The Words of the Pople Family
The 11th Day of the Israel Pilgrimage
If Jesus had lived in our time and encountered obstacles in his homeland to fulfilling his calling from God, he might have come to America seeking help. At least that's the opinion of a modern visionary from Galilee.
As a young man growing up in Galilee, Elias Chacour dreamed of a place where all God's children could live together and learn the ways of peace. He went to seminary and became a Melkite priest in the Israeli Arab town of Ibillin, between Nazareth and Tel Aviv. One can imagine Jesus smiling with pride when Father Chacour knocked on the heart doors of U.S. government officials, pleading for help with the words: "I am another man from Galiliee," and "people from Galilee don't make appointments; we make appearances."
Organizers of the World Peace Pilgrimage wanted Americans to see the fruits of Father Chacour's persistence. Our destination was Ibillin and the Mar Elias Educational Institution established by an Arab Christian priest with the vision of bringing together Muslim, Christian and Jewish students and educating them in the ways of peace. This part of the World Peace Pilgrimage was designed to introduce us to the work of local people who have devoted their lives to reconciliation and made their dreams of peace a reality. (Father Chacour's story is contained in the books "Blood Brothers" and "We Belong to the Land.")
As our bus drove by the fertile farmland in the valleys west of the Sea of Galilee, our tour guide gave us some background information, summarized below.
Father Elias Chacour is from a "disappeared" village in the northern hills of Galilee, one of hundreds Arab villages destroyed as Israel became a nation. Most of the people from the northern villages fled to Lebanon or Syria and ended up in refugee camps. Many of the people from Father Chacour's village settled in the village Gush, but they had a hard life, and many of the men were killed. Father Chacour has devoted himself to getting the land back. He went to the court with the people from that village and got a court order for the return of the land, but they have not been able to get the order carried out.
Father Chacour entered the seminary and became a Melkite priest. His dream of bringing the people of Israel has not always been well received. As a sort of punishment, he was assigned in 1965 to an Arab village, Ibillin, where his superiors knew he would face difficulties. The stories of his early experiences in Ibillin have become legendary. The young priest slept in a little Volkswagen for six months, because nobody would give him a place to sleep. The church had become run down, and nobody would maintain it. The Christians in the village generally quarreled among themselves; fathers wouldn't speak to sons, brothers wouldn't speak to brothers. Father Chacour began fixing up the broken-down church. One Sunday when the scripture readers were about loving one another, he locked the door when the sermon was over and announced, "Okay, everybody make up with each other." Amazingly, they apologized to each other and reconciled among themselves.
There are many stories about his creative approaches to problem-solving. He planted a vine at the entrance to the church. The authorities told him he had to uproot the vine, but he refused to. When 20 men came to take it out, Father Chacour got a bucket of water, poured it on the roots, and said, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." They couldn't destroy a consecrated vine.
He found the Muslims to be more helpful than the Christians. He became an authority in the village. Muslims came to him rather than the sheiks, asking his help in resolving difficulties. When the village mosque burned down, Father Chacour rallied the Christians to help rebuild it.
In 1968 he started a kindergarten class. There was no high school for the village of 8,000 when in 1982, he began raising money to build a school for Christian and Muslim children; Jewish students attend part time. Last year he launched a university.
When his projects extended beyond what he could subsidize with his limited personal resources, Father Chacour came to the United States seeking help. Jimmy Carter is a very busy man, and his staff said he did not have time to see this unknown priest. So Father Chacour went to the former First Lady, Rosalyn Carter, and became good friends with her.
We drove by the villages and farms of a land steeped in history. In the distance was Mount Carmel, where Elijah out-prayed 450 prophets of Baal and ignited the hopes of 7,000 faithful people who had not bowed to Baal. We passed by the Mount of Transfiguration, where Elijah and Moses appeared to Jesus and inspired the disciples.
Our buses drivers carefully maneuvered the steep narrow streets of Ibillin. When we thought the road had reached the top of the hill, we saw even higher slopes above us. The groaning bus finally pulled into a large paved parking lot and recreation area with buildings around it. In front of us was a church nearing completion, and we followed our guide into the basement meeting hall. In front of the stage, school staff told us more stories about Father Chacour and the school. Although we did not meet Father Chacour, we got a sense of his spirit.
Four hundred Christian and Muslim students come from all over Galilee to study at Mar Elias. One day a week students from a Jewish join them for classes. One thousand two hundred teachers come for afternoon classes in their Regional Teachers' Center. After spending some time with Father Chacour, they go back to their schools and communities as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation.
"Twenty percent of Israelis are Arabs," we were told, "and less than ten percent of those are Christians. Thus, we are the minority of the minorities. Few Arabs are admitted to Israeli universities, so our young people go abroad to get an education and then they stay. Thus, we lose good leaders for the future." What started out as a primary school has expanded to an institution offering nine engineering programs. They have affiliated with the University of Indianapolis, Indiana, and gained accreditation for three programs for which graduates can obtain jobs: computer sciences, environmental science, and communication. They hope to send students to Indianapolis for a semester abroad, so they can experience a land where very diverse groups can live together without walls and fears.
We met an Australian staff member who as a religious education coordinator used to teach about the sacrament of reconciliation to nine-year-olds who asked serious questions about the how and why of reconciliation. She began bringing Australians to Mar Elias for an immersion experience in reconciliation. One group she brought became polarized in conflict. Father Chacour came and spoke to them for two minutes, and everything was resolved. "I wanted to learn how to do that, so I stayed," she said.
"For us, 1000 years are like one day before the Lord," Father Chacour tells visitors to Ibillin. His spirit shines through his words recorded by other listeners: "So what are 2000 years? It's for us, at most, the day before yesterday that he was strolling our villages, approaching our men and women, our shepherds. He was seeing the difference between a sterile and a fertile fig tree. He was watching our birds, our gardens with the bees, and took all of that and made with it the parables of the kingdom of heaven. We still smell his presence under our trees. They speak to us about him. Our rocks speak about him."
"When the Gentiles accept Abraham's message they bless God," Father Chacour explains. "God will then bless Abraham because they bless him and Abraham will bless the nations. It will be a dynamic circle of blessings that reaches to the heavens. God will be pleased and society will become more human because it becomes more divine. The descendants of Abraham should be and are, all commissioned to carry that same message to the nations, their descendants, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews."
On the back wall of the auditorium is a mural with the faces of the diverse people who settled this land, led the people, and died in acts of violence. At the bottom of the mural is one foot and one hand holding a jar of water, symbolizing what Jesus' lesson on service through washing his disciples' feet. "There are no faces connected with the hand and foot," the staff told us. "That is so each of us can put ourselves in the picture and understand our roles."
There are various quotes from the Bible and other sources on the mural. One more quote might be appropriate. When Jacob went to meet his brother Esau, the final step of reconciliation was to tell the brother who came to kill him, "To see your face is to see the face of God." As we left the buildings and headed back to the parking lot, hundreds of teenage students were waiting. Each of us was surrounded by six or more very curious and friendly students. Our challenge was to see in them the face of God and to pray that they could see in us the face of God as well.
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