While the demographic and political landscape of the Holy Land has changed dramatically in the past century, the reassuring presence and commitment of The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), known in Israel as the Alliance Church, to the people here has remained the same.
The organization celebrated 125 years of service in the land this year, commemorating more than a century of building a platform for the local body of believers – both Jewish and Palestinian. From facilitating the most practical details of believers’ lives here, including weekly church services and even a final resting place in the heart of Jerusalem, to providing shelter in times of war, the C&MA has had a profound impact on the Body of Messiah.
“Today, every week in Alliance facilities we are pleased to offer a home and a place to worship for nearly a dozen local or international congregations,” Scot Dressler, director of the C&MA IL/PA Field, told Kehila News Israel. “We consider our history and church properties as a gift and blessing from the Lord entrusted to us for the blessing and expansion of the Body of Messiah and His Kingdom.”
C&MA is an evangelical Protestant denomination, founded in 1887. Its history in Israel began in 1890, shortly after the denomination’s inception.
When Israel declared statehood in 1948, the C&MA staff along with all foreigners were advised to leave the land because war was imminent. But one C&MA field worker, Bernice Gibson, stayed behind due to an injury, taking shelter in the 55 Prophet Street property in Jerusalem, the C&MA headquarters at the time. Gibson ended up sharing the shelter with some 70 neighbors in the safety of the building that boasts stone walls one meter thick.
That iconic building still stands today, continuing to serve the community.
In an interview with Kehila News Israel, Dressler spoke at length about the history and impact the ministry has had throughout the land here.
KNI: What is the goal of the C&MA’s activities in Israel?
Dressler: We see our primary purpose here as glorifying God by equipping, empowering, encouraging and multiplying local bodies of believers, and partnering with them to impact all the peoples of the Land. We are pleased to be part of a global movement of 6 million people in over 70 nations. In some places we work together to establish local Alliance Church congregations, like our local Palestinian Alliance congregations which together are called the Evangelical Alliance Church in the Holy Land. In other places we work alongside independent or otherwise affiliated groups, which is our approach to ministry alongside the Messianic community.
We have been blessed to help in establishing and strengthening local Messianic and Palestinian congregations and ministries, and continue to enjoy deep and ongoing partnerships today. The Alliance also ministers to Israel’s Chinese population through the Tel Aviv Chinese Alliance Church.
To date, more than 7 dozen Alliance international workers have been privileged to serve alongside scores of local partners in the Land throughout more than 125 years of history.
Our official name has changed numerous times over the years, from the C&MA Palestine Mission, to the Palestine – Arabian Border Mission and the C&MA Israel Field. The C&MA Israel and Palestinian Territories Field is what our international team is officially called today.
Locally, we may be better known simply as the Alliance Church or the Christian Alliance Church. Regardless of our name, we hope that our desire to work with, and for the blessing of all of the peoples of the Land comes through. We don’t work to magnify the Alliance Church name, but the name of Jesus.
KNI: What are some of C&MA’s projects here?
Dressler: As a church with a measure of official recognition and several historic properties, we have been able to serve the believing Body broadly over the years. Many congregations and ministries have begun or grown in Alliance facilities in Jerusalem and Beersheva. We have been honored to help local congregations to celebrate marriages and baptisms, to worship and witness and even to facilitate burials in our cemetery, although the cemetery today has very limited space and we see this as an urgent practical need for the believing community.
Today, every week in Alliance facilities we offer a home and a place to worship for nearly a dozen local or international congregations. We consider our history and church properties as a gift and blessing from the Lord entrusted to us for the blessing and expansion of the Body of Messiah and His Kingdom.
Our present team of international workers consists of almost 20 staff members from seven nations, and they are working closely with local leaders and congregations to make a lasting impact. In recent years we have been actively involved in congregational ministry in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and the Negev. In Jerusalem and the West Bank we’ve run summer camps, English language learning programs and a number of development projects.
The Alliance is helping to make Scripture available to all those who desire it in places like Beersheva’s Bible House, and to produce discipleship and training materials in local languages through ministries like Medallion.
Our Alliance Church International Cemetery (in Jerusalem) has become an open house where visitors can see the biblical redemption story through the Wall of Life mural, and also to hear the testimony of believers who lived here in the Land. Alongside local and international partners we are offering help and hope to addicted and trafficked people on the streets of cities like Tel Aviv, and families in poverty in Jerusalem and the West Bank and expecting nothing in return.
KNI: Does the very name C&MA with the word “missionary” present a problem here among both Jews and Muslims? How do you deal with the suspicion that it engenders?
Dressler: We can think of our organizational name like a family name. Our first name, Christian, speaks of our core identity, which is in the Messiah. Our last name, Alliance, speaks or our particular family, an Alliance of more than 6 million believers globally. Our middle name, Missionary, which tells of our passion for the Great Commission, can be problematic both here and around the world. The term missionary has often been misused and misunderstood. At times in history the actions of Christians in the name of “mission” have been very inconsistent with the nature and character of our Messiah. I think Jewish people are perhaps more sensitized to it than Muslims tend to be. As such, we to use our first and last name here more than our middle name (Alliance Church or Christian Alliance Church) to cause less misunderstanding and offense.
