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Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine

Read Part I:

7.00pm Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

We are two days until one of the greatest Tsunamis in all of recorded history hits, but we are grappling today with evil of another kind.   We are at the heart of Christian origins, where the birth of one babe sparked the greatest world movement ever to be known.  And the air is potent with violence and tension.  What would tonight hold for us?  This is no longer the little town with a placid baby.  These are the borderlands where centuries of hate have piled one upon the other.  Yet, we are gratefully ignorant of all that has happened.  We simply have come to celebrate a savior.

As day fades into night, we decide we have come too far to be shut out on account of five tickets.  Surely somebody has an extra. At least one or two of us will get in.  So we do what any sensible American might: find a monk.  There are plenty walking around.  So, we come up to the gated entrance and ask the hooded man about extra tickets.  He sizes us up and down and says, “you need to get your tickets in advance.”  “We know now.  But we have traveled around the world for this moment.  Surely there is room.”  He pauses, ponders, and then reaches into his cloak.  With a smile, he hands over three tickets. “These are extra.  But you are lucky.  You may not find any more.”  Any more!?  We are virtually in.  But, I don’t know at that moment how serious the monk is.

Hours pass and the rain grows stronger.  The women are taking shelter, trying to stay calm even though there are mostly men out now in the revelry of the evening.  That’s one thing that really surprises me.  In Muslim countries in 2004, the women mostly stay in at night while the husbands socialize throughout the town.   Mark is finding food, and Paul and I head out in search for more tickets.  We walk back to the gate and are set in to terror when we turn and see a commotion.

Our senses flare as we see a motorcade heading our way.  It is classic.  A dark car with tinted windows is coming our way.  Surrounding the vehicle we see at least fifty Muslim men shouting, pounding on the metal, running alongside.  This was it: The last Christmas in manger square.  The mob begins to erupt, the car explodes, our women are caught alone in the mob, and I shake myself back to reality.  We come to find out it is Mahmud Abbas, the soon to be President of Palestine.  Every year the Church of the Nativity saved a seat for Yasser Arafat.  He never came.  This year Arafat died.  The leading candidate comes and takes the seat.  It is a gesture of goodwill.  He gets out of his car and gets escorted in.  Now we simply have to see what this service will entail.

Mass begins at midnight and it is 11.00pm.  We have three tickets and are beginning to decide who gets to go.  But before we make that decision, we get aggressive.  “Let’s go to that gift shop,” somebody says, “ and see if the owner can help.”  Inside we are greeted with a glittering mound of nativity treasures.  The owner speaks English.  “We need two tickets.”  He grimaces,  “That’s not easy.”  “Let me make a phone call.” After a few minutes he comes back and directs us to his brother who is serving cider across the square.  Confirmation.  Another ticket.  We need one more.

The eleven o’clock hour moves by quickly with no success.  So we try our last option.  We head back to the shop owner.  “We just need one more. Do you know anyone who can get us in.”?  He pauses again, looks at us, and reaches in his vest.  He begins to unfold the most impacting moment yet. “Here is mine,” he offers.  “I live here.  I go every year. You can have my ticket.” I retort quickly, “No, no. We don’t want to do that.”  He gets firm. “You will take my ticket.  We are both Christians.”  I am shocked to hear he is a Christian.  I have no idea Christians live here. “Now go,” he says. “Doors are opening.”

We take his ticket given as a miracle on this bleak midwinter night.  We enter through the half sized, “door of humility” where only two years ago at least ten were killed during the second Palestinian Intifada.  After a short tour of the holy sites, we find our way to the Roman Catholic section of the church.  There the Mass begins in full regalia. It is a herald of the New Creation with flavors of the old paternal order wafting through the air and around the CNN cameras.  The night was supposed to be magical.  It was filled with miracles, no doubt.  But our experience became colored by what was happening to us in general.  We had been traveling for four months. And we were beginning to see Christianity and religion for what it truly is.

