A Visit to Bethlehem

I went to Bethlehem a few years ago and came away in tears. It’s desperate place. Unlike most pilgrims, who get there on a tour bus and are dropped off in Manger Square, we went on the bus used by the locals. As we approached Bethlehem we could see the Israeli settlements in the surrounding hills: I remembered the story of a Palestinian shepherd who could no longer tend his sheep as his land had been built on, an his water supply cut off. 

Then we saw the wall which now encompasses the town: it is twice has high as the Iron Curtain, the top section leading backwards to stop you climbing over. At a checkpoint, the bus stopped, and most of the passengers got off – these were Palestinians – students, housewives, shopkeepers – all kinds of people. They got off to be searched by soldiers carrying guns. The rest of us stayed on the bus and had our passports examined. Not a word was said – the bus emptied and refilled in complete silence. 

When we got to Bethlehem, people were desperate. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers followed us, persistently, up the road, urging us to buy things, to catch their taxi, to spend our money with them. The pilgrim shops were OK but the stuff in the local shops was rubbish, really – poor quality clothing and tacky toys. The buildings were poor and dilapidated. It made Accrington look like Kensington High Street. A dying town, its economy struggling because of the wall, the checkpoints, and the soldiers with guns. 

The Church of the Nativity was packed with pilgrims from all over the world, eyes bright, faces full of wonder. We waited patiently in a long queue and were herded into the the place of Jesus’ birth with little ceremony – just an unholy scrum. But the pilgrims faces stayed the same – awestruck, full of devotion – before they got back on their buses and moved on. 

We walked back down the hill, pestered again by people with wares to sell, services to offer. We noticed others, sitting deep in the recesses of their shops, too disillusioned to hassle anyone anymore. The place of our Lord’s birth is a place shame, a place caught in the crossfire of politics, land rights, expansionism, persecution. But you have to go there with your eyes open to the world, not just to your faith. You must travel on the bus with the locals, to see that the place of Christ’s birth is still in need of a Saviour – the Prince of Peace still has work to do in this little town, this desperate town, of Bethlehem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *