For much of his life, the Rev. S.C. Dixon, of Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, hasn’t thought badly of Israel. It simply wasn’t in his thoughts.
“Growing up, when we thought of Israel and heard about Israel, very seldom did you discuss where people of color had any relations with Israel, with the Holy Land at all,” Dixon said.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, noticed that disconnect. So, he has invited black Christians to see for themselves.
In late May, four Baton Rouge-area members of National Baptist Convention of America churches took a trip to Israel sponsored by the fellowship. Dixon, the organization’s general secretary, was joined by Brandon Dumas, a Greater Mount Olive member and a historian for the fellowship; the Rev. Leroy Taylor, pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church in Kenner; Johnny Anderson, a member of Greater King David Baptist Church; and about 20 fellowship members from other parts of the country.
Since 1983, the fellowship has raised more than $1.3 billion for projects that include helping Jews immigrate to Israel, integrating Ethiopian-Israelis and aiding Holocaust survivors.
“We’re not trying to make them into political advocates and lobbyists for Israel,” Eckstein said by phone. “What we’re trying to do is deepen their bonds with Israel and the Jewish people and have a better understanding of what’s going on there so they could identify more and stand in solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people.”
The trip combined destinations typical for Christians making Holy Land trips — Jesus’ tomb, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Capernaum and the Mount of Olives — with ministries the fellowship sponsors. They included a facility for abused or neglected children and a food bank in which the visitors volunteered to put together supplies for impoverished Holocaust victims. That volunteer opportunity was scheduled to last only an hour; the Baptists stayed an extra hour.
“They didn’t want to leave,” Eckstein said.
The bridge-building between cultures began before the Baptists arrived.
“It was amazing being there, being able to witness, even on the plane, on the way to Israel how devout they are and their commitment to their religion, their commitment to prayer, the rituals and practices of their religion,” Dumas said. “They take religion very seriously, as we do.
“It opens your eyes and sets examples for us to emulate, even set the bar a little higher. We were on the plane traveling 30,000 feet in the air, and they were all engaged in prayer for the majority of our flight. That definitely was an example for us, to take a close look at ourselves and our prayer life.”
Dixon and Dumas said their interactions with their hosts reminded them of how African-Americans and Jews have suffered in history, both having slavery as part of their history.
Eckstein noted that Jews were involved in the American civil rights struggle, and two Jews were killed in 1964 in Mississippi for their involvement in the movement.
“We have skin in the game, if you will, to ensure that the African-American community has civil rights, is treated equally, has an equal place in society,” he said.
However, after the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel and many of its Jewish supporters turned inward, focusing attention on the nation’s security, and African-Americans were increasingly more self-reliant in their quest for civil rights, Eckstein said. Trips like this one are a way of returning the two communities to warmer relations.
“They get to see the real Israel, not the Israel portrayed often by the media and the attacks against her in the United Nations and around the world. At a time when we Jews are feeling alone and alienated … we have a need for friends, for alliances,” Eckstein said.
The tour included visits to bomb shelters and visits with Israelis who spoke about the threats they face from missile strikes or terrorist attacks, Eckstein said.
The Baptists also met Ethiopian Jews who have immigrated from the African nation. Eckstein hopes this will lead to American support for those immigrants’ financial struggles.
“The purpose for going was to help us to see that we’ve got to do something about this gap that has caused us to be worlds apart from each other, even in mind, let alone in distance geographically,” Dixon said. “To me, that didn’t matter. What mattered most to me was seeing what was being done and the people there being the recipients of the transforming love of Jesus Christ through actions.”