Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Church bases foreign policy on power of love

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Michael Oxentenko, pastor of Reaching Hearts International, shakes hands with Columbia resident Rachel Varghese following a service at Spencerville’s Cedar Ridge Community Church, where Reaching Hearts International meets.
Pastor Michael Oxentenko tries to incorporate current events into his sermons at Reaching Hearts International to make them topical and to speak directly to a global community of congregants that trace their roots across Southeast Asia, through the Middle East and to Africa.

So one week after holding a community prayer vigil in the wake of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Oxentenko had 200 congregants pray with him Saturday morning for peace in Kenya, where ethnic killings followed the recent, contested presidential election.

With President George W. Bush making his first trip while in office to the Middle East this week and Pakistan and Kenya roiled in political turmoil, to say nothing of Iraq and Iran, Oxentenko urged Reaching Hearts members to find comfort in prayer as they contemplated trouble in the world.

‘‘The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world,” Oxentenko said during his sermon, quoting from 2 Corinthians. ‘‘On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”

Still, congregants meeting at the church’s temporary home at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville remain realists and pragmatists when it comes to world affairs. Jack Perera, a Howard County high school teacher, believed Pakistan would become more unstable following Bhutto’s death before getting better.

A native of Sri Lanka, Perera went to school in India and worked for four years in Pakistan. He called Pakistanis friendly and resourceful, but said President Pervez Musharraf is too big of an obstacle to change. ‘‘I would hate to see the nation go to smithereens,” he said. ‘‘But for [Pakistanis’] resiliency to work, Musharraf has to be out of the picture. His time has come and gone.”

Many felt that way about President Bush’s foreign policy.

‘‘Being the sole superpower in the world, we should be the last one to use force,” said Raj Abel, an international banker and Silver Spring resident born in Sri Lanka. Abel traced diplomatic problems in part to Americans not recognizing the patriarchal structure of the Arab and Muslim worlds, which creates family values different to what is customary in the United States and can cause cultural misunderstandings.

Abraham Pourhassani has seen a similar issue in U.S. relations with Iran, where he still has family after immigrating nearly 40 years ago. Even when both sides negotiate, they are mostly talking past each other, said Pourhassani, a church deacon who has lived in Howard County for 36 years.

Norma Nashed of Beltsville was born in Palestine and raised in Jordan, working across the Middle East before immigrating to the United States in 1985. ‘‘The Arab mind does not work by coercion or force,” she said. ‘‘They will respect people who respect them. The majority are very tolerant, but they have to see it in you.”

Perera agreed. ‘‘Bush’s attitude has been they are children of a lesser god,” he said.

But everyone believed change could happen despite all the missteps. Pourhassani hoped Bush’s trip to the Middle East would provide some optimism for the region in a time of crisis. From the pulpit, Oxentenko extolled love as the ‘‘ultimate weapon of mass destruction for evil.”

‘‘The Christian spiritual warfare is praying for the spiritual welfare of the enemy,” he said.

Nashed is founder and director of Reaching Hearts for Kids, which provides humanitarian assistance for disadvantaged children in eight countries, including Kenya, Jordan and Ethiopia.

‘‘If we invest in the lives of children, the world will be a better place,” she said.

Abel wanted America to ‘‘wage peace” with the same resolve it has waged war. Waging peace may require a prolonged commitment and discussions with countries now considered enemies, Abel said. He cited President Richard Nixon opening China to the West with his visit in 1972, which stemmed from secret talks three years earlier, and President Jimmy Carter helping negotiate the Camp David Accords in 1978 between Israel and Egypt.

‘‘The world is ready to talk,” Abel said in the church lobby as the service began. He sat at a table where, following the service, congregants from different ethnic groups and countries would talk over a potluck, vegetarian lunch.

‘‘There are no enemies in this world,” Abel said, finishing his thought. ‘‘Humanity is so small.”