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Jerusalem goes to Ireland

Three years ago, the diocese of Jerusalem hosted an Envisioning Day in Ashrafiyeh, Amman, in partnership with Tearfund. The gathered clergy and lay leaders from Anglican churches in Jordan and Lebanon discussed concepts of integral mission and asset-based development, as well as the challenges of engaging in such processes in a context where Christians make up only a small percentage of the population. Despite this, Christians play an outsized role at an institutional level, through schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centres – but this tends to remain separate from the day-to-day activities of the parish churches. 

Group of participants standing in front of a statue of Aslam, the lion from Narnia
Rev'd Wadie al-Far, Rev'd Na'el Abu Rahmoun, Joel Kelling, Dani El Tayar, Rev'd Jamil Khader at CS Lewis Square

As a result, a team of interested participants started to gather to contextualise and translate existing materials from European and East African contexts for use in the Middle East. However, just as they began to build momentum, the Covid-19 pandemic led to lockdowns across the world, which was particularly severe in the diocese of Jerusalem. Remarkably, this may have opened opportunities that would not have been possible in a world where gatherings and travel were more ‘normal’. Additional participants joined from Lebanon and Israel (who cannot easily meet in each other’s home countries), widening the experience and context of the learning environment.

In March 2022, after nearly three years of preparation, delay and many Zoom calls across different time zones, a group of us from the diocese of Jerusalem were encouraged and excited finally to make it to Northern Ireland for a study trip. The aim was to learn from a wide range of churches that have engaged in the Church and Community Transformation process and are flourishing and reaching out into the neighbourhoods in which they are located.

We arrived to see the experience and impact of the CCT process up close, to learn from those who had benefitted from it and were continuing to be agents of transformation in the communities around them. It was also an exchange,
in which our experience from the Middle East could be shared and where we could reflect on the vulnerability and risk-taking involved in being peacemakers.

The churches visited varied vastly in terms of context and assets. Willowfield Parish in East Belfast had been declining, but now has a refurbished building and extension for community activities and is home to a large team of paid staff and volunteers. It is now not only thriving as a congregation, but reaching into the community and providing help in a wide range of ways – including educational support, teenage mental and physical health support, and debt advice – living out the gospel in an impoverished neighbourhood and transforming lives.

Just down the road sits St. Christopher’s Anglican Church, its walls peeling. While appearing derelict from the outside, inside you can find The Larder, a community food centre led by Louise Ferguson and a small handful of volunteers, promoting dignity while facilitating access to good food regardless of capacity to pay. As well as encouraging and empowering lay leadership, the foodbank has brought the church back to life, even as its congregants worship amidst the fridges and shelves of food.

The Larder volunteers sharing coffee around a table in the community food centre
The Larder, community food centre

The church visits demonstrated the possibility of changing the prevalent mindset in the Middle East of the ‘one-man show’ (as described by the clergy) towards teams made up of young and old, men and women, as well as how clergy and vestries could empower such leadership.

The work of reconciliation was another aspect of CCT we engaged with, as we were confronted with the ‘Peace Walls’ that keep communities apart and echoed the Separation Wall built inside of the West Bank. The echoes of the Palestine-Israeli conflict are strong in Northern Ireland, down to the Palestinian flags that appear in murals across Republican areas and the Israeli ones seen in Loyalist areas streets away. This use of proxy actors reduces people to symbols, diminishing their humanity. 

The complexity of the Middle Eastern identity in this space was not lost on our group, which was broadly speaking Protestant yet also included Palestinians. Except for myself, all the group were Arabs, and some were additionally citizens of Israel. The Rev Na’el Abu Rahmoun, from Christ Church, Nazareth spoke on these multiple identities that he holds, as part of the Stronger Together programme that St. Mark’s Anglican Parish in Newtownards is engaged in.

The group spent an evening sharing their experiences as Middle Eastern Christians with the community gathered there. It was an opportunity to reciprocate the learning we had been doing, to provide a fuller picture of the realities of life in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, and to reflect on the relative unity of the Christian community in the region and our role as salt and light despite the small Christian population. It was a great time of fellowship, being present as Christians with one another and growing friendship through reaching out – something of a microcosm of the work of CCT in itself.

Our visit coincided with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) and it was a very special privilege to join the pilgrimage from Saul (the site of the first church founded in Ireland) to Downpatrick Cathedral (where St. Patrick is believed to be buried). Mary al-Kopti, from St Paul’s Ashrafiyeh, read one of the Bible readings at the opening Eucharist and many of the clergy took turns to carry the cross at the head of the pilgrimage to the cathedral.

Pilgrimage procession carrying the cross up a local roadAs we returned from Belfast to our homes across the Middle East the Rev George al-Kopti continued exploring some of the opportunities to reach out into the community beyond the church. This was a conversation he began with me on our way out, reflecting on how the church can provide a space for those who are otherwise alone or neglected. These may form part of the vision of St. Paul’s Ashrafiyeh, through the dreaming of dreams and plans for a way ahead. But first we will continue our work of translating and contextualising resources for use in the diocese.

In September we plan to begin the training of those who will carry out the process of CCT in four pilot parishes in the diocese. We particularly will be looking to encourage youth and women to be trained in this work. Through this, we hope to see a transformation beginning inside the church (away from the ‘one-man show’) and eventually engaging confidently with, and serving the needs of, the community around us.

Article and photos courtesy of Joel Kelling