The Atonement Academy school of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish in San Antonio, Texas, sent their package of letters1 from every child in their school to the children of the Latin Patriarchal school in Ain Arik of the Palestinian Territories.

The Atonement Academy school of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish in San Antonio, Texas, sent their package of letters1 from every child in their school to the children of the Latin Patriarchate school in Ain Arik of the Palestinian Territories. The Principal, Dr. Stephen Hollingshead, and the teachers of Atonement had to struggle with how to guide the children in reaching out to a people in a far off land during a time of international crisis. For the people of Ain Arik, it is a time of extraordinary suffering with the Christian community just striving to survive. For the people of San Antonio, it is a time of national resolve and of living under a shadow war against terrorism. The Texas teachers struggled with this difference along with the cultural differences inherent in a communication between American and Arab communities during this time of war. In the end, they determined to let the Holy Spirit lead them in a natural flow from the hearts of their children.

Dr. Hollingshead led the package with a letter to his counterpart, Principal Mirvat Shamali of Ain Arik. Dr. Hollingshead thanked Ms Shamali for the ongoing communications between the schools and for the joy it brought to the students. He inquired as to ideas for a service project that the American students might be able to do for her students during Lent. Atonement parish had sent a check to cover child sponsorship grants for every class in Ain Arik registered with the HCEF Child Sponsorship Program for Christian Education Support in the Holy Land, but he was looking for something more that the children might do to make the connection more personal.

With elegance, Dr. Hollingshead continued: “We understand that it is both a privilege and a burden for you to live in the Holy Land. In the Prayers of the Faithful at our school’s daily Mass, we pray especially for those suffering in the Holy Land, so we think of you often. In a way, the Holy Land belongs to all Christians, since our salvation was worked out there. By maintaining a Christian community there, you earn the gratitude of Christians everywhere. Your work of evangelization in the Holy Land is the best hope for peace; only the Christian doctrine of mercy can overcome the logic of revenge that pervades the politics of your region. I hope it is some comfort to you to know that our prayers are with you.”

The package sent along with the letter included 10 large envelopes containing letters written by each of the children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades at Atonement Academy. The pre-kindergarten class sent two group photographs, one with the teacher, Mrs. Castello, and the other with her helper, Eve Waugh. They wrote: “I hope our letters will bring you as much joy and happiness as your letters brought us… I pray everyday you are safe.” They would ask each of the children to say something to their friends in Ain Arik, and the teacher would then jot it down on a page along with drawings by the children. The quotes included: “I would like to meet you tomorrow… When I grow up I am going to go see the cross of Jesus over there… I am praying for all the children over there. My brother was praying with me… Every day I will go outside the church and pray for you at the statue… I drew two babies for you. I like babies… Jesus loves us… Will you pray for me?… I love you very much… I can say blue in Spanish. It is Azul!” The drawings show their church and school, many crosses, stick figures for teachers, friends and family, incomprehensible scribbling, and an occasional attempt at a self portrait. Little Carolina drew herself as a head with legs, that reminded one of the character Mike Watzowski from the popular movie “Monsters Inc.” Hollywood readily borrows from the dreams of children.

The kindergarten class teacher, Mrs. Terri Harrold wrote a letter to her counterpart: “My Kindergarten Class has read your letters and is sending you letters with their love. Please write back to us if you can.” She attached a sheet of happy face stickers and bound all the children’s letters in a report. Just like with pre-kindergarten, she jotted the quotes of the children on a page with their drawings. The kindergarten children show a greater awareness of their surroundings and events in their lives. “My black dog went to heaven… There are five children in my family… I can tie shoes… I like to eat spaghetti… Thank you for writing those letters to us… I’m sorry you are having troubles… My mom has eight kids; one is in Mom’s tummy… God is very good. He takes care of people and He makes people safe… I’ll pray for you all.” The drawings are more advanced as well. Crayon coloring is attempted to stay inside boundary lines. Birds populate blue skies, and colorful flowers are on the ground. Alyssa drew an angel flying over a rainbow. The angel had a stick holding up her halo. I wonder if that was the rendition of the angels in the school Christmas play?

The first grade had a form letter printed out with spaces where the children could enter their names, age, favorite subject, and one thing they like to do such as “play witny freks”, “fiestexas”, “swim”, “marbles”, and “go to mass”.

[I’ll pass on the names of the “go to mass” kids to Fr. Christopher Phillips, the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Church, to watch for prospective vocations.] One can easily recognize what the children are thinking of when they attempt a drawing at this age. Why even little Dominic attempted a self portrait of him riding on his horse: a perfect Texas image to send to the West Bank. But I suspect that the horse could possibly be interpreted as a camel in another venue. Dominic was throwing a lasso under the hot Texas sun that added a nice touch. George W. should see this one.