Of course, it’s obvious that we are followers of Jesus and evangelicals, so we determine to live out this identity in the most loving and integrity-filled ways possible. Nevertheless, Jesus still commands all of us to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are compelled by that command – it is a core principle of our faith – but we strive to be honest, ethical, and above board as we obey it. We endeavor to really live by the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:36-40) as well and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). Loving our neighbors – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and others – as we love our own selves is a key principle in our lives as well as our witness. We do it imperfectly, but we have determined to present Jesus’ love always, regardless of people’s choice to embrace Him or not.
KNI: What are some highlights of C&MA’s 125 years in the Holy Land?
Dressler: There are too many stories of men and women of faith experiencing God’s faithfulness to tell. I think it is remarkable that the Alliance work in the Middle East, which now impacts more than half a dozen Middle Eastern nations, was begun by two single women, and that our historic work in Hebron was established by a lame man and his visually impaired wife. This reminds us how often God uses those perceived as marginalized or weak to accomplish His greatest purposes.
The Alliance work in Jerusalem was, by design a starting point for the expansion of ministry throughout the Middle East. The Prophets Street Alliance Center was a training school for the preparation and sending of local leaders. The Alliance has had a strong legacy of helping to develop and empower local leaders from the beginning. Some of the greatest things the Alliance “has done” were not accomplished by our international workers, but by local partners or together in partnership with them. We have been privileged to partner closely with some of the most outstanding Israeli, Palestinian and other international ministries.
That’s a huge privilege. To me, there is no more important work than building local worshiping and witnessing communities of believers. As Alliance international workers and as an international organization, our presence here is temporary at best. The local Body will remain.
KNI: In a land raging with religious and racial conflict, how does C&MA strike a balance between serving Palestinians and Israelis?
Dressler: It is not easy, and we do it imperfectly. We do intentionally seek to love and serve all of the peoples of the Land. This has been the case from the beginning. One historian noted that in those earliest Alliance meetings in Jerusalem, back in the 1890’s, Jews and Arabs knelt and prayed side by side. We try to continue in this same spirit. We have two primary teams, one focused on ministry in the Israeli sphere, the other the Palestinian. But we strive to have love and understanding for all regardless of where we live or do most of our work.
That’s not always easy. I think it needs to be a divine work in us. As human beings, we will all have our own political and theological views. We won’t agree on everything. But we are not ultimately here, neither in this Land or on this earth, for political purposes. We strive to be a truly evangelical movement. That means that first and foremost we seek to be gospel people. On a practical level, we seek to listen to and love one another, both to those with whom we agree and those with whom we may not, both in the greater community, and especially within the Body of Messiah.
KNI: I understand that the church on Prophet Street in Jerusalem was targeted by arsonists. What sort of opposition do you encounter here?
Dressler: We have experienced a variety of opposition here, most often in the form of vandalism of property, like our Prophets Street church, the Bible House, congregational meeting places in the Negev and in our cemetery. Sometimes it has been more persistent harassment of local groups. Some of our local partners or international workers have experienced threats, and on rare occasions even physical violence. But we have also experienced significant good will as well, even if our place in the community is not always appreciated or understood.
We recognize that the Church historically has created much hurt and offense. We know that the gospel, and our witness of it, can cause offense. We endeavor to cause no unnecessary offense and to meet animosity with love, and curses with blessing. The night our Prophets Street church was set ablaze I so clearly remember one of our local Arab ministers standing and declaring God’s blessing and love over the crowd of religious men shouting in the street.
Similarly, when one of our Messianic partner congregations was repeatedly harassed in the Negev, their leaders and members regularly prayed for and even found opportunities to serve those who were harassing them. That is a powerful testimony. Similarly, our development center in the northern West Bank experienced occasional harassment as well, but our team there continued offering blessings, and many in the community publicly expressed their gratitude and support. Even opposition provides opportunities for witness and blessing.
KNI: On the other hand, what sort of positive reception do you get as an organization?
Dressler: We have also received much appreciated acceptance. We are grateful for the recognition afforded by the Israeli and Palestinian governments, though in both cases it is not equal to that of the traditional churches, and we desire the same freedoms and recognition for all of the local believing communities.
Perhaps no one is as grateful and accepting as the most hurting people. When we have provided relief, community services, camps or courses we have always been transparent about the fact our service flows out of faith in Jesus, and that we never expect anything in return. Sometimes people have been perplexed at the thought of why we would come along side to help. I think this is especially true where we serve in very tangible ways among the poor and marginalized, whether in the forgotten city streets of Israel or the villages of the West Bank.
Of course, this was Jesus’ experience too. He may have been largely rejected by the privileged or empowered, but he was received by many in need and by many notorious sinners whom he met with compassion.
We are perhaps most grateful for the acceptance and fellowship of the greater Body of Messiah. Certainly we would only have a fraction of the impact God has allowed us over the years without so many wonderful local leaders and partners who share the vision to build God’s Kingdom.