Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Papa and Nana Mut,

Merry Christmas and thanks so much for the wonderful card! I wish I could teleport myself to your doorstep! Christmas has always been flexible for us traveling folk, but being without family for the first time was hard to get used to. But my mom skyped me last night and surprise, surprise, my mother, father and two brothers popped onto my computer screen. It was a dream come true.

It's been an interesting few days. I spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. It's the beautiful church that Tris and I went to last Christmas, and I was happy to return. I was the only Christian amongst my friends (they were in Bethlehem to partake in late-night Christmas festivities), so I ran off by myself to nab a seat, as the church is pretty small and fills up fast. I sat next to two mid-westerners, Kate and Matt, who were visiting a friend working in Beit Sahour. Turns out their friend is doing the same thing Greta Steeber did in 2008, volunteering at Dar al-Kalima College through the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land. I was studying in Jordan at the time, and I remember you, Nana Mut, sending me all of Greta's monthly newsletters. I didn't know anything about Palestine, and even though it was a mere 30 kilometers to the West, it still seemed so inaccessible. But her updates were part of what kickstarted my involvement here, so thank you again.

The service was led by Reverend Mitri Raheb and Reverend Fred Strickert of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. My dad had e-mailed him last week, basically summarizing my Lutheran-ness and asking if I can use him as a connection this Christmas season. The thought hadn't even occurred to me, but dad scored major points. I introduced myself to Reverend Strickert at the post-service reception, and got directions to his house in Jerusalem for his Christmas Day brunch. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was excited at the prospect of meeting a new community, and partaking in this familiar tradition.

Back to the service. Reverend Mitri Raheb, who leads the Bethlehem congregation, opened the service in Arabic and English, with this introduction:
"From this town that is being made as little as 4 square miles, surrounded by a mighty 25 foot high concrete walls and military watch towers, we reach out during this Christmas season, reminding the Christian community world-wide that Bethlehem is a real city, still under occupation, and that the people of Bethlehem are Palestinians, not an "invented" people, but still part of the same people who heard the Gloria in Excelsis and who hosted the baby Jesus, believed in him and went out to proclaim him King and Savior. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year."
It was the most concise description of Bethlehem's situation I'd heard yet, and I scribbled it down in my program. It boggles the mind that a Reverend in Bethlehem still has to remind the Christian community where Bethlehem is. Then I remember that before I visited the West Bank last year, I thought Bethlehem was a sleepy little town that had remained unaffected by the modern world. Maybe it would be touristy, but political? Controversial? Under military siege? Such a thing could never happen, or we would know about it!

So I took down his message, and wanted so badly to videotape the entire service so I could share it with everyone. In the end I got a little bit of footage of the candle-lit procession out of the church, with everyone singing Silent Night in English, Arabic and German simultaneously. You can see the congregation that night was about 65% foreign, 35% Palestinian.

This is the message on the back of the Program:

Dear friend and fellow Christian:
We welcome you to Christmas Lutheran Church, to our multilingual Christmas Eve service and our community of faith. Bethlehem has the honor of being the city in which we remember and celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Chris, and since the days of the first Pentecost, the Christians as well as across Palestine, have kept alive the faith of Jesus as heirs of the "first Church." Today, the Christian Church in Palestine is comprised of Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical (Protestant) families.
Christmas Lutheran Church stands as part of that ongoing witness and proclamation of the Christian faith. It is the oldest Lutheran Church in Palestine, started in 1854 by German missionaries. Today, it is one of the 6 Lutheran Churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan (and Palestine). Our congregation has about 200 Palestinian Christian members, as well as a few internationals. Our primary worship language is Arabic, the language of our people.
The Church itself was built 1886-1893. Unique in the architecture is the shape of the tower reflecting the typical Bethlehemite woman's hat of the 19th century. The 14 stained glass windows are original. The three in the center tell the Christmas story, as this is Christmas Church. The 3 in the left apse show the life of Christ until his baptism. The flight to Egypt, portraying Jesus and his family as refugees, has been a powerful image for this congregation, 2/3 of whom are refugees themselves. The three windows on the right portray the passion and resurrection, with the crucifixion in the center. The remaining windows in the main sanctuary are related to Bethlehem's biblical history and landscape.
Since all the writing on the windows is in German, the copula was painted about twenty years with Arabic calligraphy: "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will to men." The organ, manufactured originally in Berlin around 1890, was rebuilt for the 2000 Millennium celebration here in Bethlehem through a fundraising campaign led by our partner church, the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
Let us together this night worship our God in truth and in spirit. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord, we would like you to feel at home.

"So come let us adore him, Christ the Lord"

We had a great brass quartet from Germany, and everything in the service was done in 3 (or more) languages.

After the service we processed out of the church with our candles, and realized it was pouring rain! So we dashed into the reception hall and drank wine and ate little baby sandwiches. I met up with my friends there, and thus began a long, rain-soaked journey to nearby Beit Jala. We had reservations for a Christmas party, but it wasn't so much a Christmas party as a Palestinian restaurant party that happened to be on Christmas. With our entrance fee we got appetizers (hummus, eggplant, potatoes, things for bread dipping) and a main course, and live music. I couldn't believe the music wasn't recorded, and I couldn't resist the urge to dance, the drumming was so catchy. The beat went straight to my shoulders, and that's how Arabic women dance, with their shoulders, and their hips. I can still hear the drums now. tikka tikka tum tum.....

