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 CNS Story:

HAIFA-GRACE Apr-23-2009 (820 words) With photos. xxxi

Catholic family in Haifa shares House of Grace with prisoners

Jamal Shehade in the Melkite Catholic church at the House of Grace in Haifa. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

HAIFA, Israel (CNS) -- Agnes and Kamil Shahade's five children grew up in the House of Grace with newly paroled prisoners helping to take care of them and a never-ending series of people in difficulty knocking on the door.

Now, Jamal Shahade, 26, handles public relations for the House of Grace and is the chief cook.

Living in the house means working in the house, so Jamal's three brothers -- even the two with outside jobs -- help with the various projects and with the chores. And so do the prisoners.

"Everyone cleans their room, takes their turn cleaning the toilets and doing the dishes. This is not a hotel," Jamal Shahade said.

His mother was born in Switzerland and met Kamil Shahade when he went there on business. Kamil Shahade died in 2000 at the age of 46.

When they were discussing getting married, she said, Kamil Shahade told her that he felt called by God to assist prisoners and the poor in general.

"I thought it was a nice idea, but we didn't know what it meant. It wasn't really a plan. From the time we were married we had a released prisoner in our home. Then another came. And more were asking for a place to stay," she said.

Kamil Shahade's apartment, shared with his new wife, a prisoner and endless visitors, overlooked the abandoned church of Our Lady of Grace, which was the original cathedral of the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Haifa.

"Kamil asked the bishop if we could have it, but the bishop said it was not a good idea to have prisoners in the church and, besides, there was no money. Kamil said he would be responsible for everything, and the bishop agreed," she said.

After a year of major restoration and building, in 1982 the Shehades moved into their new home. Jamal, their firstborn, was 1 month old.

"For me, being taken care of by prisoners, studying with them, eating at the same table was normal," Jamal Shahade said. When he went to college in Switzerland, he said, "I learned what it meant to live alone, not surrounded by many people, and I missed it."

Although Agnes Shahade said friends and relatives thought she and her husband were crazy, "the beautiful thing is that there never has been any trouble," she added.

The city of Haifa and the Israeli department of corrections pay the House of Grace a small fee for housing paroled prisoners and other people in difficulty. Five prisoners sentenced to community service help with the cleaning and light maintenance work, but the rest of the staff salaries and the resources for all the projects come from donations.

The Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, through a special Vatican body that coordinates aid to the Eastern Catholic churches and Catholics in the Middle East, helped the House of Grace restore the church that was built in 1862, as well as the exterior of the other buildings in the compound.

In addition to housing prisoners on work release and organizing visits to people serving time in area prisons, the House of Grace offers emergency aid and counseling to poor families, an after-school program to 70 at-risk teens, support groups for parents, two soccer teams for boys and a basketball team for girls.

"It's not just about sports, but about teaching them how to lose, how to cooperate and how to behave," Agnes Shahade said.

Jamal Shahade said that his father used to say that the city of Haifa initially was very suspicious of his plans for the property and did not want to provide water and electricity to the site. "Here was this crazy Arab guy housing prisoners" and nobody understood why, Jamal Shahade said.

His mother said, "Now many admire what we do and especially the fact that we have kept going."

"It is not missionary work," Agnes Shahade said, "but people understand why we are doing what we are doing."

The prisoners -- Christians, Muslims, Druze and Jews -- are free to decorate their rooms anyway they like, but the Shahades' house is dotted with icons and crucifixes along with the family photos.

"And we pray. They don't have to, but they have to accept and respect the fact that we do or they must leave," Agnes Shahade said.

Habib Joury, a 35-year-old Christian from Nazareth, is one of the prisoners serving the last year of his sentence at the House of Grace.

"It's very good here," he said. "They help me look for a job and a home for starting my new life. Here, I have felt it is a real family from the very first moment."

He said his battered, blue-covered Bible was his best friend in prison, and the fact that the House of Grace is built around a restored church where liturgies are celebrated regularly "is very important to me."


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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