Pastor Nabors (comments in regular type): We rise and check out of Prima Kings Hotel. We’ve been here the first four days of our journey. Our itinerary directs us to the City of David, Bethlehem. Upon arrival we go through Check point 300 and two Israeli enter the bus and search it. There is one young man of color and a young woman. Both do not look twenty. We are told they are working for a privatized company. They look like soldiers. As we drive down the main road, we notice an obvious wall. The wall, 30 feet high and made of concrete with barbed wire on the top, surrounds the Palestinian settlement in the city. Rachel’s tomb is reported to be behind the wall. The city is known as “the house of bread” (in Hebrew) and the “house of meat.” (in Arabic) We go to the oldest church built in Bethlehem and notice a door/entry dating back to the Crusaders. A larger entry pre-dates the current entry and may go back to the 2nd century. We enter a very small door/entry because during the Crusaders time, men with horses would ride their animals into the church. It is called now, the door of humility because most people have to bend low, in order to enter. The doors within, leading to the sanctuary are made of cedar from Lebanon. This cedar wood was supposedly brought in during the time of King Solomon.
Church of the Nativity
The remains of Helen (mother of Constantine) are said to be buried in floor of the sanctuary. Sent by her famous son, Helen was responsible for building the church as she searched for the original cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Part of the original mosaic of the floor remains intact, as well as some artwork along the high parts of the walls. This is The Church of the Nativity. It houses three groups; Orthodox, Catholic and Armenians. All struggle for central control of the church.
Rabbi London: Pastor Ruen shares a teaching that he had delivered in a sermon on Christmas a few years ago when I was in attendance at his church. He talked bout how the story of Jesus’ birth has sometimes been read as an anti-Jewish polemic, but if the text is read closely, he says, the anti-Jewish overtones fall away. The reason that there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph is because everyone from Bethlehem was returning for the census. All the rooms were full. The manger where Jesus is born is often depicted as a barn outside the house, but this is an incorrect understanding of where mangers were at the time. The manger was actually inside the home. The animals provided one’s livelihood and were not relegated to live outside. Joseph and Mary had been invited into the home; they had been taken in by family, not left out in the cold. I’m very moved that he is telling this story again and how vocal he is about correcting the teachings of the church that have led to persecution of the Jews for millennia.
Our guide Alaa used his connections to allow Daniel and I (Christian pastors) to go under the church through and Armenian door to view what was reported as the actual sight where Jesus was born. There is also a fourteen point star which is said to have healing power. We notice an endless line of ailing people and those in wheelchairs. We come up the stairs and are allowed to sit in a Palestinian Arabic Holy Mass in the Catholic area, Catherine Chapel. It dawned upon me at that moment that I was in worship with a group of people whose ancestors were among the very first to worship as Christians and to follow in The Way of Jesus of Nazareth.
Upon our exit, somber thoughts emerge. Israel has built walls. They are everywhere- the one in Bethlehem, others to the south and north between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, Israel and Egypt. And of course, the actual wall around the old city of Jerusalem. I am beginning to sense the demented views of Trump who is possessed with the idea of building a wall on our nation’s southern border. Surely, he is influenced by his ties to something… and the fanatic, evangelical movement in America. We come to the gate of the Palestinian refugee camp. I want desperately to enter- to see with my own eyes those Muslims who are cut off from the rest of the city, and who live so close to where Jesus was born. We are not allowed entry. There is a large key built from one side of the road to the other. There is also a picture of a young Palestinian boy who was shot and killed by an Israeli police officer a few years ago. The bullet pulled his brain apart, but he survived for several months. His tragic death is a rallying cry for the people in the settlement. A second rallying cry is a Palestinian young girl Ahed Tamimi, who slapped an officer in the face a year ago during a demonstration. She was arrested and given a sentence of 18 months in jail. As Alaa shares this story, I am filled with such sorrow and pain. Hatred and discrimination are everywhere upon our earth.
Rabbi London: It is painful to see the wall and how it cuts right through some people’s yards and the living conditions of people in the refugee camps. The wall is full of graffiti denouncing the Israeli Occupation and how caged in Palestinians feel. We also have an opportunity to see the recently built “Walled Off Hotel” which is a hotel with artwork by the street artist, Banksy. Banksy’s work is well-known internationally, but he has kept his identity secret. I’ve been an admirer of his work for many years for its playfulness and biting political commentary (last year while we were in Amsterdam, we saw an exhibit of his work at a museum there) and am excited to see the hotel which has been built right next to the wall in Bethlehem. The wax figure is Lord Balfour signing the Balfour declaration, giving Jews the right to create a state. It’s an important moment in Zionist history, but devastating to Palestinians. Being in Bethlehem is a stark reminder of the impact of the Zionist dream on Palestinians.
Pastor Ruen: Amit, our Jewish guide, tells us that his narrative as a Jewish Israeli doesn’t mean he can’t have empathy for the Palestinian narrative. We Jewish Israelis, he says, must recognize their suffering or there will be no peace. There must be an emotional reconciliation. We need the army for security, but the Occupation that controls the lives of 2.5 million people creates inhumanity in our soldiers.
Lunch in a Bedouin tent on the side of mountain
We board the bus and take a short ride out of Bethlehem to a Bedouin tent where we have lunch. The restaurant is on the side of a mountain and I could not help but think we were eating in much the same way early residents of the area ate, during the time of Jesus.