BEIT JALA, West Bank — Say the word “Mennonite” here and the first thing many people think of is eggs. At least 2,000 “Mennonite eggs” a day are produced at an open-sided chicken barn on the campus of Hope Secondary School and distributed to restaurants, grocery stores and school cafeterias in the area.
Why Mennonite? Because the school’s roots go back to its beginnings as the Mennonite Boys’ Home in 1961 through Mennonite Central Committee. For more than three decades, the school received MCC aid in the form of canned “Mennonite meat,” school kits and volunteer teachers from North America.
Funding and personnel from MCC were phased out in 2000 in keeping with MCC’s policy of handing over institutions and programs it starts. But already, since 1976, it had been governed by the locally appointed Arab Charities board. That was when “Mennonite” was dropped from the school’s name. Hope also became co-ed in the 1990s.
“Our school is still branded a Mennonite school,” said Khader Saba, the general director of the 100-student institute and its associated boys’ hostel, guesthouse and the income-generating egg operation. “They trust the Mennonites here.”
Saba is an Orthodox Christian who attended a similar MCC-sponsored school in Hebron when he was a child.
There has never been a Mennonite church in Beit Jala or anywhere else in the West Bank, but it’s not hard to find people in the community whose lives have been impacted by the Christian witness of the school.
According to Saba, most students come from Muslim or nominally Christian homes (40 and 60 percent, respectively, many of which are economically disadvantaged).
The state requires Hope’s curriculum to include religious instruction in the two faiths, but the identity of the school is still unabashedly Christian.
“This is Hope school: welcoming to all,” said Leila Nour, the school’s public relations officer, whose late father used to be principal. “We teach them a Christian way of life without requiring them to change.”
Saba added that Muslim students freely participate in chapels, led by local Christian leaders, and they love to take part in the Christmas programs each year.
Setting an example
Sari Zeidan graduated from Hope in 2010 and now works as a social worker with the Shepherd Society, a social ministry of Bethlehem Bible College. He’s too young to have experienced contact with MCC workers. But, he says, the “old people” would talk about Mennonites.
“Some days they spoke in the chapels about how the Mennonites work — how they travel all over the world, and they give peace, and they’re always serving as volunteers and having good relationships, especially with the Palestinians.”
Bishara Awad, the first Palestinian principal, went on to found Bethlehem Bible College after hosting informal classes at the school for local Christian leaders. MCC participated indirectly in that move, sponsoring Awad to train at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., in the early 1980s.
He led BBC as president until his retirement four years ago. During his career, Awad also started Bethlehem’s first Rotary Club chapter, and his retirement project has been to launch BBC’s Masters of Peace Studies, the first of its kind in the Arab world.
“The idea of justice was very strong with the Mennonites and with my family,” said Awad, a Baptist, whose brothers Mubarak and Alex are also well-known leaders at the forefront of a Christian peace witness in Palestine. Asked if any of the Mennonite workers ever pressured him to become Mennonite, Awad laughed. “I wish they had; I was open.”
Today, the second and third generation of staff are continuing the school’s legacy of compassion. Leila Nour, who still counts former MCC country representative Patty Shelly a family friend, tells the most recent story of Hope’s hospitality in the community. The priest of a local church asked the staff if they could do anything for a 15-year-old boy with intellectual disabilities, Simon, whose family had thrown him out on the street after a family breakup.
He had come to the local police station asking to be housed in one of the cells, just so he would have shelter and food. The police took him to the local priest, who then came to Hope. The staff found room in the boys’ dorm (which still has its metal-frame “Mennonite beds” housing about 15 boys) and placed him in an innovative new special needs program that they had just started this year — the first such program for post-elementary students in the city.
Saba, formerly a successful director of the YMCA center in nearby Beit Sahour, has more dreams for the school.
In his three and a half years at Hope, he has managed to find new funding — both local and international — to pay off a significant debt, revive the egg operation and begin construction of a new sports complex that will serve both the school and the community.
He dreams of re-establishing relationships with “the Mennonites.” Whatever form those connections take, the seeds from the 1960s have produced fruit that is, in turn, producing yet more seeds.
Byron Rempel-Burkholder and his spouse, Melita, are short-term volunteers with Mennonite Church Canada, serving at Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank. They reside in Winnipeg, Man., where they are members of Home Street Mennonite Church.