JERUSALEM -- It usually rains in Jerusalem on Christmas Eve, and it did again this year -- a particularly dreary Christmas season. Celebrations here have been subdued for the last two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, which have scared pilgrims and tourists away. There are so few Christian visitors it was even possible to get a room at the last moment at Christ Church's hostel and St. Andrews Scottish Hospice, favorites of Christian tourists.
In Bethlehem -- a distance of five miles from Jerusalem, but a world away -- the holiday was the gloomiest ever: no glistening lights, no bells and no decorations. Even the traditional procession by the head of the local Roman Catholic Church, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, passed quietly without the usual drummers and bagpipes. Israeli army troops had pulled back from central Bethlehem where they had deployed in November following another suicide bombing in Jerusalem. On Dec. 26, they returned to the center of town.
According to Israeli government statistics, 142,000 Christians live in Israel, including 115,000 Christian Arabs -- 2.1 percent of the country's total population. The figures do not include the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Jerusalem, the community of Christians from other countries puts on a brave face. The evangelical pro-Israel International Christian Embassy produced a performance of traditional Christmas carols on the public square next to the Jerusalem municipality building. Dressed in period costumes, the organization's 40-member choir and 12-piece ensemble sang beautifully, but few came to hear them.
A few blocks from city hall, a modest, but moving Christmas Eve service and dinner was held for the congregation of the Jerusalem Baptist Church -- and their guests, Filipino caregivers living in the Jerusalem area.
Approximately 40,000 Filipinos -- most of them women -- are employed as household help in Israel, many illegally, a reality they didn't know when they set off for Israel. Nor would they have known about the hardships which lay in store for some of them. Like other foreign workers anywhere, they work long hours, are often exploited and occasionally harassed. Still, while Filipinos only make a few hundred dollars a month working in Israel, it is significantly more than they can make at home.
On Christmas Eve, a number of Filipino caregivers came to the church. Bruce Mills, a deacon of the church who is originally from Los Angeles, noted that there were many other services being held in Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. "Everything here has political overtones," he said. "But if we're talking about the spiritual dimension, what is more humble than to see caregivers, who are foreigners in this land, coming here to witness a service at the birth of the Jewish Messiah?"
The Jerusalem Baptist Church is located in the 70-year-old landmark building known as Baptist House, one of Jerusalem's oldest Protestant institutions.
Its handsome sanctuary was rebuilt 12 years ago after the original church burned to the ground in 1982. It is airy, open and full of light. Today it is home to four independent congregations: the English-language Narkiss Street Church, which meets on Saturday mornings; the Hebrew-speaking Messianic Jewish congregation, which meets Friday evening; the Russian-speaking congregation that also hold services on Saturday; and the English-speaking Jerusalem Baptist Church, which meets on Sunday mornings and is the only one of the four that calls itself Baptist. Because its members are mainly foreign citizens and other English-speaking foreigners, it also has a greater turnover than the other congregations.
The church has an active outreach program, but its greatest successes, Mills said, have been among the caregiver community. In the last few years more and more members from the Philippines have joined; during the Christmas event they made up 90 percent of the choir. They spread the word in the "Filipino network" and invited many to share in the Christmas worship and feast.
Ellen Kingry, the choir director and a Southern Baptist representative in Israel, said the Filipino members "really encourage and support one another to an amazing degree. They may have theological differences but they are always supportive and helpful to one another."
Some family members of Israelis being looked after by Filipino caregivers also came to the event -- driven perhaps by curiosity about Christmas celebrations which they had never experienced.
During the service two Filipino congregants gave their personal testimony, relating how they had become believers and subsequently were baptized in the Jordan River.
Fernando "Andy" Segovia, 34, told about going along on an outing organized by the church during which he witnessed the baptism of two other people. "At first I didn't feel a part of this. I had come along because it was a free trip. But suddenly I heard a voice inside me and I accepted Jesus Christ. Now this Christmas I am myself testifying on how to be born again."
Segovia is a radiology technician but in Israel he is taking care of a disabled child. "I left my wonderful profession and my family back home, but here I can make more money as a caregiver," he explained. "My whole family is Roman Catholic, some are even priests and nuns. My father knows that I am part of the Baptist church, but my wife doesn't yet know."
Doreen Tomes, 29, who also gave a testimony, said she has been in Israel for a year and a half, after working for several years as a bank teller in Manila. She is single and also from a Catholic family. "My family knows about my conversion. But this was my personal choice. I wanted to see the holy sites and to be baptized in the Holy Land."
Although it's been difficult for Tomes in Israel, and her family worries about her safety, she said she believes it is important for her to remain and continue the outreach as she did for Christmas. "We wanted some of our Filipino friends in the caregiver community to know how Jesus changed our lives. Most of them have other professions, which they have given up in order to come here to earn money for their families. I want to share the goodness I've experience here with others."
One of the invited guests at the Christmas Eve dinner was Maritass Garcia, 24, who left her husband and young son in the Philippines to come to work in Israel only two months earlier. Garcia, whose family also is Catholic, said she was moved by the sermon and the fellowship at the Baptist church. "It was my first time celebrating Christmas without my family. I am very, very homesick, but I had such a strong experience that night. When I heard the message of the pastor I was amazed and happy; it gave me comfort. I felt choked up during the sermon. I don't know why."
One non-Filipino who recently has come to faith at the church is Goergescu Paun-Livius -- "George" to the rest of the congregation -- who immigrated to Israel from Romania with his Jewish wife several years ago. Originally Romanian Orthodox, Paun-Livius was baptized last summer. He said his wife also is coming close to faith. "This church is the light for many people," he said. "Even people who are not believers come here for the special atmosphere and warmth, and think about faith in a serious mode."
Mills, noting the "ordinariness" of the lives of the congregants in Jerusalem, said, "In the midst of all the tensions and attacks, life goes on. None of our members has been harmed. We remain 'normal' worshiping Baptists, and we think it's important to reach out to the caregivers who are here to help. For a Catholic Filipino to come to the Holy Land and see these sites, and examine the Bible, the natural implication, it seems to me, would be for them to come to faith."
By Patricia Golan