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Bethlehem, now

We keep telling the stories of God, over and over.  We teach these stories to our children, and we love to watch kids act out the stories of Jesus’s birth.  We become part of the story, sharing what is important to us with the next generation. 


And why is this important?  Because it tells us who we are and where we belong.  In Jesus Christ, God came close to humankind, taking the risk to become human, born not in a palace, not as any particular royalty, except maybe a distant relative of David. 


We retell the story to take note of God’s work: the appearance of angels and heavenly host—whoever that is—and mysterious pregnancies, signs that come to insignificant people like shepherds and bring those shepherds together with the holy family, all of them astounded by what they have heard. 


Our world is filled with stories of people torn apart, separated from one another, walled off from each other.  Unity is difficult, and sometimes impossible.  Bearing witness to God’s work means bearing witness to those places where people are brought together, to hear each other’s stories.  God came to humanity out of love for us; could we possibly honor God by simply listening to one another? 


I want to share a story tonight told by one of our ELCA missionaries, Reverend Jordan Miller Stubbendick.  She and her husband, both pastors, were living in Jerusalem, serving as coordinators for the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program.  Their family was evacuated after the current escalation of conflict in Gaza, Israel, and the whole of occupied Palestine.  


Before leaving, Pastor Jordan wrote about a visit to a refugee camp in Bethlehem, Palestine, telling the story of Ahmad, a man she met there.  Here are her reflections from an essay she titled, “A walk in Bethlehem:”


“My feet kick an empty plastic water bottle as I follow Ahmad through the streets of the refugee camp in Bethlehem where he was born. He lives not far from where Jesus was born, and like Jesus, Ahmad was born in less than ideal conditions, under military occupation, in a town the world does not much notice. The first time I met Ahmad, I learned that he and I were born in the same year: 1982. Our forty-one years have been as different as you might imagine. I slept soundly through my childhood nights, never worrying that soldiers would burst into my home in the middle of the night. I’ve always been a citizen of a recognized country. Even before I ever visited Bethlehem, I had more rights in Ahmad’s country than he ever has.


“I was born in the United States, and Ahmad was born here in Bethlehem, Palestine, in this camp for Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes and land when the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948.


“Until last year, I did not really know much about this camp or any of the others in Bethlehem, the West Bank capital city of Ramallah, or those in Syria or Jordan. I am learning quickly now, making space for a narrative that is different from what I’ve always been told.


“This camp began as tents set up for these refugee families, as temporary shelter for the children, women, and men who lost their homes and villages when the Israeli military plowed through historic Palestine with their guns and bulldozers.


“Even now, if you speak to a resident of this refugee camp, asking where they are from, you will likely hear, “I am from Jaffa,” a historic Palestinian city on the Mediterranean Sea, famous for its oranges, or “I am from Haifa,” a seaport known for its railway, bringing travelers from diverse places. Even children will give you these answers, children who, like Ahmad, were born in this camp, who have never seen Jaffa or Haifa. These towns were home to their great-grandparents, but the shape of the town has been carefully handed down to each new member of the family.


“For Ahmad, it is the same. His ancestral village is Ayn Zaytun, where his grandparents lived, where his family was forced to leave in 1948. You can no longer find Ayn Zaytun on a map. Long before Ahmad was born, Ayn Zaytun was plowed under by the Israeli military, planted over and given a Hebrew name. But Ahmad can close his eyes and sketch the layout of his village, detailing his grandparents’ house, the place that his family still names as home.


“It has been four generations that Palestinians have lived in this camp. The temporary tents were long ago replaced by more permanent structures of concrete. The false permanence of this camp has emerged through necessity. With no way to get back to their homes and land, the people of this camp had to create more lasting temporary shelter.


“Ahmad explains that the first residents of this camp were farmers. They were used to caring for the land that was like an extension of their own body, to planting fig and lemon trees, grapes, olive trees. Their days and years were shaped by planting, watering, harvesting. Now, 75 years later, in this collection of concrete buildings crammed with 13,000 people living in a place where there is no privacy, the trees planted over decades have taken root and blossomed.


“As trees tucked into tiny pockets of land bring some needed relief to this camp, so too does Ahmad. Ahmad is an artist. He distills the grief and longing, the beauty and joy of not only his life, but the life of his family, his neighbors, his community into carefully crafted images that are both haunting and hopeful.


“Consider the balance between the human need for beauty, and the human yearning to return home. It is against the United Nations’ international law, and against the desire of the human heart to keep so many generations of people packed into a still-“temporary” camp, refusing to allow them to stretch out physically, emotionally, or spiritually.


“Ahmad tells me that one tension of living in this camp is the innate desire to be surrounded by beauty in one’s living space—and also the need to keep the hope of freedom alive by not making this refugee camp too beautiful, to continue pressing towards the dream of a permanent home of one’s own, that is safe and lasting, where Ahmad and his family can live in peace and dignity, without fear of nightly raids and with reliable access to water and electricity.


“For now, I continue to follow Ahmad as he shows our group around the camp that is uneasily, reluctantly the only home he has ever known. My feet scuttle a soda can over the pavement as I come to a stop. Ahmad is telling us about one of the thriving trees that are carefully tended by the residents of this camp. I look up. It is a fig tree abundant with fruit, its branches bending down as if they would embrace anyone walking by.


“It is our culture to be generous,” Ahmad is saying. “If someone passing by takes a fig from my tree to eat, I will not stop him. To be honest, I will say, Take more. It is our way.”


“The September sunshine slants through the canopy of broad, thriving green fig leaves overhead. Like the Palestinians, this fig tree is deeply rooted in the land, taking even the sparse, minimal conditions of this “temporary” refugee camp and turning them into fruit that is nourishing, life-giving, abundant.

“With proper conditions and care, a fig tree can live for a hundred years. If the fig tree can flourish in a refugee camp, how much better could it do on proper farmland?

How much more so the Palestinians?”[1]


Pastor Jordan bears witness to God’s work through humans walking together, listening to one another.  We pray for the peace of people in the land of Jesus’s birth, and we pray for justice, for healing, for God’s wisdom.  


“Do not be afraid,” the heavenly messenger says.  “I am bringing you good news of great joy.”  Your God comes to you, calling humankind together into God’s embrace, and on earth, peace. 


Pastor Cheryl


[1] Jordan Miller Stubbendick, “A walk in Bethlehem,” shared on her Facebook page as well as in Rev. Kimberly Knowle-Zeller’s newsletter “Walking Diaries.”


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