by Sister Sylvia Countess
Ass’t to the ELCJHL Schools’ Director
Although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land was officially recognized as an autonomous church in 1959, it traces its history to German mission work in the mid-nineteenth century. The schools founded at that time were the first to provide education to Christian and Muslim boys and girls on an equal basis.
Today the Church sees its educational ministry as more important than ever before, especially in light of the present state of life for Palestinians. Israeli military occupation and travel restrictions make it increasingly difficult for families to choose good schools for their children. In addition, the economic conditions resulting from the political situation have limited parents’ incomes and their ability to pay school costs. Operation and development of school programs are serious problems in such a situation, but committed sponsors and partners overseas provide much needed support and funding to alleviate this dire situation.
Approximately 2100 students from pre-school through Grade 12 receive education at four campuses: Dar Al-Kalima Lutheran School in Bethlehem, the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour, Talitha Kumi Lutheran School in Beit Jala, and the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah. The Church also supports four educational programs: a preschool and kindergarten program at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, the Martin Luther Community Development Center in Jerusalem’s Old City, a boys’ home, and the Environmental Education Center, both in Beit Jala. All the schools and programs are located within a twenty mile area of occupied Palestine.
The students in our schools come from varied backgrounds. Some families have long histories in their towns; others are political refugees from the Palestine-Israel area now living in UN-administered refugee camps in the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas. Most of our students receive financial aid to cover their tuition fees, but none is refused because of inability to pay. All the teachers and administrators except one are Palestinian.
Life here grows more difficult as each day passes. Since 2000 the area has experienced increased political restrictions and growing economic hardship. Explained briefly, the “prevailing conditions”, a euphemism Palestinians use to describe their stressful existence, include an increasing Israeli military presence, tighter restrictions on movement and residence, and lack of jobs because of difficulty receiving permits to cross into Jerusalem for work.
Israel plans to complete its construction of the Separation Wall within two year, which you see here in red. The towns that have ELCJHL ministries are marked. The black line marks the 1949 Armistice Line (known as the Green Line) which marks what was Palestinian land and has now been occupied since then. Most of the land between those two lines, then, has been confiscated for illegal settlements or to build the Separation Wall. This complex installation of twenty-foot concrete walls, electric fences, barriers, access-limited roads, and de facto borders, heavily guarded by the Israeli military, isolates West Bank towns and communities from each other and from Israel and Jerusalem. Ostensibly built in the name of Israeli national security, its eventual route will absorb 40 percent of Palestinian-controlled lands and isolate Palestinians not only from Jerusalem and Israel, but also from nearby communities in the West Bank itself. Trips that once took fifteen minutes can now take hours. New roads connecting the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories are off-limits to Palestinians who cannot use them or even cross them to access their farms.
Consequently, many Palestinians are no longer able to work in Jerusalem and other areas of Israel. Many are cut off from their former farmlands and work places. Others are scrambling to find appropriate housing because of threatened zoning, road closures, changing boundaries, and encroaching illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Bethlehemites, for example, describe their town as a six- square mile wide prison. Unemployment and poverty levels are growing at alarming rates and in certain areas of the West Bank may soon reach 70 percent. The most recent socioeconomic crisis occurred after the Palestinian elections in January, 2006. International reactions to the democratically chosen Hamas Party majority in the Palestinian legislature have placed the economy in even greater jeopardy. Because of fund cut-offs, the government’s ability to pay salaries and health insurance is drastically restricted. Consequently, basic necessities for one million Palestinians no longer include assured access to health care, police or fire protection, or education.
These facts, distressing from a distance, become family nightmares lived out daily in the Lutheran Schools. Students and staff, whose permission to cross checkpoints is refused or delayed without explanation or advance notice, miss classes and school events. The schools’ director, delayed at a checkpoint for three hours, was unable to speak or distribute diplomas at a high school graduation last year. A deacon of a Lutheran congregation and his wife, both teachers in our schools, risk losing their home because it is too close to an illegal settlement built after their house was constructed in compliance with municipality permits. Some school administrators sadly note they are the single members of their extended family still living here after ten years of increasing emigration because of the “prevailing conditions.” Teenaged daughters of a Lutheran pastor in the West Bank have never seen the holy sites in Jerusalem, six miles away; their father is often denied travel permits to Jerusalem and outside the country, supposedly for security reasons. Congregations contain married couples who may no longer live together with their children because of permit restriction changes.
