• June 17, 2002
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    Back from Bethlehem
Back from Bethlehem We arrived back on Monday after a relatively easy return passage thru Bethlehem's checkpoint, Ben Gurion airport, and Canadian and US customs. I must say the trip was an incredible opportunity in many ways. We felt God's hand in the details of passage, timing, protection, and in several meaningful personal engagements, doors and opportunities which for others on similar missions have been denied, and overall got an unusual taste of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. On the one hand, we saw the fear and alienation, and the sense of almost debilitating hopelessness both Palestinians and Israelis feel in the future, and yet, on the other, we were also able to see some remarkable signs of hope and resourcefulness under the circumstances as we saw God's care reflected in the work of some unusual people. All in all I must say to all of you who offered your support to us and to the Christmas Lutheran Church in so many ways, we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude! It was a wonderful feeling to experience the meaning of our presence and this tangible offering of solidarity and encouragement firsthand, and to be with them to identify personally with their experience through some very difficult days.

As it turned out, during our eight day stay, Bethlehem and the neighboring villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour endured four days and nights of curfew and Israeli incursions into the towns as they searched house to house for militants in the wake of several suicide bombings in Israel. We negotiated authorization to unload a tractor trailer shipment of furniture for the church with Israeli soldiers just outside the compound on Monday, and our passage back to the church the next day. We felt our initial encounter was a particularly significant one as we talked with them about the meaning of their presence there and their initial reluctance to let us proceed, and ultimately felt we were able to demonstrate both our friendship and comraderie with the Palestinians who helped us. We saw a diffusing of tensions both ways as we eventually exchanged banter with each other walking back and forth past the soldiers with our boxes for nearly two and a half hours. I think we gave them much to think about in the process, and that that may have had something to do with our being left alone to pass back and forth without objection through the remaining days of curfew. The latter two days they didn't even position themselves and their three armored personnel carriers at the church compound as before.

Each morning we began our day in the sanctuary with singing and with a time of prayer. We were able to work at repairs and various odd jobs that had not gotten done due to the curfews of the weeks and months prior. For me knocking plaster off walls and painstakingly removing shards of glass from frames of the some 52 broken windows on the compound made for tiring days. But we felt a sense of great accomplishment particularly through the days of curfew knowing that apart from the doors that had opened for us, nothing would have gotten done.

Back at the hotel, we also found ourselves developing an interesting friendship with the young man who was our receptionist, a fine gentle-spirited Palestinian originally from the Jenin area. He had gotten stuck in Bethlehem two years ago while visiting relatives and was without work for most of that time. He managed to land the job with the hotel in exchange for his room and board. He was in the hotel for the entire 40-day siege at the Church of the Nativity. During that time Israeli soldiers took over the top floor of the hotel and set up sniper positions, and these days of curfew, being reminiscent of that time for him were quite frightening. He felt responsible, as the only person on staff at the hotel (the owner, cooks, and cleaning staff not able to come in due to curfew), to man the desk and entrance through the nights, to prepare our meals morning and evening, and take care of our needs as guests. As I discovered him Monday morning preparing our breakfast, I offered to help, and he was most appreciative and gracious. As we learned that he had not been getting any sleep at night for several days running, several of us took shifts for him at the front desk to let him sleep. He said he had never met people like us and that he would never forget us, and said if Jenin ever opened up and he could go home, and if we could ever come to visit there, he would have his mother fix us the best food in Palestine and that he would host us for the duration of our stay. As we came in in the evenings he spent time with several of us teaching us Arabic, and we enjoyed getting to know him, and hearing stories of what it has been like for him these last months and years. We found out too that he had had a bad ankle on which he was limping, that was needing surgery for quite some time now, and that he has not been able to save the money either to buy insurance or have the operation done. On our last night there we discussed what we might do for him and began collecting some money from what we had in our pockets and came up with some $700 which is what he had said it would cost for the operation. The next morning one of our group leaders presented it to him, and he told us Ahmed accepted it with tears in his eyes.

Our days of freedom (from curfew) seemed few, and we missed being able to meet with several people we would have liked to have heard, people like Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, and Salim Munir (also in Jerusalem) of Musalaha, a program pairing Israeli and Palestinian youth in survival experiences in the desert aimed at mutual understanding, friendship-building and reconciliation. We were however impressed with what we heard from several significant people in Bethlehem.

First and foremost to us was our primary host Mitri Raheb, the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, a gentle and soft-spoken man of incredible vision, longsuffering and hope. A Doctor of Theology by training, Mitri is the founder of Dar el Kalima School, a model elementary school in Bethlehem deeply committed to inculcating creative nonviolence as a way of life into its curriculum. He is founder also of the Bethlehem International Center featuring programs such as "Authentic Tourism" an attempt at a holistic approach to understanding both the biblical and modern history of Palestine and its current living culture, stories, people and spiritual life; "Inter-cultural Encounter" student exchange programs; "Reintegration Programs" designed to assist the return of Palestinian students trained abroad to reenter into meaningful involvements in Palestine; "Women's Studies" offering resouces to empower women to meaningfully participate in the social, economic, and political life of Palestine; and "Arts, Crafts, and Music", to offer a healing expression of Palestinian cultural identity through the arts, and a creative response to the trauma of Israeli occupation. Major work is still in progress to complete facilities for an "Academy" to further pursue these goals at secondary, collegiate and graduate levels. Given the recurrent voices of despair around us, Mitri's vision represents a stark contrast, and a beacon of inspiration and hope. He is an able pastor, with a down to earth identification with his people, and a deep faith in God, and he is well beloved and admired by people who know him far and wide.

We also had the opportunity to hear from Zoughby Zoughby, Director of Wi'am, a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem. He spoke of the challenges they face in mediating disputes many stemming from the financial and logistical constraints that are a result of the occupation. Much of their time is now spent in simply helping people find creative work and other constructive pursuits, alternatives to the idle frustration and resentment that leads to retaliatory outbursts of violence.

We heard from a Palestinian businessman who took a different nonviolent approach to the occupation, that of withholding "war taxes" to the Israeli government, arguing they were being used against them militarily and counterproductively to fund the building of settlements, etc and because the Israelis have been expropriating Palestinian lands. He was imprisoned and his assets taken for fines and taxes owed. He is trying to start over, this time building a tour agency oriented towards resourcing educational tours by an immersion into Palestinian life and oriented towards understanding the issues necessary for a viable political and economic solution to the occupation.

We also met an unusually dedicated and courageous young lady, Clara Takarabe, of Bir Zeit University and the National Conservatory of Music, an American of both Japanese and Chinese parentage who has been working as a violin and viola teacher in Ramullah and Bethlehem for several years now. She has been shuttling back and forth as she can to keep up with her students. She got stuck in Bethlehem at the Star Hotel during the 40-day siege and again with us for the four days. The logistics of running a music program are obviously nearly impossible. Regular lessons are impossible, let alone practice and the ability to focus given their trauma. And the hope of a future in music seems almost pointless these days to many of her young students and their parents. But she is so vivacious and gifted, and sees so much talent and potential in her students if only she can continue to work with them. With the completion of the International Center's Academy facilities we understand the programs she is working with in Bethlehem would move into this new complex and become part of it's program. It felt good to envision her there as a real gem and another bright spot of hope and inspiration in the darkened landscape around her.

Well, perhaps I've said enough. We still hope to find opportunities to talk with people in places of influence, to advocate for understanding and a solution to this situation that seems to keep fueling the fires of more and more violence. Please join us in praying for reconciliation and peace in that beleagered land.

Again, thanks so much for your part in this story, and for the gift of your support to all of us. God bless you!