We are here in Bethlehem staying at a Lutheran Guest House. Rumor has it that we are in Israel. We were in Israel the first two days when we landed at Tel Aviv and stayed in Jerusalem. Actually, Bethlehem is in the West Bank which is part of Palestine. Palestine is governed by the Palestinian Authority. This was part of the southern kingdom of Israel or Judea in Biblical Times, but it has changed hands many times since then.
Today began with a prayer. One of our members is exhausted from climbing Herodian, the summer palace and fortress of Herod the Great. It is on top of a mountain which he made even taller by making the people haul more dirt to raise the height of the mountain. I’m glad the rest of us made it especially us older pilgrims.
Today was more of a mission learning experience. We made our first stop at the Deheishe Refugee Camp and school in Bethlehem. Imagine being a refugee in your own country for over 60 years. The camp is rented by the nation of Jordan since 1948 and Israel can’t take it. However, they can enter with cause and determine what is built there even though it is in Palestine. In it there are 13,000 inhabitants, one doctor that sees all his patients during four hours a day (up to 300 patients per day), there are 2 schools for 1500 students each. All in 4-5 acres. The camp is now operated by the United Nations. Our guide, Rageoda was born in the camp. He said, “my family home is only 10 miles away but we cannot live there.” The Israelis bulldozed his home and have taken many of the rural areas of the West Bank so that the map of the West Bank is now a series of disconnected towns with walled off open space or Israeli settlements in between. Rageoda says, “the rationale that Israel needs more land for population growth is not true because even though they have built settlements on some land, places like my families home were destroyed and the land is barren.”
Next we went to a college that was begun as a cultural center for Palestinians by the Lutheran Church. It has been turned into an Art School to train local artisans and now has the status of a Community College. We admired the students art skills, especially sculpting and jewelry making. Then we had lunch at the eatery of our choice on the streets of Bethlehem. The food was different from American but delicious.
In the afternoon, we went to the Omar Mosque and listened to the Mufti Amed El Maged tell us the Muslim point of view on faith. He said “to be a faithful Muslim you must keep your body clean (undefiled), help the poor, pray attend Mosque and attend the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during your lifetime if you can afford it.” He pointed out that our math and a lot of medical science was first discovered by the Muslim world.
We rounded out our day at the Hope Secondary School, an ecumenical school supported by many churches in the United States and around the world, notably for us the Mennonite Central Committee and the United Methodist Church Advance Special Mission. The school is for Muslim and Christian poor children and it is part boarding school. The principle says, “we can’t teach Christianity exclusively, but we are glad that Muslim children get to experience real Christian People and practice here, and not the way they may be taught about Christianity.”
Ed Wilkins, for the group