When two young girls – one Jewish, the other Muslim – were sent by their school in Israel on a goodwill tour of the United States, three stops were planned: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The girls were asked to choose their fourth destination.
They opted for Austin, Texas, and that set in motion a chain of events leading to a Baptist church’s involvement in a peacemaking initiative in the Holy Land.
Roger Paynter, senior pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Austin, Texas, tells the story in a recent Skype interview with EthicsDaily.com. Paynter’s discussion of the HandinHandSchool and First Baptist Austin’s involvement is now live on Vimeo.
Paynter, who has pastored First Baptist Austin since 1996, recalls how a few well-placed connections resulted in having the teenagers – Haneen Kinani (an Arab) and Yael Keinan (a Jew) – speak at First Baptist during their tour of the states.
“They are so committed to being real witnesses for peace in the world,” says Paynter of the young women. “That’s just who they are.”
Hand in Hand is actually a network of four public schools in Israel. The schools are bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) and integrated in terms of Jews and Arabs, in terms of honoring Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“The way for there to really be peace is for people to have real, genuine dialogue and friendship,” says Paynter about the school’s philosophy. “And the best way to start that friendship was with the children because children don’t carry the kind of prejudices the rest of us do.”
Haneen and Yael’s visit to First Baptist Austin was transformative. The church paid for part of their U.S. tour, put Hand in Hand in the church’s budget, and Paynter took a group of church members to Israel to see the school personally.
“It’s very impressive to go see,” says Paynter.
“I just want there to be increased visibility to this,” he says in the interview. “As Christians, we have to be involved in peacemaking. We’re called to that. Well, this is one of those places in the world, this is maybe the central place in the world, where everybody is concerned about, ‘Can there ever be peace in Jerusalem? Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?’ Well, it’s happening here, just a little bit at a time.”