JERUSALEM (BP)--With anger, despair and hunger soaring among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Southern Baptist volunteers are bringing food -- and hope.
"Project Future and Hope" will send up to 20 Southern Baptist volunteer teams into Palestinian towns and refugee camps through the summer months to work alongside Arab Baptists. They will distribute food and minister to families and children traumatized by the increasingly bloody street battles between Palestinian and Israeli forces.
"People are in need, and we want to share God's love in a concrete way," said Paul Lawrence, a Southern Baptist worker among Palestinian Arabs who is coordinating the project. "There is a real feeling of hopelessness among the Palestinians. They don't see their lives going anywhere. There's no future in their dreams."
Months of attacks and counterattacks by Israelis and Palestinians have only worsened an already-grim economic situation. Half a million Palestinians need immediate food aid, according to the United Nations' World Food Program, with 50 percent of the population in the territories struggling to exist on less than $2 per person per day.
Fragile local economies that had begun to grow with international aid and investment have been crushed by the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, curfews, border closures -- and constant armed clashes. Even before the major escalation of fighting this spring, the overall Palestinian economy had sustained an estimated $2.2 billion in lost production during the previous 15 months of skirmishes.
"The situation is very bad, because (average Palestinians) have not been able to work, some of them for years," Lawrence said. "With the latest escalation, many more cannot work, and many more are under curfew. There's food here, but people can't afford it."
Arab Baptists in local churches and other evangelical Christians already have begun food distribution -- sometimes walking from town to town because of travel restrictions. Southern Baptist volunteer teams from Alabama, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and possibly other states are scheduled to arrive beginning in early June to assist the relief efforts in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank, as well as in Gaza. Southern Baptists have earmarked $350,000 in hunger and relief funds for the project.
In addition to food aid, they plan to conduct several week-long camps for Christian and Muslim children, counsel children and families terrorized by the fighting, paint classrooms in a Hebron Christian school and work with some of the estimated 15,000 deaf Palestinians in Gaza.
Aiding Palestinian children is a major priority, Lawrence stressed.
"Children frequently hear machine-gun fire and see the aftermath of war, and they've been under curfew for more than a month," he explained. "They're experiencing the kind of post-traumatic stress that kids anywhere would. We just want to bring a little joy into their lives. There are big needs we can't meet, but we can help some families. The goal of Project Future and Hope is to demonstrate God's love to hurting people. We want to demonstrate in a tangible way that not only does God love them, but we as His followers do also."
What about the risks for American volunteers from the Israeli-Palestinian crossfire -- or from Palestinian anger at U.S. policy in the region?
"It's not realistic to say there's no risk, but we feel good about it," Lawrence said. "The Palestinians seem to be able to distinguish between individuals and government policy. They may be very hostile toward the American government, but at the same time they'll welcome you into their homes for tea."
Contributions for relief ministries in Palestinian towns and refugee centers may be sent to: General Relief Fund -- Palestinians, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230. Every dollar given will be used 100 percent for Palestinian relief ministries.
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