What follows is an email conversation that occurred between 2002 and 2007, when I first launched the ill-fated Mission: Meeting website. Since there is renewed interest in a similar venture, perhaps made more urgent because (1) so little has changed, and 2) so many extraordinary eyewitnesses to the humanity of the “Holy Land” are of a generation that is, ironically, leaving us behind, I am sharing this now in the hope that it might breathe new life into an important cause. In sha’allah,
Jacques d’Nalgar, January 18, 2016
The name “Mission: Meeting” is sort of an inside joke for missionaries and MKs (children of missionaries are called “missionary kids” or “mishkids”) who endured endless¹ “mission meetings” (planning and business meetings). It also conveys the idea that this project’s mission is to allow web site visitors to “meet” real people of the Middle East from the points of view of Americans who actually lived and worked among them.
Hopefully, the perspective of unimpeachable (e.g., American + Christian) eyewitnesses will be difficult to reconcile with the hatemongering prevalent in America’s post-911 culture and especially among Christians and Jews preoccupied with end-times silliness and pop-preaching that suggests Israel is always right and Arabs/Muslims are always evil. A little cognitive dissonance might be all that’s needed to erode the foundations of a simplistic “us versus them” world view.
If nothing else, “Mission: Meeting” is to be a historical/academic archive where the thousands (perhaps millions) of photographs and letters and stories by missionaries from the last two centuries can be preserved and catalogued before they are lost forever. It is NOT intended to be a religious/evangelism effort, nor is it to have an overt political agenda.
The project may later expand to include the recollections and photographs of missionaries from outside the USA as well as non-missionaries (ARAMCO, diplomats, spies, etc.), but this is a first step towards unraveling the fascist fiction that God favors the evil Westerners do in the Middle East…
¹Seen on an MK’s t-shirt: “Lord, if I have just one more day to live, let it be at a mission meeting because it seems like they last forever!²”
Origins in the Post-911 Era
Labor Day, September 2, 2002
Dad, Dr. Barnes, Randal, and Steve,
Following is a draft outline for a proposal to create a non-profit organization to record and aggregate and communicate the recollections American missionaries to the Middle East have (or had) of their life among Arabs.
I have been CONCERNED for many years that there is, in America, widespread ignorance about the Arab world and uncritical acceptance of any injustice towards Arabs, particularly Arabs living within Israel’s 1967 borders and in the occupied territories (Golan, Gaza, and the West Bank).
I have also been DISMAYED that much of that acceptance, especially since 9-11, seems to be based on efforts, often from American pulpits, to present the modern Jewish state as a loyal friend to Christianity and a reincarnation of the same divine favoritism ancient Israel experienced (off and on) prior to their occupation and eventual destruction and dispersion by the Romans.
I have become ALARMED that America’s love affair with Israel seems to require corollary efforts to portray the Arab world, and especially Palestinians, as a faceless anti-Christian horde, an infidel behemoth from the East arrayed against all that is Western. Americans are being conditioned to believe that violence towards Arabs, however arbitrary, is justified in the name of “fighting terror.” I believe we are being prepared to accept a final solution — ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians from territories Israel covets.
Belling the cat:
My father (Dr. Jim d’Nalgar) and I have occasionally discussed the idea of somehow interjecting the collective voices of retired missionaries into our national dialog on American foreign policy. Individual missionaries are actively speaking and writing, but their experiences and opinions are muted by their relative isolation. What galvanized my desire to unite a virtual chorus of concerned missionaries was a recent trip from Oklahoma to Arkansas. We were driving into the small town of Sulphur, Oklahoma (population less than 5,000) just before dawn on August 17 when I noticed a small church with two flagpoles in its front yard. One was flying the American flag — the other was flying Israel’s blue and white Star of David. I realized (hoped, really) that if a small church in a small town in the middle of America was proudly flying Israel’s flag, they surely were not seeing the desperate, daily hopelessness and suffering of millions of Palestinian men, women, and children — fellow human beings who shared the same basic yearnings for freedom and opportunity as all Americans.
On August 27, in St. Louis, I met with Dr. Emmett Barnes and two of their sons, Randal and Steve (Randal and I graduated from ACS in 1974). Mrs. Barnes prepared an excellent meal and over the chicken and rice and hummus and cake and coffee, we discussed the current situation and what we could do to advance the case for the humanity of Palestinians (and Arabs in general) to the American people. We semi-solemnly pledged to do SOMETHING, even though we weren’t sure exactly what it was we were agreeing to. Once we had joined hands and rendered that grunting version of “Huzzah” that is peculiar to American males in sporting situations, we settled down to the serious work of “what next?”
Much of the conversation revolved around who should participate and how. In general, we agreed that our initial effort should be limited to retired evangelical American missionaries who wished to preserve their experiences-with and impressions-of life among their Arab neighbors. We also agreed that the Internet would be the best medium for making their unique perspectives generally available to news outlets and the American public. Finally, we agreed that I would draft an outline of the project’s purpose and scope, subject to review and revision by Drs. d’Nalgar and Barnes, and Randal and Steve Barnes.
Why is this important?
First of all, week after week, ordinary Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories are suffering and dying. If we can do SOMETHING but do not, we are indirectly complicit in their repression. In the 1970s and 1980s, a crescendo of world opinion finally ended apartheid in South Africa. In these first years of the third millennium, can we do any less in the face of state-sponsored bigotry and terrorism against Arabs, especially when it is justified and legitimized in the name of Christianity?
Secondarily, from an academic and historical point of view, the opportunity to capture and preserve a unique American view of the Middle East will soon pass. The ranks of retired missionaries who were eyewitnesses to the events that led to the present situation are already diminished by death. It is important that we act NOW, even if there are unresolved details.
The stated purpose of this organization should be to archive the anecdotal experiences and recollections of retired American missionaries who lived among and worked with Middle Eastern Arabs. The secondary purpose should be to continuously publish these archives and actively encourage their use in our national dialog as an Arabist resource with a uniquely American perspective. The tertiary purpose (which should perhaps be left unstated) should be to mobilize public opinion against policies and military actions (foreign and domestic) that deny basic human rights in the Middle East. Our own Declaration of Independence says it best: We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men (where does it say “only American Christians and Israeli Jews?”) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
R.A.H.A.B. — Any ideas about turning “Rahab” into an acronym? Retired Americans Helping Arab… I like the Old Testament account of Rahab’s family being saved from the destruction of Jericho by hanging a red rope out her window. I see a symbolic parallel in that these archives can become a “red rope” of difficult-to-impeach information, a counterpoint to the raucous trumpeting of misinformation and the shouting propaganda that encircles the “Jericho” of modern-day Palestinians and Arabs. I can even envision an easy-to-recognize logo based on an abstraction of the window and red rope metaphor…
Anecdotal vignettes of real Palestinians and Arabs telling their everyday stories to American missionaries. Their aspirations, their trials and tribulations, their day-to-day experiences shopping, cooking, educating, birthing, burying, marrying, fleeing, surviving, etc. Contributions should NOT be evangelical or political in nature, but illustrative of daily life among Arabs of all faiths.
Contributors should provide personal biographies which can be linked to stories they submit — places of birth and upbringing, high school and college and seminary education, military experience, years served in the mission field, etc. The intent here is to convey the idea that these archives come from ordinary Americans with extraordinary credibility and experiences.
Retired “evangelical” (Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, etc.) American missionaries to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine (before 1948), Israel (after 1948), Jordan, Gaza, Egypt, and Yemen. We can always expand this later, to active missionaries, Catholics, State Department employees, etc., but this initial group is least likely to be dismissed as politically-biased or having “an axe to grind” — or to be targeted for retribution.
