by Grant Moser
On December 9, Saint Nicholas visited the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill to celebrate his feast day (which was actually on Dec 6). He was also there to promote the work of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ), a non-profit that supports the humanitarian work of the Diocese of Jerusalem.
Saint Nicholas is a Middle Eastern saint from the 4th century from Myra, Turkey. A number of the miracles credited to him involve protecting children, and AFEDJ thought he would be a good introduction to the work they are trying to accomplish. Currently, the Diocese runs 14 schools, two hospitals, four outpatient clinics and four institutes for the disabled in Gaza, Israel, Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.
“I like to bring it down to concrete examples,” explained Phoebe Griswold, 72, past president of AFEDJ and current chair of their Advisory Council. “In one of our schools in Ramallah, the Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center, we are training young people for the hotel industry. All the young people graduating last year got jobs, local jobs. Its very purpose is to give people, especially those living in the West Bank, a sense that they can stay there, that there is a future.”
Rev. Sharline Fulton, 79, is retired, but volunteers with AFEDJ to promote their work at St. Martin. She believes that places like the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah are bridges between people. The school teaches both the Bible and the Koran, so that the students can understand both cultures. “Muslim and Christian children meet in this place, places that are almost pockets of neutrality in the midst of the rest of this bloodbath,” she said.
Many people incorrectly see the work of the Diocese as just a band-aid amidst the violence, said Griswold. “How do you enter at the most fundamental level to try and help kids grow up to be contributing, peace-loving members of society? You can’t be that person if there’s no future, if you have no job, if there’s no hope. We’re trying to give that to them.”
Admittedly, the majority of the connections being made are between Muslims and Christians. Most of the facilities the Diocese supports are in Muslim communities, such as the West Bank and Gaza. The way both ladies see it, Muslim families are the ones who need the most help.
“Part of my Christian way of offering hope is to stand with the sufferer. The best thing you can do is be with the sufferer,” explained Griswold.
“There’s an atmosphere, unless you’re an Israeli Jew, of intimidation for everyone, Christians included,” said Fulton. Even the current Bishop of the Diocese, Suheil Dawani, is not immune. His residency permit to live in East Jerusalem, where the cathedral resides, was withdrawn by the Israeli government in 2011 based on allegations of his involvement in selling land owned by Jews to Palestinians.
Griswold remembers a group of Palestinian women who sent their children across the checkpoint into East Jerusalem so they could attend St. George’s School, which is run by the Diocese. Because the checkpoint could be closed at any moment for any reason, the women lived in fear that their children might not make it home each night. They took the risk anyway because they wanted their children to have a future, said Griswold.
The situation in the region is nearly always on edge, but recent events have made life there even more difficult. In November, rocket fire was exchanged along the border between Israel and Gaza. Later that month, the United Nations voted to recognize the state of Palestine. In response, Israel announced it would withhold more than $100 million in taxes collected for the Palestinian government and began working on plans to build settlements in East Jerusalem.
In a time when hope seems in short supply, these two women continue their work with AFEDJ. “I don’t know every nonprofit in the region, but I know that we are on the ground. When we talk about what we’re trying to do, we avoid the politics, which are a morass. Through American Friends, you can touch people on the ground who need you now,” said Griswold.
Griswold, and her husband Frank, who was once the rector of St. Martin’s and is now the retired Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, both grew up in the Philadelphia area. Rev. Fulton also grew up in the area, studied for her orders under Frank when he was rector of St. Martin, and was ordained at St. Martin in 1983. This is the third year they have celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas for the benefit of AFEDJ.
For more information on the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, visit www.afedj.org.