On Saturday, Dec. 13th, I decided to take a walk in the morning. Nearly every trip out of Bethlehem we would go through Beit Jala; every time I looked out my bedroom window I would observe Beit Jala – but I had never walked into Beit Jala. After a few minutes of planning, I knew what I wanted to do. In Beit Jala was the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Monastery. In the fourth century St. Nicholas had lived in a cave in Beit Jala during his visit. I had already visited Manger Square at Christmas time, so it seemed appropriate also to visit St. Nicholas Church. It was a cool morning, so I wore a sweatshirt and my jacket. The sunshine quickly warmed me and the walk up the hillside of Beit Jala heated me up even more. I wasn't trying to walk fast but tried to take my time and take in the sights of Palestinian life on a Saturday morning. Eventually I felt like I needed to stop at a corner and catch my breath. I then realized I was just a block below the church. I recognized the silver dome from my reading about the church. I found my way to it and discovered the side door open. Several men were working in the sanctuary changing the chandelier light bulbs. I knew the church was relatively new, but was still surprised at how fresh the interior looked. I took a few pictures and admired the beauty of the art and architecture.
I decided to visit the Baraka Presbyterian Church one last time on Sunday morning. I appreciated the opportunity to hear Christians singing in Arabic. The other noticeable thing about the church is their ministry to people who are physically challenged. Vans bring these people to the church for worship on Sundays.
Monday was to be my last day in Bethlehem. In the morning I got myself up earlier than usual intending to go to the morning devotional time. I didn't make it, but I did get a good start on the day. I took my camera and began walking around the buildings at the college taking pictures of everyone I could. (Those pictures are all available in Facebook.) Afterwards, I took a walk down Hebron Rd. with my camera to get my shekels converted to dollars at the Moneychangers and take pictures of the sites I had seen so often. The man who changed the money for me had rugged, Arab features and wore a red keffiyeh with an agal holding it in place. Afterward he asked if I was American. When I said yes, he put his hand through the opening to shake my hand and give me a blessing. I managed to take a picture of the man who ran the restaurant where I got falafel and shwarma sandwiches occasionally and also the man who owned the grocery store next to the college.
Monday afternoon I finished packing and cleaning up the apartment. About an hour before the taxi was to arrive, I started to hang out in the dormitory and say my good byes to the young men who had made me feel so welcome there. Several of the faculty stopped by to wish me a safe trip. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to have a picture taken with some of the guys in the dorm. David is wearing the Earlham College hat I gave him; several others are wearing their Palestinian keffiyehs – mine was packed deep in my suitcase.
The taxi driver arrived on time; I wasn't too surprised to discover he was known by the students. In fact, he had graduated from the college and attended the same church as Rami, who had served as my interpreter in the classroom. I barely remember the trip to Tel Aviv. My driver began talking with me about religion and the Bible. Before I knew it we were pulling up to the airport security. When the security guard asked where we had come from, the driver said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem." My mind reeled. What was I going to say? Sure enough the guard came to my window and asked me where I had been staying. It felt like I need to say Jerusalem or I might be contradicting what the taxi driver had said. The prospect of having my luggage – or body – searched didn't worry me as much as it would have embarrassed me. I was able to say honestly that I had stayed at the Gloria Hotel. That seemed to satisfy him. On we went. I made it into the airport and into the first security check. A young man began a series of questions. I had learned to respond to questions briefly, saying no more than was needed. A simple statement like "visiting religious and archaeological sites" seemed to satisfy him. He asked about the ethnic derivation of my last name. I confided with him that my ancestor came from Germany but that I had my suspicions I might have Jewish ancestry. He asked me names of my children. I commented about my oldest daughter's name, Abigail, whom I gave a Hebrew name because I was studying Hebrew at the time. I could see he was writing down names but stopped after the third name – he probably ran out of lines on his form. He liked the fifth name, Tabitha, another Hebrew name. He seemed satisfied that I wasn't a potential terrorist and let me continue through this first security checkpoint.
After getting my boarding passes, I proceeded to passport security. I stood there with my heart beating fast. I took deep, calming breaths. I did not want to end up being pulled into a room somewhere to undergo questioning in my underwear. Finally it was my turn. I handed the woman my passport and boarding passes. She asked me the reason for my visit. I said, "visit religious and archaeological sites." There was a brief pause as she looked down. Then she said, "Have a nice flight." I could now relax and enjoy the rest of my 13 hour flight to the States.
