Bethlehem is a real place. There are stores, churches, mosques, busses, schools, bookshops, houses…and people. Many of the people carry foreign passports and arrive in tour busses to spend time in the Church of the Nativity and the shops selling nativity sets—and other beautifully crafted olive wood figures.
Think about this when you sing about Bethlehem this Christmas season.
Bethlehem holds an ancient Christian community. If you ask when these Palestinian families became Christians, some will say “at Pentecost.” If you spent longer than a half day in Bethlehem and went beyond the tourist yard, you could see kids going home from school, parents shopping for groceries…perhaps you would see some of the younger churches—the ones just 200 years old. From one of them you might hear prayers chanted in Aramaic. I did.
As it was a very special day, I even saw a parade of Christians. The Orthodox Christians were there, led by a priest with a long beard and ornate vestments, others came waving incense, and carrying crosses and a large picture of Mary and Jesus. Then I was amazed to hear…could it be? Yes, it was the incomparable sound of a bagpipe marching band—and there came the Scottish Presbyterian Palestinian Christians! I hadn’t known they existed, but they looked nonchalant as they marched by. It pays to get off the tourist track and spend time in a community.
Bethlehem is not far, by bus (not donkey), from Jerusalem, but it is across an Israeli military checkpoint staffed by 18-20 year olds doing mandatory military service. I’ve often noticed them looking like they’d so much rather be somewhere, anywhere, else, or at least checking out social media. They remind me of my nephew.
On the other side of Jerusalem, and across another checkpoint, is Ramallah, the little Christian hill town where American Friends traveled in ministry in 1869. The Civil War had just ended and Ulysses S. Grant had been elected U.S. President. Eli and Sibyl Jones, recorded ministers, pitched a tent and stayed for a week, speaking each evening. One day a young woman asked for a school for girls, noting that many Christian groups had begun schools for boys. Friends responded. First individuals, then concerned groups, and then yearly meetings chipped in to support a Friends school. It took root.
In the 150 years since, the Ramallah Friends School has grown to 1000 students and is K-12, co-educational, international baccalaureate, and an annual recipient of U.S. AID funding. It remains a Friends school and invites Friends to volunteer there. This is one of the openings for service available for NW Friends.
Ramallah, in the last 150 years, has also grown and changed. No longer a village, it has become a hub of activity—social, economic and political. Christians, as in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, are now in the minority, and struggle alongside their neighbors to overcome challenges of high unemployment, limited opportunities for youth, and tensions inherent in any unstable political system or military occupation.
Recently, traveling for the Board of Global Outreach, I was in and around Jerusalem for three weeks. For eight days I lived with a Christian family in a village outside Ramallah hearing about life there. I was pleased to hear that Christians in Ramallah also have parades and special events to mark Easter and Christmas; I surely would like to celebrate with them sometime.
Christmas. As we celebrate here, they celebrate there. In both places we pray for peace and seek serenity, courage, and wisdom in the challenges we face. We want to be faithful. In both places we are ordinary people blessed by the extraordinary love of God. So we all remember Jesus, the light of God, coming into the world, and are thankful. And, hopefully, we remember each other.