The second graders followed the same pattern as the first graders (or could it be vise versa). Once again, the addition of a single year shows significant advancement in their drawing capabilities. Pictures are no longer just isolated objects, but are composed as full frame scenes. The children love to draw their church and school, and are rightly proud of them. Homesteads and flower gardens abound. The children are at ease with religious scenes that incorporate crosses and Eucharistic symbols. Alyssa drew a rainbow house with both her and her new friend in Ain Arik, and titled the picture “Friends Forever”. The children in the native Christian communities in the Holy Land need to hear this simple message of the children: they are not alone and have friends in America.

The third graders are advanced beyond form letters, and all wrote free style. They are very patriotic and have many American and Texas flags that adorn their letters. They write about “I am going to get a horse”, “We are praying for you”, “My cat’s name is Chewbacca”, “God bless you and your people”, “I am very sad about it because it is very sad to me and my mom and dad”, “I like to collect eggs from my chickens”, “We promise you almost every year we will try to send letters to you”, “Your friend, Texas Mackenzie.” These children are aware of the trauma that is going on in the world. “How are things in Ain Arik?… I heard that you are at war with Israel. We are at war with Afghanistan, so you are not the only ones at war!” Christopher drew a graphic scene of the attack on the World Trade Towers and wrote “I loved the note you sent. I also love you… I hope the war is almost over. And I hope you are OK.” These children are strengthened by their faith in Jesus to face and deal with reality.

Miss Holloway, the teacher for the fourth grade, had hers and each of the children’s pictures taken and taped to their composed letters. Each child also drew and attached a separate drawing sheet. The first impression is that these are very patriotic children. Each of them drew American and Texas flags along with slogans such as “In God we trust” and “United we stand.” Each child introduced themselves and told about their families and their hobbies. Other sentiments included: “The best thing I could ever do is be cool.” “I like to skate in the wrek room.” “I have a dog and three mice. I used to have fourteen mice.” “My teacher’s name is Miss Holloway. She is really smart.” “I may say so myself, I love to sing.” “I hope you get peace in Ain Arik and we are praying for you.”

The fifth grade children no longer draw: they compose under the direction of Mrs. Love. As did the fourth grade, the fifth graders talk about home, school and hobbies. Some extra topics are included in the following quotes. Stephen writes “I wrote to you last year in fourth grade… I hope you are fine.” Vanessa writes “Is it hot in Ain Arik? It is very hot in San Antonio. One time it got 103 deg F.” Justin writes “Your pictures are in the hall of our school and they are very nice… Do you remember we wrote last year?” Joey writes “I like to skate-board. That’s riding on a curved piece of wood with wheels.” Corinne finishes her letter with “I can not wait to get your letter. I will be happy when I do.”

The sixth graders are happy to write again; after all it’s not rocket science, or is it? Laura writes “Well, school started up again. It is still hot though… Here in Texas, we go swimming for fun… I also like to go into the woods and play… I cannot wait to write to you again.” Robert writes “It has been so long since I have heard from you. I’m glad to write a second time… Here in San Antonio, it has been hotter than an oven.” Evan brags about his fish “I have a fish named Fireball who can swim really fast.” Matthew identifies with his friends in Ain Arik: “Yesterday I was thinking about your picture in the hall and I thought what a beautiful place to live with the towering mountains and the beautiful village. I wish I could live there.” Garrett loves Texas: “We live in the country. There are a lot of trees here, and a lot of wild animals.” Blaise is also impressed by the pictures in the hallway: “We have many pictures of your city in the upstairs hallway of our school. I think it would be interesting to visit Ain Arik someday.” Ryan told of his rocket experiment: “I held the fire button and the rocket took off really fast… We missed where it landed. We went off and looked for it. It took a while, but we found the fuselage. We couldn’t find the nose of the rocket. The next time I go and buy something, it’ll be a nose.”

Judging from the letters of the seventh and eighth graders, the big event in San Antonio this summer was the scorching heat. The children write: “Here, it is very hot. One way to escape the heat is to go to a pool, river, or lake.” “Here in San Antonio, the heat of the summer is upon us – triple digits! Our only escape is that of a pool or sprinkler nearby.” “I went to Fiesta Texas… to ride lots of water rides!” “It is really hot here! It is almost 100 degrees.” “It is really hot with lots of moisture in the air.” “I am really getting tired of all the hot weather.”

How will the children of Ain Arik interpret hot? Ain Arik is in the lee of the Palestinian mountains. The valley that Ain Arik is nestled in opens up to the desert of the Jordanian valley. Hot is something these children know. Their houses are built of concrete and the natural limestone of the mountains, and hold the heat at bay with their sheer mass. The children only dream of pools, rivers and streams, since the occupation has resulted in the seizure of all water resources. The people of Ain Arik are allocated water only on one day per week by their occupiers. The people hold their water allocations in makeshift tanks on top of every home, and use them sparingly.

Finally, the children of Atonement Academy say: “Thank you so much again for your letters! I appreciate it so much!” “I cannot wait to get another letter from you!” “Write back soon!” “When you write back tell me all about your family and friends.” “Write back as soon as you can!”

Friends forever!

1 Beacons of Hope Program of the Holy Land Christian Education Foundation (HCEF). This program encourages partnerships between Christian schools in America and in the Holy Land.