Today, we continued on in Bethlehem, a city which is now behind walls, and being closed in by them more and more by the day. We are seeing now the effects of the occupation, not just on the landscape, but even more, on the people. Our day was supposed to start with a walk across the courtyard and a visit to the Church of the Nativity, historically celebrated birth site of Jesus. Unfortunately, we woke up to massive security because the Prime Minster of Canada was in town and was visiting the Church when we had planned to. So, we had to make new plans. Our first stop was the Shepherd’s Field, where we learned a lot about shepherds, tending their flocks by night, receiving the news of Jesus’s birth. We stood on the cliffs overlooking the Judean Hills which today include a massive fence marking off the West Bank from Jerusalem and Jewish Settlements. We sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and we heard the story from the Gospel.
We then made our way to Bethlehem University, a most amazing place, a Roman Catholic University, 60% Muslim, 40% Christian. They have to raise 69% of their entire budget each year from outside their student body. We toured the campus, which includes a shrine to those students who have died in the struggle, including two from the same family, on different dates, and one of those killed on campus by a sniper
We watched a video about one woman who was studying at the University from Gaza, but, was deported for no reason, and not allowed to return to school. The school worked tirelessly to have her complete her degree from Gaza. We then met with four current students and were so very impressed. These four know the value of education, want it desperately and yet know when they get out there are no jobs. In Bethlehem the unemployment rate is 22%, and they cannot leave the confines of the walls we will so easily go through tomorrow.
There is a beautiful chapel at Bethlehem University which is called the Chapel of the Divine Child. It celebrates Jesus as a child, and on its walls all the way around, and from around the world, are murals of children who have been martyrs. It was a moving place.
We left there and walked around the corner to have one of the best lunches we have had on this trip. After sitting out in the warm sun for a bit, we walked to another great outreach in Bethlehem, the International Cultural Center run by the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who has written 16 great books on the plight of people in the West Bank, Gaza, and Bethlehem in particular.
We then moved to where we had hoped to start in the morning, St. Catherine’s Church and Church of the Nativity, both with caves. At St. Catherine’s, the cave is where St. Jerome stayed for over 30 years translating the Vulgate and interred there after his death. His remains have since been moved to Rome.
We then walked next door to the Church of the Nativity and the birthplace of Jesus. This is one of those many “contested sights” in the Holy Land, with Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians, all worshipping there. In fact, for hundreds of years there has been an agreed schedule for order of who and when these three will say prayers before the birthplace altar each morning.
It was an incredible day but what stuck with me was those students at Bethlehem University, the Bethlehem of today, the reality of now. They said so many profound things to us today but when one girl said, in response to a question about what message they would like us to share with those we know, replied, “That they know we are human.” Not such a bold request for a people that believed God became one of us, human. On this day when we touched the sight of that incarnation, it was those four students who, for me, made it come alive.