Blessed are the peacemakers

Reflections on a pilgrimage

by Michael Van Denend '78
Summer 2013

Mike and Loni Van Denend with alumni Keith Blystra and Michael Valk at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem

Mike and Loni Van Denend with alumni Keith Blystra and Michael Valk at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem

My wife, Loni, and I had the amazing opportunity to be part of a 35-person alumni-and-friends group that visited Israel this spring. The alumni leaders of this troupe, Bill and Lyn Vanden Bosch, did a fantastic job as guides and encouragers; they call their Holy Land trips “pilgrimages” and prepare all those attending in a manner befitting such. They intend those they lead not to travel as tourists, but as faithful followers of Jesus, seeking to deepen an understanding of his walk and his words while on earth. (Read Henry Baron’s wonderful reflection on our journey, "A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.")

We took pains to duck the tourist sites (and that means we did not stop at the Cana Wedding Wine Store) and instead sought out the quieter, less traveled places.

One of the main scripture passages we studied and had the chance to visualize was Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, boating across the Sea of Galilee, and climbing up a Galilean hillside to hear and reflect on the words of Matthew 5:1-13 was life-changing. We saw those Beatitude verses everywhere in the region.

We particularly saw “Blessed are the peacemakers” in evidence in many persons and places—even though the land itself is torn apart by history and politics, strikingly visible in the form of imposing walls and military checkpoints.

Archbishop Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian, author of the compelling book Blood Brothers and a recent January Series speaker, allowed us to tour his school in Ibillin, and the next day we had the chance to dialogue with him directly. Despite his family being driven from its home, he remains committed to be a peacemaker and makes sure the Christian, Muslim and Druze children at this school are committed to this same principle.

While in Jerusalem, I had coffee with two young Calvin alumni living in the city, Keith Blystra and Michael Valk. Keith is studying Hebrew and Michael is working for a nonprofit in Bethlehem. They are doing their part, in this majestic and yet tragic land, to bring peace. And while Israelis covered in the news tend to be the peace-breakers, Keith tells stories of peacemakers of every nationality and faith tradition.

How providential that the Campus Ministry staff at Calvin chose the Sermon on the Mount as its all-campus Bible study focus last fall! We talked a lot about the counterintuitive list of the blessed that Jesus maintained would inherit the earth. On our pilgrimage, we saw that the same relationship-breaking of his day continues today in the same land—and over the whole earth. Hard to see sometimes what good it would be to inherit it!

But we know that the New Earth envisioned by Jesus is one full of blessed peacemakers—exactly what Calvin trained Keith and Michael to do and, hopefully, all alumni of the college.

A few sentences from the Calvin College mission statement: “We aim to develop knowledge, understanding, and critical inquiry; encourage insightful and creative participation in society; and foster thoughtful, passionate Christian commitments.

“We pursue intellectual efforts to explore our world’s beauty, speak to its pain, uncover our own faithlessness, and proclaim the healing that God offers in Jesus Christ.

“We seek to gather diverse people and gifts around a common pledge and purpose; pursue justice, compassion, and discipline; and provide a training ground for the life of Christian virtue.”

These statements sound like the recipe for a wave of peacemakers, in Jerusalem and in Grand Rapids (and contrary to some old inside jokes, these cities are not remotely the same).

May we rededicate ourselves to become better keepers and makers of God’s peace. As Archbishop Chacour reminded us, at times being a peacemaker means speaking loudly about injustice—but never in a manner that demeans others. The final sentence of the Calvin mission statement reads: “In all we say and do, wherever we may be, we hope to follow and further the ways of God on earth.”