I am sitting in my church office surrounded by beautiful nativities, candle sticks, crosses, and ornaments that were hand-carved by some of my Palestinian Christian friends who live in the Bethlehem area in the West Bank… items that my church youth are selling both as a way to support our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters and to raise awareness of the situation in Israel/Palestine… and as I sit here, looking at the beautiful holy family carved out of wood from an olive tree – a symbol of peace in the Judeo-Christian tradition – I am even more so surrounded by the incredible memories of my life-changing experience two years ago in the Holy Land – a place where people thousands of years ago waited for the One who would bring peace and a place where people today continue to wait for peace to be brought to their land.
Advent is a time of waiting and preparing… not just in vain, but expectantly for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love and who shines light in the darkness of this world. And two years ago today I was waiting and preparing in this season of Advent for my upcoming trip to the Holy Land… to Israel/Palestine… Yet, little did I know that I was waiting and preparing to actually encounter Jesus – coming into my life in extremely transformative ways: where not only did I experience so much genuine hospitality and kindness, but where my eyes were opened up to many of the unheard stories of the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.
As we continue to wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus this next week, I thought I’d share some of my facebook “journal” posts and photos from the trip where I stood on holy ground and experienced the incarnation of Jesus in the people I met and through the stories I heard.
Day 2 in Israel/Palestine: Amazing to ring in the New Year at the top of Nazareth watching fireworks all over the city.
…We also visited the Sindyana of Galilee (a Fair Trade organization in the region of Galilee that seeks to empower and provide jobs for women, reconcile relationships among Jews and Arabs, and support Arab farmers from Palestinian Occupied Territories);
…went to Kfar Bar’am – a Palestinian Christian city where citizens were dispersed and the city destroyed;
…stopped by the place where Jesus may have fed the 5000, and visited and worshiped on the Mt. of Beatitudes.
“I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt Him Close to me.”
Day 3 in Israel/Palestine: walked in the Sea of Galilee; pictured Jesus performing miracles, walking on water, and calming the storm as I heard the Gospel reading and sang hymns with my brothers and sisters in our boat on the Sea of Galilee;
…Ate fish as St. Peter did – with bone, head, and all;
…Saw city ruins from First Century and later in Capernaum and Nazareth;
…And visited Mary’s well in Nazareth.
Jesus walked this land 2000 years ago and made His presence and love known on this land today.
Day 4 in Israel/Palestine: started with an extremely eye-opening meeting with the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth and heard shocking truths that are rarely heard or spoken about;
…Saw ruins from the times of the Crusaders and Byzantines, and a home, tomb, and city road from First Century Nazareth;
…Drove through ancient Joppa (in Tel-Aviv); stood on the Mt. of Carmel, and ended the night hanging out with two new friends who are from Hebron and work at our hotel in Bethlehem – listened to their stories and began to build friendships.
…Experiencing God through the many beautiful people I am meeting and the love and hospitality they are providing.
…Starting to anticipate the celebration of the birth of the One who brings Peace to a hurting and oppressed people (which we will celebrate here on Jan. 6) and beginning to wonder if this is how Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt when she entered Bethlehem before His birth: fear for the unknown and present and future political/societal situation, pain for the suffering of the oppressed, and hope and anticipation for God to bring peace, love, and reconciliation to all God’s creation.
Day 5 in Israel/Palestine: an incredibly difficult and yet amazingly spiritual day: Visited Sabeel (Palestinian liberation group) and Musalaha (a Christian reconciliation group), visited numerous places where Jesus walked and ministered in Jerusalem;
…And ended the evening meeting new friends who are shop owners in old city Bethlehem and hearing their extremely tragic stories. (Including: 1. Story of 27 year old: when he was only 17 – during the 2002 siege of Bethlehem – he participated in some of the non-violent protests against the Israeli occupation. Because of this, one night, an Israeli soldier followed him to his family’s shop, barged into the shop, grabbed him, and slammed him against the wall with his gun pointed at his head, screaming at him for a while. Then the soldier dropped the gun and left the shop. 2. Story of the 65 year old, a shopkeeper near the younger man’s shop. When shopkeepers were forced to close their shops during the Israeli siege of Bethlehem in 2002, this man – along with several other shop owners – decided to protest the Israeli occupancy by keeping their shops open. A soldier busted open his shop, threw a gun to his head, screamed that he would blow his brains out for a while, and then finally dropped his gun – saying he is lucky he is letting him live. These were only a few of the stories I heard.)
