O Little Town of Bethlehem

Having grown up with the Nativity story, I find it difficult to deal with the present day reality of Bethlehem.  Saturday  we met our guide, Faraj, a deacon of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, at a spot called “Mt. Everest,” looking down into Bethlehem and its surroundings.  From there we could see much of the town itself, its houses old, new, and half-built, the separation wall snaking its way across the valley, the settlements, the road for settlers with the overhang to protect their cars from rock throwing.

We were invited into the Omar Mosque at Manger Square, where the mua’zzin, who calls the people to prayer five times daily, explained the rituals of the mosque.  We bent low as one must do to enter the Nativity Church.  Why is the door so low?  Is it a sign of piety or because the Ottomans didn’t want animals to enter?

We waited with others in the church, which is Greek Orthodox, heard the Franciscans chant as they began their daily walk through the Nativity Grotto, and after a long wait descended into that famous grotto.  This is part of the Bethlehem of today and the one we tourists know best.

Earlier on this blog I wrote about Palestinian refugees.  So not surprisingly, for me, it was Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder of Alrowwad (http://alrowwadusa.org/), a cultural and theatre training center at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, who gave life to the Palestinian narrative.

Aida in Arabic means “the one who shall return.”  To enter the camp, you drive under an arch

Abdelfattah Abusrourwith a huge key overhead – the symbol of the refugees’ desire to return to the homes from which they were evicted during and after the 1948 war.  It is this “naqba” – catastrophe – that is essential to the Palestinian narrative.

Aida is one of 58 Palestinian refugee camps.  This one in the shadow of the security wall.  Two-thirds of the 6,000 inhabitants, living in just 10 acres, are under 18.  Abusrour wanted to build a place “where children could grow up and be proud.”  He did not want to walk in children’s funerals.  In our time with him, he did not refer to non-violent resistance, but instead to a “beautiful resistance” wherein young people through the arts can find peace within and so can make peace outside.  His program is impressive, very much so, but as long as the Occupation continues, as education is limited and opportunities are few for these young people, he will need all the help he can get.

As we walked to our bus, teenagers were throwing stones at the separation wall – a hopeless act against a concrete wall that is 25 feet high.   When we got to the bus, the Palestinian police had arrived.



There’s Power in Rocks and Prayer

My world is very different from that of the Israelis and Palistinians, I have no frame of reference. Yes, I’ve crossed arms and marched, painted posters, written speeches, and outed injustices. In my heart, I strive to “do right” by my hero, U. S. Representative John Lewis. I’ve always believed when Representative Lewis joined the Freedom Riders and inevitably rose to the rank of Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), every day was spent forging a path for truth and justice; and maybe, just maybe, one day I too might light a fire that would serve as a beacon (or even just a wafting flicker) for those serving the just and the righteous.

For me that day has not come. Instead, here in the Holy Land, I’m learning that my future may never include me leading anyone and probably not even myself to the “promised land.” Perhaps my role is more subtle, less radical? Can it be that My contribution will be to share what I see, what I hear, what I know, and what I experience and use my voice to start or even continue our most difficult dialogues? While I might not be a “drum major for change,” I’m beginning to believe that I just may be a “connector” for hope.

Tonight, I share with you a few of the sights and sounds of protest and peace I’ve experienced. Will it call you to action, will you question what you know, what you’ve been told? I’d like to hear what your thoughts,because I’ve met some wonderful men and women with stories waiting to be shared. Pull up a chair…

A.  A group of Israeli Jews dancing around the Torah.  One might view this as a celebration.  Does your view change when you learn that it occurred at the corner of Via Dolorosa and Al-Wad Rd (the main access point to the Muslim Quarters). What do you see?

B.  A small group of Palestinian youths run erratically up and down a hill.  Did you notice they where throwing rocks the size of walnuts at a concrete wall?  Could there be more to this story than what we see?

C.  Graffiti is the modern expression of youthful angst? Or is it a universal call to action?

Zone A graffitiAida Settlement graffiti

D.  Yet in the midst of it all is the birth of great hope, the Church of the Nativity, a manger into which love was born.

.Church of the NativityPrayer in the Manger

Holy Site Leapfrog

Today was our whirlwind tour of Jerusalem’s Holy Sites… beginning our morning at the Mount of Olives, where we looked out across terraces of white stone tombs towards the walls of the Old City; The Dome of the Rock shimmering in the early sunlight. We moved on to Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Then to The Old City, walking the Via Dolorosa and running our hands along the polished stone where Jesus rests while Simon takes the cross. Winding through a spice-filled bazaar to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where we wandered through a series of dark chapels and caves, passing through to touch the rock at Golgotha. Breaking for lunch, we demolished several tables full of perfectly crisped falafel and creamy hummus. Up again and over to the Western Wall, where we passed through several security checkpoints to march directly up to the Dome of the Rock, it’s blue and green tiles sparkling in the sun. We moved down and around to the Wailing Wall, where you don’t understand why people are bracing their heads and hands against the wall until you get up to the stones, which draw you in with almost electric force and you have to hold on just to stay on your feet in a place where God is so viscerally present.
I could have spent days in each of these places: absorbing, praying, watching, feeling. The Spirit is so alive here; everyone is on fire. The Old City is labyrinthine and smells like incense, cumin and garbage. The Holy Sepulchre is dark and sad, but with tiny dripping candles lit in the blackest corners. The extremes of dark and light are present in every sense. I’m doing my best to “stay present in things I don’t understand,” as Justi says. In the midst of that, I’m grateful for the smooth, warm ancient stones to hold onto and to lean into. Amen.






First Visit to the Old City…. the Armenian Quarter by Hank Donnelly

  Amid the crush of thousands of Jewish families celebrating Sukkoth, as well as police activity associated with reported political demonstrations, an advance guard of St. Mark’s pilgrims found an oasis of calm Tuesday afternoon at the Armenian Cathedral of the Two St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem. Open to visitors only during services, the church and attached seminary holds a vespers service each afternoon at 3 pm, which gave the pilgrims a chance to experience the 11th century structure and get a glimpse of the spiritual life of the Armenian community.

     Except for a tour group that stayed only briefly, the pilgrims were among just a handful of visitors to the service, which brought together 50 or more black robed seminarians and a smaller number of hooded priests or monks. The service was held in mid-afternoon to take advantage of natural light from windows in the domed ceiling, thus avoiding the trouble and expense of lighting the hundreds of oil lamps that hung from the ceiling.

    The short service would have been familiar to Western Christians in its outlines, other than obviously being in in Armenian. It began with a reading from the Bible, followed by prayers and chants that highlighted the impressively deep and masculine voices of the seminarians and priests or monks. Once the half-hour service was over, the participants filed out quickly, leaving behind a bit of the aura and mystery of a religious tradition stretching back to the early 4th century.

    As the St. Mark’s group was leaving, a priest kindly reached out to offer a brief history of the church. He noted that the bodies of the two St. James were buried beneath the church, while acknowledging that at least part of the remains of St. James the Apostle had found their way to northwestern Spain. He also took pains to make clear that the other St. James, called the brother of Jesus, was not really the brother of the Savior, but perhaps a child of Joseph’s first marriage.

     Over all, the visit offered a powerful experience of both the unity and diversity of world Christianity in all its variety.