Oh, What a Wonderful Day

I must admit, today is the day I have been waiting for this entire journey.  It is mixed with some deep emotions for me. We will be leaving tomorrow morning for the Dead Sea. Our time in Bethlehem is coming to an end. But what a great way for it to happen.

We have arranged for a Van to pick us up and take us to Baraka Church for Sunday morning worship. Rev. George is preaching and his son, Rev. Danny is going to lead us in worship.  The congregation is somewhat small. The Christians are finding it too difficult to live in this country and so many are leaving. It makes building a congregation a constant effort. Rev. Danny reminds us that it is not in the number of a congregation, but rather in the number of people who have Christ is their hearts that really matters.

Our church service is a mix of many guests from all over the world. Today we have folks from Holland, Africa and Sweden; and, Missouri USA.  We are given songbook and an Order of Communion written in two languages, one being English. The congregation speaks and sings in both languages and the Praise is a moment that takes your breath away. The style and Order is much the same as we are used to in our own traditions. Pastor George delivers a great sermon. We are invited to join in a Service of Holy Communion. The table is open to everyone.  At the end of the service guests are encouraged to  a formal welcome and given a chance to say a few words of introduction. I offered my thanks on behalf of the Missouri sojourners to the congregation for their hospitality and time of worship.

Pastor Danny and his wife Joy, along with their daughters, lives in an upper level of the church. There is a stairway that leads from the church to their home. Our group has been invited to stay for lunch.  I have known the Awad family and about their ministry for at least 9 years. We share a common concern for the people of Bethlehem and Bet Sahour. I am overwhelmed every time I am over here to see such passion and dedication this family has for the welfare of all those around them. Their ministry ranges from a Nursery/Preschool; to House of Hope, which is kind of a Halfway house assisting folks on the edge to get situated better in society and being productive citizens; and, they  have 2 church locations at which they lead worship, Bible Study, Small Group events and sponor other longer term classes and groups.

The Awads, 2 generations of them, all come together for the faithful and fruitful ministry. It is not just Pastor George and Pastor Danny. There is also a brother, wives, and their children that are giving their whole lives to this ministry. We have a great opportunity to visit with all of them at lunch. We listen carefully to their stories, their witness, and, their dreams for the future.  While the final preparatons of our feast, and I do not use that term lightly, is set up Najeeb joins us. He has brought with him his sister in law and 1 year and 8 month old nephew, George.  The party gets bigger and more lively.  The Awads have a piano and Najeeb sits down with George at the piano. Najeeb is an accomplished pianist. He offered up a short piece before George bagan to assist him.  Together they played a fun little number. We were quite entertained. Our lunch is ready. There is food and people eating, talking, laughing; and, I hope learning as God is at work even in this time of fellowship.  Gifts we given. Some envelopes of support were offered for the Nursery and for the Church ministry. My hopes and expectations were far exceeded. Thanks be to God.

When we are done, our group boards our bus that is waiting to move us on. We are to make only two stops today. Both very significant to the Christian Story and to Bethlehem. We begin at the Shepherd’s Field. This site marks the celebration of when the Angel  spoke to the shepherds and announced the birth of the Messiah. It is a great example of the caves and hillside that would have been used in the days of Jesus’ birth. One of our members has a slight mis-step and finds herself literally between a rock and a hard place. She is assisted by another out of the situation and is just fine. This, too, will add to her memory book of unique experiences while in Bethlehem. Gardens are in full bloom. We are taken back especially at the varieties and sizes of their many roses. These sites are spectacular.

We move on, by bus, back to our hotel. We say goodbye to our drive, Marwoon, who thankfully has had a really short day today.  He thanks me for giving him a short day and some flexibility in the order of our sight-seeing, which enables him to keep a doctor’s appointment of which he really wanted to accomplish before leaving with us for the next week.

We are now, at our hotel, which is on Manger Square. It is about 4 PM on Sunday. We do some freshening up and meet in the front lobby to walk around the corner to the Church of the Nativity.  We find around the corner a really long line of other pilgrims who, too, want to see inside.  The line getting us into the church moves rapidly. Once inside we find another who set of people in another crowded line to go down into the grotto where the Birthplace is marked by a Silver Star.  There are so many people in the church it is controled chaos. Najeeb and I decide that our group is going to move around the church and forego trying to get into the grotto. By the time we would actually get in there most of us would be hurting so bad; and, all of us would be rushed passed the star, I just felt like it would not be good experience for anyone.  We see a great deal of remodeling and refurbishing going on all around the church.  Some locals are excited that this massive project is providing work for others to live off of in town. I, on the other hand, find that the character and the historical markers are being swept away. I was very disappointed. It will be beautiful once it is done. It will be new, and clean, and fresh. It will not reflect a church that has been around since the 4th Century.  The grotto is to remain the same and we all know that the church has gone through years and years of renovation before. I’ll get over it in time.

There is still much to see and tell about the history and the signifcance throughout history of this site There are hidden treasures that exist if you know where to find them; and, Najeeb knows where to look.  We comb the church and see an Orthodox worship center with those worshipping even now.  Wemove to see Prayer Centers on each side ready for those to come lights candles and lift offerings to God. We see the Mosaics on the Walls and all along the floor. We more to the next chamber to find a beautiful Catholic Church attacned to that which we have already seen.

Our plan is to see if we can get up early, befoe the crowds come in, and maybe go into the grotto before leaving Bethlehem tomorrown. There is also another set of caverns that carry some history aloing with them thhat we would like to see at the same time.

