Today has been a wonderful reprieve from the more intense parts of our tour thus far (and it’s funny that I think that it’s already intense because our program coordinator has told us that next week is when the difficulty really begins; welcome to the Land, I suppose!). Anyway, knowing that it will become more challenging to look at, feel, and process over the upcoming days makes it perhaps all the sweeter to have had this simpler day.
There is never any truly simple piece of information about this Land, but Caesarea and Haifa (and, more than likely, Nazareth, where we just arrived and will be for the next two days) were far easier emotionally than Jerusalem. We saw one of Herod’s palaces, the court where Paul was held, a beautiful Baha’i garden, a church where incredible prison ministry is being done, and the views from the best restaurant we’ve been to so far, among others.
I’ll focus on our time in House of Grace, a church where post-prison rehabilitation work is happening. (Side note: I can tell that, throughout this trip, we’re going to meet a lot of people who were tired of waiting around for progress to happen, so they instead just got to work – amazing work – on personal and grassroots levels. I’m so excited to get to meet them, hear their stories, learn from their tactics, and be inspired to come home with a different heart from the one I left with just a few weeks earlier).
Our tour guide for the next few days is an Arab Christian named Ghada, so it was fun to have her with us in an Arab Christian church, specifically one that used to be Greek Orthodox but then was switched over to the control of Roman Catholic Pope after doctrinal disputes. She even sang a hymn for us in Arabic! She was able to add to the knowledge and passion of the man named Jared who now runs the ministry his parents started many years ago upon processing through this passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
“‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
– Matthew 25:31-36, 40b
They were the first halfway house in Israel with this purpose and now are the only Arab halfway house (the Israeli government asked them to specialize back in 2011). They work with folks who have vied for permission to spend their last third of a prison sentence in a rehabilitative center instead of a punitive one (after showing good behavior throughout the first two-thirds of their sentence). This is especially important work here because in a more conservative culture like that in the Land, being imprisoned means being ostracized from your family. Even more so than in most cultures and lands, family is crucial to literal and metaphorical survival here.
Jared told us that the philosophy behind his work is that living under the same roof (the reforming prisoners and him – he said that he has them babysit his kids and felt totally comfortable doing that!) allows for people to be accountable to one another’s rehabilitation. This significantly reduces recidivism, but even more importantly, they learn to respect and come close to one another – sometimes even with the other, breaking down the walls of fear that can between different religions, backgrounds, and so on. He asked, “If you don’t know how I mourn or celebrate, how can we talk about peace?” It seemed that it may have been even more powerful an experience when there were non-Arabs in the group of 15 men as well, but unfortunately, a divide on a national level is the trend right now. It’s up to people on personal and grassroots levels to counter that, and people like Jared are the ones who are equipped and have the heart to “keep building bridges because it’s possible if you really, really persist, and when one person succeeds, many succeed.” If we know our enemy, they’re no longer our enemy; they’re our colleague, our friend, our sibling. What a treat to meet such a humble, hopeful, and impactful man in Jared, doing amazing work in the name of God.
I find that visiting any church of any tradition and denomination is a treat because it gives you a glimpse into history, narratives, and the unity and division of the Body of Christ, as well as the potential for greater unity as a Christian family. But this is something extra special because Orthodox Christians are on the rarer side in the United States (numbers seem to be difficult to get, but it they are far fewer than Protestants and Catholics). I also had the privilege of learning about early church history in the previous semester, so I knew a little bit about some of the ecumenical councils that have shaped church doctrines. One of the relevant historical debates involves icons, or religious works of art, which are extremely important in the Orthodox tradition. One of the things that I love about visiting these different churches is getting to see icons – “poor man’s theology” – up close. You don’t need to be able to read, write, or hear to be able to understand more about the characters, events, and purposes of the gospel by looking at them! How neat is that?
Icons also serve to make our intangible faith more tangible, and we know that this is acceptable to do now that Christ has come to us in human form. To me, icons are another representation of just how wide the arms of Christ wrap around us, all of us with our different preferences, needs, hearts, and minds. Different churches show it in different ways, and I believe that they’re all beautiful. I’m excited to see more.