After my girlfriends from Jaffa (also American volunteers) started falling asleep, we wandered back through the rain to a Service taxi, and back to Ramallah. We had to wait ten minutes at a checkpoint, and watched as six teenage boys were unloaded from their car and escorted to some unknown location. A soldier opened our taxi door and inspected us, checked the driver's ID, and let us pass.

Back in Ramallah, we crashed at our friend Sulaiman's apartment at 3am and woke up six hours later. I played some Mannheim Steamroller, the Sulaiman played some Fairooz, a most beloved singer from Lebanon. A lot of people listen to Fairooz in the morning. I showed everyone the conclusion to my virtual Advent Calender that my mom uploaded and sent to me. The Christmas village was fully animated and singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." I was feeling festive.

I went with the girls to Jerusalem, since they were headed back home to Jaffa, and I was headed to my Christmas brunch. We all had to get out of our bus and walk through Qalandia checkpoint and press our passports and Israeli visas against the window. Then we got back on the bus, rode alongside the concrete wall, passed through East Jerusalem, and ended up at Damascus Gate in the old city. The girls continued on toward the Central Bus Station and Tel Aviv, and I hopped on a 75 Bus to the Mount of Olives. Semi-remembering the pastor's instructions, I got out at the top of the hill and walked up toward St. Augusta Victoria Hospital. By that point it was pouring even harder, and Sulaiman's umbrella wasn't helping much as the rain was coming at me sideways. By the time I got to the hospital my jeans were drenched. Across the street I saw the gate that read Lutheran World Federation. I rang the fourth button down and yelled "This is Morgan to see Fred Strickert!" The door opened. I crossed over, then realized I didn't know where on the campus to go. So I ran around the campus, ringing bells and peering in windows, and getting more soaked. Finally I walked across the olive tree groves with no clue....my phone didn't work in Israel because I have a Palestinian SIM card. So I walked down the hill a little and saw a 70's-ish looking house. As I approached I started to smell food and thought, this had to be it. I rang the doorbell and Fred let me in. As I stood in the foyer, shedding wet layers, I could see people gathered in the living room, doing introductions, holding glasses of wine. I tiptoed into a seat, looking and feeling very disheveled. I forgot about the feeling in seconds. As people went around the circle and introduced themselves, I learned they were mostly from the Midwest, either volunteers, or members of the Pastor's family, or people visiting their friends for Christmas. All of a sudden I forgot that I was in the Middle East, or that I'd just walked through a rainstorm. I introduced myself as Morgan from Seattle, a volunteer in the Jordan Valley. Then we sang carols, O Come All Ye Faithful, Angels We Have Heard on High, Hark the Herald.....and I was in pure heaven. We could have been anywhere, honestly, but right there it felt like home. Gloria, the Pastor's wife, announced that they were serving egg-bake in the kitchen, before the buffet, and there was plenty of wine, spiced apple cider and coffee to go around. I heaped my plate with egg-bake, turkey, salad, coffee cake and cookies and sat down with four other volunteers. One was working at farm near Hebron through Tent of Nations, two others were working in schools in Beit Sahour and Beit Hanina through the Lutheran Church, they were all my age and people that I could easily see as friends back home, at school, or at church. They weren't allowed to get involved in politics or attend demonstrations during their service, as they'd be risking the reputation of the Lutheran Church in Palestine, which relies on Israeli and American support. But they were all living in the thick of the occupation, and if their newsletters were anything like Greta's....I knew we had a lot to talk about. But mostly we just introduced ourselves and laughed at the Pastor's granddaughters running around and whispering that such-and-such boy likes to play with Barbies. I related to them so much, being a third-culture kid. What an adventure, to go from Iowa to Jerusalem.

After the lunch I introduced myself to Gloria and a few other grown-ups (haha), one of whom is an administrator at St. Olaf (well dontcha just know....)
and another of whom is the Lutheran World Federation representative for Israel/Palestine and invited me to his family's New Years Eve party. It was a great day. I walked down the Mount of Olives in the rain, and caught my bus back across the wall, and the checkpoint, back to Ramallah, which is also decked out in lights.

And that's my Christmas story. I miss you guys so much, and Nana Mut, I can't believe it was less than a month ago that I was saying goodbye to you in Jericho! That visit was so special for me, and I'd love to hear your impressions, after having been home for a while. Papa, she wasn't too traumatized, was she? Does she still eat fruit? I sent my mom a few pictures from our visit to the village of Jit, I'll remind her to forward those if she hasn't already.

And Papa, I'm getting this website for the village set up in the next two weeks, the project has been coming along very slowly, but I'm still interested in designing a logo or something we can use as a visual on the website, if you still want to be involved. :) I'll keep in touch about that, seriously, even though I've been a lousy correspondent.
Merry Christmas again,
I love you so much,