Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Visiting the Birthplace of Jesus

by Dave Urban

"We want to hold on to John 10:10- "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!""  was the introduction to the Diyar Consortium- a umbrella ministry of the Christmas Lutheran Church, our sister church in Palestine. [The best way to get an overview is the Wikipedia Article on Dr. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the church (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitri_Raheb#The_Diyar_Consortium).] This small Palestinian church is why I am in Bethlehem today. They are trying to live out the gospel in Palestine and give hope and life to those who are suffering. Over the last couple of years, this small church has leveraged donations and hope in the future into a series of cradle to grave ministries in Bethlehem, from health centers, school, art college, and senior programs. I can't begin to cover the depth of the programs. Some of the work is self funding and much relies on donations from overseas. It is amazing to see how much the European churches and governments give to this area, and this ministry.  Today it was a relief to tour a school full of kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, with everyone saying "hello" and full of smiles. Kids do bring out the goodness of innocence. 

This bumper sticker was on the director of the aging program's door. It was a good sign. She told us that in Palestine there is no health care or social security, and that retirement age is 65, so many people feel like they just are waiting to die after that age. She has started groups which have created plays and books to tell the stories of the old days. They are building computer literacy- which is so key because of the diaspora has caused families to often live in many countries, and the mail system to/from Palestine to the rest of the world is very unreliable.  

After lunch, we had a break and I took some personal space time and went off alone to Manger Square to see the "birthplace."  We were in the main Greek Orthodox church the other day and the adjacent Franciscan church, but did not go into the grotto underneath the alter due to the crowds. After a long wait I got down to it.  Below is the official spot where Jesus was born; many bent down to kiss it (I did not).

Later that day we took a tour with a man named Amal Nasser, one of the members of Christmas Lutheran. He is an elderly, spry gentleman who is an Arabic calligrapher and does beautiful art. I am sorry I don't have an example of his work to show you. He showed us around Bethlehem to tell us about the old city. We went into a Syrian Orthodox church, who uses Aramaic (the language Jesus actually used in day to day conversation) in their worship.
Finally we had dinner with a mother and daughter which Don Wagner knows. The daughter is actually a professor at St. Xavier college in Chicago, and has a research agreement with the Oriental Institute of U of C. She is an anthropologist and an archeologist and is doing work both in Jericho and in Qatar. Her mother (Maha Saca)  has spent her life collecting the story of Palestinian culture through the dresses of Palestine. Evidently each village in Palestine has its own pattern of embroidery and in the old days one worked through ones childhood: embroidering panels for your wedding dresses (of which there are 6 for different times during the pre- wedding, wedding, and post wedding). The pattens remind me a little of quilt patterns and are all very distinctive. This woman has been a one person cultural heritage wonder, and has pushed the Palestinian identity all over the world. We spent some time in her office/ museum after dinner.

I spent some time talking to Maha's husband and daughter. Both once again told stories of the difficulty in living in the Palestinian territories. On the way back to the hotel I asked Peg Forbes, who has been here at least 4 times, partially because she and Jim sponsor a scholarship for the college, on what they saw that we needed to do here. In some ways we are just hanging out and visiting people. Are we suppose to do more? Peg said that what people seem to need is to be heard, to know that some one outside of the difficult situation knows that they (the people we visit) are there, and that we care. So maybe just hanging out and visiting is the mission, that we are visiting those in prison. I am struck again by the hope these folk tied to such pain and suffering as they are dying a slow death by strangulation by Israeli policy, and slow taking over the land one hill at a time. Amal pointed out across the hills at one point while walking around Bethlehem and remembered when each one had been taken over by the Israelis to build illegal (UN term ) settlements.  Yet they also keep pointing to the abundant life that they believe that Christ calls them to. It is  humbling to be with such saints.  

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