Keeping the Faith in Bethlehem

Dec 14, 2002 09:13 AM EST

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 prescriptions.

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 happen?"

"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 message."

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 City.

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 sight.

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.”

By Alexa Smith