Pastor John Moyle

An American Pastor Builds Bridges of Peace between Israelis and Palestinians

Penny S. Tee Article

With the passing of John Lewis, great men are on my mind and I thought that this was a good time to speak about some of them that I know and respect deeply. In May I wrote an update on my favorite Peacemakers in Israel, Roots/Shorashim/Judur. I first met Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awwad, two cofounders of the organization in 2015, not long after our life-changing trip in Israel that was the catalyst for my book, “BLASTED from COMPLACENCY: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.”    I was so proud of what they had accomplished. It is so heartwarming to hear encouraging stories about Palestinians and Israelis working so hard toward Peace and reconciliation.

Roots’ goal is to foster “a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence, and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians.”1 At Roots they “envision a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples’ historic belonging to the entire Land.”2

By the way, these Israeli settlers living in Judea and Samaria with their Palestinian friends announced their opposition to unilateral annexation. Why? They believe “The aggression and sense of triumphalism inherent in a unilateral annexation stand in opposition to the principle of mutual respect that we see as the foundation for advancing peace and security in this land and this region.” Furthermore, they say there can be “No peace without equality.” It is not the commonly publicized viewpoints of Israelis and Palestinians, is it? Bless them.

While I had followed Roots for years and known some of their founders, I never had heard how they got started as an organization. To my surprise, the flame for the existence of this Israeli-Palestinian enclave of Peaceful hope was lit by an amazing, light-filled Christian, Pastor John Moyle.

Many of the Peace activists I have met seem to have a welcoming smile and twinkle in their eye and Pastor John is no exception. The light of their soul is reflected on their faces. Yet they often also have pasts that are contradictions to their current Peaceful beliefs that evolved over time. Here too, you would not have predicted that Pastor John would become the Peace-loving fellow that he is today.

As his Peacemaking story begins and he looks back at his young adult life, he was not the person that he wanted to be―after a failed relationship, he was angry, bitter, didn’t want to be vulnerable, and spent time sowing his wild oats partying.

He had grown up as a self-described Conservative, Republican, warfighting, Hawk. He was traveling around the world for the U.S. Department of Defense running war games, conversant on weapon systems and U.S. adversaries and his goal was to help the United States win our next war.

John got married to Jenna in June 1998, and in October they moved to Herndon, Virginia. He became friends with his neighbor, Pastor Scott Johnson, who became his mentor and later would become his boss. Pastor Scott began to teach John about Jesus. I believe this coincidence was a spiritual synchronicity―living next door to a Christian cleric who would help guide his path.

By 2003, John felt he was being called into the ministry. He described the depth of the transformative relationship as, “Pastor Scott pointed to the open door, and Jesus called to me and walked me through it.” Pastor John says he did not have any idea where his path would lead, but he was open to faithfully accept wherever Jesus would take him.

At the time, John was working at a high-paying job climbing the corporate ladder. He wanted to quit and take on a job with higher personal rewards than a paycheck. Jenna must have wondered who just walked in their front door? But she has supported him through each step of his spiritual growth, and he is thankful for her patience and encouragement. Later as his path unfolded, he would leave on trips to the Holy Land for weeks at a time (they have three children) and he acknowledges that he could not have made these extreme changes without her support. Wouldn’t you love for your spouse to be as accommodating?

Pastor John joined Oakbrook Church, a non-denominational Christian church in Reston, Virginia where Pastor Scott worked, and he has found a home there ever since. Through the years they have supported his calling as a Peacemaker, and he says he is grateful to Oakbrook, “They paid me to be somewhere else and to serve people who weren’t part of our congregation.” Don’t we all wish we had such incredible support where we worked? At the time, he did not know the tenacity and depth of character it would take to move forward on his chosen path. The way everything seemed to align for him, it surely seems like Pastor John had found his life’s purpose.

Pastor John told us that he had a strong connection with the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus spoke, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” and that loving God, neighbor and loving ones enemies was what you should strive to do. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

I remember in 2014, when our tour was in Israel and we approached the beach of the Sea of Galilee as the water rippled along the shoreline. Our guide pointed out that Jesus had done much of his ministry here and had given the famous Sermon on the Mount in the hills above the lake.

The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake fed mostly by the Jordan River and by underground springs. We waded into the blue-green tepid waters just up to our calves―water shoes would have made it a more pleasant experience given the lake’s rocky bottom. Then, the rocks got my attention, as Jesus’ words did now. I had no idea at the time how these revered Christian words would eventually reflect in the life of this Jewish girl―Peacemakers, loving one’s enemies, my life’s path often surprises me with its twists and turns.

Pastor John wanted to be a role model for his congregation living life as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He felt that many Christians he knew were not living that way and as he looked closer, neither was he. He said, “I saw that was not where I was in my life, and where my heart was.”

