Day 9: Bethany & Bethlehem
We left Jericho early in the morning to beat school traffic into Bethany, only to find no traffic at all! This gave us extra time to head into Lazarus' Tomb before Mass. Lazarus' Tomb is not advised for those with claustrophobia - you walk down a very steep flight of stairs and then bow quite low or crawl through a narrow opening on your hands and feet to the tomb where you can then stand up with a few others in the same space. Most of our group descended down and returned with smiling faces! Others stood at the top and imagined Lazarus ascending out of his tomb to the shock of his family and neighbors. We had a beautiful Mass in Bethany, singing songs about rising again and praying for our world, our dead, and our own intentions.
After Mass we made our way into Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, to see the Shepherd's Field. This is the site where angels visited the shepherds. We sang "Angels We Have Hearrd on High" in a beautiful church with incredible acoustics (video coming soon). We saw the caves where the shepherds most likely lived and slept and then enjoyed a nice Bedouin style lunch near the field. It was at Shepherd's Field where we caught a glimpse of the growing settlement, Har Gilo, descending closer and closer to the Palestinian homes owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. Those homes received a demolition order years ago but they are still standing today.
After lunch we found our way into Bethlehem to Aida refugee camp. Aida camp borders Bethlehem and Rachel's Tomb, now surrounded by the wall, only to be reached by foreigners and Jewish Israelis. Next to the camp is a beautiful olive tree orchard completely surrounded by the wall. Aida camp sits on 0.71 square kilometers of land with a population of nearly 4,000 people. It was created in 1950 and most of the Palestinian refugees inside are from the Jerusalem area, unable to return to their homes. The entrance to the camp has a large 'key of return' on the top - the symbol of refugees around Israel and Palestine. Many Palestinians still own the keys to their homes before they became refugees and some have even returned to visit their original homes to find Jewish families living in them. We had a tour of the camp and the separation barrier/wall, and had a chance to support a local shop while we were there. The local shop had some of the original keys of families' homes from before they were refugees. This local shop created jewelry from tear gas canisters and bullets shot from the Israeli military into the camp.
Walking around the refugee camp, we saw bullet holes in walls, poor sanitation, art painted on the wall listing their original villages, posters of Palestinian children from Aida who had been killed by the Israeli military, and graffiti art. We met a man who was there to guide us who shared his own story privately to the leader. He told us the olive grove orchard we saw earlier on the other side of the wall next to Aida refugee camp was owned by his father. His father tried to access his olive trees and was shot dead by the Israeli military. As this man went to mourn over his father's body, he was taken to jail for 7 years and just returned.
Today was our first day encountering some of the geopolitical aspects of life for the living stones who remain in the Holy Land. We believe that people mattered deeply to Jesus and as pilgrims following in his footsteps, people should matter to us, too. So we don't travel only to see the places but to meet and learn from the local people. Tomorrow we'll meet with a Jewish settler, a Palestinian Christian, and a Jewish Israeli former IDF soldier.
After our geopolitical tour, we found our way to the Church of the Nativity to visit Jesus' birth site in a cave in Bethlehem. We sang Christmas carols as we knelt down to touch the place of Jesus' birth and pray in his manger. There are also a series of caves in the church next door that we walked around and then found our way up into St. Catherine's Church, the Catholic Church at the Church of the Nativity. We had time to sit and pray while meditating on Jesus' birth.
At the end of the night, Holy Land Trust (our travel agent) gifted us to a beautiful dinner at the Tent Restaurant overlooking Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahour. We even had a surprise Debkeh dance troupe who, after performing, invited us to dance with them. Many of our pilgrims got up to dance and learn how to debkeh! Videos to come for that. ;)