Choir, Mississippi pastor go away to the manger


Concerts seek to promote peace

Special to the Advocate

“Peace on earth” is a popular Christmas sentiment that this year will take on more meaning for one United Methodist pastor from Mississippi.

The Rev. Sam Morris has spearheaded an all-volunteer team of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian musicians for a four-city Holy Land Christmas concert tour that will culminate in the largest Christmas Eve concert in Bethlehem’s Manger Square since 1999.

“With the hope of a just peace looming on the horizon, it is time to ‘prepare the way,’” said Morris, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Columbus and adjunct professor at the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration (JIBE). “One of the world’s greatest tenors, Stuart Neill, will sing those very words on Christmas Eve to a world watching and waiting for peace.”

The Christmas Eve concert — the final leg of the “Prepare the Way Concert Tour 2007: Peace on Earth, Good Will to All,” will be a highlight of the annual festivities celebrating the birth of Jesus that include processions by various local churches and coordinated in part with the Peace Center in Bethlehem.

The choir includes professional, collegiate and church musicians and singers from seven states.

The group left Dec. 14 to join with Israeli and Palestinian musicians. However, the seeds of the concert were planted seven years ago. On Sept. 28, 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took Israeli Defense Force members and Israeli police to the Temple Mount. That action coupled with his statement, “This is ours. It will never be yours,” started what is known as the Al Aksa Intifada.

The event and rumors over how many police participated and the meaning of those numbers virtually derailed the peace accord that was on the verge of being signed.

“I have seen first-hand the mistreatment of Palestinians who have done nothing more than be born Palestinians,” Morris said. “And because I know how important symbolism is for the people of the land, I prayed for another symbol.

“About two years ago, a group of us, including Charles Page, dean of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration; Jim Sawyers and Paul McCracken, United Methodist ministers; Moses Hanania, who is from East Jerusalem; and others, started talking about this issue. Out of those discussions, the idea for gathering in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2007 — seven being a whole number that distanced us from the event in 2000 — around music, a universal language, grew.”

Morris said his friendship with Bob McBain and his contacts in music circles gave the idea leg. “Bob’s friendships in the music world put the team together, and we started planning,” Morris said.

“Somewhere along the way we picked up a couple of Israelis, a few Jewish Americans and about 40 members of the Palestinian Youth Orchestra of the Edward Said National Music Conservatory.

“The teenagers in the orchestra are among the most compelling reasons for us to make this journey,” Morris continued. “The concerts, other than Bethlehem, came as subsequent invitations came — all of which echo the hope for a just peace that led to this event.”

The more than 150-voice chorus traveling at their own expense from the United States will join with 20 singers based in Jerusalem and members of the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO). Along with world-class operatic performers, led by McBain and Dr. Eric Thorson, the choir and orchestra will perform portions of Handel’s Messiah to deliver a simple message of “Peace on earth, good will to all” to audiences in Nazareth, Amman, Jordan, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

“While the music is the traditional Christmas music of Handel and John Rutter, the presence of the singers, orchestra and soloists transcends the differences existing among peoples of the world and unites us in friendship and hope in this deeply symbolic season,” said Morris.

Since 2000, visitors have been trickling back into Manger Square at Christmas time, but numbers are far below the tens of thousands who thronged Bethlehem in the 1990s.

“I pray for Christmas Eve this year. It has been a dream of mine for many years to try to remind people everywhere that the world can live in peace — a just peace. Bethlehem, for many in the world, is a place of renewing that hope. For a few moments, we all relive the age-old story of angels singing and shepherds coming,” said Morris. “If just for a moment, a wrinkle in time, in the little town of Bethlehem, let the songs of the angels be heard that kindness and love can win over hatred and bitterness. I believe it. And when you look into the faces of these wonderful musicians, you will see it, too.”

McBain chose the evening’s selections.

“It seemed so appropriate when choosing the music to think of one of the most famous Christian works of all time, Handel’s Messiah, and of the words of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘Comfort ye my people, saith your God, Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, That her warfare is accomplished, That her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare, ye the way of the Lord,’” he said. “At the close, as an act of friendship and a prayer for peace, the choir will sing Peter Lutkin’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

Since 1993, Morris has taught courses for clergy and laypeople in the Holy Land, first as an adjunct faculty member with the Jerusalem Center of Biblical Studies and more recently for the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration.

“My first trip to Israel and Palestine in 1983 was transforming. It helped me to see the scripture and my own life in relation to God more clearly,” he said. “As a teacher, I have been pleased to share that journey with others. Over and over, I hear clergy and laypersons say that they are reading the scripture as if for the first time.”

Much of his teaching today centers on the life of Jesus in the setting of the first century, helping modern people experience the Bible with a new, fresh approach.