Jerusalem ministry transforms Ottawa priest

Published April 23, 2015


Three years ago, Major the Rev. Canon John Organ left behind his 20-year career as a military chaplain to serve as chaplain to Archbishop Suheil Dawani in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Now at the end of his term, he and his wife, Irene, are preparing to take leave of people and a place they have come to love deeply in order to return to Canada, where Organ plans to take up parish ministry in the diocese of Ottawa.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told the Anglican Journal that Organ’s presence has helped to give real substance to the Canadian church’s commitment to strengthen ties with the diocese. “We couldn’t have had better-his expertise, his experience, his diplomacy, his compassion. He’s just been great.”

A condensed version of this interview was printed in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.

Excerpts of Organ’s e-mailed responses to questions from the Anglican Journal:

How did you approach your new role?

That first year was one in which both Irene and I…embraced completely the Palestinian community, which is predominantly the community our church here is made up of. From eating Palestinian food to sleeping in Palestinian homes, from travelling throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, we gave ourselves fully and completely to the diocese and the wider, especially Palestinian, community. That first year I personally suspended all judgment and bias and attitude of any kind, and simply observed, listened and learned.

What were you most surprised or struck by?

The resilience of the people…the capacity to enjoy family gatherings and fun-filled times despite all the suffering and hardships. There is very much joie de vivre among the Palestinian people, as well as tremendous generosity, hospitality, warmth and welcome. Right beside that would be the seemingly endless patience with suffering and oppression…There is a capacity to put up with such extraordinary disadvantage, cyclical military conflict, loss of life-mostly of young people-and seemingly endless destruction. Palestinians are literally locked down and locked up, especially in Gaza, but also in the West Bank. They are the only people I know without a state, without basic human rights protection, without a strong enough government to fully care for them and without real prospects for any resolution anytime soon.

How has your understanding of the place and the people changed during your time there?

I have come to love the people, and by people, I really mean Palestinians, because it is with Palestinians that I have worked and lived these past three years. I have totally come to love the desert and the Bedouin people. I wish I could actually live with them for a time. The land is holy for me. [For me,] it is still the Holy Land, though often referred to as the Land of the Holy One.

What has changed is my understanding of the people’s leaders. I have been given a front-row seat here to experience up close religious and political leaders. I am moulded by the biblical prophets’ cry for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, often pointing the finger and blaming their leaders. I am somewhat there. Servant leadership could do so very much for the people here.

What are some of the highlights of your time in the diocese?

The people and congregational life…Confirmations can still have up to 30 young people. When they take on their baptismal vows for themselves, it is more than a religious ceremony-it is identity, purpose and meaning. A young person takes a stand for Christ in a society where doing so literally places him or her in a very small and sometimes very vulnerable minority status. In Gaza, for example, there are 1.6 million people and just 1,500 Christians. Their faith and witness are real and genuine and not taken lightly.

In addition, there are the diocesan institutions. Though struggling to afford such costly services as health care and education, the diocese has two hospitals, several clinics and rehabilitation centres, as well as 17 schools, caring for thousands of patients and teaching thousands of students, most of whom are Muslim.

I have been able to have access to all the holy sites of Jerusalem, basically on a daily basis. I have run or walked past the Mount of Olives almost every day, gone to the Holy Sepulchre often, and sometimes early in the morning when hardly a soul was awake, recalling Mary’s journey to the empty tomb. I have been to the Sea of Galilee many times and the desert almost weekly. I have walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and back. I have celebrated three Christmases at Shepherd’s Field and in Bethlehem. I have had amazing encounters with people of faith-Jewish, Muslim and Christian.

All of it has been a precious gift, and I am grateful to Primate Fred and Archbishop Suheil for giving me this unique and wonderful opportunity.

What were the challenging aspects of your ministry?

Religions…[all] have some real weaknesses. The Christian church is not exempt. It can be as removed from the real needs of suffering humanity as can any other organization, especially in challenging circumstances. There can be less than ideal stewardship. The church can lack courage. Churches can be competitive, and within churches there can be real personal ambition and self-interest. I think Pope Francis is making that not only obvious but trying hard to sort it out. I think the Anglican Communion also desires a church [that’s] more servant-oriented. I recall Primate Fred’s sermon on New Year’s Day 2014, at the cathedral in Ottawa, calling on Canadian Anglicans to become the church of the poor. More of that focus and practice will not only bless the needy but the church as well.

I have also witnessed here two major wars and many smaller conflicts. Shocking for me around that is the silence of the world and the seeming ease of states to inflict tremendous harm, suffering and death, largely upon innocent and helpless people. Having terrorism to blame covers a multitude of sins. So, too, violence carried out in God’s name can be alarming and shocking.

Moreover, any fair historical record of the Middle East reveals the West squarely in the middle of it, and often making things worse not better…The story of Iraq in recent decades has not been fully written yet. It is talked about a lot here, though. The West will have much to answer for there.

Is there a moment that you will always remember?

Some months ago, there was a fatal attack on Jewish worshippers in a synagogue in Jerusalem. The heads of churches in Jerusalem, including Archbishop Suheil as well as Muslim leaders, went to this synagogue to bring condolences, to stand against violence-especially religious motivated violence-and to pray for peace. The religious leaders were all seated in a…square, and standing behind them were many Orthodox youth, who were religious students at this synagogue. One young boy, maybe 12 years old or so, was standing immediately behind Archbishop Suheil, and he would often lean into the archbishop’s shoulders. Here was a Jewish kid, leaning on the shoulders of a Palestinian Christian leader, with great interest and seeming comfort. I took a picture of that moment in time. It will always be [an example] for me of what is possible between Israelis and Palestinians-it was a truly human and also holy moment when all barriers were gone.

How has the ministry changed you?

As Heraclitus said,”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

I have been given a powerful example of resiliency. I have seen people carry on with life when perhaps others would have given up. I have witnessed Gazans rebuild their homes after having had them destroyed, and not angrily, but with true happiness that there was something left to rebuild.

I have learned something else as well. Passion, no matter how well founded, must always be tempered. You may have right and might on your side, even in human relations, but at the end of the day, only love matters. One Corinthians 13 came alive for me here. There is lots of religion, personal and collective. But all of it is noise if there is no love.









  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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