I found my gate and sat down at a cafe to enjoy a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I was beginning to make my transition to life in America. An American woman came to the counter and asked the cashier, "Could you tell me where gate C06 is?" He raised his arm and pointed to the huge sign that read C6. "So C06 and C6 are the same?" she clarified. "Welcome home," I thought.
The airport seemed much larger than necessary. There had been stretches of hallways in which I had been the only person. Everything was very new and spacious. In fact, there was free wi-fi internet access throughout the airport. I sat there in the waiting area and talked to my wife on Skype while I waited. It was very difficult not to resent the excesses when I had just come from an area so deprived of common necessities, not to mention simple freedom of movement.
I was pleased to discover that the seat next to me on the plane was empty. In the next seat was an elderly man, very rabbinical looking. Most of his waking minutes were spent reading the Hebrew Bible and what might have been a Hebrew prayerbook. I almost got my Greek New Testament out of my backpack. But I didn't because I wanted to listen to my mp3 player and watch movies on my personal monitor built into the back of the seat in front of me. The flight was unremarkable except for the little girl sitting in the row in front of me. I say sitting, but most of the time she was standing, looking over the seat at me. At first it was cute but it quickly became annoying. She watched me eat, she even stuck her little arm through to touch my container of water. Later in the flight she put her leg through between the seats just to put her foot on my leg. Thank God she slept through most of the flight. The only other thing that happened was when my rabbi seat mate was sleeping. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him move. I glanced over and watched as he reached out and took hold of my arm. He quickly released me and gave no indication that he was awake or in distress, which was my real worry.
I managed to doze through parts of the flight. At other times I watched movies like Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Ghost Town, and Baby Mama. I had loaded on my mp3 player some episodes of a radio program from Houston called Arab Voices and also some lectures from UCLA Center for Mideast Development. I had plenty to keep me from getting bored.
The rest of the trip continued to be rather uneventful. The plane from Atlanta to Dayton was an easy and comfortable ride. Even though we arrived in Dayton a little ahead of schedule, my family was waiting as I entered the lobby. My wife sobbed in my arms, as we all knew she would. Even the next day, when we were looking through the photo album she had been making of my trip, she broke down crying and once again I held her. For some reason the biblical expression came into my mind and I promised her, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
I hope in the future to be able to take another sabbatical, but this one has been special. From my perspective, I had just turned 50. It was a time to fulfill the dream I had had nearly all my life and spend an extended period of time in Rome and in Israel/Palestine. It has been the liminal period in a rite of passage from the first phase of my life to the second. I joke about it meaning my life is now half over with and I have another 50 years. The sabbatical has changed me in many ways, so in one sense I am a different person who will rise to new challenges. Yet, in many ways I'm still the same person. I'll still eat too much, be too quiet and reserved, be overly critical of others, and be paranoid that people don't respect me. I overcame my personal flaws to travel to far off places in the world and live within cultures much different than my own. So I know I can continue to live into phase two of my life expanding beyond my comfort zone and exceeding other people's expectations. I now have many more friends who will help me, experiences that will continue to shape me into a better person, and a cause – freedom and justice for Palestinians – that gives my life added meaning. In a few weeks, after spending time with family and relatives during Christmas and New Years, I will return to my regular work, eager to learn how the rest of my life will unfold.
I was worried that my last full week living in Bethlehem was going to feel like it was going slowly. For the most part I think that's been true. There haven't been any major trips and the school seems to be slowing down as the semester ends and Christmas draws closer.
I decided to visit the East Jerusalem Baptist Church again on Sunday. We had a full van with visitors from the US, Canada, and Australia. This Sunday we went directly through the nearby Bethlehem checkpoint. They collected all of our passports and wanted to know what we were doing going into Israel. Alex just said we were tourists. They let us go through but another guard wanted to look us over as well. We arrived at church earlier than usual. I got to know visitors who are Conservative Friends from Kansas. Alex included several of us in the service; I read a brief Advent lesson. A young man who has been attending the church regularly and working at the Sabeel offices in Jerusalem was leaving that day after about a year and half living in the Middle East. Everyone really appreciated his message as well as his enthusiasm and charisma. After church the group decided to get some sandwiches from the local shop and have a picnic together under the olive, orange, and lemon trees that give shade to the gardens around the church. We had a wonderful time getting to know each other better and sharing our lives with each other.
