When I was about seven or eight years old, my godmother bought me a necklace for Christmas that she said she purchased in Bethlehem.
I remember taking it in my hands, and quickly clasping it around my neck, so enamored with the fact that this necklace had originated in the place where Jesus was born – where the first Christmas took place, where the shepherds followed the star, where the wise men visited, and where Christianity began. In my mind, Bethlehem was still a vast open field where the (wooden) manger still stood, beneath a barn that housed only the friendliest of beasts, even today – as if time stood still in that place for more than 2,000 years.
Funny enough, a week or two later, I learned that my godmother purchased the necklace for me in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Suddenly, I had to swallow my pride and backtrack on the story I’d so humbly shared with all my friends and teachers at Show & Tell.
But while this new truth changed the narrative behind my favorite piece of jewelry, it did nothing to alter the mental image I had already drawn of the 21st-century town of Bethlehem.
Before leaving for this year’s pilgrimage with St. John’s, I had commented to several folks about how Bethlehem, in my mind, had almost become a fictional place. The simplest reason for this was that I never fathomed I’d actually have the opportunity to travel here. As I’ve gotten older, the more honest reason became the fact that it’s easier to hold onto the vision of Bethlehem being a permanent Christmas town than it is to accept parts of today’s reality.
Never mind the fact that Jesus was likely born in a cave – not a barn – laid in a stone manger – not one made of wood – and visited by sheep, and not cows or donkeys or camels. (Or ducks, because I had insisted for years that “The Friendly Beasts” included a verse about ducks.)
Today, for the 25,000 or so people who live there, Bethlehem is a far cry from the place of refuge it once represented. Instead, it is a land boxed in by the barrier wall – constructed by Israel in the early 2000s – which many of the Palestinians who live there have described as an open-air prison. This is because most Palestinians themselves cannot travel freely to neighboring Jerusalem for work or to visit family. The only way to do so is to receive a permit from the Israeli government; but such a permit is extremely difficult to obtain, and it often carries restrictions on hours and mode of travel, thereby limiting work opportunities even for those who obtain it.
Despite having read about the city and despite speaking with others who had visited the site of Jesus’ birth before me, I still found it all so difficult to process. Here, in the city so emblematic of hope for 2,000 years, its own people struggle to feel hope. You can travel to Bethlehem and simply choose never to go down the neighborhood blocks on which the wall has cornered off businesses, separated families, and turned a once bustling highway into an empty cul-de-sac. But, if you take a moment to visit the wall – to read the stories of the lives so impacted by its permeance, and to talk with some of the people who live there – your picture of Bethlehem will be forever changed. Add to that, there is the Israeli perspective – which remembers the fact that the wall was first constructed in response to violence between Palestinians and Israelis along the Bethlehem border.
As we traveled to Ruth’s restaurant – home to arguably the greatest falafel we’ve encountered thus far – we started to realize that Bethlehem, and its people, still have hope.
Throughout this trip, I’ve felt inspired, encouraged, and humbled by the fact that people of different cultures, religions, and country ID cards talk so frequently about loving their neighbor.
I carried that with me as we visited the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was born.
The whole experience was surreal. We were matched with a guide at the site, who walked us through the line, sharing the history of this beautiful place jointly overseen by the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Amazingly, our line wasn’t very long – but our time in the space believed to be where Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in the manger was so short that I’m not sure I processed what was happening or where I was.
Instead, it all hit me at once as we made an impromptu stop at the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu – where it is believed that Jesus was detained for the night following his arrest. The Church is situated on a beautiful hill, so distanced from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s city center that, ironically, the most prominent sound we heard was that of a rooster crowing.
It was as if, in the stillness – without the rush of lines or crowds – the gravity of it all sank in. I am here today, so many of us are here today, because of the unimaginable sacrifice Jesus made so many years ago.
We returned to our home at St. George’s in East Jerusalem in time to hear from a Jewish Israeli citizen, who shared his perspective of Israeli-Palestinian relations and future prospects for peace. He was brilliant, patient, moving, and inspiring because, while in countless ways, he represented the “other” to those we had met earlier in the day, he spoke of the need for peace, love, cooperation, and an openness to diversity of cultures, religions, and thought.
It’s impossible in two weeks’ time to really grasp the situation here. We can read up on it, ask questions, even walk in others’ shoes, but we as U.S. citizens, can’t ever really know what it means to have our future in many ways dictated or constrained by the city in which we were born.
But, there is hope. You can still find everyday examples of God’s love here, on all sides of the border wall. For many, it’s what motivates them to stay, and for others, it’s the message they most want to be relayed back to America.