Episodes of violence are part of the group memories of local schools and congregations. Teachers and students in Ramallah and Bethlehem still remember the vandalism, thefts, and needless destruction of property that occurred in their classrooms and offices when Israeli soldiers shot their way into their school, “looking for terrorists,” during a curfew. They used the Lutheran pastors there as human shields during their armed searches of their churches. An American pastor residing in Jerusalem describes such incidents of stress and violence with which Palestinians live as “death by a thousand cuts” that slowly but repeatedly deplete their life blood and energy.
However, despite the grim reality of life for families in the West Bank, visitors to the Lutherans schools often express their surprise at the friendliness and joy they find among the students and staff. Hospitality is a hallmark of Palestinian culture, but the attitudes of the students and staff of the Schools of the ELCJHL indicate also the commitment to dialogue, peaceful coexistence, and bridge-building fostered by the church and its educational ministry.
In the face of social, political and financial challenges, the Schools and Educational programs of the ELCJHL struggle to provide quality education through various means. First, the Lutheran Schools offer an alternative to the traditional regional system of memorization and lecture. Modern educational concepts which emphasize participation and creative thinking are the heart of a holistic approach. Teachers and administrators see their pupils as individuals with needs and gifts, not simply academic performers valued only for grades and test scores. Through interactive class instruction, class research and study projects, the Lutheran Schools strive to prepare their students with the necessary tools to resolve conflicts and solve problems creatively, effectively, and peacefully.
Exposing students to the larger world is also essential in such a politically restrictive climate. The Schools encourage cooperation and communication with international groups and partner churches to expose students to a wider world view than isolation and military occupation allow. Pen pal correspondences and joint study projects with international schools, twinning programs, pupil and teacher exchanges and visits exemplify deliberate efforts to open windows within walls. Believing that lack of knowledge about the other creates mistrust, tension, and often violence, those charged with the educational ministry of the ELCJHL encourage communication with the outside world and view dialogue among people of different cultures and traditions as essential.
The staff and teachers respect the varied religious backgrounds of their students and do not aim to convert anyone; they do offer, however, an environment in which the Christian core values of non-violence and forgiveness are promoted and encouraged inside and outside the classroom. Children are taught to accept each other, regardless of religious, social, and ethnic differences. Extracurricular activities encourage students to channel their energy and emotions in positive outlets like sports, music, dance, and environmental awareness. Student councils at each school are learning responsibility and leadership. School counseling programs attempt to address the needs of a school population marked by life in a stressful and violent atmosphere; daily assemblies led by students, staff, and local pastors offer ethical and spiritual guidance.
“Teaching peace” occurs both indirectly through daily interaction among Christian and Muslim students and staff and also in specifically planned school activities and programs. Students and staff participate regularly in conflict resolution training that teaches nonviolent and constructive dialogue. Joint religion classes led by Christian and Muslim teachers meet twice a month to discuss common values and traditions. Lectures, summer camps, and workshops sponsored by the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) promote mutual respect for ethnic and religious differences.
The ELCJHL believes that peace and justice can prevail only through constructive dialogue and nonviolent action. We believe and teach that, as written in one of our schools, “Violence is the tool of incompetence.”
The vision for the Lutheran Schools in the Holy Land is to produce leaders who are open-minded and capable of engaging in constructive planning for the future of Palestinian society. As we promote the Lutheran value of education, we are shaping the Palestinian Christian identity of future generations in love and strength. We see education as a direct mission of this church, giving hope in a hopeless situation. The future is at present a fragile dream, but Palestinian Christians, like their beloved olive trees, have maintained their presence here for thousands of years, and it is hope which sustains them. Both the people and the olive trees of Palestine have suffered great pain and loss, but they also bear witness to the will to survive in hard living conditions. Salaam Bannoura in her graduation speech at Beit Sahour Evangelical Lutheran School in June, 2005, said it well.
We have tasted a harsh bitterness: the bitterness of occupation, of seeing our people being killed, homes destroyed, lands confiscated, and this apartheid wall being built on our own soil. But let us not give up hope. Justice will prevail, and freedom will come. All we have to do is to stand together, to keep the candle of hope burning, and to work and struggle for our freedom.