As I have mentioned before, it was 20 years ago -- last weekend was Pascha, the anniversary -- that my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
In terms of the complex map of Orthodoxy, we became part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, with its historic ties to Damascus. It's still based on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11). From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the families came -- one or two generations ago -- from Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. I pray every day for the protection of the church of Damascus.
Suffice it to say, the wider Mattingly family includes other people who know a whole lot about life in the modern Middle East. We will leave it at that.
If I have learned anything about that region it is this: When it comes to the Middle East, religious ties are very specific. It matters what kind of "Christians" you are talking about. It matters what branch or movement within Islam you're talking about. Secular or religious or Orthodox Jews? That matters. There's very little generic religion in the Middle East.
I bring this up because of an interesting, but in the end frustrating, USA Today report about American evangelicals -- they are not called missionaries -- who are doing some tricky work in Israel, while cooperating fully with the Israelis. The headline: "These evangelicals in Israel are on a mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrians." The overture says:
ALONG THE GOLAN HEIGHTS -- In the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria, an unlikely group of Americans toil at a makeshift clinic to care for ill and injured Syrians trapped in their country’s seven-year civil war.
For Don Tipton of Beverly Hills and his group of evangelical Christian do-gooders, their border perch is a divine mission. For the Israelis, Tipton and his group are part of a deliberate defense mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrian civilians.
Israel is a sworn enemy of Syria and may well be its next target if the civil war ends and Syrian strongman Bashar Assad remains in power. Israel has an official policy of non-intervention into the Syrian conflict. At the same time it discreetly pursues “Operation Good Neighbor,” which provides needed humanitarian aid and cultivates potential goodwill among civilians in the war-torn country.
Well, 'do-gooders" is cute, but who are these people and where is their money coming from? Do they have ties to any particular church or denomination? If this is an independent parachurch group, what do readers need to know about its roots?
Later on, there is this long passage that yields some clues -- but no specifics.
Don Tipton, 72, often speaks about his Syrian clinic in the context of protecting Israel. The evangelical Christian describes the country as “the one real land grant: God’s promise of Israel to the Jews, which was not from the Russians, not the Americans, not the U.N., certainly not the Johnny-come-lately Arabs."
For many evangelicals, the creation of the Jewish state precedes the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. ... More evangelical groups have grown to prominence in Israel over the past decade and a half, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing administration.
Tipton first met Netanyahu through a mutual friend, televangelist Pat Robertson.
Uh -- there are Arabs in the region who worship in churches that have been there since the time of Jesus. They are not exactly "Johnny-come-lately" Arabs. So there is that.
I imagine that the USA Today editors thought that saying "evangelicals" and mentioning Tipton's friend Pat Robertson was enough ID for this kind of story.
I would say "no." The worlds of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity are large and complex. Readers still don't know much about who these "do-gooders" are, in terms of specific motives and money.
There is another bite of Tipton information later:
Using his vast social network, Don Tipton collected funds to start an aid organization he called “Friend Ships,” which over the years donated goods to Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands. From its current base in Lake Charles, La. -- which Tipton christened “Port Mercy” -- he said his organization has delivered food and supplies donated from more than 2,000 corporations.
OK, it is possible to look up that organization, with a few clicks of a mouse. Here is its mission statement:
Friend Ships Unlimited (AKA Park West Children's Fund, Inc.) is dedicated to fulfilling the Biblical scriptures that teach us to help people in times of need and to encourage others to do likewise. The organization works through the collection, delivery and distribution of food, medical supplies, clothing, and building materials and by providing medical services and disaster relief and training. We provide aid to people of all races, nationalities, and religion. Programs give help to children, families and individuals who are impoverished, refugees and/or victims of natural disaster and to the institutions who assist them. Friend Ships operates with all full time and part time unpaid volunteers, working within the US and in many areas around the world.
To me, the most amazing part of this USA Today story, in terms of readers are told, is about this project's ties into the Israeli military.
Since June 2016, Israeli soldiers have transferred food, clothes, construction equipment and medical supplies over the border fence that separates the two countries on the Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers have also whisked thousands of Syrians -- usually at night to avoid detection -- to hospitals in Israeli for life-saving treatment.
The idea is that helping Syrians who were raised to hate Israel might persuade them to prevent the establishment of terrorist factions from Iran or elsewhere in areas along the border.
As part of the “Good Neighbor” program, the Israeli army also provides logistics and protection for Tipton’s pediatric clinic, located on a former Israeli military base near the Israeli-Syrian border. The soldiers perform airport-like security checks on Syrians who come in for treatment and are on call to respond if the clinic is caught in the crossfire of the war zone.
More questions: Are there other religious groups involved, or is Tipton's team (generic and with no denominational ties to anyone) alone?
I am also curious to know if these American Christians have made any attempts to reach out to Syrian Christians -- Orthodox, Catholic or otherwise. You see, there are often tensions between Christian Zionists (to use a popular label) and the persecuted believers in the ancient, liturgical churches who do not consider themselves "Johnny-come-lately" Arabs.
So we end up with an interesting story, but one with a big hole. To be blunt: Who ARE these people?