The Words of the Pople Family

The 12th Day of the Israel Pilgrimage - Power Equal to Our Tasks - A Day in Bethlehem

Joy Pople
October 2004

"The future is uncertain if you don't look at it with faith and love," Maria, our tour guide observed as we boarded the bus for a day in Bethlehem.

Only few of us knew that Maria, who lived in Bethlehem, had been staying at her son's home in Jerusalem for a number of days because of increased travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians. If she re-entered the West Bank with us, she didn't know when she would be allowed back into Jerusalem. Still, Maria wanted to show us around her hometown. We looked around at the blue skies and bright sun reflected off the golden limestone of Jerusalem and wondered how it would feel to live amid such uncertainty.

Maria studied to be a tour guide at Bethlehem Bible College, and she views her work as a ministry. With an earnest voice, she added: "I hope I have a lot of love in my heart today. I want you to support me."

"We are going to Bethlehem," Maria announced into the microphone, as two buses from the World Peace Pilgrimage pulled out of Jerusalem's Hyatt Regency Hotel on September 21. "We will go first to the Shepherd's Field, and then you will go out in small groups to eat with local families in their homes. They will come to pick you up. Each family will take as many of you as they feel comfortable hosting. You might be eating with just a husband and wife, or you might meet three generations. After lunch we will visit orphans in the SOS village."

Olive groves lined either side of the highway from Jerusalem to the birthplace of King David and Jes

us a few miles to the south. On a hilltop to our left were the densely-packed buildings of an Israeli settlement that was being ringed by 12 to 15-feet high concrete barriers. An Israeli soldier boarded our bus at the checkpoint and glanced at each person's passport before waving our bus through.

Before us lay a panorama of cream-colored limestone buildings that spread over the hills and valleys, with groves of olive trees dotting the rocky slopes. Eight Israeli settlements have been built among the 21 villages and three cities that make up Bethlehem. Graffiti from the various political parties mars the walls. People make their living from tourism and creating craft products from olive tree wood, but until our peace pilgrimages began, there had been few visitors to Bethlehem since September 2000.

The three cities of Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Bethlehem have now merged into one metropolitan area. However, Maria explained, at the beginning of the 20th century war would have broken out if a girl from one village wanted to marry a boy from another. At a minimum, the church bells of her village would be rung as if announcing her death. A century later, bell-ringers may wish they had more cause for celebration.

The previous week, we had come to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site commemorating Jesus' birth. This time we went to the Catholic shrine marking the field where the shepherds heard the angels' announcement of the birth of a savior. Four Christian groups have designated "shepherds' fields"--Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Mormon. "In the Gospel account, there were a host of angels," Maria explained, "and there may have been shepherds all around Bethlehem; so each of the fields may be a correct location."

We walked along a barbed wire fence, past monastery walls and olive trees, toward a limestone cave filled with benches and an altar, where we sat in quiet reflection. Then we listened to a reading from the Gospel according to Luke about the angels' proclamation of the Messiah's birth, followed by a prayer in Hebrew.

We learned that English translations of the Bible using the word inn create a misleading picture of life in those times. There were no inns for travelers. The numerous caves in the limestone hills were home; people slept in the front part of the caves, and the animals were kept in the back part. Travelers would normally sleep in the family area; only when that was completely full would travelers be sent back to sleep with the animals.

Then Rev. Betty Tatalajski stood up and spoke to us about seeing in spirit the blessed Mother Mary in our midst, wearing a mantle with which she wraps her son. "Each of us gets to wear the mantle as well," Rev. Betty said. She said Mary was asking us to help her, not just pray to her to help us, because the holy places are being attacked by the forces of darkness. "Gather up the glory of God that appeared here and take it back home with you," she added. "Give everyone the good news that was brought 2000 years ago to the people of good will."

From Father Moon, we have come to understand that Jesus should have been born in a place of honor and raised under the protection of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, as well as the companionship of John the Baptist. When that did not work out, at least the three wise men should have stayed on, offering their protection. Christians have become accustomed to the tale of Jesus' birth in a manger and his family fleeing to Egypt to escape the king's wrath. We were challenged to resolve in our hearts: "Jesus, I will never leave you. I will walk with you and protect you. I will be your mouthpiece."

We retraced our steps to the buses in the parking lot and headed for the offices of the Alternative Tourism Group in Beit Sahour. This organization brings tourists into personal contact with Palestinian people and lets them experience something of their daily life. Many tourists see only the "dead stones" of monuments of the past and don't meet the "living stones," the heirs of the ancient faiths. Thus, Alternative Tourism Group has cultivated a network of host families around Bethlehem (another other sites) who open their homes and hearts to travelers for overnight accommodations and breakfast.

We crowded into the small office and counted off in groups of five or six to set off by taxi or car to these host homes for lunch.

