This is an article I wrote for a diocesan magazine, but I feel the House of Grace deserves wider recognition. There are people in this land who I find so incredibly inspiring and who I think of in the moments when all feels dark and hopeless, when I wonder what faith actually looks like here. The Shehade family are the kind of folks I could quite happily spend all my time with. I admire the work they do, but more than that, I admire the way they have embodied their faith.
The wonderful quote ‘Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words’ is often attributed to St Francis of Assisi. Their origin may be disputed, but they are nonetheless wise words which we could all be better at following.
I have been living in Tiberias, Israel since November, working as a Mission Partner for the Church of Scotland, and in the midst of the cultural, political, religious and social diversity, I am finding that in daily life, in a ministry of presence, the fewer words used, the better.
The Church of Scotland, like many churches, has partners throughout Israel and Palestine, and in the early months of my work here, I have been traveling around, learning more them, those whom they serve, and their roles in their local contexts. Many of them could have as their mission statement the quote above. But none more so than House of Grace, a prisoner rehabilitation centre in Haifa.
House of Grace began in 1982, in the early days of the marriage of Kamil and Agnes Shehade, when they opened their home to recently released prisoners, offering shelter, stability, respect and dignity. As the need grew, so did the House. The family was given permission to use the Greek Melkite Church of Our Lady which had lain derelict for about forty years, and the church now serves a congregation and hosts cultural events, in addition to providing a home for about a dozen ex-offenders. It sits in the heart of Haifa’s corporate district, and office blocks and bank buildings tower over it, hiding it from view from the main road. One gets the feeling the city thinks its existence and work should be concealed.
Its presence is anything but a secret though. It seems everyone in Haifa knows and loves the Shehade family. Volunteers at the House find themselves offered free taxi rides by local supporters; bags of clothing and food are left at the gates regularly; visitors drop in for cups of coffee or a generous lunch.
Kamil sadly died of cancer in 2000, but he remains present in every conversation I’ve had with Agnes and their son Jamal, and his vision is still very much alive. The work is based on the Christian faith, Jamal tells me, but not in the sense of missionary work, or with the goal of converting people. The House is guided by the teachings of Jesus and tries to set an example of how human beings should relate to one another: to be present without being judgemental or discriminatory, to offer trust and respect, and above all, to love one another.
The groups of people with whom the family works have changed over the years as the services provided by the municipality have evolved. Just now the House focuses on three main projects.
It continues to work with released prisoners from the Arab community (it is the only halfway house in Israel for Arabs, and it accepts men from all religious backgrounds), and each prisoner spends nine months living on site. During that time, they have professional, social and practical support and gradually reintegrate into society. They might receive financial or debt counselling, or be offered cultural opportunities, or vocational training. The main goal, Jamal says, is to ‘give them a sense of being normal again and to empower their personality’.
After nine months, they go back into the community, and for the following year, they receive continued contact and counselling from the House, including regular drug and alcohol tests. Reports on their progress are then sent to the rehabilitation authority, with whom the House works closely.
The second group the House provides support to is families in need. Unlike the men in the halfway house, the families are from all sectors of society — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Palestinian, Israeli, etc. The families are offered modest financial help, but the main goal is to give them tools and advice on how to access state support, how to face issues within the family, how to navigate difficult social problems, and how to regain independence.
And the third aspect of the House’s work is the youth centre for children 7-17 years old. Again this is only for Arabs. The kids are often from difficult families, are struggling in school, or are at risk of crime. So the programme gives them help with their studies, counselling for family problems, and activities to redirect their anger and hurt. Much of the work is preventative, trying to keep the children off drugs, off the streets, and in school.
I asked Jamal and Agnes what gives them hope when they spend so much time hearing stories of marginalisation, abuse and discrimination, and when they’re working within a labyrinthine political system.
Jamal replied that they now have two staff members who are graduates of the programme.
Agnes said that recently when they distributed food to some of their families, one of the ex-offenders helped. When he came back, he confessed, ‘You know, that was the first time in my life I went up foreign stairs to give, not to steal.’ ‘The change is very beautiful to see,’ Agnes said with a smile.
I admire Agnes hugely. ‘How was it in the early days?’ I asked her. ‘Raising children here?’
‘I was scared in the beginning,’ she admitted. ‘But Kamil always told me that God is good and loves us. If he wants us to do this job, he will take care. So little by little I saw that nothing happened. I saw that the men were not bad people, but they did something bad because of their suffering. When you give them a chance, they are different. Two things are important in this house: trust and respect. And the love, of course.’
Like many other NGOs, the House faces funding difficulties. They receive little help from the state, and most of their funding comes from overseas. Applications are increasingly more complicated because of the need for five-year plans, the detailed accounting, the long reports. Additionally, there is always a need to explain the context to those who may not understand or who may try to impose their own theories and thinking upon an organisation in a land which is endlessly complex because of its layers of diversity. The House employs a fundraiser, but that, of course, is an added financial strain.
‘What would you like to say to churches back in Scotland?’ I ask towards the end of our time together.
‘First of all,’ Agnes replied, ‘thank you for being interested when you have your own issues and problems. But also, I’d like to tell them that they think carefully about what they hear on the news, about everything, everyone. Don’t judge just because of what you hear. Try to get the real picture.’
Jamal nodded. ‘My request is always to build partnerships. Know who you’re working with. Listen to those people speak from their own experiences, know their traditions. Try not to impose your own thinking.
‘And get to know more about Christians in the Holy Land. Our faith has kept this place holy, through the Roman empire, through the Ottoman empire, when churches were being destroyed. It’s time for the West to remember that we are part of Christ’s body too.
‘We don’t want to be looked at as beggars, or looked down on from above. Know where your money is going. Is it going to a good cause or not? Is it raising the tension or not? We want to be partners, members of the same body of Christ. This is what we need, to have this connection, these bridges with people from abroad who care about the place and us enough to understand us and our lives.’
As is always the case when I visit the House of Grace, I walked away even more convinced that the true holiness of this land is not in the sites, but in people like Jamal and Agnes Shahade who preach the gospel always, and rarely have to use words.