Today has left me speechless and overwhelmed with emotion. If the stones of yesterday felt like lifeless ruins of Jesus’ life and teaching, the stones of today were alive with the breath of the Spirit.
We went to Haifa to speak to the Arab Christians at the advocacy centre, Mossawa. We heard story after story of injustice, discrimination and brutality. And the statistics are heartbreaking. 50% of Arab Israeli families and 60% of children live below the poverty line. 86% of Arab Israeli women are unemployed, not because of cultural issues but because of things like lack of education and training and inadequate transportation. Arab Israelis make up 20% of the population of Israel (these are Israeli citizens, remember, not Arabs living in the West Bank or Gaza), and yet they received less than 3% of the national culture budget. A third less is spent on an Arab child’s education than on a Jewish child’s schooling.
Haifa is often held up as a shining example of peaceful co-existence, but today’s visit proved that to be a mirage.
I would have expected bitterness, but instead we encountered righteous anger. A Longing for equality and justice. And a hope that one day — however far off that day may be — it may happen.
There is a lot I could say about what we heard and saw today. The Arab Christian community in Israel is vulnerable and fragile, a minority in a minority which seeks to live in peace with those they live beside, but with a wariness about religious extremism and a lingering historical memory of persecution. In the words of Azar Ajaj, Principal of the Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary, who spoke to us tonight: ‘This is a land flowing with hatred, wounds and death, not milk and honey’.
It would be easy to feel powerless and hopeless in the face of such a nuanced, complex, difficult situation. But when we asked everyone we met today what we could do to support them, they simply said, ‘Go back to Scotland. Tell our stories. Ask people to pray for us.’
And so I will do as they asked and share a story or two.
After leaving Mossawa, we went to House of Grace, a Greek Melkite Catholic family-run community for recently-released prisoners. In the past, it has worked with the homeless and with women, and it is now expanding to offer a youth programme and support to families in need. (Please, please click on the link to read the full history of the House.)
The church used to be visible from the main road, but now it is hidden by contemporary high-rise office buildings and run down flats once owned by Arab Christians but now left to ruin (or redevelopment by the Jewish community).
After marrying, Kamil Shehede and his wife Agnes opened their home to ex-prisoners who were struggling to reintegrate into society. Initially they had two men staying with them. But more wanted to join, and they could see the need was great. And so in 1982, the House of Grace was formed. The church, which they had to rebuild, sits in the middle of the site, and is a building of simple, understated beauty.
During the first Gulf War, the cupola windows were shattered by missiles being launched over the church. Some time later, a priest involved in prison ministry in Luxembourg came to see the work of the House and noticed the state of the windows. It turned out that one of the prisons he worked in had a glass workshop, so the men created large irregular-shaped panes of red and blue glass to fit the windows. For months, visitors to the House who knew the priest would bring two or three pieces as gifts. And after all the panes had been complete, a visitor came with the final piece, along with a picture of one of the prisoners who had worked on them holding an image showing how they were all to be put together. Now blue and red sunlight dances and plays on the soft yellow walls.
There are icons throughout, as one would expect, but the one below was given to the House by a drug addict. It is an old icon which belonged to his mother. His addiction was so severe that he was selling everything he owned to buy more drugs and was terrified that one day, in a moment of desperation and lapse of judgement, he would sell his mother’s precious icon. So he gave it to the House for safekeeping and asked them to display it, with her name underneath. In the time it took them to hang it properly, he died, and so they have both his mother’s name and his on the plaque.
I said yesterday that the places we visited felt somehow distant from the teaching of Christ. Or they made his life too pretty. Or whitewashed out the troubles of this region. The House of Grace has a church to rival any of the ones yesterday, but what makes it special is the prayer and love and faithfulness built into its stones. It stands as a sign of the gospel being lived in a radical and reckless way. When, over the most delicious Arabic coffee, we asked Kamil’s wife Agnes how she felt about those early days, about opening her home, not just to strangers but to ex-offenders, how she felt raising a family amongst murderers and thieves, she simply replied, ‘I loved him. I didn’t want to lose him.’
Though she was obviously talking about her husband, I wondered if the statement would apply equally to Jesus.
A house of grace indeed.