It started with a bag of rice and a Bible tract. That was all Karen Dunham had to give poor refugees when she began her ministry five years ago in the West Bank town of Jericho.
The Clearwater woman went where few American women dared to go. She felt led to the Middle East, she says, to bring humanitarian aid and Christian teachings to the Arabs. . .
One of those volunteers caused quite a commotion when she quit her day job Friday to work fulltime with Living Bread. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Monica Sierra resigned her seat on the bench — one year before her term expired — to help the rapidly growing mission expand its relief and spiritual outreach.
Sierra made two visits to Israel last year to see what the ministry was all about. On her third visit, she decided she couldn't leave. The work was too powerful to ignore.
"The atmosphere of the refugee camps changes as the aid and the light of God move into each home," says Sierra, 41. "The impact of giving hope to even one child's life could stop a terrorist bomb from being delivered to Tampa, New York City or Jerusalem." . . .
Every aid worker goes to the camp with the same cargo: Provisions such as baby formula, rice and clothing, and editions of the full Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Dunham says it's corporate policy to bring the religious materials. "Our corporation, with Jesus as head of the board," she says. She doesn't believe in surprises or hiding the ministry's motives.
She is Christ's emissary in the Promised Land. She says you can't fight terrorism from a church pew, that you have to go to the people. She has no doubt that her way is working.
"I'm seeing peace in Jericho; I'm seeing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. I see Arabs weep and beg for forgiveness," she says. "I see things that only God can do."
Some of this troubles Ahmed Bedier. He is the director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He has no problem with Living Bread supplying humanitarian aid; he commends their Good Samaritan works and devotion to a population that has been severely oppressed.
But he draws the line at the Christian evangelizing.
"These are starving people who are not thinking rationally," he says of the refugees. "They'll do what you say to get the food to keep them alive. They'll pray with and say they're converted. And likely, they'll be back at the mosque on Friday."
Bedier wonders about public reaction here if a group of Iraqi volunteers had arrived in the United States to give food, clothing and the Quran to victims of Hurricane Katrina. He can't imagine it.
Before Sierra left for her third mission, Bedier gave her a copy of the Quran; Jimmy Carter's book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid"; and a packet of do's and don'ts regarding the Muslim culture. He says she was warm and receptive about his concerns.
He doesn't doubt her sincerity and passion for the work Living Bread is doing. But sometimes, he says, "people are blinded by their zeal and things backfire. You have to question the motives of people who go into hostile environments to push their religion, when there's so much that needs to be done in this country." (MORE)