Mission News

December, 2004

 For a child is born to us, a son is given to us.  And the government will rest on his shoulders.  These will be his royal titles:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
~ Isaiah 9:6

This year I heard portions of the Christmas story in five different languages – English, Arabic, Latin, French, and German.  A theme common throughout the familiar narrative in any language is people making a journey to Bethlehem and returning changed.  Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem as ordinary folks and returned earthly parents of the son of God.  The wise men traveled to Bethlehem seeking a king and returned having worshiped the infant Jesus.  The shepherds traveled to Bethlehem not sure what to expect and returned sharing the good news of Christ with everyone they encountered.  Like all of these stories, my journey to Bethlehem changed me and allowed me to encounter God in unexpected ways.   

You might expect that after spending a week in the holy land I would have lots of magnificent stories to share about visits to holy sites and historically important places.  Of course I have enough of those stories to fill three newsletters and you can read about them on my website, but I’m not going to discuss them here.  Those are the experiences I expected to have in Bethlehem, but like Mary and Joseph, the wise men, and shepherds, the thing that had the most profound impact on me was  unexpected and that is what I want to share with you.

When we arrived in Bethlehem, a tour guide had been arranged to show us around.  His name is Nadal and he is a Palestinian Muslim residing in Bethlehem.  Like most other Palestinian residents of Bethlehem, he is not allowed to leave the city because he is a terrorist.  Okay, the church didn’t really arrange for a terrorist to be our guide, but he is Palestinian and for that reason he has the potential to be a terrorist, which is why he isn’t allowed to leave Bethlehem.  Last year when his mother was ill he sneaked out of Bethlehem to see her (they are separated by walls, barbed wire, and heavily armed guards), but otherwise he has not left Bethlehem in years.  He was a very kind man with a huge, friendly grin, a great sense of humor, and six young kids.  He was also a very good tour guide, but his biggest gift to us was the personal insight he was able to give into life in Palestine.  Nadal told us stories of Israeli tanks storming into Bethlehem and shared with us the humiliation he felt waiting in the Red Cross food distribution line when he was not permitted to work to support his family.   He expressed to us his hopes for a single state in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims live and work together peacefully.

Although I suspect it is not high on the agenda for most holy land tourists, we were blessed to spend a couple hours touring a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.  For that tour, Nadal was joined by another tour guide, Jihad, who was born in the refugee camp.  Like many other young Palestinians, he has always lived in the camp and knows no other life.  His situation differed from that of Nadal only in that Jihad’s family had been displaced from their home by construction of Israeli settlements. 

When I hear the phrase, “refugee camp,” the image in my mind is of tents and other temporary housing.  The camp we toured, however, has existed since the 1950s and looks as permanent as any other town.  The primary difference, however, is that this “town” is only one half kilometer square and houses 11,000 people, none of whom are there voluntarily.  Some of the housing looked decent, but much of it was obviously sub-standard.  Although we only spent a couple hours in the refugee camp, I felt shocked by much of what we saw and saddened by the unfortunate circumstances of the people.  

Prior to this trip, I am embarrassed to say, I knew very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I have recently been reading as much as I can about the situation and I have learned enough to know that the situation is extremely complex, there is no fair way to cast blame for the problems on a single person or group, and there is no easy solution.  I am blessed to have witnessed some effects of the conflict and I am certain that if I had spent more time in Israel, I would have met people in similarly unfortunate circumstances there.  However, for now I am grateful that when I hear stories on the news about developments in the peace process or about violent clashes between groups, I will not see nameless, faceless Jews and Arabs that have the misfortune of living in a hostile part of the world.  Rather, I will see Nadal trying to instill hope for the future in his six children and I will see Jihad struggling to live in an environment that encourages him to fight in order to survive.

As a new year begins, please pray not only for Palestinians and Israelis or Jews and Arabs, but for peace, justice, and dignity for all people in the world.



December newsletter of Lisa Burke, serving as a YAGM with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt