A day in the City of David

For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11*

Where does one begin to describe this day? We have seen so much and talked to so many and experienced so much that it will take Bethlehem Universitymore than just an evening to process it all. Our first destination this morning was Manger Square and the Church of The Nativity. The sun shines bright off the white limestone buildings in Bethlehem, so entering the subdued light of the church itself lends a sense of drama. Entering through the Door of Humility, which requires one to stoop low to  pass through, the muted scent of incense greets visitors as they enter the 4th century basilica claimed by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is a dramatic moment to descend the steps to the place that tradition holds as the site of the manger in which the newborn Jesus lay. Adjacent to that cave is the Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church on the site, as well as an Armenian worship space next to the Cell of St. Jerome. Worshippers chanted their ancient litany as we toured the cave below the churches.

Dheisheh Refugee CampWe travelled by bus to Dar al Kalima (House of the Word), a college for Palestinians offering courses in music, drama, tourism, art, jewelry-making, ceramics, and assorted other arts to prepare students to enter the local workforce.   Here, the  economy is largely driven by tourism. A project of Diyar, “a Lutheran-based, ecumenically oriented organization serving the whole Palestinian community,” this college is intended to prepare young people for success in an area experiencing 30% unemployment. One of the students, George, practiced his tour guide training and praised the college and those who supported it in, what he termed, “this outdoor prison” of an occupied Bethlehem. Adjacent to the college is the Health & Wellness center, also a Diyar project, providing exercise programs, yoga, meditation, and health support for women and the elderly with recreation offerings for their children. The center’s women’s soccer team won the national championship last year, creating not only a great pride but raising up successful role models for the young girls of these occupied territories.

Entrance to the mangerWe later met with the founder and organizer of Diyar, The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor. A contextual theologian, Mitri has applied his theological learning and faith calling into a respected ministry among Palestinians in Bethlehem.  He is the recent recipient of the prestigious German Media Award for his peace-making efforts. This award is normally given to heads of state, so this was quite an honor for him and an opportunity to tell the world about the plight of the Palestinian people. Mitri’s passion for the Palestinian people is compelling, as are his efforts to generate global support for his ministries. The International Center of Bethlehem, which serves as his offices (as well as hosting our dinners for two nights and lunch today), was largely built with funding from Finland while the rooms at the college bear signs naming the mostly-American people and congregations that funded them. Mitri claims that he is only following the model of Jesus as found in Mark 1 – preaching, teaching, and healing.

During lunch, we welcomed Dr. Bernard Sabella, associate professor of sociology at Bethlehem University and deputy to the Palestinian parliament. He spoke to us about the Palestinian situation and the status of Christian Palestinians in particular. Only 1.2% of the population in Palestine is Christian, yet 50% of these Christians live in Bethlehem. Christian and Muslim Palestinians have learned to live together out of necessity, while many have left Palestine for Jordan and other countries, including Honduras, which has a population of 27,000 Palestinian Christians!

Next on the itinerary was Bethlehem University, a Catholic university founded, and still administered, by the LaSalle Brothers. A panel of several students fielded questions and spoke of their aspirations for careers but, more importantly, for freedom. Only Palestinians attend this university, 70% of them Muslims, and their movements are restricted to such a degree that they have no personal contact with Israelis. These bright young faces presented a compelling case for international attention to be brought to bear on the occupation of their lands.

Library Dar al KalimaFinally, we visited the largest of three refugee settlements in Bethlehem -- Dheisheh, inhabited by 11,000 descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians displaced by the war in 1948. We were broken into groups and invited into homes of residents of the camp, a crowded, dismal and spirit-crushing place, but the hospitality we were shown equaled any we found on the trip thus far.  Muhammad, 21, served as  family interpreter as one of his two brothers and a cousin came in and out of the house while his mother served mint tea and animatedly told us about her children and her life. The unemployment rate among refugees is 75%, and many live in houses only slightly expanded from the original 9x9 concrete buildings built by the UN for families of up to eight people. There is one doctor for the 13,000 residents. I asked the young men if they liked living there, and they responded with a resounding “yes!” When I later asked our host, Raji, about this, he explained that it’s all about the community. Muhammad lives on the same block as 17 of his cousins, and the life they live together is preferable to living apart from one another. Even Raji returned to the camp after receiving his education. He works for World Vision and serves as an advocate for Dheisheh. It was a moving conclusion to a very full, thought-provoking day.

*Not to be confused with the City of David archaeological dig in the Palestinian area of Silwan, just south of the Temple Mount.

Elaine Ellis Thomas