Couple tours Holy Land to see how residents live

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This was no ordinary Holy Land tour.

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Bill and Marlene Johnson show a display outlining The Separation Barrier in the West Bank. The couple volunteered with an organization called Interfaith Peace-Builders, which shows Americans what life in the Holy Land is like.  Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Bill and Marlene Johnson show a display outlining The Separation Barrier in the West Bank. The couple volunteered with an organization called Interfaith Peace-Builders, which shows Americans what life in the Holy Land is like.

Bill and Marlene Johnson traveled to Washington, D.C., for training before ever setting foot in Tel Aviv.

The trip, which took the retired Augustans on a two-week tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, included touristy stops and famed sites, but it also included visits with farmers in the West Bank and peace activists in Israel.

"We slept overnight in a refugee camp. We went to a Palestinian home," Marlene Johnson said. "Few people who visit the Holy Land see the things we see."

She and her husband are members of Augusta's Unitarian Universalist Church and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.

They joined an interfaith peace delegation to the Middle East in the fall and have since shared their experiences with religious and civic groups. They will speak Wednesday at St. Andrew.

There were 32 people from the United States and Canada in their tour group, organized by the nonprofit Interfaith Peace-Builders.

He is a retired physician. She volunteers as a court-appointed advocate for foster children. Both have volunteered with Amnesty International for more than 28 years and had a long-standing interest in peace and religion in the Middle East.

"This was uniquely interfaith," Marlene Johnson said. "It had about five ministers, three Jewish people, one Muslim and others in the mix."

For two weeks in October and November, they took a journey, talking to Palestinians and Israelis about the role of the U.S. government and President Obama's plans to restart peace talks as Israel expands settlements.

The group visited during the Palestinian olive harvest, a time when tensions run high, Marlene said. Violence or disruptions would interfere with the harvest, both culturally and economically important to Palestinians.

"We've been fascinated with the Middle East for a long time," she said. "It's hard to come back and describe what we saw."

They took the trip because they felt that for as much as they had read and studied the situation, "most of us don't know what's really going on," Marlene said.

"We believe that the more people know, the greater chance you have for peace," she said.

Bill said the trip has changed the way he views the conflict.

"I've started Googling the Israeli news almost every day," he said. "We've seen something that obviously most Americans are not privileged to see.

"There were positive things, but we saw very disturbing things as well."

The couple decided that, after their return, they would pursue opportunities to talk to groups in Augusta about their concerns in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"We're concerned about the human-rights issues. There are so many checkpoints," Bill said. "It's so imposing.

"A lot of people go for the religious sites but never go into the West Bank or see enough to discuss the issues."

The couple decided to share their experiences at church.

"A lot of the time, religion is the perfect avenue for peace and justice issues," Marlene said. "Religion can be used for good or bad.

"Certainly a lot of religious radicals in the Middle East have wreaked havoc. But peace groups are an avenue to counteract that. We want to share those stories."

If you go

WHAT: Bill and Marlene Johnson speak on their travels to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; dinner $5 at 5:45 p.m.

WHERE: St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 3551 Wheeler Road

CALL: (706) 736-4575

ABOUT INTERFAITH PEACE-BUILDERS

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical peace organization founded in 1914, started Interfaith Peace-Builders in 2000 to allow Americans the opportunity to see the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories firsthand. According to the organization, trips "empower these citizens to educate their local communities and advocate for better U.S. foreign policy when they return to the U.S." More than 500 Americans have participated.

Learn more at www.interfaithpeacebuilders.org.


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