Disarming witness

How one couple dares to share Christ on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Dulcimer Hope Brubaker

From the kitchen window of their office in Bethlehem, Hank and Michele Dannecker look out over one of the most contested parcels of land on the planet: the Israeli neighborhood of Har Homa. Though just one mile apart, Bethlehem and Har Homa couldn’t be farther away from each other. Between them lies the West Bank barrier, a system of walls, trenches, and gates that separates Israeli territory from that of the Palestinian Authority. For decades, war over the land of their ancestors—the Holy Land—has torn Israelis and Palestinians apart. Today, these two peoples live behind walls and checkpoints, in fear of aerial attacks and suicide bombers—in fear of one another.

Hank made his first trip to Israel in 1995, after hearing a report on the radio about a suicide bombing. “He wanted to see things firsthand, to understand why someone would do that,” explains Michele. But when he arrived in Israel, what he experienced was far messier and more complex than any news coverage he’d seen in the States. Hank recalls, “That first year, I was really struck by the realization that there are two sides to every conflict.”

An ordained minister, Hank continued to visit Israel and Palestine, making friends on both sides of the border and growing in his concern for families, especially Palestinians, who have limited access to medical care.

On one such trip, Hank met Jumanah (pronounced joo-MAH-nuh). A young Muslim girl from Hebron, a town in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Jumanah had been diagnosed with leukemia. Her father was out of work and her condition required a costly bone marrow transplant. Jumanah was expected to die within a few weeks. After listening to Hank read from the book of James, Jumanah’s father asked him to anoint her with oil on the spot and pray to Jesus because their prayers to Allah had not been answered.

After returning to the U.S., Hank and the BIC church plant he was leading began a fundraising campaign for Jumanah’s family. The bone marrow transplant would cost $80,000 (U.S.), far more than they could raise, so the funds went to help the family with their living expenses. Without insurance or money to pay for the procedure, Jumanah died a few years later, leaving the Danneckers with a heart and vision to help other kids like her.

Saving hearts

In 2007, Hank and Michele, along with their young children, moved to Jerusalem to partner with Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli humanitarian agency that performs surgeries on children from around the world who are born with congenital heart defects (CHDs). While many CHDs can be reversed through reconstructive surgery, such care is often out of reach for children in less developed countries. They rarely live to adulthood. SACH performs—and, along with the Israeli government, subsidizes—each surgery, relying on sponsor agencies to provide transportation in and out of Israel, hospitality, and addi-tional funding.

Initially, Hank and Michele worked under one of these existing sponsor agencies as covenant partners with Brethren in Christ World Missions (BICWM). But in 2009, when they became full-fledged workers under BICWM, they founded 1NewHeart, a new sponsor agency, in order to more fully invest in families’ lives as their children undergo heart surgery.

1NewHeart’s primary focus is on Palestinian children from the West Bank and Gaza, for whom the incidence of CHD can be as high as 30 in 1,000 live births (as opposed to 8 in 1,000 in the U.S. and 10 in 1,000 in Canada). Lacking the medical facilities to perform these open-heart surgeries, Palestinians must look to Israel for treatment. But because they cannot cross into Israel without sponsorship, organizations like SACH and 1NewHeart are often their only hope.

In March 2009, an 8-year-old girl named Majed (pronounced MAHjhd) became 1NewHeart’s first sponsored child. Born with a hole in her heart, Majed came from a Muslim family in Jenin, a city in the West Bank where Israeli–Palestinian tensions run high. When the time came for her surgery, Hank drove out to Jenin to take her to the Wolfson Medical Center in Tel Aviv. Majed’s parents were unable to accompany her, so the only familiar faces she saw at the hospital were that of her grandfather and Hank. This is common among the Palestinian children the Danneckers have served. Parents from Gaza who are under the age of 37 are not permitted to accompany their children to the hospital in Tel Aviv because they fit the demographic for a suicide bomber.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Michele reflects. “We have pictures of Majed’s parents hugging her goodbye as she leaves with her grandfather and not knowing if they’re going to see their child again.”

Majed was in surgery for five hours; her heart was stopped for 18 minutes while surgeons repaired the hole. She recovered in record time and, when Hank drove her home to Jenin five days later, more than 100 friends and family members were ready and waiting. In traditional fashion, Majed’s father had borrowed money, killed two sheep, and invited all the poor people of the town to join his family for a daylong celebration. Before Hank left, Majed’s father made him promise that he would always be a part of her life. “You helped save her; you help raise her,” he said. This is a charge Hank and Michele don’t take lightly.

Crossing the barrier

Although Majed’s surgery and recovery spanned just one week, many children spend months—or even a year—in the hospital. While there, these children and any accompanying family members require daily support. Palestinian parents and grandparents are never permitted to leave the hospital building, and from Friday to Saturday night—the Jewish Sabbath—the hospital prepares no food. So, it’s up to Hank and Michele to make sure the families have everything they need, from clothing and meals to toiletries and SIM cards for their phones.

With children’s lives on the line, it can be tempting to sponsor too many surgeries at once. Hank and Michele’s target is to sponsor one child per month. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Hank says. “After the surgery, there’s a spiritual connection, and we want to take time to really invest in these families.” Long after kids are discharged from the hospital, Hank and Michele are keeping in touch with their Palestinian friends.

For many Muslim families, this is their first face-to-face encounter with Christianity, and they’re visibly impressed. Won over by gratitude, these families welcome people of another faith into their homes and into their lives—a rare occurrence in this land of barriers and walls. “Even though it might be against the culture in Israel and Palestine, they attach to us,” explains Hank. “They want to be part of us. They want to hear about Jesus.”

Back home in Jerusalem, and at the Jewish-staffed hospital in Tel Aviv, Hank and Michele raise plenty of eyebrows with the work they do among Palestinians. Because it is illegal—and highly dangerous—for Israeli citizens to go into the West Bank, the medical staff can’t help but ask why Hank would risk his life to transport a Palestinian child to the hospital. Doctors tell him, “Your heart is great, but you have no common sense.”

This is something Hank and Michele hear a lot. But they stick to their calling, as Hank put it to Michele back in 2000, when violence erupted in Israel and Palestine, and the U.S. State Department advised all U.S. citizens to leave: “Christians should be in Israel.”

Making peace

Three years into their ministry, Hank and Michele feel more strongly than ever about being a Christian presence in Israel and Palestine. “One of our Core Values as Brethren in Christ says that we embrace peace and reconciliation,” Hank says. “If you’re going to be a peacemaker, you gotta get involved in someone’s conflict. And that’s messy business. But if the Jews believe in saving their enemies’ lives, how much more should the Church be engaged in this?”

It is this intercessory position to which Hank and Michele feel most called. Citing Jesus’ role as mediator in believers’ individual hearts, their ministry is firmly grounded in Ephesians 2: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . . . His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (verses 14–16a).

The Danneckers’ visas run out in two years, at which time they pray God will continue to work through 1NewHeart to share the disarming compassion and love of Jesus with people on both sides of the conflict. Until then, fueled by a faith that crosses borders and values life regardless of religion or nationality, Hank and Michele stand firm in the middle of the conflict.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2010 issue of In Part magazine.
Dulcimer Hope Brubaker

Dulcimer Hope Brubaker formerly served as editor for the BIC Communications Office. A 2004 graduate of Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.), she and her husband, Jason, live in Pittsburgh, Pa., with their toddler daughter.