They Call It the House of Grace

text by Felix Corley
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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Where in the Israeli city of Haifa can the poor and disadvantaged go? To whom can newly released prisoners turn? How can drug addicts kick their habit? Many find help at the House of Grace, a unique community that gives hope and succor to those in despair.

Located on a busy road in central Haifa, the House of Grace is literally an oasis of calm in a sea of confusion. Building construction almost surrounds the compound. Trucks roll continually and workmen toil daily in the scorching sun.

The House of Grace was established by Kamil Shehade, an Israeli Arab and a member of the local Greek Melkite Catholic community. He and his Swiss-born wife, Agnes, are the pivot on which the House of Grace revolves, the core of stability that the large community of staff, residents and volunteers needs.

When the Greek Melkite Catholic bishop gave Kamil the site in January 1981, the church – dedicated to the Virgin Mary – that was its core had been abandoned. After fighting off plans by the municipality to demolish it, Kamil and Agnes faced the herculean task of renovating the church and making habitable the remaining buildings in the complex. The basic work took 10 months and the labor of many volunteers. Kamil sold his decorating business and – with $3,000, his wife and first child – moved into the House of Grace in 1982.

Kamil firmly believes God prepared the ground for this apostolate. He had spent 10 years praying for guidance as to how to help his community. With the support of his bishop he had traveled to Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, Canada, to learn more about the lay apostolate. He had already worked for many years as a volunteer social worker and was only too familiar with the severe social problems of Haifa’s impoverished Israeli Arab community. He was determined to do something and believed his own Greek Melkite Catholic community (which is the largest Christian community in Haifa) should be at the heart of it.

“Our idea was to help society to live the Gospel, through the church, from the church,” Kamil explains.

Kamil’s dream was to help local Arabs find solutions to their own problems.

“Why should the church abroad always do everything for us? Why not help ourselves?” he asked.

There are now some 22 residents at the House of Grace, plus the Shehade family and seven additional staff. Elias Susan, a social worker, explains that six of the residents were former prisoners, another six were homeless and four were arrested but gained permission to live there while awaiting trial.

The rest are “social cases, people who have difficulty coping with life.” Elias has to work especially hard with these. “They need help to become independent. This sometimes takes a lot of time.”

One such resident is Walid, one of seven brothers and sisters whose parents had little time for their children.

“Life was harsh for all of us,” he recalls.

Walid dropped out of school and roamed the streets during the day, returning home only to sleep.

“I felt nobody loved me or wanted me,” he says.

He took to crime to support his increasing addiction to drugs and never dreamed of doing an honest day’s work.

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Tags: Israel Melkite Greek Catholic Church Socioreligious programs Substance Abuse