While going through self-introspection, he realized that he had few Muslim or Jewish friends. Although he had grown up in a Jewish area, he had left behind most of his Jewish friends in high school. He wanted to build new relationships.

He started to meet Jews and Muslims. Pastor John is a friendly guy, and I could see him doing this easily. They met in an interfaith organization, which today is called the Herndon/Reston Clergy Group. They began to get to know each other and learn about each other’s faith traditions. And little by little he found he began to respect more and more, those that were different from him. He thought he was coming to a healthier place and resembled more what Jesus was calling his followers to do.

In December 2011, the clergy group decided they wanted to take an interfaith pilgrimage to the Middle East together and see the holy sites through each other’s eyes. They wanted to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict from a prism other than their own.

With teaching his congregants always foremost in his mind, Pastor John wanted to bring back into their lives the beliefs and love of others. The trip was successful in doing that. But what surprised him was that he also felt a powerful calling to bring back something to the people in Israel/Palestine. He could feel the wheels of transformation inside him once again turning.

He believes spending time with people who have different understandings of God than you do, increases your own understanding of God. You get a greater fascination that God is far bigger and far greater than the boxes that you might have put him in.

On their trip to the Holy Land, Pastor John began to feel a need to see the conflict and feel the struggle for himself. When there was free time, he wandered down to Silwan, a primarily Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem and talked to people on the streets about the conflict. He listened to their descriptions of the clashes, and their dreams, struggles, problems, and challenges.

After leaving Silwan, the pastor got into a cab and went up north to Neve Yaakov, an Israeli settlement in

Pastor John Moyle at the Yeshiva

Pastor John Moyle at the Yeshiva

East Jerusalem. He said, “I saw these people and walked right into a Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish school, and interrupted their studies. It is the kind of thing you do when you are traveling, and you do not know any better. These young men and I talked for an hour. They embraced me. I talked about Israel being a light unto the nations. They shared their thoughts and I shared mine. For a brief time, I was part of their school. It was an amazing day”.

It was through opportunities like this that Pastor John felt like something was missing. The sides were not talking together. This was something that surprised me too. The sides often do not speak with each other for many reasons. First, they do not speak the same language. Even though they live in close proximity, many only speak their own language of either Hebrew or Arabic. Thankfully, some do also speak English.

Communicating with the “other” is frowned upon within their communities and sometimes can be dangerous. Currently, for instance, with the talk of annexation the atmosphere has become very anti-normalization. Besides, Israelis are forbidden to enter Palestinian villages. Finally, the pervasive violence negatively impacts the desire for communicating.

The pastor wanted to get back to the Holy Land and his church was supportive. In 2012, he returned for a couple of weeks and attended the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem.

I admit the name of the conference made me uncomfortable. The fact of the emphasis of Checkpoint in the name and that it took place in Bethlehem, today, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, strongly hinted that Israel might be a primary topic, but not in a favorable light. I researched the conference and found that in fact it was heavily slanted toward the Palestinian viewpoint―although Checkpoint was prominently in the conference name, discussing the violence that created the need for these outposts was not on the agenda.

Working on Peace, you must grow a thicker skin to be able to hear the “other side’s” point of view. Trying to remain “in the middle,” is difficult, yet essential. When a line gets crossed which may vary for different people, it can be hurtful.

One thing I have learned over the years is that when you are dealing with a complicated issue, you cannot just accept things at face value. You must personally dig deeper. These disputes have many moving parts and you should not just parrot what another professes. Nick Cannon, celebrity host of shows like American’s Got Talent, The Masked Singer and Wild ‘N Out, is painfully learning that lesson for his anti-Semitic remarks.

Prior to the conference, Husam Jubran, a Palestinian tour guide and Peacemaker himself, took Pastor John out for the day. The pastor asked to be introduced to a variety of people from different backgrounds―people who had a stake in the conflict and had something to share. They traveled many places, met incredible people and it was a powerful time. He brought Pastor John to see areas where people were forced to move out of their homes and where there had been home demolitions.

Jubran introduced him to the first Israeli settler that he had met, Myron Joshua, someone that he “has grown to love,” a fellow Peacemaker. The pastor also spent time with Sami Awad, a Palestinian who works on conflict resolution and is the Programs Director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. Pastor John said that he had seen many of the injustices of what had been happening to the Palestinians and his pendulum swung from more of a pro-Israel stance to that of being on the pro-Palestinian side.

At the end of the trip he went on a protest march at the Friday demonstrations in the village of al-Ma’asara south of Bethlehem and east of Efrat. These had been taking place for five years. They marched and protested, and they ended up face-to-face in front of Israeli soldiers.

