Locals teach, minister to students in West Bank school

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …

Most Americans can’t recall when they were first taught “This Little Light of Mine” as a child. Was it at Sunday School, at home, at school? Did a grandparent or family member teach them the catchy tune perhaps? The words and finger motions are nearly ingrained in our subconscious.

That’s not the case for children living in Palestinian West Bank communities  — many of whom have never heard who Jesus is.

The year was 2001.  The West Bank was (and still is) a place of volatility, political and physical conflict.  But, short-term missionaries from this South Georgia community traveled bravely to a private Christian school in Bethlehem. They taught a Bible lesson and gave each child a flashlight to show them how “Jesus is the light of the world.”  Many of those children were Muslim.

Later that night a bombing  — routine occurrence for the community in those days  — knocked out the power. Families huddled together in the dark, not sure of what the next moments would hold. Mothers soothed their babies and fathers listened closely for sounds of another attack.

Suddenly, a light flickered in the distance. Then another and another as children all across town clicked on their flashlights and shared the story they’d been told at school that day with their families.

“They saw God loved them so much they were given a light … they shared it with their families. It wasn’t a coincidence,” says Gena Rowell, one of those missionaries nearly 20 years ago. “We just believe it’s seed that’s been planted and that God’s working  — not just in these children, but in their homes as well.”

Rowell, a member of Bridge Community Church in Blackshear, returned home April 3 from her sixth trip to the Holy Land. 2001 was her first mission trip to the region and she’s returned several times over the years with teams organized by To The Nations Ministries a Waycross nonprofit, to provide aid in that same Bethlehem school.

To The Nations founder Martha Grice organized the 2001 trip after meeting with the school’s director the year before. Grice, retired financial director for Ware County BOE, has been taking mission teams to the region every year since.

Why do they faithfully pack their bags, gather school supplies and board a plane for Tel Aviv every year?

Grice, Rowell and other local volunteers believe the need to share hope and the peace of Jesus with these children was too great not to return.

“It has been a passion ever since that first trip that never left me, even when I couldn’t go,” Rowell says.

Grice feels the same.

Less than two percent of people living in the Holy Land are Christian, and less than one percent of those living in the West Bank area identify politically as Christian. There’s been a mass exodus of Christians as Muslim rule has grown in the area, she says.

“This is what pierced my heart and ignited a fire in me,” Rowell explains. “Everybody assumes in the Holy Land everyone knows Jesus.”

Their contributions have not only spread the Gospel message to Muslim and Jewish communities, but Grice believes these mission teams have aided the school in another crucial mission  — helping establish peace and stamp out a culture of hate.

When Grice first began to travel to the West Bank, the students were full of hatred for Israel and America. Children who did not attend the Jerusalem School were taught to hate Israelis and Americans from kindergarten.

“Kids in other schools are taught to hate … They take little guns and pretend they’re killing,” Grice says. “That’s why our trips were so important during that difficult time.”

“The tremendous change in the kids 19 years later is amazing. They love their enemies now. It’s hard for them because they are in difficult circumstances, but they don’t have that hatred,” Grice continues. “This (school) is one light in a dark area.”

The West Bank school Grice’s teams travel to has weathered many hardships over the years and come near to closure at times for financial shortfalls, but has continued to survive. Jerusalem School-Bethlehem, a constant beacon of hope in a chaotic and fearful place, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

The mission teams spend two weeks in the Holy Land  — one week working in the school, and the last week touring historical sites  — but their focus through it all is to bring hope to people living in a hopeless place.

“There’s a hopelessness there,” Rowell says. “They really don’t have much of a future to look forward to.”

“We try to instill it (hope) in them because God can do for them what he does for others. He is always faithful,” Grice adds.

Many of the nearly 600 students attending the Jerusalem School see no hope for their future. They are surrounded, quite literally, by a wall holding them back from future opportunities and success. Their parents often enroll them in the school holding on to slim hope they’ll earn a study abroad scholarship because of their attendance at an internationally accredited American school where they’ve learned English.

The oppression, both physically and spiritually, is “tangible,” Rowell says. As oppression intensifies, however, so has the people’s desire for a different life.

“At the same time, spiritually, I see a greater hunger for change and more openness to the Gospel,” Rowell adds.

Students receive the missionaries positively and are excited to see them each year. They’ve built relationships and established trust with these South Georgia Americans and those connections are often what is most influential in their conversion.

Team members invest in the students and teachers at Jerusalem School for several days and then they walk the footsteps of Jesus before coming home. Standing on the holy sites brings the Bible to life in a way many of them have never experienced  — They give of themselves in mission work and are repaid with a memory they’ll never forget.

“You go and you pour out and then the last week you get poured back into,” Rowell says. “It’s hard to come home after being that close to Heaven. It truly is where Heaven and earth meet!”

Letting their light shine doesn’t stop when these missionaries set foot back on American soil, and there’s no “hiding it under a bushel” once they’ve walked where Jesus walked, stood where he died, and entered the tomb where he no longer lies.

Suddenly, perhaps on the plane ride home, two weeks of mission work in the Holy Land becomes a reminder for the team of what the age-old children’s song is really all about. They went to better the lives of Palestinian children, but somehow their lives were changed for the better too.