Christmas in Bethlehem

January 07, 2009

Forging a Relationship With Hope School

By Cathy Tolman
2007 VIM Team Member

December 28, 2008

Today marks the one-year anniversary of our departure on what proved to be a transformational sojourn to Palestine. The Rev. Tana McDonald, pastor of the Greenville, Chester, and Taylorsville United Methodist Churches in Northern California, along with her husband, the Rev. Don Lee of the Sierra Pines UMC in Grass Valley, California - both seasoned Palestinian pilgrims - led the enthusiastic group.

In addition to Don and Tana, the group was comprised of Larry Crowder (Greenville), the Rev. Barbara Smith and Joan Heinsohn (Grass Valley), and Rosann Mackey, Betty and Bob Mosely, Fred Skeen, Cathy Tolman, and Yvonne Turner (all of Sierra Pines). Of these nine, Rosann was the only traveler who had previously been to Palestine.

(In photo at right, back row, from left: Larry Crowder, Rosann Mackey, Don Lee, Betty Mosely, Bob Mosely, Yvonne Turner, server at Casa Nova in Manger Square, Tan McDonald, and another Casa Nova server; front row, from left: Barbara Smith, Cathy Tolman, and another Casa Nova server. Not pictured: Joan Heinsohn and Fred Skeen.) 

Each traveler held a different dream in his or her heart: some for physical healing, some for spiritual growth - but all dreamed of reaching out in love and solidarity to the Palestinian people and, in particular, to Hope School in Palestine. We departed with each of us carrying one suitcase of personal needs and one filled with both school and medical supplies for the Hope School community.

We shed tears at checkpoints where young Israeli soldiers wielded machine guns. We felt desperation at what the Israeli government calls the "security fence," and which we renamed the "wall of apartheid," for it snakes through neighborhoods, separating families, neighbors, workers, and those who are ill, from their chosen destination.

We celebrated the work of other groups who shared with us their efforts at reconciliation between the people of Israel and Palestine. Our guide was skilled in presenting what he termed the realities of the "status quo." He suggested reading material to us and we cherished our visit to the library at the American Colony Hotel, where we purchased many of his suggested books.

But nothing prepared us for the connection we would feel with Hope School. Hope School serves the greater Bethlehem community. Founded in 1962, it is run by the Mennonite Central Committee, and provides secondary education for 130 underprivileged students, some of whom board at the school. There has been a modernization effort over the last several years, which has resulted in a renovated chapel and science lab. During our stay we felt compelled by our connection to Silicon Valley, to pledge our assistance in renovating the computer lab - which had no Internet capability and very outdated equipment. We wondered how high school students could possibly prepare for the modern workplace in such an environment. Understanding that the unemployment rate is 65 percent, we felt a sense of urgency about raising the level of technology education for these students.

Yvonne Turner was similarly moved by our visit to Hope School. After the school's principal, Solomon Noor, expressed his concern over the lack of an English instructor at the school, Yvonne - a former teacher of languages - returned home with this concern on her heart. It was not long until she contacted Solomon and offered her services. Believing that God was guiding this decision, she waited for his response with a mixture of apprehension, resignation, and hope. All too fast, it happened: Solomon's affirmative response, and Yvonne's designation as a missionary of the United Methodist Church. It left her in a whirlwind of anticipation - yes, and fear, as well. The plan was for her to spend six months at Hope School, boarding there alongside the students.

Meanwhile, upon our return, we shared the passion of our journey with our churches and with others who would listen. We chose to have a display table at Annual Conference to solicit donations for the computer lab and take sign-ups from those interested in having a presentation at their church. Yvonne became a member of the Conference Palestine Task Force, where she sought to better understand the plight of the Palestinians and the role of the United Methodist Church there, as well as to better prepare herself for her journey.

As God works, on the task force she met many with a passion for the Palestinians. I asked Yvonne if there might be someone on the task force who could assist us in moving forward the computer lab renovation. At her suggestion I contacted the Rev. Larry George, retired UMC pastor and former task force chair. After several conversations, he mentioned that he has a friend who has connections with Intel. Some of our concerns involved the difficulty of getting equipment into Palestine and the need to work with an entity with real knowledge of the situation.

Larry learned that Intel has a program titled, "The World Ahead Program," which aims at enhancing lives by accelerating access to uncompromised technology for everyone, anywhere in the world. It is focused on people in the world's developing communities and integrates and extends Intel's efforts to advance progress in four areas: accessibility, connectivity, education, and content.

After applying to the program and waiting for several months for a response, Larry received an email from his friend stating that 20 computers for Hope School had been approved and that they would be delivered in either January or April of 2009. What joy followed the receipt of that message! After nearly a year of closed doors, it appeared that God had chosen to wait for Yvonne's arrival in Palestine to make the computer lab dream a reality. Sierra Pines UMC then took a communion offering the week that Yvonne was commissioned, and she spoke to the congregation just prior to leaving for Palestine. Grass Valley UMC enhanced that offering with another donation, as did the youth of Sierra Pines. Altogether, Yvonne took an additional $4,000 with her to Palestine for the connectivity project and the software purchase.

Yvonne left in mid-December, 2008 to join her sister in Egypt for some travel prior to her arrival at Hope School. She planned to sleep under the stars of the Egyptian desert on Christmas Eve. It is with sadness that we learned of the Israeli rocket attacks in Gaza two days later. But - just as God worked to provide computers to Hope School - God also works to bring love and reconciliation into the hearts of mankind. God will do it through Yvonne Turner, through Larry George, through Tana McDonald, through Don Lee, and through all of those who reach out in mission and service to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.