GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (BP)–Only a few days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bill Curington went to New York to serve meals to survivors and rescue workers near the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center.
That earned the Southern Baptist disaster relief veteran pats on the back from friends back home in Tennessee. But when he announced he was heading to Israel in late June to deliver food to needy Palestinian families in bullet-riddled Gaza, some folks questioned his sanity.
“They said, ‘You’re crazy! I wouldn’t go,'” Curington recalled as he loaded 70-pound food bags at the Baptist compound in Gaza City.
Concerned friends warned him about terrorists and suicide bombers, about getting caught in Israeli-Palestinian gun battles. A family member begged him to make “real sure” he heard the voice of God before going.
“I felt like God was leading me,” Curington said. “When I feel he’s leading me, I don’t fear.”
His story was echoed by many of the 19 Southern Baptist volunteers from Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina who crossed fortified borders and military checkpoints in June and July — under the intense gaze of Israeli soldiers wielding automatic weapons — to aid Palestinian families in Gaza and the West Bank. Some relatives, and even church members, wondered out loud not only about their safety, but why they would want to help Palestinians in the first place.
“The real question is: Why wouldn’t I help?” responded volunteer Alan Jones of North Carolina, who turned down the loan of a bullet-proof vest from a worried state trooper friend. “We need to share with those who are hurting and desperate. God opened a door. We felt we were called to come on a mission of hope — and there’s not a lot of hope in these homes.”
“Hope” was a key word for these volunteers, the second wave of U.S. helpers in “Project Future and Hope.” The project is a joint effort by Southern Baptists, Palestinian Baptists and other local Christians to aid families in Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. Southern Baptists are helping finance the project with $325,000 in hunger and general relief funds.
An initial group of U.S. volunteers from Texas and North Carolina distributed food in Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other towns in early June. Additional teams from Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana are expected through the summer and into September — pending Israeli reaction to the latest terrorist attacks in Israel. If travel restrictions allow, they’ll deliver more food, conduct five week-long camps for more than 300 Palestinian children and distribute some 4,000 school uniforms to kids whose families can’t afford them.
Volunteers already have visited some 1,800 Palestinian families in the territories. They hope to reach at least 1,000 more. Why?
“Our primary goal is to share God’s love with these people, to tell them we love them and God loves them, to bring hope and encouragement,” said Southern Baptist worker and project coordinator Paul Lawrence of Alabama, who has worked among Palestinians for 17 years. “We also want to change Palestinians’ attitudes toward evangelical Christians — and American evangelical attitudes toward Palestinians.”
That’s a tall order in today’s bitter, blood-soaked atmosphere.
The renewal of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the fall of 2000, called the “Second Intifada” by Palestinians, has all but ended talks between the two sides. The appalling new phenomenon of Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians — coupled with Israeli military retaliation and region-wide curfews — has extinguished even the dimmest hope of peace for many. Attitudes have hardened on all sides.
Many Palestinians also assume that Americans (particularly conservative evangelicals, who often support the state of Israel for theological reasons) hate them and regard them all as terrorists.
So a group of Americans attracted attention — and raised eyebrows — as they stood in line with Palestinians amid the barbed wire, sandbags and concrete barriers to enter Ramallah during a brief lifting of the Israeli curfew on the city.
“You are American,” a curious Palestinian in line said to one of the volunteers. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“No,” the volunteer replied.
“Because God is with us.”
The volunteers got even more attention as they lugged food bags through the narrow lanes of Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, trailed by mobs of excited kids. As many as 100,000 Palestinians are packed, 250 per acre, into the camp — actually a huge slum. Concrete-block, tin-roofed dwellings adorned with militant Arabic graffiti long ago replaced the tents refugees occupied after fleeing the new state of Israel in 1948.
Areas like Jabalya spawn plenty of recruits for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other violent Palestinian factions. But the overwhelming majority of its residents, and of Gaza’s 1.2 million Palestinians, are members only of families attempting to survive until better days — if better days ever come.
Many men in the camp haven’t worked since the renewed conflict devastated the local economy — and closed the border to jobs in Israel. The United Nations and other agencies provide periodic relief, but malnutrition is on the rise. Households in the area average seven or more children.
In each Gaza home visit, the Baptist groups delivered lentils, oil, rice, beans, tea — enough basic food for a few weeks, plus a toy for children. In each home, they listened to the hardships the family is enduring, and asked permission to pray. When they asked what to pray for, the first answer — almost without exception — was “peace,” followed by health and work.
In one home, a Muslim mother welcomed the visitors with a warm smile as her children gathered around. Her eyes, however, spoke fear and anxiety. Her 16-year-old son looked 10. “He doesn’t eat,” she said.
Her 18-year-old son, Ahmed, head stooped, stared into space without speaking. His hands trembled. He couldn’t walk, stand or sit without help from an older brother. He had been traumatized by Israeli military sweeps through the camp as soldiers search for militant fighters, his mother explained.
“When the [Israeli] planes and helicopters go over, the roof falls,” she said, gripping her robe. “We are afraid at night, young and old. We have nothing.”
For families facing such a life, a brief visit and a little food is “a drop in the bucket,” admitted Young Khoury, a Palestinian Baptist coordinating the food distribution in Gaza. “But you put many drops together, and you make a difference.”
For that, the Southern Baptist volunteers were happy to pay their own way to a war zone, to give up their July 4th holiday, to listen to sporadic machine-gun, tank and rocket fire — and to have their sanity questioned by folks back home.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FATHER TO FATHER; PRAYING A BLESSING; FAMILIES UNDER FIRE; GIVE AND TAKE; BIG TEDDY, LITTLE TEDDY; A LITTLE LAUGHTER and HOUSE TO HOUSE.
— Contributions toward relief efforts in Palestinian towns a refugee centers can be sent to: International Mission Board, General Relief Fund — Palestinians, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230. Every dollar given will be used 100 percent for Palestinian relief ministries.
— Listen to Erich Bridges report from the Gaza Strip in Windows Media format:
— 300kb http://ire.net-36.net/imb/gaza_300.asx.
— 175kb http://ire.net-36.net/imb/gaza_175.asx.
— 56kb http://ire.net-36.net/imb/gaza_56.asx.