I began today as a tourist, shopping, supporting the Bethlehem Christian community. I felt the rush that we all feel as we purchase and receive, what control!
I was quickly humbled by the reminder that there is so much outside of my grasp that I have no idea how to control.
Once in Royal David’s City
The scenery into Bethlehem (“house of bread”) from Jerusalem reminded me of how the scene change must’ve been for the same rout 2000 years ago. Bethlehem looked much… poorer, weaker, more humble? Perhaps. Compared to the largest city in Israel, it didn’t seem desolate, but definately outmatched in terms of resources.
2000 years later, it’s still a humble town.
Bethlehem is in Palestinian occupied territory and we needed to drive through security to get there. We were told we may need our passports to get back in when we return to Jerusalem. With an economy based almost completely on tourism, the Christian population of Bethlehem (roughly 40%) were happy to see us arrive in our luxurious tour bus.
After making a shopping stop, we headed to the Dheisheh (pronounced De HAY shuh) Refugee Camp.
When we arrived in a neighborhood with graffiti walls and trash all over we were lead off the bus into the gates of the camp. We did not see what we were expecting.
Instead of tents we saw apartments (they looked like multi-story barracks to me). Instead of people working fields, we saw almost no bare grass at all. We didn’t see fencing surrounding the camp, instead there was a wall whose gate, at least for the time being, was left open.
We were met by Ishril, a 22 year-old man who was born inside the camp. As he led us inside the center of the camp, I decided that these conditions were actually worse than I might’ve expected.
Ishril sat us down in a room full of “trinkets” that the women of the camp made to sell. He explained to us that in 1948, Palestinians were forced out of their homes with force by the Israelis. For one year the refugees camped outside the border, unwilling to just give up and walk away from their home land that had been taken from them.
One year later, in 1949 the United Nations brought in tents for them to sleep under and the refugees remained steadfast that someday soon, their help would come and they would be allowed to return home.
Some seven to eight years later, the U.N. began to help construct housing “apartments” that despite their small size, are still shared between several families.
Today, despite two U.N. Resolutions stating that the Palestinians be allowed to return home, they are forbidden to do so.
Some 13,000 residents of the camp live in a walled-in area roughly 1.5 square kilometers.
There is one doctor.
There are 20 teachers that share two schools (one meets in the morning, and one in the afternoon) because there is not enough space for the 3500 kids in the camp to attend at the same time. None of the 20 teachers are qualified as we would define it which is just as well because nobody in the camp can afford to pay for any type of what we would call “quality” education.
The majority of the camp has water and electricity, although it is more expensive because they have to pay the Palestinian authorities who have to pay the Israelis for the water.
Two times a week the Israeli army comes into the camp. Sometimes to make patrol or make arrests, and sometimes to train.
Ishril told us a story about when he and his friend were coming back through the checkpoint and three Israeli soldiers asked to see his ID. His friend showed his first. Realizing that they were born in the camp, the Israeli soldiers decided to “play a little game.” They wrote on a few pieces of paper and folded it up.
Ihsril’s friend picked the one that said “Break his arm.” Two of the soldiers grabbed his friend from either side while the third feigned pistol whipping his arm. All three soldiers laughed at how frightened he’d become.
When you face that type of treatment in that type of environment, Ishril pleaded, there are only three ways a young person can react.
1) They can become psychologically broken and give up aspirations, dreams, potential, and confidence.
2) They can become defiant and even violent. He talked about the kids who throw rocks. Even those who wake up in the middle of the night to go outside to throw rocks. “It’s not what they make it seem on TV, please know that,” he warned. Or
3) They can educate themselves and others to try to work towards a solution.
This very sweet, articulate, caring young man was quite honest about his trust in those leaders and officials that claim they want peace and equality. Since 1948 his family has been kept from their homes and even some 65 years later, there is no hope for anything different in the near future. Thus, despite all the talking, there wasn’t much trust to be had.
I was overwhelmed by what I had heard. We stood to follow him out the door for a tour of the camp.
It grew hard to hear him, though.
We had to stay in a narrower, deep pack because there was not a wide space between the housing and the wall. It grew harder and harder to hear Ishril, but frankly, I didn’t really know how much I could hear.
I became so angry, I could kick the wall.
I thought of what I would write to explain the situation or my feelings.
It is not my intention to advocate for a certain political view or even religious culture. I know far too little about politics AND religion. I’m not even able to offer a solution. The closer I get to understanding the conflict in this region, the more I understand how little I know.