It is not the intent of this project to evangelize or convert anyone to Christianity. This organization will have greater stature and credibility among the press, academia, and others who influence national and foreign policy if it steers clear of expressing a particular religious point of view. Likewise, editorializing about events and policies will diminish the effectiveness and legitimacy of the effort by allowing detractors to dismiss it as biased or agenda-driven. Above all, no content can be allowed that could be construed as anti-Jewish or invite legal action against the organization.
Suggested content categories, by historical period:
Before 1940, 1940 until 1960, 1960 until 1980, since 1980.
Suggested content categories, by geography:
Lebanon, Syria, Palestine (before 1948), Israel (after 1948), Jordan, Gaza, Egypt, and Yemen.
Find out how much interest there is in really doing this (vs. just me talking about it); pro bono legal work to set up non-profit organization or foundation to support/house this effort; organization name and logo development; website domain (URL) research and purchase; branding: logo and website development; funding; contributor recruiting.
Conversation with James d’Nalgar
Important!What follows is the back-and-forth discussion between James d’Nalgar (my father) and myself in the week after the initial proposal was circulated.
James d’Nalgar (Dad): Have read your paper a couple of times, and here are some questions and reactions: I first thought that a “plan” to unite our voices would involve circulating among like minds a letter we wanted to send to a congressman or cabinet member or the president and after getting the views of all concerned rework the letter and send it. Send it in the name of the “organization.”
Jacques d’Nalgar (Jd’N): “My” plan is a bit sneakier. I think individual contributors should still be politically active, but I see this foundation/archive filling the role of supporting gravitas. I’d like to see it positioned as an academic/historical project, not a PR arm of any particular ideology.
Dad: What you have in mind is less subjective.
Dad: Who would be the target of the organization’s research? How would that church in Sulphur be enlightened by our writings?
Jd’N: I see the web presence as being more or less supporting documentation for the idea that Arabs are not somehow less than human. The church in Sulphur is probably a lost cause until such a time as the underlying quasi-religious superstition that promotes unquestioning support of Israel is discredited. Hopefully, editorials to newspapers in OKC and Dallas and even Sulphur would reference the web site — perhaps a member of the church in Sulphur would be influenced directly or indirectly by reading or hearing a different point of view.
Dad: I take it that at first there would be a web site on which would be posted from time to time the results of our research. How would we direct people to this site? Would we rely on surfers?
Jd’N: Web sites are like specialty stores on dead-end streets — you rarely get curious walk-in customers. There would have to be supporting activities: newsletters, editorials, letter-writing campaigns, etc. that direct traffic to the site. There would need to be, at least for a while, a constant influx of new material to keep interested visitors coming back to read more. I can’t see where the site would have “results” — it would be simply an organized collection of recollections.
Dad: Who would maintain the site? Who would edit the material sent to the organization? There might be a lot of material coming to this editor.
Would he have a committee?
Jd’N: Between me and the two Barnes boys, we’ve got three web developers. Yes, there would have to be some kind of review board to accept/reject material to be published. That’s one of the reasons we need to be very explicit about what the mission of the project is, and what types of contributions would be acceptable and unacceptable.
Dad: This approach would not prohibit any of the members or supporters from firing off a letter to an editor or leader. And there might be a time when the organization should compose a response to an action taken by our or some other government.
Jd’N: I would prefer to see the organization set up as apolitical (academic/historical). I think that as soon as it is seen as political, its ability to sway opinions will be diminished. It’s easier said than done, but we’d need to find a way to reference the organization’s content without the organization endorsing the speaker/writer’s comments.
Dad: The PLO has or had a very effective organization for collecting and distributing information related to Palestinians. One of their offices which was near the dentist we used in Beirut (Dr. Haddad) was blown up by some who, I think, didn’t agree with the work of this fact-finding organization. (History is unkind to bigots.) Maybe we should see what this organization is doing so we won’t be reinventing the wheel. Nor should it be seen as an arm of the PLO’s propaganda apparatus.
