ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Answer to Prayer, Call to Suffering

Priest brings relief to Palestinian refugees despite Israeli military curfews.

Father Guido Gockel, an upbeat, gregarious missionary who can function in a dozen or so languages, is usually never at a loss for words. But words and natural optimism failed the Dutch priest as he stepped off a humanitarian aid convoy truck and made his way around the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. An overwhelming odor hung in the air as Father Guido surveyed the devastation left by tanks, helicopter gunship missiles and bulldozers.

Home to some 14,000 Palestinians, Jenin was completely closed off from the world for 16 days in April while Israeli forces carried out a military operation that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said was necessary to root out terrorists. Since the second intifada, or uprising, broke out at the end of September 2000, the fighting has all but extinguished any common ground between Israelis and Palestinians.

As Father Guido made his way through the camp, one dazed man sat on a piece of mattress sticking up from the heap of rocks and cement that had been his home. As the man began speaking, Father Guido was overcome: “What can you say to someone who has lost everything except a few scraps of cloth? I couldn’t answer him. I just cried.”

Invited to Serve. Father Guido, a member of the Mill Hill Missionary Society, has been moved to tears more than once since 1996, when he joined CNEWA’s Jerusalem staff. CNEWA, through its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, supports the local churches and a variety of community development projects, offers emergency aid and sponsors reconciliation programs involving Palestinians and Israelis. He said his appointment was both an answer to prayer and a call to suffering.

“I had just completed a 30-day retreat,” he said. “A few days later, some members of my family discovered I had never been to the Holy Land and invited me on a pilgrimage led by Msgr. Robert Stern.

“It was moving to visit the holy sites and to meet Arab Christians, but shocking to learn about the suffering of the Palestinians. I felt called to respond.”

Within six months, and with his superior’s blessing, Father Guido joined CNEWA.

As Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, he seeks to “help churches, schools and other institutions, while supporting projects providing employment that benefit the whole community.”

These projects are mostly on hold now, displaced by relief efforts that have taken different forms as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deepens. Father Guido has focused on organizing convoys of food, water and medical supplies for Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other areas that have been occupied and blockaded.

“There is now almost a full-time curfew,” he said. “Just getting food to people is a priority. We hope to be able to resume our other work, but the soldiers will be here for a long time.”

Yet, people who know Father Guido comment on his joyful faith in God and his ability to communicate hope. That hope is evident as he continues to plan for the day when hostilities will cease and CNEWA can focus on rebuilding homes and facilities, lives and dreams.

“It’s going to take grace,” he said. “The worst destruction has been from within. As people in Jenin told us, ‘What you see is nothing compared with what has been destroyed in our hearts.’”

Being There. The town of Beit Sahour, just five miles south of Jerusalem, is the traditional site of the “Shepherds’ Fields,” where angels once sang: “Glory to God in the highest! Peace to his people on earth! ” But residents of this largely Christian town near Bethlehem have known precious little peace for the past two years. In December, Father Guido visited a house whose Christmas decorations said it all.

“It was a large, majestic house. Children had set up a big Christmas tree in the middle of it. But the tree was decorated with bullets and shells; the house had been burned and gutted by tank fire.”

Father Guido and his staff have personally delivered emergency funds to residents of over 300 Palestinian homes similarly damaged by bullets and rockets.

“Of course, people appreciate any financial help we can give from our small budget,” he said. But as one father in a shelled village told the priest: “It’s not the money that makes me most thankful. It’s the fact that you came to be with us in this disaster.”

Hanging on the wall of Father Guido’s office in Jerusalem’s Old City is a large piece of Palestinian embroidery. One of his most cherished possessions, it comes from Ayoub Rabah, the Arab Christian mayor of Ramallah. Mayor Rabah made the arduous journey through checkpoints and back roads last December to deliver personally the gift to Father Guido.

“Thank you for the moral support you have given us,” reads a phrase on the accompanying plaque.

Expressions of solidarity are important to the Palestinians, who feel overlooked by the world community, according to Father Guido. Palestinian Christians, in particular, wonder why so few Christians in other countries have little awareness of their existence, let alone understand the challenges facing the church in the Holy Land.

“My greatest hope is that God will help us to support people here in the midst of the darkness and brokenness,” Father Guido said.

“Ultimately, this goes beyond meeting needs for food, shelter, psychological counseling and other terribly important things. It means having faith in God, who alone can heal deep wounds and enable us to forgive and love enemies.”

Conflict Resolution, God’s Way. To be a missionary of pardon and peace in a volatile land, where just driving to the office means being assailed by countless distressing sights and sounds, is not easy.

“Everywhere, there are soldiers in combat gear, carrying guns. Settlers walk down the street with rifles slung over their shoulders. You hear church bells and the Muslim call to prayer, but also constant loud, aggressive noises like sirens, the honking horns of armored jeeps, or police on loudspeakers pulling Palestinian transit vans over to check on the passengers.”

And, every day brings its challenges. Another suicide bombing, some conflict at a military checkpoint, inflammatory statements from political leaders, anxiety about friends caught in the fighting, a visit to a terrified child or a distraught breadwinner who has not found work in over a year.

“And almost every day I get angry,” Father Guido said. But, he added, the situation is a learning opportunity, a “crash course” with two possible outcomes: “You come out of this either an angel or a devil.”

Dealing With Anger. “I pray and talk to God a lot,” he said. “I listen to the news twice a day, but I don’t own a TV. That way I avoid overstimulating my mind with images that feed frustration.

“I focus on positive things that I can do. I notice and appreciate signs of hope – things like a Jewish friend’s recent phone call to say: ‘We are with you. We support your work.’ Or like the kindness I saw in some Jenin residents who were showing traditional Arab hospitality despite their destitution. A journalist I spoke to there pointed out the half-destroyed house where he had been staying with a Muslim family for a few days. He told me, ‘These people are receiving me with so much love. They are giving me the last things they have.’”

But anger and pain are inescapable if you are going to be the kind of missionary who identifies with the people he serves, Father Guido said.

“You become so much a part of them that it is impossible not to feel their hurt and frustration. That in itself is not bad. Christ himself experienced our sufferings when he became one of us. Now he calls us to imitate him by rising above our own anger and sin so that we can be bridges of God’s love to others.”

As Father Guido greeted a nun at an Easter morning liturgy earlier this year, he said it struck him that the scene was a visible sign of this calling to reconciliation.

“She comes from a partially Jewish background, has always worked with Jewish people and identifies with their pain. I feel incarnated in the Palestinian people. But as we wished one another a happy Easter, we felt the loving presence of Christ who transforms our suffering, making it a bridge rather than a barrier.”

Louise Perrotta writes for The Word Among Us, which featured a version of this article.

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