He said that he was not prepared for what happened during conversations with the soldiers. He realized

Pastor John Moyle speaking with Israeli soldiers at the Palestinian demonstration

Pastor John Moyle speaking with Israeli soldiers at the Palestinian demonstration

that he should not be standing on one side or the other―instead, he should be a bridge builder. He had to learn to empathize with both.

As he took multiple trips to Israel/Palestine and he spent more time on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians, his knowledge began to grow. He began to realize the destruction created by the fighting, living separately, evacuations and physical barriers like the separation wall. The natural consequence of the separation between the two peoples over time was a greater mistrust, suspicion, more misunderstandings, and belief of stereotypes of the other, which led to greater fear and increased violence between the two sides.

The most important lesson he learned was that separation does not make things better. Separation might help with security, but it does nothing to heal the divide that exists between two peoples living in the same region.

At this time Pastor John began to learn about another incredible man, Rabbi Menachem Froman, an

Rabbi Menachem Froman

Rabbi Menachem Froman

Orthodox settler who lived in Tekoa, Gush Etzion in the West Bank. He was a Peacemaker, with a long wild flowing gray beard that in this picture, was split down the middle as if it unabashedly proclaimed the two sides could live side by side. He, too, had a brilliant smile and always seemed to be enjoying life with laughter. Unfortunately, he died in 2013, may he rest in Peace.

Rabbi Froman was a maverick even amidst the Gush Emunim group, who were Jewish leaders pushing to build settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.  He saw settlements not as causing greater conflict, but he thought they should be the fingers of Peace reaching out into the Palestinian communities and giving them an opportunity to live together with Israelis and building relationships with each other. Rabbi Froman would reach out to Palestinian extremists like Sheikh Yassin of Hamas―it seemed he had no fear. He was a man before his time.

When extreme Israelis ransacked a mosque, Rabbi Froman brought them Korans. As I began to research about Rabbi Froman, his unique capacity to love everyone was apparent. He had both the expected Jewish followers, and Palestinian devotees as well. As a man of Peace, he thought that Israelis and Palestinians could not only live closely together, but they had the capacity to form meaningful, powerful relationships.

As Pastor John combined the two ideas together―that separation made the situation worse and by watching Rabbi Froman’s example, he began to clarify what his role would be. He wanted to stand in the divide, build bridges and try to bring people together into relationships. So, over the next few years that is what he did.

In 2013-2014 he spent his time looking for people to meet. He would get together with anyone who lived in what Israelis call Judea and Samaria, and Palestinians call the West Bank. Being aware of the words you use for me as a writer, has always been important. However, it is particularly crucial and can be sensitive when working on Peace. Pastor John’s goal was to build relationships of trust.

He was looking for people who he would call gems. Not just willing to meet with him, but willing to take a step to meet with those on the other side. In the process he was looking for those who lived the best of their faith traditions―to genuinely love the other.

During a trip in early 2013, he was introduced to several people who were disciples of Rabbi Froman―both Israeli and Palestinian. Pastor John felt as he got to know them that he too was studying under Rabbi Froman, but from afar. These men were trying to set up a field, a collective where Palestinians and Israelis could work side by side to get to know each other and work on an organic farm. They were going to call it Heaven’s Field. Unfortunately, this endeavor never quite came to fruition.

At this time, some of the gems rose to the surface. They had their first meeting of Israelis and Palestinians when they gathered at the Everest restaurant in Beit Jala.  Pastor John thought this was a huge breakthrough, and he was encouraged that these profound gatherings could happen.

Pastor John also met with another famous rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat who also became a close friend.  Eventually Pastor John would meet many of the leaders who became cofounders of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, and things came together in 2014.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Pastor John heard about Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger who I have written about many times―another Peacemaker with the sparkle in his eyes and warm smile to prove it : ) He lives in Israel and he had been doing some interfaith teaching in the U.S. Rabbi Hanan had expressed wanting to build relationships with those who lived around him―Palestinians.

Pastor John had met Ali Abu Awwad, who had met with Israelis in Hebron.

Ali Abu Awwad and Pastor John Moyle

Ali Abu Awwad and Pastor John Moyle

As Pastor John was sharing his story, my ears perked up. Ali was the first Palestinian I had met the following year with Rabbi Hanan. He thought here is someone who might be a gem to meet and reach out with the other. They met together with a group of Israelis and Palestinians on a piece of Ali’s family’s property near Gush Etzion circle. Pastor John said, “We had a meeting that until this day I feel was one of the most incredible meetings I have ever had.” Shaul (another of Roots’ rabbis that I know and respect) began sharing his vision of this shared cooperative organic farm, and on the spot Ali offered for them to use his property.