I happened to be in the administration building on Monday when the college got a visit from Santa Claus. At least I was told Santa was coming. As I understand it this man comes from Germany, dresses as Santa, and visits various places in Bethlehem to spread Christmas cheer. I was quite surprised when I saw him. My first reaction was, that's not Santa Claus. Then I thought maybe he was supposed to represent Father Christmas. He was a tall man and wore the regalia of a Catholic bishop or something. It wasn't until awhile later that I realized he was dressed as St. Nicholas.
On Wednesday I decided to try again to walk to Manger Square in downtown Bethlehem. I keep getting sidetracked by shop owners and tour guides. At least this time I knew the right way to go. It's just like going to the place where I had Arabic lessons. Scinema street, which goes east from the main intersection on Hebron Rd. goes up the hill through a business district or market. The further you go the more narrow the street becomes. When you walk past the Dar Anadwa Center the street is barely wide enough for small cars to pass with a little room for pedestrians. Eventually the street becomes so narrow that cars are not allowed. This time I was determined not to get into any conversations with shop owners or tourist guides. I kept my camera in my jacket pocket. I tried not to look like a tourist. I walked briskly with my head down, trying to look like I was going somewhere in a hurry. I almost made it to Manger Square without anyone saying anything to me. Then I saw ahead of me a boy who noticed me. He said, "Hello." I didn't pay any attention, just looked down at the ground and kept walking. I then heard him say as I was passing, "Where're you from? Islamabad?" I have no idea why he thought I looked like I was from Islamabad. I sort of took it as a compliment, had a good chuckle, and walked the few more yards into Manger Square. Opposite the Square I could see the Church of the Nativity and the visitors streaming in and out. On the left was the Bethlehem Peace Center. That's where I wanted to go. I wanted to see what sorts of things they had in their gift shop. I did find something I liked, something good quality and made in Bethlehem. Afterwards I decided to walk across the Square and just sit for a few minutes on a park bench. A man was working nearby hanging Christmas lights. I watched people go by. Sometimes there were groups of young men or groups of young women. They always seem so affectionate with each other, behavior that would usually seem out of place in most areas of the States. Families would also walk together, or it looked like one family group was meeting and talking with another family group. A few older men walked by in what I assume is Bedouin dress or more traditional Arab dress. In my ignorance I hadn't realized that a famous mosque is on one side of the Square across from the Church of the Nativity. I finally decided I had pressed my luck long enough and set off for the brisk walk back to the college. This time no one stopped me. It was an enjoyable walk being able to mix with the local Palestinian population without someone identifying me as a tourist.
Thursday evening was the college's Christmas party for faculty and staff. I suspect that it wasn't just the mood of the season that made people so happy and friendly with each other. That seems to be the way life is year round. I did get some translation from Arabic once in awhile. There were times, however, that the humor being shared was not translatable. The president of the college might say something. From one end of the table, someone would make a comment. From somewhere else someone would say something and everyone would roar with laughter. It seemed the humor was based on the turn of phrase and the nuances of Arabic, not something that would ever be as funny when it's translated into English.
We had a delicious meal, sang some Christmas songs, celebrated some birthdays and anniversaries, recognized the efforts of a few people, and generally enjoyed each other's company. Kamal played the Oud, accompanied by Rami on an Arab tambourine, and he also led people in a few songs. They all seemed to know the songs and entered in. It was a joyous and festive occasion, a wonderful experience of Arab and Palestinian Christian culture. We didn't really fit in very well. None of the internationals clapped along. I was tapping my fingers on the table and noticed someone pointing out this indication of my enjoyment of the music.
Friday has been the big day. I gave out the final exam this morning and graded it this afternoon. I'm quite happy with the work the students have done. They are intelligent and studious young people. Many of them exhibit a vibrant Christian faith. A few seem destined for great things among Palestinian Christianity both here in the West Bank and in Gaza – if they are ever able to return there. These young people are poised to make a much better life for themselves, but they need politicians and governments to give them a chance. If that doesn't happen, who knows whether there will be another generation of Palestinian Christians to maintain a witness in Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank and Gaza.