As the thoughts raced through my mind, I hear a polite, “Hello, excuse me please.”
A man with his daughter by the hand was trying to walk through us to get wherever they were going. I shook my head. It’s just not fair. It’s just not fair for that little girl to know what she already knows and see what she’s already seen. It’s just not fair for that father because I KNOW he wants something different for her than what he has and had. It’s just not fair.
I choked back tears in some mix between grief, shock, and anger. What I was feeling wasn’t political. It wasn’t religious. It was human.
The kids began to come out of area. 6 to 8 of them. They came up to us playfully almost like dolphins in the sea approaching the boat of spectators. They seemed happy, joyful, and certainly not shy.
They tickled each other, posed for our pictures, and kept saying in broken, high-pitched English, “Hello. Hello. Hello!”, hoping that everybody in our group would acknowledge them.
Once our group started heading back towards the bus, I stayed back to compose myself. These kids, so happy now, have such an uphill battle to climb. I wondered if the climb is even possible.
As I went to catch up to the group, a pack of boys began to run along side my fast walking steps.
“What’s your name?” One boy asked boldly. I turned around and stopped. Abruptly as they could, the five boys stopped too.
I laughed but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that I was surprised at his English. Maybe I was touched by his courage, his spunk. He sure was cute.
“My name is Neal.”
He looked at me like I just said supercalifragilisticexpialodocious.
This time it was much more confused. “What’s your name?”
“Ne-Uhl” I said very slowly, with a smile.
He repeated it over and over, each time with a little less help from me, until he had it.
“What’s your name?” I asked slowly. He looked almost panicked. This conversation turned to a part of English he was not prepared for. He turned to the tallest boy behind him who told him something in Arabic. Immediately, he looked relieved and regained his confidence.
“My name is Mohommed.” he told me proudly.
Mohommed is a name that scares many Americans. Mohommed is also the psuedonym many of us use when we’re using jokes or slurs.
This Mohommed was not a threat. This Mohommed was not a terrorist. This Mohommed was an eight year-old boy.
Each time I went to talk to Mohommed, it became a little more impossible to make a sound with my choked back tears. I made sure on my way out I made sure to hug Ishril goodbye.
Bob told me to hang back and take my time.
Bob gets me.
I turned back to the boys again. Ishrim – one of Mohommed’s friends – and I exchanged pleasantries as well.
I asked, “How old are you, Mohammed?”
It was like I threw him the hanging curveball he’d been hoping for.
“I am eight.” he said.
“I am twenty eight.” I showed him with my hands. God, I miss when my age and my hands made easier sense.
He repeated again, as if he was trying to memorize it.
Bob came up to talk with us for a few moments too.
Ya know, it wasn’t the most complicated conversation that I had today. It might not have even been the most interesting. All we did really, was try to memorize each other’s names. (“Bob” made much more sense to their tongues than “Neal.”)
But it will forever be the most memorable conversation I had in all of Israel.
As I turned to get back on the bus as the kids chased after me, (“Please one money, one money, please!”) I couldn’t hold back the tears.
Phil was there, he got pictures of the whole conversation. There’s a great picture of us old boys talking with those young boys, laughing and goofing.
I can’t show you any of the pictures though, Phil has pretty strict standards about posting pictures of kids on the internet without parental permission.
You may still get to see that picture though. It will be framed on my wall, and I will look at it every time I think of how fortunate and lucky I am to be where I am with who I am with. I will often look at it and pray for justice, and peace, safety and deliverance from evil. And when I do, I will be sure to pray for Mohommed too.
The Cave of the Nativity
There is no transition from my conversation with Mohammed to our visit at the Cave of the Nativity. And in our day, there was no transition either. He was all I thought about even as I exited the bus up to the church (now, churches) built on top of the cave (stable) and exact spot where it is believed Jesus was born.
Standing in line, I bought a few candles to burn in prayer inside the church. This whole time I have been praying for me and my loved ones, but I knew exactly who I would be praying for this afternoon.
I lit the candle and said my prayers not just for the ones I love, but for Mohommed and the ones that he loves too.
My heart began to open up to the similarities between one strong little boy born with nothing, in the middle of near obscurity, with a steep hill to climb.
We climbed practically moving from a line 10 people wide, narrowing into a single file line as we climbed into the cave where the nativity took place.
