Israel was often in the news at that time. This was during the Second Intifada (a period of intensified Israeli–Palestinian violence that broke out in late September 2000), and suicide bombers were crossing from West Bank and Gaza to attack mostly civilian targets. My only mental images of Palestinians were of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and terrorists.
It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be an Arab Christian community attempting to live out the gospel in the conflict. The next few days would radically alter my perspective.
After hearing the BBC choir sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in Arabic, Father Peter Du Brul, a professor at Bethlehem University, gave the commencement address. “What does a Bible College do?” he asked. “It does something very dangerous. More dangerous than a dynamite factory. More dangerous and more powerful than a nuclear reactor. It produces not bombs, or electric power, but students and teachers of the Bible.”
Father Du Brul concluded his message with a challenge to not just study the Bible, or quote it, but to actually live it: “We are not sending you into discos or malls to blow yourself up in the name of justice or mercy or the name of Christ. We are sending you to heal, and to be healed of your own wounds in the act of caring for others.”
After the ceremony, I settled into the college guest house called “The Smuggler’s Cove,” next to Brother Andrew’s room. The next day—my first full day in the Holy Land—we made a three-hour drive to Ibillin, near Nazareth, to visit a Melkite priest named Elias Chacour. In 1984, Chacour had written a powerful testimony of his faith journey in a book called Blood Brothers. He had grown up in Upper Galilee and witnessed the birth of the nation of Israel. His deep love for Jews and Palestinians has motivated him to live out a radical faith as a follower of Christianity in Palestine.
‘You came all this way just to see me?’
We arrived at a large compound nestled in a hillside. Father Chacour, clad in a cassock with a large pectoral cross and wearing a distinctive long goatee, warmly welcomed us. He gave us a tour of the school he’d built for grades seven through twelve. There were 4,500 students, 56 percent Muslim. Over a wonderful meal, Chacour updated Andrew on his ministry to the community. He admitted that the government had not given him permission to build, but he just did it “because the need is so great.” In the fall, he planned to open a university. I could see why Andrew loved this man. Rather than just talk, they were doers and problem solvers.
I also couldn’t help noticing that the priest was discouraged, battling physical illness and fatigue. Referring to himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli,” he lamented that “we’re second-class citizens.” We listened to his many challenges and grief over a recent massacre of 13 Palestinians, then prayed over him. As we prepared to leave, Father Chacour asked, “who else are you seeing here?”
Brother Andrew answered that we were only there to visit him.
Chacour was stunned. “You came all this way to see me? Just to see me!”
Yes, that is Brother Andrew’s way. He didn’t fly from the Netherlands to explore tourist sites. As he told me: “I seek my brothers.” So he gladly traveled three hours each direction to encourage a struggling Christian leader who was determined to remain a peaceful witness in a most challenging situation.
The ministry of ‘presence’
Brother Andrew had rightly discerned that this minister needed to know he was not alone and not forgotten. This wasn’t logical. It certainly wasn’t cost-efficient. It’s what we in Open Doors call “presence ministry,” and Brother Andrew has modeled that since his first trip to Poland in 1955.
During the rest of the week, we visited Messianic believers and the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, ministered to a tiny Baptist Church in Gaza—a church community of 100 amidst 1.5 million Muslims—and also witnessed to several fundamentalist Islamic leaders.
While I managed to spend one afternoon in Jerusalem visiting the Wailing Wall and the Mount of Olives, it was the “living stones” that changed my life.
Read all of Al Janssen’s posts in this weekly series here.