Christian communities in North America lead solidarity walks for Gaza amid ongoing war

Written by on March 31, 2024

ABC News

Christian communities in the U.S. and Canada are holding walks this Easter weekend to advocate for a cease-fire in Israel’s war with Hamas.

Members of Vancouver’s Christian community made a 25-mile solidarity march on Saturday, to match the approximate length of Gaza’s Mediterranean coast. More than 2,000 miles away, many in Nashville’s Christian community did the same. About 560 miles from there, Pittsburgh Christians made a similar trek. Gaza Cease-fire Pilgrimage walks were also held in San Diego, California; Buffalo, New York, and Spokane, Washington, as well as other cities.

Gaza’s Mediterranean coast ends in the south in Rafah, the city that holds the crossing into Egypt. More than 1 million Palestinians have made this journey to Rafah to leave the heavy fighting in northern Gaza in the hopes of entering Egypt.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its military campaign in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Terrorists killed 1,200 people and took 253 others hostage, according to Israeli officials, who say roughly 100 hostages may remain alive inside Gaza. Israel maintains its goal is to free the hostages and destroy Hamas.

Holding the public’s attention on the conflict “makes critical movements like this even more consequential,” said Jer Swigart, lead organizer for the walk in Spokane.

The organizers say the purpose of the walks is to draw attention to four main goals, including a cease-fire in the war, the unblocking of humanitarian aid, the end of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and regional peace through the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian political prisoners. The pilgrimage is overall ecumenical — primarily Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Catholic and Evangelical, according to organizers.

“Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived his life serving others and promoting liberation,” said Jonathan Walton, organizer for New York City’s walk that took place Friday. More than 150 people attended the walk, organizers said. The actions of both Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces are “totally outside the call and teachings of Jesus,” Walton said.

Organizers of the walks told ABC News they are against antisemitism and advocate for nonviolent demonstrations, but are critical of Israel’s military actions.

Holding a pilgrimage during Lent is significant as Holy Saturday is traditionally a day of lament within Christianity, according to organizers. Lindsay Acker, an organizer for the Buffalo walk, said this is a time to sit with grief and mourn together as a community amid the rising death toll in Gaza. Some participants say they are even fasting to mirror the Palestinian experience during the religious month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast between dawn and sunset.

Organizers credit peace advocate James Harris for sparking the idea for the walks. At the start of Lent in February, he documented his pilgrimage from Australia’s Byron Bay to Ballina, a similar distance from Gaza City to Rafah. Similar walks advocating for a cease-fire have taken place in dozens of cities across 19 countries, organizers say. Many of the walks are put on by Christian churches, they say.

“We’re utilizing the power of media and experience and access to grow more pro-human understanding of the conflict, with the hyperfocus on U.S. American Christians,” Swigart said. He emphasized his outreach to Evangelical Christians.

As director of Global Immersion, a faith-based peace advocacy organization, Swigart, who holds a doctorate in leadership in global perspectives from Portland Seminary, said he was in Gaza on Oct. 7 doing on-the-ground work as a delegate between his Palestinian colleagues and his Israeli colleagues. When he returned to the U.S., he said, he put his work into overdrive, knowing that the events of Oct. 7 were going to “fundamentally change everything.”

Spokane’s walk began Saturday morning and followed Centennial Trail in six intervals, denoting periodic breaks for prayer. Swigart said more than 200 people attended.

“The essence of this is that this is a pro-human movement. It’s not a pro-Palestinian movement because while it’s wildly pro-Palestinian, to say ‘pro-Palestinian’ suggests that it’s anti-Israeli. That is just not the case,” said Swigart. “Our one-sideism is lethal, and if there’s ever been question on how lethal our one-sideism is on this particular issue, we’re looking at it right now.”

Organizer David Vidmar has worked closely with Swigart and is leading this weekend’s walk in Buffalo. For him, the walk is an entry for Christian involvement in calling for a cease-fire in the war.

“We’re not feeling starvation,” said Acker. We’re not feeling the bombings. We’re not feeling the effects of the genocide, but in this very tiny way, we can feel what it’s like to flee 25 miles.”

Organizers say they will split the proceeds from the walks between several charities. Acker says she has dedicated a third of Buffalo’s proceeds to a Palestinian immigrant in Buffalo who has been trying to get his mom and five sisters out of Gaza.

“Together we channel this into action of the body, action with our money, action in our community, and also action in prayer,” Acker said.

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