…Was overwhelmed with pain and shock by seeing the separation wall;
…Felt Jesus’ love and presence while praying/crying with my sister Celona in the Garden of Gethsemane, and wondered as I heard Jesus’ voice while on the Mt. of Olives looking over the city of Jerusalem if He continues to weep over it today: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.'”
Day 6 in Israel/Palestine: visited the Wailing Wall and Holy Sepulcher Church;
…Heard from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs about issues in occupied territories: terrible oppression of civilians, the illegal settlements, the issues of poor education, lack of jobs, growing numbers of homeless/refugees due to home demolitions, and families that have been split up because of the Separation Wall and restrictions on crossing territories, and found some hope from Israeli peace activist Matan Kaminer in his true bravery and commitment to fighting for justice and peace for/with the Palestinians.
…Also ran into my new Palestinian friends at their shops. The 27 year old – really smart and kind – said after experiencing much violence in Bethlehem much of his life, he received a scholarship from a university in Illinois but couldn’t go because the US embassy in Israel deemed him a terrorist threat because of his sex, age, and ethnicity. However, he said: “After struggling to make a life for myself, I finally opened this shop to be able to support my younger siblings. I don’t care what this shop does for me, but I care to give my siblings a full life.”
As I stood in the upper room in Jerusalem, I imagined how Jesus invites ALL to the table and as I touched the stone of Calvary, I was reminded of how He suffered and died on the cross to conquer death and bring forth new life, peace and justice to the world!
Day 8 in Israel/Palestine: celebrated Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem Square outside the Church of the Nativity with festivals, music, and amazing Palestinian food;
…Learned about Palestinian Christianity and Theology of the Land at Bethlehem Bible College; heard more about the Kairos Palestine document at Evangelical Lutheran Church in the infamous and struggling town of Beit Shahour; and ended the evening celebrating Christmas in a huge celebration in the Square with music, dancing, food, and wonderful conversations with the Eritrean refugees.
…Was saddened to hear their stories of how hard it’s been to live in Tel Aviv – as they have received no aid, lived/slept outside for 2 years, and receive little pay for hard work – and to hear how much they wanted to get to the US to gain a better life. But I was blessed to see and hear their true kindness and joy as they celebrated the birthday of the One who gives them hope in liberation and justice.
…Can’t think of a more appropriate place to celebrate Christmas today: in the little occupied town of Bethlehem that has never really been seen as lying still, where a poor and oppressed teenage girl could not find room in an inn 2000 years ago, and yet gave birth to the One who would come to preach good news to the poor, recover sight to the blind, free the captives, and liberate the oppressed.
It is here where I find hope in the birth of that baby in a whole new way and pray: “Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel! And peace to men on earth.”
Related Articles and Websites:
Israel/Palestine 101 (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – an introduction to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
Nakba Fact Sheet (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – a fact sheet about what led up to the Palestinian Nakba (or Catastrophe), who are the Palestinian refugees, and the role of the UN.
Encounters with Israeli Soldiers in Hebron (on catholicpeacefellowship.org) – testimonies of encounters with Israeli soldiers by a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship
Kairos Document – written by Palestinian Christians about what is happening in Palestine
Christ and The Checkpoint Conference – hosted by Bethlehem Bible College: To Challenge Evangelicals To Take Responsibility To Help Resolve the Conflicts in Israel-Palestine By Engaging With the Teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.
A Common Friend to Arabs and Jews – by Lynne Hybels (in Huffington Post)
Breaking the Silence – testimonies of Israeli soldiers of what really goes on in Occupied Territories