On a February Sunday several years ago I traveled with a group of ELCA communicators to the West Bank, the area of biblical Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967. We were scheduled to worship at Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. But that Sunday the entire area was under an Israeli army curfew. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (and now president of the Lutheran World Federation), accompanied us so we were able to pass through the military checkpoint from Jerusalem.
It was surreal experience. Our three vehicles, with hazard lights blinking, were the only ones on the road that morning. All businesses, schools and homes were closed, many even boarded up. Normally on a Sunday morning, a workday for the area’s majority Muslim population, the streets would have been teeming with people. Not this day. The streets and sidewalks were completely vacant and quiet except for an occasional stray dog. The Israeli curfew kept everyone at home and off the streets. Those who ventured out risked arrest and prison.
The church bells were ringing when we approached Reformation. We wondered if anyone would be there. As we entered the church grounds, there were hundreds of people waiting for the bishop and for worship. Surprised by their bravery, bravery I thought might be foolhardy, I asked one of our hosts why he had violated the curfew and risked imprisonment to come to worship that day. “If God calls us, we are coming,” was all he needed to say.
Hope amid roadblocks
I’ve just returned from my fourth visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The purpose of this trip was to produce a video Bible study on the stations of the cross by gathering footage of the Mount of Olives and in the Old City of Jerusalem.
I wish I could tell you that the situation for ordinary Palestinians (and many Israelis) has improved since my last visit but, alas, it has not. Palestinians still face difficulties in their daily life, whether it’s finding employment and housing, getting through internal checkpoints to work, church and family or violent flare-ups followed by a violent response.
Yet despite all of these roadblocks in Palestinians’ daily life, what I saw and experienced during my most recent visit in late January was steady survival and even hope amid difficult times. I witnessed the following signs of hope:
• The Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital [lwfjerusalem.org/projects/avh/] on the Mount of Olives continues, as it has for more than 65 years, to serve the Palestinian people and people of all faiths.
• The Lutheran World Federation’s Vocational Training Center [lwfjerusalem.org/projects/training/) in East Jerusalem provides vocational training to high school-age young people, both women and men, combating the 40 percent unemployment rate among young adults.
• The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (elcjhl.org) sponsors elementary and secondary schools for Palestinian children, both Christian and Muslim, in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and Ramallah.
I had a chance to visit the hospital, the vocational training center and three of these schools, plus the Lutheran church’s environmental education center. All of these places are full of dedicated staff, serious students, appreciative parents and patients, with the staff providing outstanding instruction and service and care, all amid the challenges of daily life in the occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Yes, life in the Holy Land is difficult for many, but the people I met were living proof of hope, bearing witness to Christ in service despite these difficulties.