Friday, December 12, 2008

End of a Trip, Beginning of a Journey

 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.

Week 13 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

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.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Week 12 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

I spent much of my time this past week reading and writing. On Saturday I began outlining my research on philosophers as household advisers in the early Roman empire as a context for how we might understand the practice of the Apostle Paul to reside in homes during his travels, teach within the social structure of the household, and write letters of moral exhortation and advice addressed to household fellowship meetings. One of the books I've wanted to read since beginning my sabbatical is a recent book by David Balch, Roman Domestic Art and Early House Churches. While studying at the American Academy in Rome in the summer, I had dinner with David during which I saw his copy of his book. I ordered the copy during the summer from Eisenbraun's, but because they hadn't received copies yet I canceled that order. While here in Bethlehem, I ordered the book at the beginning of October directly from the publisher Mohr Siebeck in Germany. They were to ship it by DHL to the address the college uses in Jerusalem, a travel agency that also picks up their postal mail. Two months later and I still have not received the book. Mohr Siebeck has been gracious enough to give me a replacement copy and ship it directly to my home in the States.
On Sunday I decided to read Alex Awad's new book Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People. It took me eight hours of straight reading. I found the history of his family and what his mother went through a moving and engaging story. Part Two of the book is a readable history and explanation of the Middle East conflict from the period of the British Mandate up to the latest peace negotiations since Annapolis and the Road Map. In a concluding section Alex gives answers from the perspective of a Palestinian Christian (and an American citizen, Methodist missionary, and Dean of Students and professor at Bethlehem Bible College) to common questions asked of him concerning Israel and Palestine. My only problem with the book is the price is too cheap. The book is filled with photographs, many of which are in color, as well as color-coded maps. Anyone purchasing the book from the college should consider adding a donation to the college.
 Most of my week was a daily routine of having tea and lunch at the college, grading the mid-term exams, and preparing for Friday's class. I keep mentioning whenever I do my laundry. As you might guess, it is because – to my embarrassment – it is a task I rarely do at home. When I return home I can no longer use the excuse of ignorance to get out of helping with the laundry. (I can also no longer use the excuse I have a second job as a part-time pastor.) So I took a picture of my clothes hanging on the line, or should I say blowing in the wind. I discovered later that my pants tried flying away and the guesthouse manager nicely hung them back up again for me. The view from the rooftop is spectacular and it also gives a nice look at the new building being constructed for the college. Here's another area where the college needs financial help.
There are always visitors or internationals who are working somewhere in Israel/Palestine stopping by the college. It's fun to get to meet people from around the world who are invested in helping the Palestinians or at least learning about the Holy Land from the Palestinian point of view. One young woman has been here this week. I talked with her and learned she graduated from the University of Chicago majoring in linguistics and has been teaching English in a college in Jenin. When we shared where we live in the States, she said she is from Alaska. I told her I would resist making any Sarah Palin jokes, which promise I didn't really keep. When others sat down and join us, she introduced herself as being from Jenin. I couldn't help but point out that she's saying she's from Jenin to avoid telling people she's really from Alaska. It made for a good laugh. Maybe you had to be there.
Friday's class was its usual challenge. I'm speaking in English about Greek and Hebrew, about historical-critical methodology and textual criticism, and about theological concepts related to inspiration and the immutability of Christ. Rami not only has to translate my English but explain to them what I'm talking about. I'm sure he has talked in Arabic two or three times as much as I in English during the class. The class sessions are now over and I just need to give the final exam next Friday.
I've not been the type to get very politically involved. The only issue about which I've written to my elected representatives has been Palestine. This past week I received an email from Wheaton College inviting alumni to participate in a trip to Israel to learn about the history, geography, and archaeology of the Holy Land. To me this was another example of Christians pretending like they come to this area of the world and step back into time while ignoring the present realities. For the most part they careen their way through the streets of Bethlehem, stop long enough for the tourists to see the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherds' Fields, and then are whisked back to the safety of the other side of the so-called security fence. So I decided to write an email back to the alumni office at Wheaton College.
"I'm responding to an email as an alumnus. I understand why Wheaton would want to arrange an educational trip for alumni to learn about the geographical and archaeological context of the Bible in the Holy Land. However, during this time when Israel is responsible for the greatest humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust, it would be more conscionable to avoid such trips until Israel changes its policies of ignoring the human and civil rights of Palestinians. I have been living in Bethlehem for the past three months and have traveled in the West Bank and Israel. It's time Christians of the U.S. wake up to the devastation and horror caused by our tax dollars supporting the apartheid wall and ethnic cleansing of the Holy Land. What happened here thousands of years ago was important, but seeing it is not more important than resisting the injustice that occupies the land now."
