The Midwest Meets the Middle East

“Can’t wait to see snow,” was my reaction when I learned that I had to travel to Chicago on a business trip at the ripe age of 22. I took a night flight, and although cold, the drive to the hotel was pleasant. A date at the federal courthouse awaited me the next morning, and since my lodging was only a couple of blocks from my destination, I decided to “hoof it.” And there it was… white, wet, cold snow. However, this stuff had no resemblance to what I had seen on television. Instead of falling from the sky, the snow whipped around the buildings, a vicious, numbing, blast of matter not fit for humans. I leaned into it, as my eyes watered and my nose dripped like a six-month old, and when the torment ended, I remained next to a radiator heater for several minutes in what could be described as a “fetal position.” It was rather embarrassing to explain to the inquisitive security guard that I was a federal agent; right there and then I decided never, ever to live north of Vero Beach.

My constant travels then took me through endless corn fields, to the “Rust Belt,” to nondescript towns, to freezing lakes and to dingy red brick structures. I even turned down a job with twice the pay in Columbus, Ohio. The dye was cast; the Midwest was persona non grata. However, my attitude changed when I acquired a new spousal family from Michigan. These folks may have lacked the “pizzaz” I was accustomed to, but they more than made up for it with their hospitality, transparency, sincerity and simple way of life. They were duty bound, family oriented, God fearing and fiercely nationalistic; I loved the way they “did life” although I did not wish to do it there.

Several years ago, my dear friend Les Feldman, who is the publisher of this newspaper, introduced me to an organization named Hope Haven from Rock Valley, Iowa. He gushed about their wheelchair ministry, which started in 1994 and had provided almost 125,000 custom-made individualized wheelchairs to 108 of the poorest countries in the world. He expounded on their work ethic, their unselfish attitude and their ability to provide so much for a town of less than 4,500. That led to my wife and I accompanying Les on two wheelchair mission trips to Guatemala and later visiting the wheelchair refurbishing center at a prison in South Dakota. We were hooked!


Christians and Jews working hand in hand

A few months ago, Les asked us to accompany him to Israel to participate in another “wheelchair junket,” and we immediately jumped at the opportunity; participating in this wonderful ministry AND touring Jerusalem….count us in!! So, in late April, Les, my wife Julianne and Todd Scoggins, our photographer, traveled to Israel where we joined a dozen volunteers from Iowa and Illinois, all of whom were experts in assembling wheelchairs. They ranged in age from 19 to 80 and, of course, being from the Midwest, they tended to keep their emotions “close to the vest” until it was showtime.

This was not our usual trip; no trekking through mountains, confronting abject poverty or dealing with an unknown language; however, the pain, frustration and despair was just as poignant. The recipients were very young children confined to a hospital, most of whom would never walk or talk, and in some instances were blind or deaf. They suffered from diseases like cerebral palsy or spina bifida, among others, and would thereby be confined to a bed and wheelchair for the rest of their natural lives. Their nurses beamed with joy at the opportunity of discarding the strollers and providing them with individualized, comfortable and safe mobility.

The wheelchairs had been transported to Israel disassembled in boxes, and our job was to separate them and reconstruct them. As soon as the materials arrived, the whole countenance of our volunteers changed. They morphed into passionate, talkative, involved and driven people, who worked diligently and efficiently with the nurses and local technicians. It was an incredible sight to observe how they worked as a team, men and women, young and old, fit and ailing to provide such a pivotal resource to these children. And before us stood the reason why Christ came to this part of the world more than 2,000 years ago; Christians and Jews working hand in hand for a just cause. He showed us the way first; to give sight to the blind, to heal the lame and to sacrifice for the least. And because of His perfect lesson, 184 Israeli children received their own wheelchair that week.

We then spent several days touring the country, particularly the holy sites. Although this was our second trip, the experience was as powerful as the first, just for the mere joy of walking where Our Savior walked and with the extra benefit of sharing it with our newly found Midwest Christian brothers and sisters. We shared communion as a group, and as our souls turned to Jesus, we were so thankful that God put us together for such a lofty mission.


Reflections

Soon it was time to leave… so quickly? We said goodbye to our newly found friends, boarded the plane for the long trek home and used the ample time to recount our newly minted memories. I, for one, could not shake the two-year-old girl with mouth agape and beautiful brown eyes who sat patiently in the chair as one of our young volunteers worked to get it to her measurements. As he drilled near the handles, the child suddenly broke into a smile, which turned into quiet laughter. The vibration from the tool had caused a pleasant sensation on her neck. The child’s father, who was helping us, remarked this was the first time in several weeks that she had laughed so heartily. It was not easy to restrain the tears.

This was truly a unique experience for us. At first blush, one would conjure up the many cultural differences between our volunteers and our hosts. But the more that we spent sharing with both, the more commonalities we saw. Our Israeli brothers share a communal personality, strong religious beliefs, hard work and dedication, a nationalistic worldview, great support for their armed forces and a sacrificial spirit. And guess what? Those are the basic characteristics of our Midwest brothers. So as we Floridians watched this unfold before us, we were taken aback by how these two people groups came together to share love, empathy, experience and resources on behalf of these children. After all, it was Our Savior who said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And He took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.”

 

Omar Aleman :