Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reflections from Israel and Palestine, Part One

“O Little Town of Bethlehem:” 

I grew up going to Sunday school and worship in a small Presbyterian Church. Every Advent and Christmas Eve we sang this classic hymn; I can instantly bring up its tune in my mind. I cherish the memory I have, as a young boy, helping my Mom carefully unwrap her ceramic manger scene and setting it up. I have this idyllic, romantic image of Bethlehem. My imagination created a Christmas story that was soft and innocent with a beautiful Mary, an honest Joseph, a delicate but divine baby Jesus along with prayerful, reverent shepherds and majestic wise men. Somewhere deep in my heart I wish I could have that image back again.

My innocent imagination of the little town of Bethlehem is now forever shattered by the truth of what Bethlehem is today. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program study tour on which I participated did not do the typical, fly-by tourist visit to Bethlehem. Most tours quickly visit the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square to buy an olive wood manger scene and then quickly escape back to the security of Israel. We did those things, but we also went deep into the bleeding heart of Bethlehem, Palestine. This real Bethlehem has shaken me, tossed all my preconceptions around a bit, and immersed me deeply in the history, ambiguity and the pain of the Israel/ Palestine conflict. This is our Holy Land; it is a profoundly conflicted place.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church is a mission partner of our PCUSA World Mission program; one of the leaders of our study tour, the Rev. Kate Taber, now serves as our mission coworker on the staff of this amazing congregation. It is a short walk from the Church of the Nativity to Christmas Church along the main street of Bethlehem. Our team walked back and forth from our Manger Square Hotel to Christmas Church several times; it is a delightful walk overflowing with all the colors and flavors of Palestine today. I wandered up and down this way alone during some free time on a sunny, Sunday afternoon checking out the shops, the vendors and people watching. But I wonder how many tourists would never consider, and how Americans are afraid, to make this walk because of our perceptions and stereotypes about the Palestinians who live there?

I will make a strong statement: To be a Presbyterian today and to try in any, significant way to contribute to our church’s work in mission and peacemaking you must be educated about the work of Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine. You can start by reading the recent book by the senior pastor: The Rev. Dr. Mitri Rahab, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes or, at least, learning about him at his website.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" Psalm 122: 6.