Pilgrims of Ibillin: A brief history
Fast forward to the 1990’s. Bruce Rigdon, as Sr. Pastor at Grosse Pointe Memorial Presbyterian Church near Detroit, Michigan, invited his friend Fr. Elias Chacour from Ibillin, a village in Galilee, to visit Grosse Pointe as an ecumenical scholar in residence. Abuna Chacour encouraged his new Grosse Pointe friends to “Come and See” the Living Stones and experience “the Fifth Gospel” of the Holy Lands. Groups of adults and high school youth both took up his invitation, visiting Abuna Chacour and the Mar Elias Schools he had founded in Ibillin. Work camps helped with the building of several MEEI buildings. They returned feeling compelled to share the story of the Christian Palestinians and MEEI, and to send support back to Abuna Chacour’s schools in Ibillin. They saw this as an opening for Americans to invest in peace-building in Israel/Palestine.
In 1995, Grosse Pointe Memorial Church sponsored the creation of a new church group they called “Pilgrims of Ibillin.” They applied for standing as a 501c3 charity, though still related to Grosse Pointe Memorial Church (as a “supporting organization”). The original board members were staff or leaders of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church and a few others in their network. In the early years the group sponsored pilgrimages and work camps, and raised funds to help Abuna build up the campus in Ibillin.
By 2001 Pilgrims of Ibillin had reached a crossroads. Pilgrimages had expanded to include students and adults from the youth program led by Rev. Don Griggs at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, CA. Abuna’s speaking tours in the US kept attracting new supporters who channeled gifts to MEEI through Pilgrims of Ibillin. Visitors from the US to the MEEI campus returned home committed to providing support and staying in touch, and some did so through Pilgrims of Ibillin. Annual fund-raising for the Mar Elias Schools held at $200,000 – $300,000 most of those early years.
By 2001 the organization had grown too big to be run entirely by volunteers, so the Board made the decision to hire a half-time executive director. Don Griggs agreed to become that new executive director “for a half-year or so.” Like Abuna’s “one month” appointment to Ibillin, Don’s tenure as executive director stretched beyond the imagined time, and the organization continued to grow.
In 2003-2004, led partly by new board member Bob Connolly, Pilgrims of Ibillin took on its first capital campaign, seeking special gifts to help build a new elementary school on the Mar Elias campus and to build “a chapel” above the new Auditorium which had recently been built with prize money Abuna was awarded: the Niwano (Buddhist) Peace Prize. Pilgrims’ capital campaign raised almost $450,000. The “chapel” became the Church of the Sermon on the Mount, the largest Melkite church in Israel/Palestine. Mariam Bawardi Elementary School was built on the highest point of the campus as a new home for the primary school Abuna had launched in 1997. Pilgrims of Ibillin’s capital fund-raising became a significant contribution to the completion of the church and the elementary school.
Early in 2007 Don Griggs decided to end his “6 months” as executive director after 6 years, and the Pilgrims’ Board determined that another decision point had been reached. Board members and several strong supporters of Pilgrims of Ibillin raised special gifts to pay the first-year salary and expenses to hire a part-time development director, while a new executive director would also be sought to replace Don Griggs. At the May 2007 Board meeting Robert Sawyer and Joan Deming were hired as executive director and development director, respectively. They began serving on September 1, 2007.
In 2007 another significant change took place: because Pilgrims’ supporters and board had grown to include many people spread across most states in the US, Grosse Pointe Memorial Church and Pilgrims of Ibillin’s Board decided to end the “supporting organization” 501c3 IRS status and to apply to become a stand-alone 501c3 public charity instead. This was accomplished in December 2007.
In order to strengthen Pilgrims of Ibillin’s outreach while continuing the primary support relationship with MEEI, the Board of Directors established partner relationships with several additional peace-building programs in Israel/Palestine. During 2008, Board members and staff built a list of suggestions and paid visits to possible partners in the West Bank and Israel. Since 2008, annual grants of $2,000 to $6,000 have been given to Peace-building Partner organizations beyond MEEI. For 2013 these partners include:
- The Diyar Consortium in Bethlehem (related to Christmas Lutheran Church) for a young adult leadership development program led by Pastor Mitri Raheb, focusing now on women’s sports leadership
- The Friends’ Schools in Ramallah for scholarships
- The Open House Preschool program for Arab Children in Ramle
- The Seraj Library Project in the West Bank, providing new community libraries in villages near Ramallah
- St. George’s Melkite Catholic Church in Zababdeh for their job-creation projects
- Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem.
In 2008 and 2009, major grants totaling more than $1,000,000 from several individuals and the F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc. (Plainsboro, NJ) allowed Pilgrims of Ibillin to help with a new growth spurt for the Ibillin schools. Mar Elias High School moved from the original high school building, built in 1982, into a large newer building on campus that had been built to house Mar Elias Technical College and a University campus. Changes in Israel’s laws regarding higher education forced the closing of those institutions, but opened a new home for Mar Elias High School, which had badly outgrown its original building. Pilgrims of Ibillin grant funds allowed MEEI to build 2 additional classroom floors on top of the Mar Elias College building, add an elevator, upgrade the science and computer labs, and renovate and upgrade all of the classrooms. A grant from the F.I.S.H. Foundation through the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010 brought state of the art Science and Technology resources and equipped the school to share Best Practices in STEM teaching with other schools.
In 2012 Pilgrims of Ibillin Board and Staff provided leadership to a Strategic Planning process in Ibillin that will guide the Mar Elias Educational Institutions through the next 5 years and several key transitions in leadership. As Archbishop Chacour and the principals of the Mar Elias schools prepare to retire, this planning process will assure that the vision and values established by Abuna Chacour and his many colleagues and friends will continue uninterrupted into the future.
In 2013, Pilgrims of Ibillin’s partnership with the Mar Elias Educational Institutions remains strong and continues to evolve. A volunteer program coordinated by Pilgrims of Ibillin provides managers for the MEEI Guesthouse and coordination for the many visits to the campus made by international pilgrimage groups. In February of 2013 the Rev. Dr. Robert Sawyer retired as Pilgrims’ Executive Director, and Pilgrims of Ibillin’s Board hired Rev. Joan Deming to serve as the sole professional staff member in the capacity of Executive Director. The priority going forward is to use the 2012 Strategic Plan for MEEI to focus efforts toward securing grant funds that will keep Mar Elias Educational Institutions as one of Israel’s stellar academic institutions for students from preschool through high school. As partners with Mar Elias leaders, we anticipate a future even brighter than the past. Thousands of Pilgrims of Ibillin supporters from across the United States and around the world join in solidarity with friends in Ibillin to “Build Peace on Desktops.”
Questions about Pilgrims of Ibillin? Contact Executive Director, Rev. Joan Deming, at firstname.lastname@example.org.