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Members of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme quite literally offered an olive branch to the peoples of Israel and Palestine last month as they planted olive trees in Hebron with the Christian Peacemaker Team during their "Tree of Life Journey" to Israel.
Along with Reverend David Good, 37 people, ranging in age from 8 to over 80, traveled throughout Israel and to the occupied territories of Palestine. This is the church's seventh mission to the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001.
The group visited ancient historic sites and met with individuals, organizations and schools with the common mission of ending the conflict and bringing peace to the troubled regions.
Among the younger folks on the journey were 8-year-old Isabella (Bella) Hine, a third grader at Lyme Consolidated School, and 14-year-old twins Abigail and Hugh Cipparone, freshmen at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.
Prior to the trip, the Cipparone family held fundraisers at LOLHS and the Second Congregational Church of New London, of which they are also members. As a result they brought nine "heavy" suitcases filled with supplies to schools in the occupied territories.
Abigail and Hugh traveled with their father Joe Cipparone -also his first trip-and Bella traveled with her mother Allison Gerber Hine and grandmother Carleen Gerber (the church's associate minister), who have gone on the Tree of Life Journey in previous years.
Abigail said she went on the trip to educate herself.
"I wanted to learn more about what they were doing to make peace, and about the conflict itself," she explained.
"I wanted to learn more about the culture," Hugh added, noting that he wanted to go on the mission before Rev. Good retires in June.
"My mom and grandma had gone on the trip," Bella said. "I wanted to see it for myself."
The young people came back having seen, heard, and learned things they never expected.
"I learned about the settlements and how the people are treated," Bella said.
Abigail described visiting a refugee camp in Bethlehem.
"I thought it would be all tents, but it was very squashed apartment buildings-kind of like a ghetto," she said. "So many people in one tiny area."
Despite the conditions, Abigail said she was amazed by how vibrant the culture still is.
"We met with Bedouin people and they taught us about what they ate, and did a Debka (dance) for us. I learned how happy you could be, even under occupation," she said.
Hugh explained that they each went to a homestay-where volunteers offered them accommodations.
"I thought it would be tough," he said. "We don't speak their language. The (kids) invited me to go out on the town with them. I realized it was just a different language, but otherwise, they're no different than (teenagers) here."
"They love to watch 'Arabs Got Talent,' like we watch "America's Got Talent,'" Abigail added. "It struck me how similar we are."
Abigail and Hugh noted that from kindergarten through eighth grade they attended multicultural magnet schools in New London and had always been exposed to many cultures and, as a result, are sensitive to these issues.
Among the many memorable places they visited and people they met, Abigail, Hugh and Bella mentioned The Hagar School, the first and only bilingual, multicultural school in the Negev, where hundreds of Arab and Jewish children study together.
They were also very moved by a meeting with members of The Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of more than 600 families who've lost loved ones as a result of the prolonged conflict.
Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew, told the story of his 14-year-old daughter, who was among five people killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem, a few days before Yom Kippur in 1997.
Despite overwhelming grief, he told the group that he eventually stopped hating his daughter's killer and joined the family support system offered by the Parents Circle.
On the PCFF website Elhanan says, "We must be prepared to listen to 'the other.' Because if we will not know how to listen to the other's story, we won't be able to understand the source of his pain and we should not expect the other to understand our own pain."
The most meaningful lesson Hugh said he learned was, at heart, a simple one.
"We're all the same," he said. "It's kind of an overused statement, but true. If all Israelis knew how bad the problem was, there wouldn't be half the problem."
"The most important thing everyone needs to focus on, is not who did this and that, but how to find a peaceful solution that will fit everyone's needs," Abigail says.
Reflecting on what he took away from being on the peace mission, Joe Cipparone said, "As a parent, it's great to expose your children to inspiring people that may become peacemakers in the future. I wish I had that courage.
"It's also great to have my kids learn the geography of the country, which you just can't (understand) without going there-and to actually see places you read about in the Bible your whole life."
The young people have plans to pass on what they've learned now that they're home.
Abigail recently spoke at a mosque in Berlin that's raising money for a Palestinian cultural center for refugees. Her topic for her final social studies project at LOLHS is on the Palestinian conflict, and within the next few weeks, Abigail and Hugh will give a talk at the Second Congregational Church.