Friendship between Virginia and Palestine churches leads to support for the wider community

Members of Grace and St. Luke's gather to worship at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rafidia, a satellite facility of St. Luke's.

Guest commentary by Heidi Shott

The deep, enduring friendship between the people of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Virginia, and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nablus, Palestine, has its roots – as so many important things do – in a Sunday school lesson.

When Tim Wilder arrived home in 2002 after serving with the State Department at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, he and his wife, Susan (who is a pastor), were asked to teach an adult Sunday school class on the state of political turmoil between Palestine and Israel. The Middle East Working Group grew out of those conversations as an effort to answer the question: As people of faith, what should our response be to what we’ve learned?

According to Grace’s current pastor, Ben Trawick, members of the working group put in a great deal of time doing research and exploring possibilities for engagement in Palestine. Ultimately, in 2007, with the help of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) staffer Doug Dicks, a partnership between Grace and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nablus – a city of 350,000 people in the northern West Bank – was born.

Connections were strong from the start:  from a real-time signing of a covenant between the two congregations to numerous visits of Grace members to Nablus and trips to Virginia by members of St. Philip’s. The two congregations exchange video greetings and have created Advent devotionals in both Arabic and English. “That’s the nature of this congregation. They are mission-minded and committed to hands-on, direct involvement where possible. Our members were called and compelled to respond once the message was shared by Susan Wilder,” said Trawick.

Father Jamil Monir Khadir presents Ben Trawick a needlepoint of the Lord’s Prayer made by the ladies of the church at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rafidia, Palestine.

Each summer since 2012, the churches have hosted a youth exchange with young people from St. Philip’s joining Grace’s youth group to work at the Tri-City Work Camp near Richmond, Virginia, rehabilitating low-income housing. “Those interactions have allowed teenagers to simply enjoy being with each other without an emphasis on politics,” Trawick said. “Their friendships provide a window into the lives of Palestinian young people and how it is to be a teenager there. The opportunity to form international friendships has been mutually fulfilling.” He added, “Having friends who are Palestinian will never allow them to read the headlines the same way again.”

In addition to exchanges, members of Grace have been generous in financial support of St. Philip’s and its ministries in the wider community. “We needed a vehicle to make donations and became aware of American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ) as a conduit for making safe and secure gifts. That connection brought us on board with the larger mission of AFEDJ,” explained Trawick.

Kawthar Al Haj has served has served for 20 years as a neonatal nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Nablus, West Bank

During Grace’s most recent trip to Nablus in October 2018, about 18 members toured St. Luke’s Hospital which is owned and operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. As the only charitable, comprehensive healthcare center in the city, St. Luke’s serves about 35,000 patients each year through hospital services and its outpatient clinics. For many of its patients, including members of St. Philip’s, travel restrictions in the West Bank and dire economic circumstances make St. Luke’s the only healthcare option available.

What wasn’t known to the visitors from Grace last fall was that St. Luke’s accreditation by the Palestine Authority’s Ministry of Health was in jeopardy because of recent regulation changes requiring all hospitals operate a functioning ambulance. Throughout 2018, St. Luke’s 15-year-old ambulance was sidelined by mechanical troubles, which caused the hospital to depend on outside medical transfer services. The new accreditation rule was a deal breaker. St. Luke’s needed $110,000 to buy, convert and equip a new ambulance or it would have to close its doors.

Walid Kerry welcomes members of Grace Presbyterian Church.

Enter Sari Ateek, a Palestinian-born Episcopal priest, and deacon Anne Derse, of St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. When news that St. Luke’s needed a new ambulance came to their attention, St. John’s long friendship with St. Luke’s Hospital caused them to act. With a goal of raising $50,000 toward the cost before Christmas, Ateek reached out to clergy at AFEDJ-donor churches in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. “When I first learned of St. Luke’s urgent need for an ambulance and that the hospital’s accreditation depended on it, I thought to myself, ‘This is a no-brainer!’” said Ateek. “We were nearing the Christmas season, and it felt like a profound opportunity to practice our faith by giving a Christmas gift that brings restoration and healing.”

Trawick and the people of Grace did not need much prodding. He recalled: “When Sari’s email showed up, I immediately contacted our members who had just returned from the visit the region. I knew they would be moved to support the ambulance because a lot of people were impassioned by having seen and heard of the mission of St. Luke’s Hospital.”

Between Ateek’s initial contact and Derse’s follow-up with clergy, 12 churches contributed just over $83,000. The biggest contribution came from Grace. “All we had to do was ask. People wanted to do good,” Derse said of the response from churches they approached. An additional amount raised by churches in the United Kingdom brought to total raised to just over $110,000. A new ambulance is currently being refitted and will be in service later this spring allowing St. Luke’s to remain open.

Grace’s12-year partnership with an Episcopal church and its generous support of an Episcopal hospital serves as an exemplar for how Christian witness and presence in the Holy Land can move across denominational boundaries. “Just as Jesus said in Matthew 25:36, ‘I was sick and you took care of me,’ so this collaborative effort to care for the most vulnerable in the West Bank is of vital importance. Our Presbyterian-Episcopal partnership on behalf of St. Luke’s Hospital is an expression of our common mission to heal a broken world.” said Eugene Taylor Sutton, who serves as Episcopal Bishop of Maryland and is the co-chair of the Presbyterian-Episcopal Dialogue.

Members of Grace and St. Philip’s  gather to worship at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rafidia, a satellite facility of St. Philip.

Trawick put it this way: “This work is a tribute to how the Holy Spirit takes something and blows it up into something bigger. I think when it comes to ministry to the Palestinian people, it needs to be all hands on deck. We don’t need to get caught up in proprietary ministry.”

He added: “When we arrived in Nablus last fall, members of St. Philip’s embraced as our members as good friends because of years of connection and interaction. This is a vibrant, life-giving ministry for both our church, and, I think, theirs.”

Walid Kerry, a physician and director of St. Luke’s Hospital, offered his thanks to all who helped them meet this unexpected challenge: “What great news to start the year with. It allows St. Luke’s to stay as a witness of love and care for all in need.”

Loving and caring for those in need. That sounds like a great Sunday school lesson no matter what your denomination.

HEIDI SHOTT is communications director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and lives in Newcastle, Maine. She previously served as canon for communication and advocacy in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. She and her Presbyterian husband were, for two years in the late-1980s, the worst junior high youth leaders in the entire PC(USA).