A story in four acts.
The first act involves the land and nature. We visited the Environmental Education Center, a ministry of the Lutheran Church, on the campus of the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School. Michael, the very knowledgeable and passionate ornithologist on staff, showed us around their wonderful center.
There we saw the botanical garden with only indigenous plants, tasted the sweet cocoa-like pod of the carob tree, smelled the type of thyme used in za’atar, the ubiquitous Palestinian mix of spices, learned about the medicinal value of the eucalyptus tree and enjoyed a short a forest nature walk.
We learned of the challenges of “vagrant” birds that come into another bird’s nests, kill the babies and take the nest for themselves. Having visited Hebron the day before, the comparison was not lost on us.
He was most excited to show us their bird-banding station, where they catch, band and release birds to follow their migratory patterns. Over 500 million birds migrate from Europe to Africa and back each year via Israel/Palestine, as the land bridge between continents, the same reason it has been vital to humans throughout history.
He shared with us some of the challenges presented by Israel’s separation wall — it affects the migratory paths of animals and limits the ability to move freely to do research — impacting both the environment and its caretakers.
The highlight of this visit for me was the opportunity to release one of the birds they had banded — a tiny migratory bird called a red star that was placed on my hand before it flew off, uninhibited by walls and able to move freely.
The second act is a story of art and culture, when we visited yet another amazing ministry of the Lutheran Church, Dar Al-Kalima, a university of arts and culture.
Angie, who works in their PR department, shared with us how rare a university like this is, in a society where most parents want their children to be doctors or lawyers. Here people come to study art, dance, music and filmmaking.
She said these are vital exports, since so many people see Palestine through the false lens of terror, and they wish to be ambassadors of beauty and dignity. She was so happy that we had come to see them and hear their stories. Too often, Angie said, people come to just look at the stones on the ground, but the people are the living stones whose stories we need to hear.
The vision of Diyar (the whole consortium of ministries that Christmas Lutheran Church has given birth to) is to create room for hope, to reach the people of Palestine “from the womb to the tomb.” Their founder, Mitri Raheb, believes that people focus too much on politics when they think of Palestine and that they offer so much more. They emphasize the need for the arts and culture, which are like a breath for the soul to help make a person whole, to help develop the story of the real Palestine that has been pushed aside by the ravages of occupation.
The theme verse at this Lutheran University is John 10:10 — to have life and have it abundantly, so that people don’t just survive, that they thrive. Diyar is located in Bethlehem, and that is where the word became flesh, and they want people to see the image of God in each other — in the flesh around them — as a bridge to peace.
Angie said that they have lost so many human rights that they can’t count anymore, so they want to focus on the people and the gifts of the arts to bring joy back to life.
After getting a tour from Angie, we met with the Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Nuha Khoury, a gracious and beautiful woman who spoke eloquently and expressively. She said Dar All-Kalima is a beautiful space — which indeed it is — because they want to “attack the students with beauty.” There is so much ugliness outside and they wanted a respite here.
She told us that Dar Al-Kalima is committed to sharing the elegant grace of the Palestinian people, in a program that is unique in their country, by nourishing the talents of young people (and adults of every age as well), who can use a film or a painting or their music to go further than words ever could to capture the beauty of a people and their culture, to show the world who the Palestinian people really are. In a world where people know the bad and the ugly, they want to be the good.
The goal is to be a place that shows the hope of a people who experience beauty in their art and culture and who want to be known for that. It truly was a place full of abundant life.
The third act involves identity, as we visited with Pastor Ashraf Tannous of the Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour.
He told us he wants to be seen first of all a human being, then an Arab Palestinian, a Semite, a Christian, a refugee and a Lutheran pastor.
First and foremost, he was created in the image of God. This identity is most important.
Then he is an Arab Palestinian. That is his nationality. Arabs are connected by language — Arabic — not religion. You can be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jewish Arab — and people need to know that. And Palestinian is his nationality.
He is also a Semite because he speaks a Semitic language — which means a language that originated in the Middle East, such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. He said Palestinians can’t be anti-Semitic because they are Semites, and you can’t be anti yourself!
He reminded us that Arabs and Jews have Semitic roots. The state of Israel is a Jewish State. Judaism is a religion and not a nationality, either. He said that Israelis say they are a democracy so they can’t say they are a religious state — but they divide people by race. If that weren’t the case, a Palestinian who was a Jew could have freedoms. But they don’t. So this is an issue of dividing people by their race and ethnicity. It is a separation by race.
He went on to say that he was a Christian but that his Christianity was not a product of Western society. It wasn’t brought here by others as a “mission field.”
The first mission field was the Shepherd’s Field, and he won’t let others colonize his Christianity.
He went on to tell us that he was a refugee. His father was born in a camp, and because of that, he is a refugee and so is his son. What that means to him, he said he was unsure. Do I want to kick out the people who are living in my grandfather’s house? The house that my ancestors built but was taken from them?
The situation is complicated, but because his family home was taken, he has no hometown to name. So he is a refugee.
And finally, he is a Lutheran pastor. He finds his identity in service to others. He chooses to give back and in spite of the oppression and struggle, he chooses to live in hope.
He shared with us one of the last words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow Lutheran pastor who went to his death for siding with the those who were standing up to oppression of Jews and others during World War II. Before he died, he said, “A faith that does not hope is sick.”
Ashraf agrees with Bonhoeffer and also believes that faith without serving and working for reconciliation and justice is also sick, So he serves as a pastor.
He lives as a human, Arab, Palestinian, Semitic, Christian, refugee Lutheran pastor, finding his identity in each and his hope in Christ.
The final act is one of devotion. We went to the Church of the Holy Nativity, where history has said for over 1,700 years that Jesus was born.
The line was long and the rest of the group did not want to wait in it, but Betsie and I did. We came all the way to Bethlehem, so we figured we had to make room to see the place where the manger lay. We told our group we would take a taxi back to the hotel, and we waited in line.
Do we know that Jesus was actually born there? Hardly. But nonetheless, throughout history this place has been honored — from empire to empire, generation to generation. So it is made holy in that alone.
For me, the process of the 45-minute wait with the crowds was worth it. Was it a jostling group of people? Yes. But our focus was the same — to visit and see, to experience, to place my hand on a spot where millions have placed their hands before me, in an act of pilgrimage. To see where the baby lay.
The holiness was found in a shared faith, in the singing with a group from so many nations of “Silent Night” in the cave where a manger once laid, in the recognition that I am part of something bigger than myself, that expands before and behind me, world without end. That word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we are the living stones that reflect the message that Jesus spread.
So the play tells of us the land, the culture, identity and finally, why we all care so much. Each part is filled with blood-stained tears and horror, but also hope.
It is that hope to which we cling until the curtain goes down, knowing that God, in the end, takes the final bow — and love wins.