Jd’N: Agreed. What would set this project apart from any others, such as the PLO’s, is its uniquely American perspective. If it becomes a vehicle for recording stories that are not exclusively written from the point of view of the missionaries who heard or saw them, then you are right, it’s not much different than a thousand other projects. Hopefully, the stated apolitical mission of the project would insulate it from overt persecution. Hopefully, but sometimes you have to take risks…
Dad: It’s good that you mentioned that we are not out to convert people to our faith. Yet I wonder if our writings might not clash with some church’s views on eschatology.
Jd’N: There was a hispanic kid in class last week from Laredo, Texas. He told me he wasn’t a practicing Catholic, but he pulled out his dying grandmother’s rosary and confessed he never flew without it. That’s illustrative of the type of theology driving the eschatology that in turn leads to flying Israeli flags (and American flags) in front of churches. In my opinion, a clash over eschatology is way overdue — the prevalent view weakens churches, promotes a nationalism that is anti-Christian, and causes Christian indifference and even rejoicing over the repression of people of other faiths.
Dad: How do you propose to “screen” the list of possible contributors? What is the approximate budget for such a project? Would the material be copyrighted?
I feel, Jacques, that there should be room for a “subjective” response to any action, legislative or otherwise, that we feel violates the rights the organization purports to defend. Maybe such response should be left to individuals but such response from a larger group might be more effective.
I’ve thought a little about the acronym for the organization. RAHAB is well known by people of the Bible Belt. Any non-Christians might, if they investigate her, ridicule us for using a harlot as our hero. The writer of Hebrews seemed not to care what her past or trade was. I tried my hand at a “name”. A short one could be American Advocates for the Arab World (AAAW) or AOA (Advocates of Arabs). AA is already used by other advocates.
When you discussed this project with the Barnes, did they suggest any names for a founding committee? Frances Fuller and Nancie Wingo are also concerned about Arab rights.
Jd’N: I reluctantly agree that you’re right that the organization will have to take and defend a position statement re. human rights in the Middle East — I just don’t want it to come across as negatively anti-Israel so much as positively pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian. There are plenty of Arab regimes that deserve as much criticism as Israel; maybe I’m being naive, but I’d like to think that if Americans can come to see the common humanity of a suffering and repressed people, criticsm of governing or occupying states will naturally follow, even if left unstated.
As far as the RAHAB acronym, that was just an idea. I had kinda figured there would need to be a short introductory essay explaining the symbolism to folks who don’t know the story. That Rahab was a harlot is part of what I like about the story — there are multiple layers of rescue and redemption and ultimately triumph. I seem to recall that Gentile Rahab was part of Ruth’s geneology, who in turn was part of David’s, and in turn, Christ’s. (A brief calvinistic commentary: there was a TV show many years ago where the cigar-chomping hero was always saying, “I love it when a plan comes together!”) Because this effort will be documenting the viewpoints of Americans who also happen to be Christians, the so-called “Bible Belt” (which, in my opinion, is a big part of the problem) is going to be a natural target audience — if we can only change hearts and minds there, we will have accomplished much.
There would have to be some kind of review board that would accept/reject submissions — perhaps it could convene electronically in that as soon as a majority agreed upon the action to take regarding a particular item, it would automatically be returned to the author as rejected (or for rework, with comments), or it would be immediately posted on the web site. I built a somewhat similar application for submitting work requests from anywhere in the hospital to my department…
Funding the project is going to be an interesting conversation. One of the reasons it needs to be a non-profit organization is so “it” can seek donations. The cost of the web site, once the mechanics of submitting and reviewing content are worked out, won’t be much (I may even pay for it myself if there is sufficient interest) — less than $500 a year. The greater cost will come from promoting the ideas of the organization — advertising the site’s existence, mailing newsletters, contacting news outlets, paying speakers’ travel costs, etc.
I knew there were other retired missionaries with an interest in doing SOMETHING, but the Barnes and I wanted to limit the initial discussion until we had a solid plan worked out. Maybe someday this idea can grow into another “Amnesty International” but it doesn’t have to start out that big.
