Where Prisoners Start Over — and Grace Abounds

In the December 2019 edition of ONE, Michele Chabin writes about visiting the House of Grace in Israel, a halfway house for men released from prison. She adds some additional impressions below.

Christians are commanded to forgive sinners who repent.

“If your brother sins, rebuke him,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. “And if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” (Luke 17:3) 

That is the Gospel. But is it realistic? Is it possible for even the most hardened criminals to truly repent? And can a society really be expected to provide a second chance to people who have committed serious crimes?  

I pondered these questions when I visited the House of Grace, a grassroots initiative by Melkite Catholics in Galilee that helps recently released Arabic-speaking prisoners in Israel integrate into Israeli society.

Some of the residents of House of Grace have committed murder; others sold drugs or weapons. Many left behind wives and children who were forced to fend for themselves.   

It’s easy for a society to write off its criminals, even after they have “served their time” and prison officials say they are rehabilitated – ready to live outside prison walls.

Realizing the challenges that newly released prisoners face, Kamil and Agnes Shehade, Greek Melkite Catholics from Haifa, opened their home to them in the early 1980s. Not long afterward they created House of Grace in the hopes of giving these men the tools and the will to stay on the right path.

I asked Agnes why she and her late husband committed their lives to this mission.  

“We try to live as Christians, to be an example. My husband used to say that the face of God is in everyone, and that we should love,” she said.

By caring for prisoners, the Shehade’s created not only a community, but an extended family. They raised their children in a small apartment above the old church they brought back to life.

Jamal Shahade, House of Grace’s director, said that when they were very young he and his siblings didn’t realize that the men his parents were assisting with total kindness and respect had spent years in prison.

“I only remember that it was normal, we were happy, and that we felt there was something special in the house.”

Jamal said Holy Land Christians — the vast majority of them Arab — are struggling to survive as a minority in the Middle East, but that the ones who remain are committed to making it a better place for people of all faiths. 

 “We are a minority within a minority but instead of seeing this as a weakness, on the contrary I feel we have a very strong role to play,” he said. “The teachings of the Christian faith instruct us to help all those in need.”

Agnes still recalls how Kamil worked night and day to make House of Grace a reality.

Back in 1982 Israel had little experience with successfully rehabilitating prisoners, she said. The system “was a big mess.” 

Kamil never gave up.

“He had a calling in his heart,” Agnes said. “He saw the best in everyone. I learned a lot from him about faith and trusting that God would provide. And he has.”

Read more in They Call It the House of Grace in the December 2019 edition of ONE.

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