For now, we get into our new friend with the van and move back into Bet Sahour for dinner at Issa and Angel’s.  As you might remember, Issa and Angel run an Olive Wood Shop.  They are a great family to know.  I truly love them. I do not know all of the children well. Their age and my infrequent visits has made that more difficult. However, Michael and Ghina are the two younger children and I just love them. Michael is 15 and has a great head on his shoulder. He does well in school. He is an athelete enjoying basketball; and, his has for the last 2 years been a part of a dance troupe. The passion and energy he puts into dancing is mind-blowing. Ghina is the little Princess. She has 3 brothers and she is the baby of the family.  Need I say more.  She has always been a little character; and, a part of me hopes she never loses that mischievious innocence about her.  She is my little buddy.  Angel is confident and loving. She know what it means to be a strong parent and loving wife. She is one, I’m sure that would be successful in whatever she set her mind to doing. She in love with her family. She is also a dreamer. And, I love dreamers. She is never content with what is. There is always more to be said and to be done. She is not afraid to speak her dreams so that others might help make those dreams a reality. She does all within her power to make those dreams come true.

Then, there is Issa. This is a man I have watched grow in himself and in his place in this world.  With the help of Angel who encourages him to stretch and grow, he keeps developing and transforming into what I have seen as a true man of God. He is one who puts God first. Close behind comes his family. But is does not stop there. Issa cares about his neighbors, the families he comes into contact with and partners with in ventures that can makes them oall a bit stronger. Issa has a passion for the land and the countriy and the culture. He passionately and cautiuosly tells his story and of his unique experiences in hopes that the listener will form an opion and will be willling to stand up for it.

Issa is the only male child in his immediate family and he feel the weight of what that means especially in this culture. He takes such a task very seriouly. He has done so since the age of 12 when he first went to work to help support the family. He is the proud father of 3 sons and 1 daughter. Again, knowing and owning his place and responsibility as father, son and husband.  That is just the tip of the iceberg. Issa wears so many hats in his life. I seriously do not know how he manages to keep it all together.  I have had some very precious and deep conversations whith him. I am honored to be a part of his life.  It has taken some time, but I am feeling moreaware, I, guess you’d say, so that as situations arise, I feel more free to challenge him, and encourage him, and to stand up with him and to him when I feel it needs to be done.

We are gathered for dinner in their home.  It s a really nice place. They has just done somenew renovations of which they are very proud and I celebrate with them.  Henry is there to greet us. Henry is the middle son. I got to know Henry a bit better last summer. We were both working in the Olive Wood Shop.  He is, too, a really cool young man. He is still trying to find his passion and place, but for Henry, I do not think it will be much of a problem. Jeries, the oldet son, just started a new job and will not be with us tonight.  Ghina greets me with a strong hug and immediately we are both teasing each other as the rest of group looks on and laughs at both of us. Angel is working hard at being the perfect hostess.  Issa is down at Mama’s house, jew a few doors down the street, picking up the main course for our meal.  Mama comes in and greets us wth a hearty welcome.  Appetizers are set out in the living room. Henry and Angel are scurying around to expand the dining room to fit us all in. Michael arrives home. He has been to basketball practice and needs, now, to get ready for a dance routine they are going to perform at a nearby restaurant.  We visit for a short while. We make our way to the table, where another feast has been prepared for us to enjoy. There are enough seats set up for our group and Mama, there is no place for Ghina, Angel  or Issa. We insist that we can make more room; and, we do. Ghina eats quickly and leaves. So Issa and Angel join us at the table. Our evening continues without any problem. There Is somethng for everyone. The conversation is sometimes light and humorous; and, there are times when we move into topics that cause us to pause and reflect. Issa is very open and honest about his own experiences, how he sees life in Bet Sahour through the last 40 years; and, what he sees coming in the future. He shares signs of hope. He says to us, if we ever give up our dignity and our hope, then, there is truly nothing left for us to hold on too. He gives some great demonstrations of how we might see some thing as purely negative and he turns them around to find some hope in those very signs and objects..

Our evening ends as I offer to pay him for the expenses of such an evening and tremendous meal. He refuses and says it was nothing.  I offer to him some gifts our group brought with us. Some of which were items he had said if we could get them, he could use them. For example, Jeries wears a size 16 tennis shoe. Getting a quality shoe like that is very difficult. I ashed exactly what he would like and made sure we got them to bring with us.  Issa offers to pay for my gifts. I tell him it was nothing. This is where sometimes I need to stand up to Issa. He starts to raise his eyebrow at me and I said, again, no. He sits down beside me and begins to pout. I tell him to stop pouting. He makes Angel try to convince me to change my mind. We finally, agree that both of us are right and both of us are wrong and both of us are as stubborn as the other. It ends in a hug.

The gift of this family with open home, table and arms to our whole group cannot be match by anything we gave them. This is a night that I will cherish.  I feel we have become just a little closer and we find ourselves dreaming of some future plans together.  The others in our group may or may not ever want to take that any futher. But willl have tonight to carry in their hearts, always. I cannot express my love and gratitude to both families who have shared with us in a very personal way today.  It was much more than we deserved. It was pure love and compassion shown without limit. I will reluctantly pack my things tonight knowing that I have no assurance of every seeing any of these folks every again. So, as Mary said at the end of her Magnificat. I will cherish these things in my heart and ponder them all the days of my life. I pray others in our group have seen and felt the love of God at work on this day in their lives, too.