Today we journeyed to Bethlehem (pictured above). No star to guide us, but walls to divide us, and to divide the Palestinian people.
Once we passed through the wall, we headed to the Shepherd’s Field, where shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night. This was without a doubt my favorite place we have visited so far in terms of the main “Jesus sites.”
Perhaps it was because we got there early and had the place to ourselves or because the skies we saw were the same ones they saw, but it felt more intimate, more real.
We walked around an archeological area into a cave, and the bishop went further into the cave once he had a flashlight, and I followed. I was a bit dubious when I had to get on my hands and knees (I was wearing white) and crawl, but I kept moving forward until we came to small “stairs” carved into the cave.
The whole time I am praying, “Please God, not an earthquake today.” Finally, light was at the end of the tunnel, and we emerged from a hole on the other side of the fence that said “Danger, Do not cross.”
So now, whenever I speak about the hills and rocky caves in Bethlehem, I will have a reference point. Good way to begin a tour.
We headed to the church there, which was simple and beautiful, and we sang all the shepherd Christmas songs. As I sang “Angels We Have Heard on High” I wept. It felt real and powerful and beautiful. And somehow knowing that a host of angels came to a group of outcasts at the edge of a small town to proclaim “Good Tidings of Great Joy for All People “ gave me hope, even as we looked out at a settlement of Israelis which was on land land from Palestinian Christians. These people need that same hope.
After getting my photo taken with a lamb outside the gate (yeah, I know, so touristy … but I like that every once in awhile and I like little lambs) and shopping at a cooperative that aids the poor of Bethlehem, we headed to Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem.
Their pastor, Pastor Munther Isaac, worked first as a civil engineer before his call to theology and then ministry . He has a PhD from Oxford but was just ordained and has the heart of a pastor. I was moved by his humble passion.
He shared with us that Protestants are about 8 percent of the 45,000 Christians in the occupied territories. But their numbers are going down. Because of their restrictions of movement and the lack of access to water, people get fed up and leave, and when they do, their land is taken by the Israeli government.
He said they live in peace with their Muslim neighbors, and the Palestinian Authority treats them well, but it is very hard, as they are so few and the world seems to be putting more emphasis on religion, not just their identity as Palestinians.
When I asked him what he wanted people to know, he said, “I want people to know that we Palestinian Christians exist and that they have brothers and sisters here who need their support and prayers more than ever. We live in an historically significant time, and we are headed for another flash point. Because our numbers are small, we are in a crisis for Christians in the Holy Land.
“Our perception here is that the world doesn’t care that the future of Christianity in the Holy Land is stark. So I ask, are you willing to take a stand? Are you willing to speak up for Palestinian Christians in the Middle East?
“People want to not cause problems. To not offend people by standing up for the rights of Palestinians. But this is a matter of justice. Palestinian Christians should have rights, and we need to advocate for them.
“This is a church that is struggling to survive because of oppression and occupation. There is an urgent need to know that you care. Small initiatives to show that you care matter to us. Sending us notes, telling us that you are praying for us and advocating for our rights. You have sisters and brothers in Christ, and you need to hear their cries.”
He went on to say that most people who come to Bethlehem don’t hear the stories of Palestinian Christians. They come in fear into the West Bank, spend two hours at the sites and leave. He called it “running where Jesus walked.” He said “A real pilgrimage is to listen to stories of the people. Not just run in fear and leave.”
When I asked about the stories I could share, he said he would just visualize who sits where on a Sunday morning and tell me their pain. Like the Palestinian man who married a Bolivian woman. The Israeli government won’t let her come here. If a Palestinian marries an American, and they decide to live in America, the Palestinian will not be permitted to come back to the West Bank.
He told the story of how the settlements wanted to take the land of a farmer who had farmed the land for countless generations. The family had to stay there 24 hours a day. The Israeli government authorities cut off their electricity and water, but still they stayed. They are trying to fight it in court, but the decisions are made by those who oppose the Palestinians being there. He said they say it is about security, but really it is about land grabs. Taking land that is not theirs.
Pastor Munther shared that he knows the way is hard, but he wants to be a pastor, and he talked about working on children’s ministry and Bible study and pastoral care.
He is a noted theologian — an expert on the land and what people think the Bible says and what it actually says about the promised land and God’s chosen people. When he worked at an ecumenical Bible college, he challenged evangelicals to focus on mission and justice, which is needed now, and not prophecy, which is speculative. I was deeply impressed and deeply moved by his sincerity, intelligence and commitment.
From there, we headed to Aida Refugee Camp, which has about 5,000 residents living in two city blocks (low-rise housing.) The refugees originally came from towns and cities all over Israel/Palestine after their land was taken from them in 1948.
The leader of our cooking class, Islam, was born in the camp. She is the mother of six children, one of whom had a disability. She told us that it was considered shameful to have a child with any disabilities and that the schools did not have the resources to help them.
She started this cooking classes to help provide funds so that her differently abled child, as well as others in the camp (currently there are 125) would receive care, therapies, and an education. They also provide home stays to give people a chance to understand what life in a refugee camp is like and with the help of some foreign volunteers, were able to produce a cookbook they sell to benefit the children.
The class was nothing short of pure joy. We learned how to chop in a Palestinian way, were schooled in proper techniques of deep-frying, prepared and learned about spices, as well as presentation. For them to provide such a welcome service and share their wisdom and knowledge was astounding.
These are not poor pathetic women. They are fierce, powerful, loving, hospitable, gracious and kind. They were born into nothing, but they are determined to make something of their lives.
I was reminded again of my great good fortune — a freak of nature — that I was born when and where I was. Anyone who looks down on refugees doesn’t get it. These are the Darwinian best a society has to offer — the survival of the fittest.
I suspect more than a few of us would fail miserably and be overcome by grief and despair. The next time I want to complain about a First World problem, I will need to take a deep gut check and remember Islam and her sister entrepreneurs, who will do whatever it takes for their children.
After our feast — and a feast it was- — of Maqlubah, an amazing dish of vermicelli, rice, vegetables and chicken, a salad and dessert called Basbussa, which was coconut heaven — I washed dishes with Rania, a woman who had been widowed for 13 years with five children, the oldest of whom was 18. Her husband was strangled during the Second Intifada by Israeli soldiers, and she knew pain and sorrow, but lived in joy.
As we left the camp, the words of one of our hosts rung in my ears. “We see the world with two eyes. One sees the suffering we face and the horrible conditions. The other sees the joy the world offers. We need to see and be aware of both.”
They refuse to be defeated but also to ignore their reality and not do what they can to change it, in whatever way they can.
Today I was reminded that I need to see with my eyes the suffering of the world, and of these people who have lived in a concrete jungle of a refugee camp their whole lives, and share it with others but also remember their joy and determination and relentless pursuit of what is best for their children.
Because as Rania said to me, “We are both single mothers, so we understand.” And because I understand, I will work for justice — for all God’s children. Especially the forgotten disabled children of Aida.