I begin this blog again on the afternoon of my first full day in Israel as part of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship's Real Break: Jerusalem. From the window on my right, a few kilometers of rugged terrain away, through a cloud of dust kicked up by howling winds, beyond a stretch of recently constructed - and much hated - wall separating Israel proper from the West Bank, I can see the Mount of Olives, topped by the tower of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension. On the far side of the Mount, invisible from here, is Jerusalem, the Holy City of David. From my left, beyond a partition of frosted glass, I hear the siren-like shrieks of a young Palestinian woman with a severe neurological disorder, accompanied from time to time by shouting and screaming from other inhabitants of the institution where our group will be staying for the rest of this week. Greetings from the Four Homes of Mercy, a Palestinian Orthodox residential facility for Palestinians with a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional, and neurological disorders, in the West Bank city of Bethany.
It was here in Bethany that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 12), and the Church built on the site of Lazarus' Tomb is not even a mile from where we're staying. A chapel across from a Russian Orthodox Monastery marks the spot where Jesus was met by Lazarus' sisters Martha and Mary on his way to the tomb where his friend had been buried four days previously.
The presence of The Four Homes here is itself a kind of miracle, about which I'll have more to say in future posts. For now let me just note that it is a Palestinian Orthodox Christian home for those with severe physical and mental disabilities, supported by donations from many, including Anglican and Episcopalian Christians and the Palestinian Authority, and serving the needs - by means of a largely Muslim staff - of over eighty men, women and children, from ages 3 to 94, nearly all of whom are Palestinian Muslims.
Our OCF group arrived last night, around 8 pm, from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Correction: most of our team arrived last night. Hard weather across much of the country on Sunday grounded four of the fifteen college students who had signed up for this Real Break, and they won't be joining us until early tomorrow afternoon. We were met at the airport by a young Palestinian Orthodox man named Androwas, the Arabic version of Andreas, who worked with OCF Director Fr Kevin Scherer and RB: Jerusalem Team Leader Fr Nicholas Andruchow of Flagstaff, Arizona to put together our program. Androwas is a native of Jerusalem of Bedouin descent who grew up, as he proudly puts it, two doors down from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He works for the United Nations here, helping Palestinians process claims for the disruption to their lives caused by the construction of the previously mentioned wall. (Some have been separated from their families a few hundred yards away, others from the properties on which they depend for their livelihood.) He was a member of OCF when he studied business in Memphis, Tennessee, and is very supportive of its mission. It's in large part thanks to his collaboration with Fr Kevin that this trip is happening. He is a longtime friend and supporter of this unique institution, and prays that its work and needs will become more widely known about and supported as a result of this Real Break.
Of the 11 OCF members here already, I've worked with five on previous Real Breaks. (For those who might not know about OCF and the Real Break Program, check out www.OCF.net.) Kat, a Priest's Kid from Kentucky, was part of the group that helped restore the Church of The Mother of God, "Lady of the Heavens," in Constantinople two years, and Madeleine (a fellow Hoosier), Adrienne (a Californian Serb), Nicholas from New jersey and Alex from Las Vegas were with me last year when we restored order to a frequently vandalized Christian cemetery in Constantinople. Fr Nicholas knows several others from previous Real Breaks to countries south of the US border. So there are several overlapping circles of friends, and happily no cliques. Newcomers become old friends in a matter of hours. This is a good group, as were the last two I accompanied. This is a good program.
Our first evening here was spent getting situated in our rooms - one room for the men, another for the ladies, and a third for The Bishop - sharing a simple Lenten meal of humus, fava beans and pita bread in the staff dining room in the basement, praying the service of the Small Compline in the Four Homes' Chapel, and reflecting on our experiences in the large common room. Even the most seasoned travelers had something to say about the experience of flying from New York's JFK with a plane full of devout Jews to the Holy Land. Many of us were seated directly in front of rows of men who stood praying at designated points during the eleven-hour flight. I had the fascinating experience of finding myself seated between, to my right, a young bearded man with long side curls and a broad-rimmed hat in a shiny frock coat, exposed tassels and knee-length breeches, and on my left a Jewish man who had lived more than twenty years in Israel who was returning for the first time in a decade to visit his aged parents there, having left at home his Russian Orthodox Christian wife and their eleven-year-old daughter, who was being raised to speak Hebrew and worship in the Orthodox Church. You can hardly tell the players without a program!
Nearly everyone commented during the first evening's wrap-up on the experience of crossing from Israel into the West bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority. The quality of the roads and buildings and landscaping changed in a matter of seconds. The transition was swift and brutal. We were rattled by it, and aren't soon likely to forget it.
This morning, after prayer in the Chapel and a light breakfast, Androwas and his friend Omar, another Palestinian Orthodox Christian with a strong commitment to social justice, provided us with an orientation, reviewed with us the schedule for the week ahead, and got us started on our specific tasks. The plan is to spend the next couple of mornings on maintenance work, and afternoons interacting with the few residents here (less than 20 out of 80) who, despite the severity of their disabilities, can to some degree communicate with and respond positively to others. The first major project turned out to be the removal from storage of some fifty wheelchairs along with a seemingly endless number of chairs and tables and cupboards and the like, all in need of repair. An hour or so into that project, a dozen residents were brought out in their wheelchairs to sit in the sun and play simple games and exercises, like passing a red hula hoop around in a circle. Our team took a break from their labors to go meet the residents. We had been advised during our orientation that it would take time for us to acclimate ourselves to the condition of the residents, and there can be no denying that it is a distressing experience to meet them for the first time. Their eagerness to communicate with us, however, pulled us right out of ourselves. Some of whom spoke rudimentary English and were shouting questions to us: "What you name? Where you from? I'm Jamil!" or Mahmoud or Fatima, or Omar, Muhammed, or Miriam. Before long, one of the nurses put on CD of Arabic dance music, and for a beautiful quarter hour the place was rocking. The pleasure on the faces of the residents was intense and the joy it gave us was immediate and real and will stay with us.
There's so much more to say, but this will have to do for now. Tomorrow is another long day!
Remember us in your prayers!