Revd Canon Donald D. Binder PhD, Chaplain to the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, sends news from the diocese.
When I first came to Jerusalem in 1988 as a young seminarian on a month-long study course at St. George’s College, I was asked by one of my professors at Virginia Theological Seminary to bring his greetings to a former student of his who was serving as a priest in Haifa. The name of the priest, he told me, was Fr. Suheil Dawani. Halfway through the college programme, the two of us ran into each other in front of the diocesan office. We met and spoke there for about five minutes, during which I conveyed to him the good wishes of our mutual mentor. At the time, neither of us knew that thirty-one years later he would be Archbishop in Jerusalem and I would be serving as his Chaplain! Now that I have been under Archbishop Suheil’s leadership for six months, I can truly appreciate the great challenges that he and the Diocese of Jerusalem have been facing, as well as the compassionate and courageous way they have been responding to them. In previous sojourns in the Holy Land, my focus had always been on the past. And so, I’d excavated at ancient Sepphoris in the 1990s as part of my PhD programme. Much later, I spent a sabbatical at Tantur Ecumenical Institute editing and writing for a Festschrift for my archaeological mentor, Dr. James F. Strange. Even after that, when I brought pilgrimage groups from my Northern Virginia parish to St. George’s College, the emphasis was always on following in the ancient footsteps of Jesus. To be sure, out of gratitude for the spiritual inspiration those pilgrimages provided to our parish, we sent some small support to the ministries of the Diocese of Jerusalem through the Episcopal Church’s annual Good Friday Offering. Nevertheless,
it wasn’t until my wife and I arrived in Jerusalem last October that we began to understand the incredible extent of those ministries.
Many dioceses in my home province might have one or two institutions that they run or indirectly oversee. The Diocese of Jerusalem has more than thirty. Moreover, these are spread out over five countries or territories and include hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centres, health clinics, and vocational training schools. Archbishop Suheil serves as Chairman of the Board for all of them, and several of our clergy function as the Executive Directors.
In the majority of cases, these institutions minister to children and families who are not able to pay for most or all of the services they receive. The charitable work that these institutions perform must be supported by contributions from abroad, as well as from profits received through our pilgrim guesthouses. And so much of our time in the diocesan office is spent working with our many international partners in seeking these donations, as well as with our institutions themselves, helping them to manage their centres more efficiently, without sacrificing services.
The good news is that the international response we have received in recent years has been very generous. Not only have we been able to maintain our ministries within the diocese, but also in some cases to expand them. Similarly, there has been an explosion of pilgrim visits over the past year, with more than four million coming to the Holy Land in 2018, an all-time record. Many of the pilgrims have gone on to become supporters of our ministries here in the diocese, both prayerfully and financially.
Yet many challenges remain. Recent decisions by the United States government have led to the loss of funding for some of our diocesan institutions. In addition, some of our ageing facilities such as those at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza and the Theodore Schneller School in Amman are in need of either major renovations or complete rebuilding. The dollar estimates for those projects alone range between six and eight figures.
On another front, the Diocese of Jerusalem faces a dwindling number of young people in our churches. Overall, the percentage of Christians in the Holy Land is now less than 2%. This makes it hard to recruit new lay and ordained leadership to oversee our work.
Despite these challenges, the Diocese of Jerusalem is working to construct new churches in pockets of potential growth. And so, in 2017 we reopened a long-closed church in Acre, and earlier this year we broke ground for a new church to serve our start-up congregation in Tarshiha in Upper Galilee. By 2020, we intend to reopen St. Peter’s in Jaffa, closed since the 1948 War, in order to minister to the large expat community in Tel Aviv. There are also plans for a new church in Amman, a World Anglican Centre in Bethlehem, and a chapel on the eastern side of the Jordan river.
Through the establishment of these congregations, we are working very hard to raise up new indigenous leadership. We are also doing this through our youth and summer camp programmes, passing on the Good News of Jesus Christ to the next generation. And so in March, we sent eleven of our young people to the Taizé International Ecumenical Youth Meeting in Beirut. There, they joined more than 1600 young Christians from the Middle East and beyond to worship and do Bible studies with the leaders of that preeminent ecumenical community based in France. We are hopeful that these young people will someday seek to serve within our diocesan ministries, either as layleaders or by responding to a call to ordained ministry.
On a related front, the Diocese of Jerusalem is also seeking to recruit English-speaking clergy to serve our expat congregations in Beirut, Aqaba, and (soon) Jaffa. Yet because of strict labour laws here, we are dependent upon sponsoring missionary societies such as CMS to underwrite the living expenses of these missionary priests. They, in turn, look to local Christians to contribute towards these costs.
And so, we greatly appreciate the prayers and financial support of the readers of Bible Lands in all these efforts. I hope that you can see from what I have written, they are having a major impact here in the Holy Land.
‘[Through our institutions] we preach the Gospel of Christ not so much with our voices, but through our deeds of love to all who come to us in need, without concern for their ethnic, religious, or political background. In these ways, we become Christ’s messengers of reconciliation and peace.’
Archbishop Suheil - 2018 Advent sermon simulcast from the Christmas Church in Bethlehem and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C
Thank you for being our partners in that quintessential Christian mission.