Sunday morning. Since I’m preaching I have my usual Sunday morning routine: up very early, re-work sermon, light breakfast, prayer and meditation, not much conversation. This is true especially when I am not preaching from a manuscript, as is the case today.
We leave the hotel in Jerusalem by 9 am, aiming to be in Bethlehem by 10; we cross through the checkpoint at 9:25, giving us time to stop by the Israeli wall. It’s a sobering experience. Thirty feet of concrete. On the Israeli side it is grey and unadorned. On the Palestinian side the wall has become a billboard, an art exhibition, an outlet for anger and frustration, and an opportunity for creative protest in humor. For many, the most moving part of what is displayed there are large posters offering details in the first person of the impact of the wall and the Israeli occupation. We visit the creative installation by the artist Banksy, “The Walled Off Hotel,” that several in our group will return and visit later.
After the experience of the wall, we need even more to pray for peace. Off to church we go!
We get to the Christmas Lutheran Church around 10 am for the 10:30 service. Our group fills about half of the small, beautiful stone sanctuary. Waiting for the service to begin we look around the room as the congregation files in. The stained glass windows date from the late 19th century, when Germans built the church. We are all amused, sort of, by the blond (Aryan) Jesus – from cradle to grave.
We worship in Arabic and English. Some hymns are printed in English in the bulletin, which we sing, while the church members sing in Arabic. The texts are printed in English in the bulletin, but read in Arabic. The Lord’s Prayer was said in at least five language: Arabic, Spanish, Dutch, German, and English – reflecting the congregation’s diversity. The final hymn was Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, which was lifted up in both languages with gusto.
The sermon was delivered…well, in English. I spoke of the contrast between windows and walls, describing scripture as a window into God. The church itself serves as a window into Jesus. What do people see – or who do people see – when they see our congregation, or when they look through the windows of our hearts?
We were well received at the coffee hour after church. Lots of mixing and mingling, Palestinians, Americans, and a Cuban. We met two young people who are volunteering at the Tent of Nations, a farm owned by a church member, David Nassar, that is under threat of takeover by Israeli settlers. The settlers destroyed 1000+ olive trees on the farm; the two young people were helping with re-planting. They got 150 trees into the ground in one day last week.
Fortified with coffee and cookies, we set off for Manger Square and the Old City of Bethlehem. George led us through narrow streets, into the market (fruits, vegetables, spices, meats, and lots of people), and finally onto Manger Square. There we split up to find lunch on our own – falafel and shawarma – then off to explore the town.
Madeline led some of us to the “Milk Grotto,” a shrine to a nursing Mary, where her milk is said to have dripped on the rock as the Holy Family hid from Herod’s soldiers. In the back of the shrine there is Peace Chapel, where nuns pray for peace on a 24-hour rotation. I hope Someone is listening!
After checking in at the hotel, we return to the church for a group meeting that doubles as a meeting of the session of the church for the purpose of receiving new members. Two of our travelers, Mary and Mark Taylor, have been attending Westminster for some time, but hadn’t joined, and since we have enough elders in the travel group to receive them as members – and they are ready to join WPC – we decided to hold a meeting of session. Mark and Mary gave moving testimony to their faith, and they were unanimously approved as the latest members of our church.
The pastor, Munther Isaac, then offered a powerful presentation on the people and the land in Palestine, covering the theological, political, economic, and cultural realities around the occupation. Very helpful to hear from him. He gave us his slide presentation, for use at WPC.
Dinner with the members of the Christmas Lutheran Church Council was delicious, and lively. The Americans and Palestinians mixed and had terrific conversation. As a result, three of our group members were invited to dinner for the next day at the home of one member couple.
Beth and I sat with Munther and his wife Rudaina. She’s an architect working on preserving historic buildings. We talked a lot about Munther’s hopes for the future development of the property. It will include parking and open space or kids to play in…does that sound familiar?!
Another long, good day – and off to bed!