During my descent into the cave, it hit me. Yes, God does small miracles in small ways. But, staring at the manger, I felt a sense of peace. In the tinyest, darkest of places, God, can, and does, BIG miracles against BIG odds, too! Thanks be to God.
Our group huddled together in the corner of the cave, had a prayer, and sang Silent Night. I will never forget it. In all the ways God gives us birth, rebirth, new life, and life renewed, I am truly humble and thankful.
The Nativity Cave was not what I expected, it was better, and just what I needed.
We went downstairs into through the catholic church into the caves where St Jerome, against the will of many religious authorities, translated the Scriptures from Hebrew to Latin.
I guess writers cramp is a small price to pay for the good of the people, eh?
From there we had lunch and headed to the shepherds fields.
It’s not really possible to top the Cave of the Nativity, but we found a good way to wash it down for the day!
Near the Boaz fields (as in Boaz, Ruth’s husband) were the fields many believe hosted the Angel’s proclamation that Jesus had been born!
We walked past the fields where the Shepherds were watching their flock and most likely sleeping right beside them (in this cold weather, I am easily reminded of how nice if not necessary it would be to snuggle up with some extra wool) into a chapel on a hill. Noting the incredible acoustics and the fact that we were miraculously alone, we circled around the chapel and sand “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. Noting our intonation, it occurs that we still have reason to believe in miracles after all.
After that, we headed towards the cave where the first church was on these fields. In almost near darkness but complete stillness we read the Angel’s proclamation (“And in that region there were shepherds watching over their flock by night…” Luke 2:8-17).
Casey reminded us: perhaps these humble shepherds, so willing to drop what they were doing to see what had happened in Bethlehem. Or perhaps, the call was not just for them, yet, they were the only ones who were able to hear it. So many times in our lives we are busy, cluttered even. May we be able to break away from the binds of stress and that which is not as important or urgent as it seems to be able to see, experience, and revel in, what God is doing now!
Our Way Back
On our way back in to Jerusalem, we stopped at the checkpoint where two young men in fatigues boarded the bus. The one who walked past me with an automatic weapon hanging from his neck could not have been anywhere close to my age (28). He said, “hello, how are you doing?” as he smiled, assuring us that we had nothing to worry about. In that strange setting, I think many of us felt safe and secure.
I immediately thought of Mohommed. Would he have felt the same way? Would he have gotten a smile and a wave?
I’m Just Thinking
It’s been harder for me to sleep at night, and I suspect it has been for many of us. For me, I think it’s the anxiety.
Half of it is the anxiety behind knowing that my time here is almost over. Half of it is because of the cultural climate, intensity, and tension of this city.
I wonder how Jesus felt during his last time in Jerusalem because certainly both were true for him.
I do calm down when I remember and embrace the home that I am going home to. Did Jesus do the same?
Though so much has changed in 2000 years, I feel very much a part of the emotional terrain of the holy land, then and now.
And speaking of emotion in the holy land, on to the culmination.
Tomorrow is the biggie.
We will head into the Old City (of Jerusalem), visit the Dome, the 3rd most holy Islamic site, then head off to Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross), The Garden of Gethsemane, and The Upper Room.
Friends and Family, please know that as we experience the emotions of these final days we bear you in our hearts and prayers and give thanks for you.
Shalom until tomorrow.
A Prayer for Mohommed
Faithful, Everlasting God, you have reminded us time and time again of your ability to do huge things in tiny places, to do grandiose miracles amidst meager circumstances. None are as big of a reminder as that tiny baby Jesus in that tiny cave, in that tiny town, two thousand years ago. May you continue to remind me, and the adults of this world, that it is not our might that conquers, but your love. In the midst of steep climbs and odds that seem insurmountable, grant us the humility and courage to rely on you and claim you, and your miracles. Keep us ever attentive to when our arms, feet, shoulders, or time, will be needed in bringing that miracle to light. May we come running to your call as quickly as the shepherds did, and may we be willing to leave behind whatever we thought we knew as quickly as they did two thousand years ago.
For a boy that right now knows no better than to smile, may you give him confidence and courage to smile, love, and persevere. Will you give him the comfort when he begins to look up that mountain he has to hike. Will you give him patience when he realizes that education is not at all the easy way out. When he feels afraid and abandoned I pray that you will comfort and shelter him. Will you inspire in his giant-sized heart, the power to bear your love to others around him.
And God, when he feels abandoned, as if the rest of the world has forgotten about him, please, let me be living my life in such a way, where he isn’t right.