From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Keeping the faith in Bethlehem

Date 13 Dec 2002 12:55:48 -0500

Note #7545 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Keeping the faith in Bethlehem
December 13, 2002

Keeping the faith in Bethlehem

A people weary of waiting marks Advent, a season of waiting

by Alexa Smith

Editor's note: Alexa Smith is on a special long-term assignment for the
Presbyterian News Service in Israel/Palestine, where she will be reporting
in-depth on the situation there. Unable to get into Bethlehem because of the
curfew, she conducted the interviews for this story by telephone from East
Jerusalem, eight miles away. - Jerry L. Van Marter

EAST JERUSALEM - Father Peter DuBrul had to talk in a hurry. 

Students were noisily filing into his religious-studies class at Bethlehem
University for the first time in 17 days - the first time since the Israeli
army unexpectedly lifted its curfew on the city for six fleeting hours. 

In practice, curfew is house arrest - for the whole town. Intermittent breaks
are announced without warning to allow people to buy food, pay bills and fill

Israeli army jeeps patrol the streets, loudspeakers blaring promises of
punishment for anyone who steps out onto a porch. Tanks and armored personnel
carriers are positioned in key thoroughfares. 

A political agreement had brought a respite from months of continuous curfew
in Bethlehem, but the easing of restrictions lasted only 95 days. The deal
was broken when another suicide bomber - who lived on the outskirts of
Bethlehem -- set off an explosive device on a Jerusalem bus, killing himself
and 11 others, some of them schoolchildren. 

The army immediately reoccupied the town and imposed an indefinite curfew.  

So DuBrul and his colleagues were blitz-teaching courses on Tuesday, offering
30-minute classes to the students who were able to get there, and assigning
stacks of reading assignments for homework. They could not know when school
would be open again. 

"We got three hours last Monday, and crammed every course into 15 minutes,"
said DeBrul, a Jesuit priest from Ohio. "We don't know about tomorrow. We've
been hunkering down since the beginning of the semester waiting for this."

Halfway through Advent, DuBrul, who has spent 28 years in Bethlehem waiting
for the peace that never comes, is still waiting - in the tiny town where the
concept of waiting for God's prophetic entry into human reality was born. It
was the Hebrew prophet Micah who put it into words: "But you, O Bethlehem of
Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come
forth ... one who is to rule in Israel, (one) whose origin is from old, from
ancient days." (Micah 5:2) 

Here in Bethlehem, DuBrul is lighting candles, as he does every year, while
intoning the words of Isaiah, promising a new order in which swords are
turned into plowshares and lions lie down with lambs. And he repeats the
Psalmist's observation that the night is nearly spent and the day is not far.

DuBrul, and the other clergy people in Bethlehem, have the job of preaching
about everlasting peace in a place of everlasting conflict to people
desperately tired of waiting for help. 

"This is not easy," said Father Jamal Khader, a priest who teaches at a
seminary run by the Latin Patriarchate in Beit Jala, a town in Bethlehem's
shadow. "We're talking about hope and waiting for salvation - but what we are
experiencing is helplessness and despair. When you see the political
situation getting darker and darker, it is not easy to preach hope. 

"The problem is: How to keep hope alive?" 

Encouraging people to wait for God's time is challenging indeed in a town
where some people haven't seen a paycheck in more than two years, where
authorities say many live on just $2 a day and can't afford meat and can't
fill prescriptions unless the local drugstore is extending credit.

It isn't easy to ask people who feel like they've been waiting forever to
wait even longer. 

Ministers say their weary parishioners often ask simple questions with very
hard answers - such as, "Where God?" and "Why is God letting all of this

"We don't have the answers," Khader said. "We can say, 'Christ came here.'
But for suffering people, that's not an answer. We can say, 'Jesus suffered
with us; that's his way.' Just being there with them is part of that

But for the Rev. Alex Awad, a Baptist minister in Jerusalem who also serves
as dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College, the military occupation is
sermon fodder. He notes that Jesus himself, from birth to death, knew the
terror of living under the heel of an occupying army.