As we ride back to the old city, during the early hours of Christmas day, I think to myself:  violence and ashes in this world are everywhere. And so are some of the most amazing people.  Christianity as a religion has dirty hands.  In fact, followers of the child who was born in this place can conjure up the kingdom of darkness on earth, as it is in hell just as much as light as it is in heaven.  What is it that makes religion heal, and what is it that makes it destroy? I am becoming undone by these experiences.  And our mentors, if they knew what we were coming to see, may have advised us at that point to come home.  They might have told us not to explore lands further away from home, religious lands where we might get lost amidst the worlds growing economies and ancient faiths.  But, we were young and ready to explore.  And when we heard the growing news about the devastating waters rising in Asia. And when we realized we already had tickets to India next, we wanted to help at whatever level possible.

 

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Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine (Part I of II)

Christmas Eve comes and goes, but once in ten lifetimes, you travel to Bethlehem.

3.10 Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

I often wonder how we got there in the first place, a couple of guys with their girlfriends in the holy land.  I am so glad we went for it.

After a night in Tel Aviv, we catch a sherpa to Jerusalem.  There we meet Reuben, a Jewish American.  He is traveling here alone during his winter break, for pilgrimage.  As we make our way to the old city looking for shelter, we find a hostel right in the heart of old Jerusalem.  We are not quite sure why Joel seems hesitant.  We climb the narrow ancient stairway ascending to the second floor lobby.  “Do you have room,” we six ask.”  “Yes, replied the manager.”  Then he sees Reuben. “We have room for five,” he retools, staring through our new friend who doesn’t seem surprised.  “We don’t serve your kind here. Out! Out!”

As I look back on that moment where we watched Reuben flee down the stairs, I am ashamed that we stayed.  It was realistic that we kept our mouths shut.  I had only seen the aftermaths of these types of tensions and only on the news: decimated markets charred by the anger of this place.  Now we are seeing the makings of racial violence.   We are not sure what “kind” Reuben is.  The only difference we see is his skullcap, courageously pinned to his head. He is run off for it.  And because of our clothes, we find our shelter.

Our plans are soft.  We might enjoy Christmas Eve in Jerusalem; find a good street bargain perhaps.  But Bethlehem is only six miles away.  Somebody has the brilliant idea: let’s walk there. We cannot resist.

So, with map in hand and the travel warning to Palestine unheeded, we set off on the road to the city of David.  It takes only a few hours as city fades swiftly into the groves of the hilly countryside.  We walk past suburb and aside Jewish settlements, which inches their way in to Palestinian territory like us.  After a short walk down and up a small mountain, the barbed wire comes into view.

There they are, Israeli guards with their AK-47’s checking the trunks of each pilgrim who wants to get to the midnight mass.  I think, “well, good try folks.  Here’s where we get turned back.”  But it is not that way.  We get closer to the checkpoint, then right up to the fence. I try to make a connection with the guards.  They seem not to care about five wandering Christians.  So with great hesitation we simply walk past the checkpoint. No questions asked. No worries.  Not even eye contact. It is as if we are invisible!  And better that way.

Once past the military outpost, we scurry forth until we see the city.  There she is, Bethlehem of Palestine in all her Islamic splendor.  Before we reach the gates, we come upon a crowd of eagerly checker headed taxi folk.  They gather to collect pilgrims. And, I think to my Western media saturated self, “not a chance of getting in a car with these dudes.”  My companions feel more adventure than I.  And before I know it, we are crowded like sardines in the vehicle, flying off to the heart of the city.

When we pull up to Manger Square I am taken back by the Christmas crowd, on the one side, and the sublime melody calling forth from the lofty minaret of Omar Mosque, on the other.   In between the two religious buildings there are hundreds and hundreds of Muslim men.   Small shops line the Manger Square, and there is a stage in the center with a children’s choir singing “Away in a Manger.”  It begins to rain, and there are six hours until midnight.  We soon find out the worst news of all: you need to order your tickets a month in advance to have a chance of getting in.  Our five spirits were soaked. But the spark of adventure would fuel our hopes and grace us with the most unforgettable compassion we would yet to encounter.

Read Part II