I have had a reply. This is my response.
"Thank you for your response. I can appreciate the desire to visit the Holy Land and study its history up close. I've wanted to come here since taking classes in the graduate school [at Wheaton] from John McRay on New Testament archaeology. I couldn't afford to come here then, but now I've been able to live here during my sabbatical. Living in the West Bank makes the view of the archaeological sites much different. They pale in comparison to the current events and humanitarian crisis. To think you can come to Israel just to see the history is almost like Christians traveling to Nazi Germany to visit cathedrals and excusing themselves because they are not on a political trip. You are not able to travel to Israel without your actions having a political and economic impact, no matter what your intentions are. If you talk with an Israeli tour company, of course they will not advise you to go into the West Bank. But Bethlehem is in the West Bank. The checkpoint is just down the street from where I'm teaching at Bethlehem Bible College. You have to go through the checkpoint to reach the Church of the Nativity. You won't know it, but you'll pass by one or two refugee camps where Palestinians are still waiting for Israel to honor the UN mandated right of return.  It is simply not true to say, "Palestinians benefit from tourism as much as Israelis do." Israelis control how much tourists on bus trips have contact with Palestinians. I hope you will shop at the markets around Manger Square. They are completely Palestinian since Israelis are not allowed to enter the West Bank (except through the specially built roads that lead to settlements within the West Bank). It is a fallacy of Biblical studies and archaeology to think we can study these areas in an historical vacuum. To be responsible interpreters of the Bible we have to look at the world as past, present, and future. Many Christians are studying the past, ignoring the present, and then aspiring to a prophetic vision of a messianic Israel dominating the Middle East and the world. That's not, as they say here, the facts on the ground."
 There are beginning to be signs of Christmas in Bethlehem. I hope to see more in the nine days I have left in Bethlehem. I took a few pictures just outside the college. One looks out across the street at some typical shops. Another looks down the street to the south along Hebron Rd. The odd color seems to be due to the type of lighting from the street lamps. Bethlehem puts up lights to celebrate Christmas, but I'm told the extra electricity usage can cause there to be blackouts for hours at a time.
After class on Friday Rami and I were invited to the home of one of our students, Elias. He is from Gaza, a dedicated Palestinian Christian with great gifts for ministry. He works with the local Bible Society in coordinating youth and children's programs.  Some day he hopes to return to Gaza to work in the Bible college there. We had a wonderful lunch together. It was great to meet his wife and three children. Their apartment is on the top of a very tall building. It is an apartment I would love to live in. They have a large deck area. I was joking that it was nearly large enough to play basketball, only you'd have to be careful when you make a layup. Rami joked about it being an apartment Jesus would not wanted to have visited, since a group in Nazareth had tried to throw him off the nearest cliff. Below stretches out the city of Beit Sahour toward the west. In the distance are the Judean hills and the hard-to-miss mountain of Herodion. Around the other side you can see the ugliness of the Jewish settlement Har Homa (ugly not just because it's a settlement on Palestinian land but the uniform buildings are like something from science fiction) and in the distance the holy city of Jerusalem.
 Elias told us about some of his experiences living in Gaza. First he praised the food from Gaza. To him the best Palestinian food comes from Gaza, like the dish we had called Fatta.Elias also told us some of the tragedies. One of the workers at the Bible Society in Gaza was murdered. A bomb destroyed much of their bookshop.During one of the times the Rafah Crossing was open, Elias had gone with others into Egypt. When they returned they were not able to get back into Gaza. They spent ten days waiting to be able to get back in. I think it was the Red Cross that gave people one can of tunafish for lunch and one can of chick peas for dinner. People would scrounge for boxes from a nearby store, and their camp came to be called "Box City." There was one shower, which consisted of a pipe draining water from the tank on the top of the building. And, if I understand correctly, it was over a toilet so you had to be careful how you maneuvered yourself. Somehow people knew each other's loyalties enough that there were three divisions in the camp: the Fatah, the Hamas, and others. It was the final of the world cup of soccer (excuse my ignorance of "football"). The Fatah people asked the Egyptians for a TV so they could watch. The Hamas people, being strict Muslims, abhorred such things as television. Even though the Fatah group couldn't see much of what was going on in the game, they pretended to cheer as though it was an exciting game. Eventually the Hamas group decided they were missing something good and came and joined them. The Egyptians were complying with the wishes of Israel by closing the border. One day the Palestinian forces repressed the Egyptians and told everyone to run before the Israeli soldiers got there. It was a narrow escape with their lives, but they made it back in. Elias told us about his father, who still lives in Gaza. There have been only two times when Elias has witnessed his father crying. The first time was when Elias decided to take his young family and flee from Gaza. The second time is now when his father has had to tell him he should not try to return to Gaza.