Grace without conversion
Father Emil, wearing his long black cassock, was leading us through his new Palestinian school. He’s a winsome priest from Jordan who could pass for a young Omar Sharif.
Over the years our Presbyterian congregation in Washington, D.C., and his Roman Catholic parish in the West Bank have developed a strong partnership. We contributed to the construction of this parish’s school; they stretched our understanding of the gospel.
Our little delegation from Washington shuffled down the stone halls of the new school, occasionally peering into a crowded classroom, hoping to catch the eye of a young student who might dare a smile or subtle wave. Father Emil was walking backward as he led our tour, telling us about all of the hope the school provides to families who live amid so much poverty and frequent outbreaks of violence.
Half of the students in the school, he told us, are Muslim. Their parents fully realize it’s a Catholic school, but it provides the best education in town. And that’s what they want for their children. I noticed several people in our delegation raising their eyebrows, but no one asked a question.
Then we walked past a required religion class, where a nun was teaching. Just as we had been told, half of the girls were wearing the headscarves that marked them as Muslim. Now my own eyebrows were raised. “How does that work?” I wondered to myself.
Father Emil eventually led us out of the school and across the courtyard to the parish sanctuary. Along the way we saw older boys playing soccer while the girls lined the fence, lost in conversations. Half of the girls were clearly Muslim, but many were talking to others whose heads were bare.
When we arrived in the sanctuary, the priest told us that they offer mass every day for the students and that all were free to participate. This was too much. One of my church members blurted out, “Father Emil, are you trying to turn the Muslim children into Christians? Doesn’t that create major social trauma for them—tearing them apart from their families? Do their parents really know what you are doing?”
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