17 November 2016
Kamil and Agnes Shehade created House of Grace in Haifa as a humble ministry to serve the poor, the disadvantaged and newly released prisoners. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
You would be hard-pressed to find a couple with a deeper commitment to the Gospel — and more zeal for caring for the less fortunate — than Kamil and Agnes Shehade, a heroic couple we profiled in 1998:
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.
...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.
The House of Grace also reaches out to those beyond its little community:
In addition to its residents, the House of Grace helps literally thousands of poor families in the Haifa area, giving them food or Christmas parcels; perhaps helping them write letters, especially to government or municipal agencies.
“It is difficult for people in our community to ask for help,” says Elias. “We emphasize their dignity. We consider them part of a big family.”
...The House of Grace also helps finance the education of gifted pupils whose parents cannot afford the tuition fees of local church-run schools. In addition, about 230 college students both here and abroad receive some contribution, however small — on condition that they return to work in their home community.
Two years ago, Melodie Gabriel, from CNEWA’s Canadian office, wrote about a visit to the House of Grace:
Mr. and Mrs. Shehade had five children, who also lived with these former offenders. They grew up treating them as a part of their family — and, at times, even babysitters.
It is a difficult transition for those released from prison, as they are often ostracized by society and can easily fall back into negative behaviors. For many former prisoners at the House the Grace, it is the first time they are treated as human beings with dignity, rather than lowlifes or criminals. At the House of Grace, they are shown what a real “home” is like.
People of different faiths — Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze — live together at the House of Grace. They celebrate each other’s feasts and learn one another’s traditions. Eventually, they begin to understand and respect each other, even if they don’t always agree — which is rare in a society where there exist many deeply held prejudices.
We heard from one House of Grace resident who says their ministry has given him a new lease on life. He is very thankful to the people who gave him support and helped him to look positively toward the future. He has since obtained employment in construction, and is now focused on building a better life for his family.
Kamil passed away from cancer in 2000, at the young age of 46. But his wife Agnes and his children have continued his work — as Melodie wrote, “living out the Gospel simply, with kindness and love, changing one life at a time.”
Kamil and Agnes Shehade remain heroes not only to us at CNEWA, but to so many others whose lives they have uplifted.