From the Letter to the Romans:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 8:22-23 (NRSV) – July 5, 2014)
We saw the fruits of the spirit today in the faces of young children — and we did a lot of groaning as our tired muscles climbed yet another mountain!
On our second full day in the area of Nablus we drove first to Zababdeh, a town about 19 miles away to the north. Here we met Fr. Saleem Dawani (who happens to be Bishop Dawani’s nephew). He is the pastor of St. Matthew’s Arab Episcopal Church, one of four Christian congregations in this town of about 7,000 people. The other three are Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic (called “Latin” in this part of the world). There are two mosques in the town. Fr. Saleem estimated that the town is 60% Christian and 40% Muslim.
Fr. Saleem met us on the main street of the town and guided us on the approximately two block walk to St. Matthew’s Church. He explained along the way that the church is currently hosting its summer camp for village children.
I was fortunate to walk with Fr. Saleem and learned that he was ordained a priest less than a year ago. He attended seminary in Beirut, Lebanon; I got the impression that the seminary is an ecumenical one. He told me the Diocese of Jerusalem sends its seminarians to five different theological schools: a Lutheran school in Cairo (which is where Fr. Nairouz of Nablus went); the school in Beirut; Virginia Theological School; Cuddesdon at Oxford in England; and a school in Austria (which seems to be an Old Catholic school).
When we arrived at the gate of the church’s courtyard, we could hear the happy sounds of children at play. There are, he told us, 150 children and 50 adult volunteers participating in the camp.
After we observed the courtyard activities for a few minutes, Fr. Saleem ushered us into the church building and gave us some information about the parish. There are 275 members. Some are high church Anglicans, some are low church Anglicans, so the congregation tends to be “broad” or middle of the road. They have a projection screen on which contemporary music is projected and occasionally other parts of the service.
With regard to the summer camp program, he told us that children come from all four of the Christian communities for two weeks of learning, singing, games, and fun Their families are asked to make a summer donation of NIS 60 (about $20) to the program — this helps defray the costs of food (every child is served lunch) and the craft/educational supplies.
The church has a very lovely carved stone altar and a similar pulpit, baptismal font, and tabernacle. On the front of the pulpit and the baptismal font are stenciled in verses familiar to most. On the pulpit Psalm 51:15 is stenciled (in Arabic) — “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (vs. 16 in the BCP version) — and on the font, Matthew 19:14 (“Let the little children come to me”), which is the same verse carved into the font at St. Paul’s, Medina.
While we looked around the church and observed the summer camp activities, I met a seminarian named Jameel, a native of the town. Jameel is also attending the school in Beirut, where he has completed his second of a Master of Divinity degree. His bachelor’s degree is from Arab American University located close to Zababdeh; his undergraduate major was accounting.
After seeing the church, we went to lunch with Fr. Saleem at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant. Lunch was the usual assortment of salads with a main course of chicken seasoned with onion and sumac, a popular spice in Palestinian cooking. There Fr. Saleem, who has been married only two months, told us that because his wife is an Israeli citizen from Jerusalem while he has a Palestinian passport, they could not travel together to their honeymoon destination. She had to fly from Tel Aviv, while he flew from Amman, Jordan! They were reunited in the Maldives for their two-week wedding trip, then had to fly back home again separately.
As we learned more about the church’s summer camp ministry during lunch, we took up a collection and gave Fr. Saleem about $120 to assist with their expenses. He told us he would use the money to get ice creams for the children.
From Zababdeh, we returned to Nablus by way of Sebastia, the ruins of the capital of ancient Samaria, and also of Galilee under Herod Antipas. This was the place where John the Baptist was held in prison and then beheaded. We trudged up the mountain from the car park, followed (and hounded) by souvenir hawkers, stopping at the ruined (and desecrated) Byzantine chapel said to be on the spot of John’s imprisonment and execution, then from there to the ancient palace of Jeroboam, Omri, and Ahab (and Ahab’s notorious queen Jezebel) — see the First Book of Kings for details.
Down the other side of the hill, we came upon the Roman amphitheater from the days of Herod Antipas when the city was called Sebastia (now called Sebaste). One can see why the ancient Samaritans and the Romans chose this site for a capital — it commands a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside, is steep, and looks like it would be practically impregnable. Obviously, it wasn’t.
It was an exhilarating and exhausting day. As I said, the fruits of the Spirit and groaning!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.