They immediately tried to set up events that would take place on Ali’s family’s property in the end of January 2014 called the Family Gathering. They held meetings at Hadassah Froman’s (Rabbi Froman’s wife) house. They made many plans together in the middle of the night. Why? Not everyone believes Israelis and Palestinians should be speaking with one another. It is contrary to societal norms in the region and can be dangerous.

Pastor John told me of a time when they had made arrangements for some young Palestinians and Israelis to meet for the first time. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority got wind of it and made it clear that they did not want them to meet. The meeting was cancelled. Pastor John said, “There are times when I’ll admit that I was pretty scared. Times when I wondered if I was going to get out of the situations. But traveling between settlements and Palestinian towns is nerve wracking and I can’t say which direction is worse.” I think I may have grown up on too much chicken soup for that type of Peace work, how about you?

As they planned the event, they wondered how it would turn out and what it would look like? They invited Palestinian and Israeli families from the region who had never met each other, nor would they have had the opportunity to meet because they lived separately.  Would they be able to communicate? Pastor John said, “We planned and planned and prayed and prayed that people would actually show up.”

At this point, I think they should have had trumpets blasting―for me it was so exciting. Pastor John had a slide show of pictures taken that day by Harvey Stein, a professional photographer. I was grateful for their foresight to capture these moments. It was such an awesome experience after all these years to match the stories that I had heard with actual pictures of these hopeful, compassionate souls who outstretched their hands to their estranged neighbors.

Family Gathering

Family Gathering

Pastor John continued, “And on the day of the Family Gathering people did show up. Families came with their kids. The Jewish and Palestinian kids played soccer together.” Perhaps a new generation that would learn to live in Peace. I hoped. They ate together and had conversations.

Pastor John said, “I had tears in my eyes because I was so shocked at what I was seeing.”

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger came to this meeting and for the first time spoke to Palestinians in a personal one-on-one way. I have heard Rabbi Hanan describe the impact on him many times. It was so special to me to see pictures capturing these pivotal, transforming moments of people who have grown so dear to me. To watch Rabbi Hanan, with his fingers clutching his chin, listening so intently as he concentrated on the speaker’s words.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

He was hearing a foreign narrative from his own―the same land, but a different story. Seeing the generous Ali, wise Shaul and others meeting and talking for the first time, I too had tears in my eyes, yet this was years later. So many of the people who were there that day played roles in establishing Roots.

Pastor John brought another team back over to Israel/Palestine from their church and continued the process. They met in different venues―in restaurants and people’s homes, always looking for creative ways to bring people together trying to find those gems who wanted to normalize relationships and connect with those that live so close, yet so far away. Human connection is the key to open the door for change and with time, Peace.

I had to laugh when after Pastor John’s presentation Rabbi Hanan said, “I often say that Ali Abu Awwad came into my life and changed my life and that’s true. But without John Moyle who encouraged, persuaded, and cajoled me to get me to go meet Ali on that last Thursday in 2014, no words can express my gratitude in your making my life more complicated.”

Pastor John replied, “You’re welcome, and I’m sorry.”

Pastor John was asked what have been the highlights that have occurred in his opinion in the years since the story began? He told us, “Roots has come so far and has touched so many lives. To me that is the biggest highlight over the past six years and that Roots took off on its own and has stayed together.”

“Israelis and Palestinians working side by side, not shying away from difficult issues but willing to work with each other through the challenges. Roots has expanded to include activities for children, women’s groups, religious studies groups and they speak to young men and women going off into the Israeli army.”

The importance of educating these young Israeli adults as they leave for their mandatory military service is immeasurable―having the opportunity to speak with Palestinians human-to-human, before they confront them at a checkpoint, can only help.

He is also proud how they have responded to various attacks against each other. Roots members get involved to help their neighbors. The soldiers must be confused when settlers come to defend an arrested Palestinian.

Finally, Pastor John hopes that in the future more intentional, proactive work will be done with the extremists on each side trying to find ways to bring them together. He feels the extremes have a lot in common. Beyond the fact that both sides are willing to use violence to make their point, they are deeply religious and hold strong family values. He sees many connecting points.  It’s interesting he said, that when you talk to some on the extreme Palestinian side, they have more in common with settlers who are armed with guns than they do with more traditional peace groups from the international community or Tel Aviv.

It seems Pastor John has found his own light as a Peacemaker and child of God, and he has brought more light into the world and in the Holy Land. The establishment of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, a grassroots organization of Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is surely a beacon of light and hope in this tragic conflict. Thank you, Pastor John, for your love of humanity, dedicated work for Peace, and being You. I feel blessed to have met you.

May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,

I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

Endnotes

 1 Friends of Roots, https://www.friendsofroots.net/

2 Friends of Roots, https://www.friendsofroots.net/

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