Where to find comfort? Where it always has been found, in the soothing words
of scripture.

"Little Jesus was born under occupation, and there were forces that wanted to
kill him," said Awad. "Herod was a Jew, but, really, he was a tool for the
Roman occupiers.  But none of that stopped the angels from singing or the
shepherds from rejoicing. We can look into Jesus again and listen to the
words and receive salvation again, hope again, regardless of the conditions
we are in."

Awad preached last week on the text in Luke in which Mary and Joseph "marvel"
at the words they hear about the infant Jesus. 

"Even under occupation and oppression, a state of fear and suspicion, they
were able to hear words and see things that enabled them to marvel and
rejoice," he said, emphasizing that, at Christmastime, "marvel and hope" are
precisely what God offers Christians. 

Awad, an unrelenting pacifist, said he thinks of Jesus as a liberator, but
not one who liberates by "the sword, the gun or an Apache helicopter."
Christians are liberated through the power of a baby born to give "new hope
and a new day." 

Waiting isn't any easier at the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem's Old

The 50 members of its congregation have opted to wait together on each of the
past two Sundays of Advent, rather than to wait individually, locked into
their homes. They hae quietly defied the curfew. 

On the first Sunday, 28 people walked to worship, peeking around the corners
of buildings and slipping silently down streets where no soldiers were in

The next Sunday, 38 were on hand to see the Advent candles lit, said the Rev.
Mitri Raheb, the pastor, who next month will be a visiting theologian at the
Presbyterian Center in Louisville.

In a little square just yards away, an Israeli armored vehicle broadcast a
warning that anyone caught outdoors would be punished.	

"People here have been waiting a long time," said Raheb, who noted that the
prophetic texts of Advent, including the Magnificat, in which Mary praises
God for toppling the thrones of the mighty, are especially meaningful here.

He says the mighty, such as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "are not
here to stay." 

What is it that draws his congregants to church, despite the very real risks?

"I think they need to feel the presence of God in the midst of all this,"
Raheb said.

 They have chosen to obey God rather than their occupiers. 

"And we lit the candles," said Raheb, who admits he was somewhat startled to
see how many had defied the curfew. "Not that we create hope (by) magically
lighting a real candle. What gives us hope is seeing how many candles around
us are lit. So many (in the global church) are lighting their candles, too.
Struggling and hoping. There is a whole community with us." 

Many in Bethlehem wish the global Christian community burned with more
passion about the daily hardships of residents of towns like Bethlehem.

"I feel like the church in the United States is somehow sleeping while this
great injustice is happening," said Awad. "Like the church in Germany slept
while Hitler was doing his ugly work. The church needs to wake up ... and
hear the aches of Israelis and Palestinians, and come in a genuine way to
help them. 

"We feel their lack of genuine commitment to change the situation here."

Awad said Americans seem to believe that entire Palestinian cities must be
condemned to suffering in order to stop suicide bombings. "But to respond to
suicide bombings by punishing a whole nation, by making a whole nation a
nation of beggars, is absolutely horrible," he said.

Americans understandably are reluctant to get involved in the
Israeli-Palestinian mess.

That's how DuBrul preached recently on the passage from Matthew's Gospel
about Joseph's dream.

Joseph wants to extricate himself from a messy problem - a girlfriend who is
inexplicably pregnant. But an angel appears in a dream and tells him to
commit to Mary anyhow, explaining that God is at work in this mess.

"We've got to believe, despite all appearances, that God is working in this
situation," he told his students. "With no explanation - an angel hasn't told
us how this is going to end. We're asked to trust that God is at work. 

"In a sense, we're Joseph."

DuBrul laughed out loud at the end-of-class clamor as his students they
plopped books onto desks and slid chairs across the floor. The students, he
said, save him from despair.

"I'm living in a city of youth, and they're just happy to see one another
again," he said, speaking of their return to the university campus. "They're
full of life. They have their lives ahead of them. ...

"They are what's pregnant here."

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