By Hannah Matis
In November at Virginia Theological Seminary, the Center for Anglican Communion Studies was honored to host the Most Rev. Suheil Dawani, Archbishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. For several days, Archbishop Dawani visited the seminary, preaching in our chapel, visiting with students, faculty, and our Board of Trustees, and giving a lecture, “The Challenges for Christians in the Holy Land Today.”
There have been Christians in Jerusalem since Pentecost, speaking Aramaic, Greek, and now predominantly Arabic. The Anglican bishopric of Jerusalem was founded in 1841 by British missionaries working in the shadow of the Empire’s control of the region. From the beginning, their work involved the foundation and administration of schools and hospitals in the area, as well as churches for native Palestinian and expatriate British and German Christians. In 1957, Jerusalem was made an archbishopric under the care of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and responsible for Christians throughout the Middle East from Sudan to Iraq, many of whom had become refugees after the Second World War. In 1976, the see was reorganized again in its current form as the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Archbishop Dawani was elected Bishop of Jerusalem in 2007 and primate in 2017, overseeing four dioceses and 7,000 Anglicans in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Iraq, and Iran.
Despite the small number of Christians in the region, the bishops of Jerusalem have practiced a very public and prominent tradition of maintaining schools and hospitals, not least the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, and working for education, peace, and reconciliation in the midst of war and poverty. The diocese’s website lists the staggering range of organizations that Archbishop Dawani oversees. The importance of hospitals for civilians and for children in Gaza and the West Bank is particularly crucial, since it is very difficult for many to travel outside the territory for treatment. Archbishop Dawani spends a great deal of his life on the road, it seems, and his mission has not been helped in recent days by the slashing of $200 million of foreign aid by the United States to the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. However, as Archbishop Dawani told us, the people of Pentecost must be a people of hope, and the numbers and needs of needy are a constant, whatever the odds stacked against them.
A central theme that emerged in Archbishop Dawani’s visit with us at Virginia Seminary is the important role that the Samaritans played throughout Christ’s ministry. Our Gospel text at our community Eucharist was Luke 17:16, the healing of the ten lepers. Lepers, of course, were doubly or triply cursed at that time: in addition to the gruesomeness of the illness, lepers were unclean under Jewish law and had to announce their condition wherever they went. In the passage, Christ heals all ten lepers “as they went” to be examined by the priest, but one turns back to throw himself at Christ’s feet to thank him. “And he was a Samaritan,” Luke adds, “a foreigner.”
The passage follows several parables that emphasize Christ’s mission, particularly to the lost and outcast: the great dinner, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the rich man and Lazarus. Taken together, they are a comprehensive excoriation of spiritual complacency and entitlement, and a reminder of the universal nature of God’s grace, which is most and best received by the lost. The parable of the Good Samaritan, in turn, has become so proverbial that it has almost completely lost its considerable sting. To understand its rhetorical power fully, substitute another phrase (the Good Immigrant, the Good Muslim) and read it again. The parable works by attributing an equal or greater generosity and moral worth to the outsider and the foreigner than to us: it removes at a stroke the imperative to act in fear and out of preemptive cynicism, and then asks, again, what the morally correct action should be toward our neighbors.
In Archbishop Dawani’s address to us, I came away understanding the Diocese of Jerusalem’s mission as having three central goals. One, they have inherited the legacy of, and they remain, a missionary diocese, a numerically small number of vulnerable believers who nevertheless live lives and run medical and educational organizations focused on outreach, hope, neighborliness, and the creation and renewal of human dignity in adverse conditions. Two, they are inherently, perpetually involved in the ministry of reconciliation, in which human beings are reconciled to God, to one another, and to nature. They support interreligious engagement and bridge-building between Jews, Christians, and Muslims and reject sectarianism and fundamentalism. Three, they are confronted with the immediate needs of the people in their communities and are devoted to justice and the defense of the vulnerable and those who face discrimination.
As we enter the Advent season, let us remember the children who are born and who live in Bethlehem today. The website for the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, including an open letter from Archbishop Dawani, is here.