Breaking down barriers
Sister Sylvia broke down barriers as one of “God’s commandos”
Throughout history, the city of Jerusalem has been the site of conflict. The site has been changing hands between rival groups for almost 1,000 years. For the last 60 years, Arabs and Israelis have been fighting over land both sides see as their own. More and more it is a third religion, Christianity, that is stepping into the situation as a moderating voice.
Sister Sylvia Countess, a member of the Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), served as Assistant to the Director of Schools for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands (ELCJHL). But to understand what Sister Sylvia was doing in Jerusalem, you must understand where she came from.
Life’s winding course
The sixth of seven children, Sister Sylvia was born in 1940 in Eastern Pennsylvania to a Pennsylvania German farm family. She graduated from nearby Muhlenberg College in 1962, married after meeting her husband her senior year of college, and moved to East Tennessee where she taught French and Spanish at Oak Ridge High School. Countess earned an M. S. in Curriculum and Instruction, while raising two sons, Jonathan and Benjamin.
But then, after her thirty-seven years of teaching and a decade filled with family stress and health problems, her husband Bill died in 1998. Sensing herself at a crossroads, Sister Sylvia took a big step and enrolled at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.
Refinding an old vocation
I am continually surprised by those who think that diaconal service is synonymous with doormat meekness...
Before entering seminary Countess made a visit to the Deaconess Center. Her childhood pastor first mentioned that the Deaconess Community might be a good fit for her due to her church involvement and love for religious books. “Perhaps he suggested the diaconate because, at that time, women were not eligible for ordination. Or maybe he recognized that I was better suited to work on the edges of the church than inside a parish,” notes Countess. However, Countess’ decision to marry prevented her from joining the community after college because at that time deaconesses were still required to be single.
Now eligible for investiture, Sister Sylvia entered the Community and was invested as a Deaconess in 2001 after completing one year in the seminary and a summer as a hospital chaplain. “I have since discovered that my forty-year interval between exposure and entrance to the Deaconess Community was not a detour, but a preparation for service,” says Countess.
Life as a sister
After investiture in the Deaconess Community, Sister Sylvia graduated from the seminary in 2002 with an M.A. A year of clinical pastoral education at the University of Tennessee Medical Center followed. Countess was then approved as eligible for first call in 2003 and worked as a hospital chaplain for the Baptist Health System of East Tennessee in the year and a half interim.
“After that, things seemed to stall and sputter,” notes Countess. “My nineteen applications for full-time chaplain and parish positions were all rejected.” In March of 2005, while still working on a temporary contract as a part-time hospital chaplain, Countess noticed three positions on the Division of Global Missions (DGM) web site of the ELCA. Sister Sylvia decided to apply for a position in Jerusalem, Cameroon or Japan, thinking one more rejection couldn’t hurt. “This time was different; two months after my interview with the DGM staff I was off for Palestine.”
Seeking peace, not walls, in Jerusalem
“My job here had me under call by the DGM of the ELCA as Assistant to the Director of Schools of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land,” says Countess. “The schools serve about 2000 students, 40 percent are Muslim, 44 percent Eastern Greek Orthodox, 6 percent are Lutheran; the other 10 percent represent other Christian groups. We were the first schools to offer education to boys and girls and to Muslims and Christians alike.”
The chance to work in such a historic place is not lost on Sister Sylvia. “Every day I had the opportunity to work in this historic home of three major religions, and to see in those around me inspiring examples of faith and courage in the midst of difficult living conditions.”
Comprising 20 percent of the population of the Holy Land a century ago, Christian numbers have dropped alarmingly in recent years to a present 2 percent of total inhabitants. “The Occupation and economic problems caused by the Separation Wall (a large, controversial wall that runs through Jerusalem) are major factors for this emigration,” says Sister Sylvia. “Bishop Younan of the ELCJHL has called on fellow Christians here to be peacemakers and bridge builders.”
Sister Sylvia was not the first Deaconess to serve in the area or with the schools. The original German Lutheran deaconesses from Kaiserswerth, Germany, came to serve as nurses in Augusta Victoria Hospital, on the very grounds where she now lives and to found one of the schools where Sister Sylvia works. “I feel humble and grateful to have followed in their footsteps,” says Countess. “I am continually surprised by those who think that diaconal service is synonymous with doormat meekness and that deaconesses are women who couldn’t “make the grade” to become pastors. As those 19th century women who crossed oceans to serve as God’s agents proved, they lacked neither courage nor resourcefulness, and neither does the modern diaconate.”
One of “God’s commandos”
“When I first went to Jerusalem my sons were worried for my safety and security.” But her sons trusted their mom’s judgment and now jokingly refer to her as one of God’s commandos. “But there is pride and respect in the comment,” she adds.
By using her experience as a teacher, her training as a chaplain and her identity as a Deaconess, Sister Sylvia helped tear down walls, both ideological and physical. “I think God always planned for me to do that work in that place at that time. I needed, however, the varied experiences of my life to prepare me.”