Michael McRay talks faith, peace at library book signing

By Janice Ng on 10/17/2013

  
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Michael McRay, a 2011 Lipscomb graduate and adjunct professor, knows Palestine and the Middle East like the back of his hand. He used that first-hand knowledge to write his first book: “Letters from ‘Apartheid Street’: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine.”  Friends, fans and family gathered in Beaman Library on Monday, Oct. 21, for a book-signing and to hear McRay discuss his work.

McRay’s ties to Palestine are rooted deeply in his family’s involvement with the country. His grandfather was an archaeologist and professor who made regular trips to Israel, teaching and hosting archaeological digs. McRay’s father wanted to carry on the Palestinian legacy to his sons, and brought McRay and his siblings to Israel as they were growing up.

“In a way, I was born into it,” McRay said. “There’s a need in Palestine, so that’s where I am.”

After his college graduation, McRay became involved with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a faith-based organization that supports, among other things,  Palestinian-led, nonviolent, grassroots resistance to the Israeli occupation . McRay became part of a team in the West Bank city of Hebron for two months, where he learned how to resist the violence of occupation and share the stories of a suffering people as he struggled to embody a peaceable spirit. It was during this time that he wrote the letters that make up his book.

“In Hebron, I began writing letters back home to reflect upon and process what I was seeing and experiencing. My letters portray the raw truth of my feelings and observations,” he said.

The Christian Peacemaker teams in Palestine provide escorts for Palestinian children walking to school each day, accompany sheperds and farmers to fields where Israeli soldiers often assault them, monitor treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, intervene during human rights abuses and sharing reports and documentation with the media, government and human rights organizations.

McRay said his letters explore one of the main questions of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, “How do I be peaceable?” His letters reflect on how he could love the people around him who didn’t seem very loveable. 

McRay also described a pivotal point in his life when his theological views were changed.

“I was 19 when I did study abroad in Vienna,” McRay said. “I stayed back an extra week with my dad, and together we went to visit Krakow and Auschwitz, Poland. As we were sitting there in Auschwitz in silence, my dad said, ‘Whatever you believe about God has to make sense here or it can’t make sense anywhere.’ It shattered my idea that God is out of everything and just rescues us from our problems when we are in need, and replaced it with the idea that God is in the midst of everything.”

This new way of thinking eventually led him into prison ministry. McRay has been volunteering as a chaplain at Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for the past three years.

“I’m taking seriously Jesus’ call in Matthew 25, where it says that He is with the least of these,” he said.

McRay ended his talk with an excerpt from the end of the book’s preface.

“In the end, I ask that you read these writings for what I intended them to be: A look from below, an opportunity to hear the stories of the misunderstood and misrepresented people, and a chance to wrestle with the complex and often seemingly fruitless endeavor of being peaceful in a violent world.”

McRay currently hosts a Belfast-originated monthly storytelling event called 10x9 (ten by nine) in downtown Nashville. In August 2013, he completed his Master of Philosophy in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Studies with Trinity College Dublin at Belfast.