mansour, an Arab Israeli believer who serves as director of Nazareth Baptist School, said Christians in the region need special prayer because they teeter on the line of whether to use the strife as an open opportunity to share the gospel or to tuck and run and take the light with them.
One Christian in Gaza died of a heart attack after rockets struck houses near his. And the small Christian community in Gaza – about 1,500 people, with fewer than 100 Baptists – struggles amid overwhelming need, Mansour said.
The Christian community in Israel has a lot to face as well, Mansour said.
“Times of tension and conflict create an opportunity for the Baptist churches to serve the people through sharing the gospel and offering relief services,” he said. “But they also cause [enough] frustration for some Baptists to consider leaving the country [Israel]. The future looks pessimistic without peacemakers; this will cause more emigration of Christians from the Holy Land.”
A Southern Baptist representative identified as Herb, who is living in Israel, said he hopes that Baptist churches there will continue “to be agents of peace in the midst of the situation.”
“We continue to pray for both groups [Palestinians and Israelis] – that God will strengthen those who want true peace,” he said.
Herb said he hopes that people won’t stop coming to Israel.
“Sometimes when flare-ups like this happen, people stop coming” because of fear, he said. “We feel like people should continue to come. We feel very secure.”
Herb said he doesn’t see anything changing in Baptist work in Israel anytime soon, noting, “We are in it for the long haul. Baptists have been in Israel since 1911 and we are committed to carrying on.”