By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
“Just being in Israel, in the Holy Land, and walking where Jesus walked, is incredibly inspiring,” says Barbara Wright, president of the Senior Women’s Missionary Union of the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA). “We are all one in Christ.”
“My faith, as we interpret the scriptures, we identify with the people of Israel as God’s chosen people, and therefore we understand that those who bless Israel receive blessings and those who curse Israel are really fighting against our culture and faith,” says A.W. Mays, an African-American Christian leader from Austin, Texas.
Wright and Mays were two of the 26 African-American members of NBCA, a predominately black church, who were hand-picked to travel from the United States on a six-day educational mission to Israel from May 23-29. The International Fellowship of Christian of Jews (The Fellowship) sponsored the trip to help deepen Christian-Jewish ties and black leaders’ bonds with Israel.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, The Fellowship’s founder and president, has been working to build bridges between Christians and Jews—as well as Christians and Israel—for more than 35 years. Last year, The Fellowship raised $138 million in humanitarian aid for Jews in Israel and around the world, almost entirely from Christian donors.
The Fellowship’s efforts to reach out to the African-American Baptist community started about a year ago. According to census data, there are about 34 million African-Americans living in the U.S., comprising 12 percent of the country’s population. Many black Americans are affiliated with one of five major spiritual movements: the Pentecostal group of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC); the NBCA; National Baptist Convention, USA; or the Global United Fellowship.
In the summer of 2015, The Fellowship brought 21 top ministers of the Detroit-based COGIC group to Israel. In January 2016, it followed up by bringing 22 top clergy members from the Washington, DC-based PNBC, the movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. The May 2016 trip with the NBCA marks The Fellowship’s third such mission, reaching 26 leaders of the Dallas-based organization’s 3.5 million constituents.
Participants stopped at Christian and Jewish holy sites as well as biblical and archaeological landmarks, and experienced The Fellowship’s humanitarian work in Israel through site visits to some of the programs the Christian-Jewish group sponsors, including its efforts to support Ethiopian immigrants and their families.
“African-Americans are the Jewish people’s natural partners,” says Yael Eckstein, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s daughter and senior vice president of The Fellowship. “They know what it means to be suffering and reach freedom, to be slaves and come to enjoy the full benefits of American peoplehood.…We have not had positive ties throughout the years because no one ever put an effort into creating those ties.”
Eckstein says African-Americans were “never against Israel, but also have never been for Israel.”
“I think the African-Americans have had a similar life struggle in the U.S. as the Jews and Palestinians,” says Rev. Samuel C. Tolbert, Jr., NBCA’s president, who helped organize the mission to Israel.
“What most people don’t understand is that in Baptist culture we preach about Israel every Sunday, about the Jewish people and the trials of Moses and the Red Sea—everything that is not only in our Bible, but what starts in the first five books,” explains Rev. Deedee Coleman of Oak Park, Mich., the head of a 1,500-member congregation who has been to Israel more than a dozen times.
“When I went to Israel the first time, it changed my life, because I can now hold the Bible in my hand and can preach it with a clearer focus, because I was on the ground and I have seen it for myself,” Coleman says.
Beyond the mission’s spiritual impact on attendees, the trip also enhanced the black leaders’ understanding of the challenges Israel faces. Many participants said they now have deeper knowledge of the political situation in Israel, and that the trip debunked the often-biased American media coverage of events on the ground in the Jewish state.
“I learned to not believe the American media 100 percent, and their slant on what this nation is,” says Tolbert. “It is best for people to come and see it firsthand, and they will see a totally different view of Israel.”
Kristina King, director of African-American outreach for The Fellowship, worked in a similar role with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for eight years. She says that both organizations do dynamic work in helping leaders understand some of the geopolitical complexities and everyday realities in Israel. But while AIPAC is a lobby group and seeks to influence political policy, The Fellowship’s work is faith-based and focuses on common spiritual values. Those values don’t change, says King, regardless of who holds elected office in Israel or America.
“When African-Americans are exposed to Israel, they see our common values,” King says.
At the same time, the black Christian leaders who visited Israel can become powerful political partners and pro-Israel activists because of their faith, says Yael Eckstein.
“I think the Jewish community should stop sitting back and complaining that we don’t have friends,” says Yael Eckstein. “Be proactive and reach out to find things in common with the people that could stand with us long-term and be strategic partners for our future.”
“These are the ones who will bring back the message of Israel to the larger body,” says Rev. Coleman. “They have been on Facebook, tweeting, and they will bring it back [to America] and educate their people about what is real.”
The partnership between The Fellowship and the NBCA “is about building bridges, not walls,” Tolbert says.
“The people of Israel don’t feel as alone when American Christians come and engage with what they are doing,” he says.
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.