It sounds like the very first item of business may need to be a web-based, members-only discussion group to air the pros and cons of various ideas in such a way that everyone involved can see what’s being discussed. Unless we can physically get together at regular intervals and hash out all the details, this kind of back-and-forth conversation needs to be done in such a way that we don’t have to constantly re-state our individual points of view.
Dad, this whole idea is going to require a lot more commitment and activity on the part of the missionaries who lived and worked with Arabs — not on the project’s organizers (we’ll be fairly transparent). If you feel that there isn’t sufficient interest to warrant all this planning and speculation, tell me and I’ll just drop it. I just want to do SOMETHING that will make a difference…
Dad: You’re right, Jacques. What you’ve outlined will require commitment and cash. But this is not a month-long project. It might extend way beyond my life span. I gather that the Barnes are enthusiastic about the venture. Who else are you thinking of sharing the idea with? David King is pretty busy traveling and writing. Dean Fitzgerald is now in retirement. I’ve had little contact with him. One of his sons is about Steve’s age and is a surgeon in Dallas.
One of my friends began a center for Islamic studies in Richmond, VA. He was a missionary in Bangladesh. At first he had just a short newsletter. Then it got larger. Now he has a building in Richmond and offers classes on Islam! But it took him over l0 years to reach this stage. Oh yes, he still sends out the newsletter, and it’s quite sophisticated.
Jd’N: Something that occurred to me over the last two days is that missionaries have thousands of slides — a tangential function of this project could be an effort to preserve those images digitally — a perpetual mission-meeting slide show. We hated those as kids, but we’d love to see them now and pass them along to another generation. Again, this emphasizes the anthropological/preservation/historical aspect to the project. What I mean by that is that pictures of village women making mountain bread would be preferred over a picture of Camille Chamoun at a country club.
You’re right that this cannot be a flippant overnight effort — it will take careful planning and oversight. That’s one reason I’d rather see the board in the hands of MKs instead of the missionaries themselves — I’d like to see this project survive beyond the generation of missionaries who served in the last century. The primary role of the missionaries themselves would be to document what they saw and felt.
As far as WHO would participate — I never saw it as being restricted to SBC missionaries only. The thrust of the project should be “The American Christian experience in the Middle East” — the Weirs were mentioned at my St. Louis meeting with the Barnes, and I can see other evangelical organizations like YFC getting involved, as long as they understand what the project is trying to accomplish.
You brought up the question of copyrighting in an earlier message. That’s the type of thing we need legal advice for. I can’t see a need for it unless it serves to point the curious back to the organization. I certainly don’t foresee any financial reimbursement to authors as part of the setup…
Dad: Jacques, I don’t have any objections to MKs leading in the formation and function of the organization. And I welcome all contributors, regardless of race or denomination.
Your idea of archiving slides and other materials sounds good. Just one word of caution: don’t over extend yourselves.
September 25, 2002
But now I have examined your proposal and have some thoughts. I have not yet adapted to email with the possibility of many partial responses to something. I still think in terms of writing a long and complicated letter.
First I want to tell you that I am so happy that you have the interest and enthusiasm to want to do something which is historical and archival in nature. I have been telling Paul Smith for some time that he needs to write a book about the cultural aspects of the Arabs. He has lived in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He also lived among the Kurds of Iraq so he knows that too.
I also appreciate your desire to do something which will have political and religious results. We share your feelings at the way that the politicians are following the leading of Israel to the great hurt of the Palestinians. Then the churches with a strange idea of Christianity turn a blind eye to the brutality and ethnic cleansing of that country.
Having said that, perhaps our personal and individual efforts perhaps should be in two areas. One would be to archive what we know for a historical record. Probably the second would be to privately engage in writing opinion essays which would be submitted to newspapers to comment on the political situation.
My reasoning that we should have two different personal efforts is like this: As hot as we get thinking about what is being done we probably distort the historical aspect of our work to the point that we will produce something which is more polemical and dated than historical. Also, the very urgency that we feel would probably not be answered by a historical project which depends on interested people reading and changing their attitudes and the attitudes of the people in their churches.
