Money and the Holy Land: Committee Hears Testimony

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SALT LAKE CITY – The line snaked across the room and out the door on Thursday morning as deputies, alternates and visitors signed up to speak on one of the hottest topics facing General Convention – how the Episcopal Church should respond to the on-going conflict in the Holy Land.

The proposals: Five resolutions with very different approaches, ranging from divestment from companies doing business in Israel to exploring ways to create a robust dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

The range of opinions expressed was wide and heart-felt at a hearing of the Social Justice and International Policy Committee.

“The Episcopal Church could respond more boldly,” said Clark Downs, an alternate from the Diocese of Washington.

The Episcopal Church has extensive financial assets with $380 million in trust accounts and more than $9 billion in pension funds. Those assets do not include the considerable endowments controlled by individual dioceses, local parishes and schools connected to the Church.

The Episcopal Church itself does not currently own any stock in companies that have been identified by proponents of divestment.

The Pension Fund owns stock in two such companies: Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. General Convention has historically not directed the Pension Fund’s investments. The Fund is separately incorporated with its own board of directors.

Roger Sayler, chief investment officer for the Pension Fund, told the committee that the fund would seriously examine any resolutions approved by General Convention calling for divestment. But he urged that General Convention examine how to “invest positively” rather than divest.

After receiving background on the church’s assets and investment policies, it was time to hear from the deputies, alternates and visitors at General Convention.

The most contested proposal of the day was C012 that would “encourage” the church to divest from stocks in Caterpillar, G4S, Hewlett Packard and Motorola.

Presenting the resolution, the Rev. Deacon Victoria Gray, from the Diocese of California, said “it’s not about anti-Semitism; it’s about justice.”

But others were concerned divestment would be misunderstood without changing anything in the Holy Land. “People will hear it as anti-Israel,” said Peter Larson, an alternate from the Diocese of Milwaukee. “It will take us away from the table.”

Leyla King, a Palestinian-American and deputy from East Tennessee, said she is “heartbroken that any part of our church is involved in occupying Palestine.”

Katy Dickinson, an alternate from the Diocese of El Camino Real, told the committee “I know it’s really bad for the Palestinians… on the other hand, if we pull all our marbles out we will not be a part of the conversation.”

The Rev. Canon John Kitagawa, a deputy from the Diocese of Arizona and a member of an interfaith delegation that visited the Holy Land in 2015, presented A052 calling for an “Ubuntu” dialogues and a “prophetic witness” for peace.

Kitagawa noted that during the pilgrimage, a member of the Israeli Knessett told him that “religious language is more creative than diplomatic language.” He urged the church to not give up on dialogue and reconciliation.

During the afternoon session, the Rev. Graham Smith, dean of St. George’s College Jerusalem, represented Archbishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Graham said that Bishop Dawani is against divestment. “It costs the General Convention nothing” to take such an action, Smith said, but it could harm the work of the diocese in Jerusalem.

But Sarah Watkins, a visitor from the Diocese of Texas, urged the committee to approve divestment. “We are dealing in death.”

Scott Gunn, a deputy from Southern Ohio said he has been to the Holy Land twice. “I had a machine gun put in my face for taking the wrong taxi.” But he said that divestment “will only make the situation worse.”

Bishop John Chane, retired from the Diocese of Washington, told the committee that he has always opposed divestment. “Times have changed,” he said. “When I look at the landscape there are no opportunities to negotiate.”

Chane predicted that the divestment proposals would be defeated, but urged that the Executive Council begin crafting a strategy on investments involving the Holy Land.