Threads from the past always weave a fascinating albeit sometimes tangled tapestry with modern Israel. But this year, a Christmas celebration in Jaffa will braid together the past and present together into humble but shining example of true goodwill on earth. And if one of Jaffa’s most famous residents of yore — Dorcas — were still living, she would certainly approve.

 

Ancient Jaffa (also called Joppa) lays cheek-to-jowl with modern Tel Aviv, and in large part, has been replaced by Tel Aviv in commercial importance. But long ago, Jaffa’s ancient, natural harbor was the shipping hub and figured prominently in many Bible stories. It was from Jaffa that the reluctant prophet Jonah determinedly sailed away from his preaching assignment in Nineveh. It was in Jaffa that a hungry Simon Peter was offered an amazing banquet of “unclean animals” while awaiting a call to dinner at the house of Simon the tanner. At that same time and place, he received the shattering revelation that God was calling Gentiles to faith in Jesus Christ, not just Jews.

 

It was also in Jaffa where a woman — Dorcas — built a church with a needle. That church still thrives, and amazingly, so does the giving spirit of Dorcas.

 

Anywhere men go down to the sea in boats to seek their fortune, along with the tang of salt in the air, there are widows and orphans, the human wreckage washed up by ill tides. Ancient Jaffa had its share of human flotsam. While the poverty-stricken may not be the target demographic of some church planners, these were Dorcas’ people. So she clothed them. (Acts 9)

 

Then Dorcas fell ill and died of some unnamed malady, leaving the poor in a state of helpless grief. They sent for Peter, perhaps to speak the eulogy, perhaps hopeful that Peter could do something like he had for a local paralytic who had been healed. (Also mentioned in Acts 9.) Peter prayed and God restored Dorcas to life and to her work with the poor. In the early church, it is certain there were many leaders who fell ill and died, but only this woman who engaged in a humble ministry to the less fortunate was important enough for God to bring back from the dead so her work could continue — a poignant lesson to us all. 

 

Again Dorcas and her work lives in Christmas 2005, thanks to a church in the very shadow of the house of Simon the tanner and the sun-dazzled stone mazes of Jaffa. Most tourists will not find this church by themselves. Tucked in a winding alleyway and built on landlocked ancient foundations, this spectacularly beautiful Eastern Orthodox church was scorched by fire 15 years before. Restored, its murals gleam today with pristine beauty. But like all functioning churches, the real story is not in the beauty of its windows and furnishings but in the spiritual life of its congregation. And this little church shines with a rare beauty beyond antiquities and treasures.

 

The church’s congregation is admittedly poor in gold and earthly treasures and is largely comprised of the faithful swept in during the Russian immigration or low-paid foreign domestics and caretakers of the elderly working in Israel on work visas. But, says their shepherd, a joyful, dark-eyed man, they are eager for the Word and the three services weekly in Russian, Romanian, and Serb-Croatian are standing room only.

 

“We consider Dorcas the mother of our church,” he said.

 

In the spirit of helping the poor, they remember Dorcas at Christmas by collecting good used clothing, washing and repairing them, and distributing them to the needy. It is a matter of the poor helping the poorer.

 

Although Israel boasts of a rising middleclass and a good standard of living, there are still those who need help for one reason or another. One doesn’t have to go far to see who the needy are. On the street corner amid traffic stood an elderly skinny Anglo, cup-in-hand, gravely asking for help. Many of the needy are elderly who also came to Israel during the Russian immigration and don’t speak Hebrew. They are finding it hard to make a living in a young country where charities are few.

 

But at Christmas this year, when the cold winter rains blow in off the sea, the church in Jaffa led by the spirit of Dorcas will still be being built one stitch at a time. And like the faithful woman who lived so long ago, they will do what they can to clothe the naked as if they were clothing the Christ Child Himself.


Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women e-zine, a publisher at Jubilant Press, and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth. She can be contacted for comments or speaking engagements at  rebekahmontgomery.com