Our taxi sped through a intersection, narrowly missing an oncoming pick-up truck and a couple of pedestrians. Having been urged to sit next to the driver--perhaps because I was the lady with the grayest hair--I quickly fastened the seat belt. We held on as the taxi crossed a broad stony valley and then climbed part-way up a hill to a two-storey house. A woman descended the stairs and invited us up, where we found her elderly husband seated next to an oxygen machine. There were introductions all around, and we offered them the small gifts we brought with us.

The family is Christian, with ancestry in the area going back for several centuries. We admired the family photos. Our hosts are retired teachers; a daughter lives nearby, but travel restrictions make it difficult to visit as frequently as they would wish. A son lives near Washington, DC, where two of our group also live, so there is a potential for an ongoing relationship. We looked out the side windows to the next hill, where trees were removed to build a new Israeli settlement; land was confiscated to build a road and barbed-wire fence leading up to it.

We washed hands and sat down at the kitchen table around a large shallow baking pan containing seasoned roast chicken pieces along with carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic. It was the most American-style dish we had eaten for two weeks, and we felt right at home. We couldn't linger, because we had to call a taxi to meet our bus heading to the next stop. As we finished our luncheon platters, we described Father Moon's vision for world peace as being rooted in family peace; we brought out a bottle of blessed water and offered a prayer and a toast for God's blessing on their family.

The buses were waiting for us as we returned. Maria asked each group about their experiences; someone referred to the conclusion of the story she had told us the day we set out for the Muslim village: "If one takes the attitude that people are good, one finds good people."

At some point, Maria called her mother-in-law and asked her to bake some treats for 80 people that she was bringing over for a visit. It seems that Maria and her family were setting out to undo any lingering reputation Bethlehem might have for inhospitality.

We then went to the SOS Children's Village in Bethlehem. Established in 1973, the SOS Children's Village has 10 houses where school-age orphan children live family-style with a housemother and an assistant. The staff and children are Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims. In a meeting room, we laid out the children's gifts we had brought along with us, for the staff to distribute. Young women led us in small groups through several of the cozy three-bedroom homes. It was lunch-time and children were eating on the verandahs, but we were able to personally greet some of the children. There are houses for teen boys, teen girls, and university students. SOS takes pride in its young people who do well in college; when they are ready to marry, SOS serves as their family as they make preparations and go through the wedding ceremony. (SOS operates in 132 countries, providing long-term homes for orphaned and abandoned children, as well as working to promote family stability to reduce the numbers of abandoned children.)

The culmination of our day was Maria's invitation to visit her home high on a cliff. It had taken 12 years for her family to get a building permit, but the view from the curved verandahs overlooking the spectacular skyline of Jerusalem was priceless. The buildings were misty in the dusty horizon. In the winter, the talest buildings are visible above the damp fog.

Maria's in-laws are from France. Her father-in-law retired from practicing dentistry when his eyesight began to fail, and he amuses himself playing games of solitaire, with his head bent over to distinguish between the different cards. He was thrilled to have 80 visitors.

Maria's mother produced pans of treats made with sugar and corn flour, served with pitchers of lemonade and tamarind-flavored water. When the sweetened beverages ran out, we were more than happy to quench our thirst with cold water, given in the name of Jesus. In turn, those of us who can never resist an opportunity to make music gathered around the piano and sang show tunes and gospel song to a rock-and-roll beat. Maria had told us that her entire family loves music. The final song was a solo sung in French, celebrating the beauties of autumn; it brought tears to the eyes of Maria's father-in-law.

The bus drivers had been very upset about the steep drive up the narrow switchbacks to Maria's house. At times, people on the street had to stop traffic and guide the drivers as they maneuvered the buses back and forth to negotiate a curve. Our lives were in the hands of skilled drivers, and fortunately no vehicles sped downhill into our buses. Somehow, the drivers maneuvered the buses to the top of the ridge, found a place to turn them around, and were waiting for us afterwards.

If our highlight of the day was the warm hospitality of Maria and her family, Maria's highlight came when the Israeli guards waved our bus through the checkpoint without even boarding the bus to examine passports. Maria asked me to sit beside her in the back of the bus as she prayed. She had given her car keys to the guide on the other bus, in case she could not return to Jerusalem.

After our return, Maria sent an email: "If you get to see Father Moon tell him that more and more people are getting to know about him and his mission ask him to reinforce his activities in the Holy Land and especially in the area of Bethlehem and thank him for bringing a light of hope to the hearts of the people in this area."

Each Christmas season we hear the words to "O Little Town of Bethlehem," describing it as the convergence of the world's hopes and fears. We tasted a bit of both that day. The Christmas carol's author, Bishop Phillips Brooks, wrote the following lesser-known words of advice, which are worth taking to heart: "Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks."

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