Day 8: Bethlehem
We began our day with Mass in a chapel off the Church of the Nativity. We sang Christmas hymns, read the Christmas Eve readings, and Father Kelly delivered a beautiful homily which prepared us well for what we would see today. It was important to the group that we travel here as pilgrims, not just as tourists. One aspect of a pilgrimage is making sure that we respect and honor the local communities, seeing Jesus not only in the land, but also in the people we encounter. Because we are Christians, it was important to hear from the local Christians, the living stones of the Holy Land, who have been the caretakers of the holy sites and protectors of our faith for thousands of years.
We first heard from a Palestinian Christian named Elias (Elijah in Arabic) who told his story growing up in Beit Sahour, a majority Christian suburb of Bethlehem. Elias has been a friend of Katherine for over ten years. He explained how his dad was put in jail for nonviolently demonstrating against the Israeli occupation during the first Intifada. During this time, most of the families in Beit Sahour chose to adopt the term "no taxation without representation" and refrained from paying their taxes to the State of Israel. Palestinians must pay double taxes - one to the State of Israel and one to the Palestinian Authority - while receiving less than equal treatment from the State of Israel. Due to growing up under Israeli military occupation, Elias began to see Israel and Jews as his 'enemy'. He explained how the teachings of Jesus helped him forgive and learn to see that 'fear' was the culprit behind the lack of peace. He began to recognize the collective trauma that Jews have experienced, causing them to fear the Palestinian Arabs, and the collective trauma and
fear that Palestinian Arabs have of the Jewish people due to the Israeli military occupation. Our group was left with tears in our eyes and hope in our hearts that the teachings of Jesus can help bring peace to this world.
After meeting with Elias, his friend Usama (another Palestinian Arab Christian) brought us to a refugee camp to tour us around and help us learn a little bit about how the occupation affects local communities. The entrance to the refugee camp is a large key and a gate that looks like a key hole, symbolizing the keys that many refugees still own to their homes to which they are unable to return. We saw bullet holes in the schools (from the Israeli watch tower), pictures of children who had been shot by the Israeli military, names of the refugees' original villages everywhere, original keys from their homes from before 1948 and refugee children who were more than excited to see us and take pictures with us. We learned that we are not the first visitor to this refugee camp - Saint Pope John Paul II visited this same refugee camp years ago! On our way out of the camp, we drove by the security barrier/wall that Israel built around Bethlehem. We were hoping to visit Rachel's Tomb but the wall now blocks the path and Israel will not allow non-Jews to enter. The wall was full of graffiti art, some by Banksy, others by Palestinians or visitors to Bethlehem, using graffiti art as a means of expression to get out their anger and trauma. We also saw a home that was slated to be demolished by the military but who fought in court and gained the right to keep their home in its original location. Unfortunately, the wall is on three of its sides and the Palestinian residents must have their windows shuttered at all times and are not allowed on the roof deck of their home, for security reasons.
After visiting the camp, we had lunch in the Tent Restaurant in Beit Sahour, a Bedouin style restaurant. We then went to go shopping in a very nice store selling icons and olive wood. We were all given a glass of wine and free gifts before shopping. Everyone was in good spirits, which contributed to the spending! After leaving, we went on the bus to head back to Beit Sahour, only to have another man trying to sell us bags. Fr. Kelly took it upon himself to help this man and really should have received commission. He was an incredible, energetic salesman and he had the entire bus laughing hysterically. Videos are making their way around facebook. ;)
We made our way back to Beit Sahour to visit Shepherd's Field and caves where the shepherds stayed. We sang Angels We Have Heard on High and prayed in a cave together. Then we drove back up the hill to Bethlehem to sit together for a few minutes and recap our day. We discussed new observations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how we, as Americans, can help bring change to this area of the world, and how to continue to have love and peace in our hearts, even when we see injustice in the world. We couldn't spend too long discussing
though because we knew the line would be well over an hour in the Nativity Church to get down to the cave and it WAS. Thankfully we timed it so that we would be the last ones in line before they shut the doors, allowing us to spread out instead of being crammed and pushed by hundreds of other people. After waiting almost two hours, we finally made it down to the cave, only to have an angry security guard yell at us to tell us two people had to kneel down at a time and count down each time someone knelt to kiss the star. He wouldn't even let us go down to the manger. I begged in Arabic but was getting nowhere. He was really ruining the atmosphere and so I asked him if we could sing. We started singing christmas carols and he got tears in his eyes. He stopped yelling and he started letting people go one at a time and taking their time at the star. I tried one last time to ask if we could go down to the manger and he agreed. Finally I stopped singing and he said, "Please don't stop. You can stay all night here." Running out of Christmas carols (I had no lyrics with me!) I kept trying to come up with new ones just so I could give the group more time. It was a beautiful testament to the power of music in changing hearts. He told us we were angels and said that we made his night. He sat there alllllll day with thousands of pilgrims but we were able to melt his heart of stone and leave him inspired. He hugged us and ended up thanking US for spending time there and singing! On a high from our visit, we went out shopping in the market and out to eat for burgers. Those who stayed at the hotel enjoyed steak and made the rest of us regret going out!
Tomorrow we look forward to meeting with a settler and getting a tour of a settlement inside the West Bank, as well as visiting and having Mass at Lazarus' Tomb.