We do need to “do something” and I am confident that many feel the same as we do. We live in an age of new communication and archival possibilities which can make our task considerably easier than it was for earlier generations. So we need to use what we have. So let’s think now about the historical and archival aspect and leave the present political situation for another letter. We do have to be comforted a bit with our faith in God. That does not mean that we do nothing political, but basically the load of justice is not all on our shoulders. Now about the other area…
Concerning a name, I think that we should have a name which is descriptive spelled out in full. I believe that the acronyms are overrated and confusing. I think that RAHAB, AAAH, OOOH (Ordinary Overseas Observers, Holy) (just joking) or other such names only provide an unnecessary jargon. The name will come. The acronym would be for private usage.
I think that your vision is of an electronic magazine in which would be issued on a regular basis with back issues always available for reference.
Is that right? That is a wonderful idea and I think that it is an obtainable objective. This is how I think that it could work.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
- Small group which could include more than just missionaries or MKs
- Would make organizational and editorial policy decisions
EDITOR IN CHIEF
- Responsible for pulling everything together
- Responsible for the finances
- Would contribute articles three or four times a year
- Would recommend published articles
- Would review each publication before release
- New issue every two months
- Web site open to all who want to read
- We could offer automatic announcements of articles to contributors and interested people
- Private contributions
- Contributions by the missionaries and MKs as you recommended earlier
- Contributions would be sent by email if possible for ease in reproduction
Not all contributors would be listed as “contributing editors” because they would not be invited to review all the work. Also we want to gather material from many people.
Probably the organization should be incorporated to protect individuals from lawsuits. Incorporation is not difficult but it requires regular reporting and a yearly fee ($45 in Missouri). Of course this would be a non-profit organization.
This is what I think now. I do have ideas about who could well serve on the board and as contributing editors. We need to bring Steve Fitzgerald and Tim Smith into this discussion soon. I think that the MKs will be more interested in doing this than the parents. I will send them a copy of this.
Conversation with Steven Barnes
October 1, 2002
I agree that MKs may be more ready to do this than many of their parents.
However, who would carry more weight with the average pastor and church–which may or may not be flying the Israeli flag out front? The missionaries would, for a number of reasons. I think we should actively try to persuade retired M.E. missionaries to join the cause and speak up. It is a moral issue, about which they have first hand knowledge, while living among people who have the power to make a difference, but do not understand.
I know that many retired M.E. missionaries feel the same way as we do about this, but may need some courage to speak up–especially after being conditioned/required over many years to be apolitical.
Jd’N: I think you’re right about the missionaries’ voices needing to be heard and carrying more weight/credibility than what we could bring to the table. Think of us MKs as the slide projector operator — we’re in a support role until this present generation fades into history. And then our job becomes making sure that history is not forgotten.
Postscript or a New Beginning?
Important!After an initial flurry of interest, life (and death) got in the way. Wars, illnesses, and personal tragedies all took their toll and this project was more-or-less dormant until July 10, 2007, when the following announcement of unilateral action (by me) was distributed to interested parties:
Several years ago, I dreamed up an idea to counter the misinformation routinely propagated about Arabs in general, and Muslims in particular. Some of you asked about the state of the project last week at the DC reunion [for American Community School alumni], and reiterated how badly it was needed. Others asked my parents about it the week before at a Waco, Texas reunion for retired ME missionaries. Because of the interest, I have purchased a virtual “store front” just in case I can figure out how to get this thing started.
Since then, “Mission: Meeting” hasn’t progressed much beyond becoming a place for posting articles and images related to interfaith and diversity advocacy. The need for truth and light is even greater today than it was immediately after 9-11 (yes, that church in Sulphur is still flying the Israeli flag). Your ideas for next steps are always welcome.
²Full disclosure: That joke about the t-shirt is completely bogus. It was adapted from an old joke about swim meets seeming to last forever…