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Bethlehem experiences

By Brandi Friesen Thorpe
Apr 11, 2016

Tear gas containers litter the gardens near the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians know that every Friday they can expect tear gas to be lobbed into the refugee camps outside of Bethlehem. (Photo by Brandi Friesen Thorpe)

‘How you experience holy is different than you expect it to be.’ -Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

After a year of travel, seeking faith and justice on four continents, there are lessons that I am still unpacking. Between the busy schedules of church, master’s thesis work, travel and work with the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), it takes a moment of pause to catch up with my experiences. And so, I pause. I look back to remember.

In February I spent two weeks in Palestine representing the WSCF in a reference group for the Pilgrimage of Peace and Justice, organized by the World Council of Churches. A world of different Christian expressions was meeting in Bethlehem to witness and be in solidarity with Palestinian brothers and sisters, who are living out their faith in trying times. We were there to seek with them peace, to seek with them justice.

A valuable bit of knowledge I walked away with—aside from relationships and the meeting of the global church—is an understanding of the relevance of contextual theology. Sitting in the courtyard of Wi’am, a Palestinian reconciliation centre only meters from the separation wall, theology takes a different shape. It is different than what has been taught to me in the prairies, where I have no enemies walking into my home at night, no walls preventing my freedom of movement. 

Understanding God as a wall, a fortress that protects people, does not connect in a place where a giant wall oppresses an entire people, removing freedom and rights. God takes a different shape in those places. In a place where my Palestinian friends have literally prepared a table for me (and the delegation that represents a diverse world communion of church), in the presence of their enemies watching them from the walls, love and God takes a different shape. Even the sounds are different, even if some are more familiar.

We sit together, hearing stories and laughter and of a plethora of different lived realities among us, eating our lunch on the sunny patio, at tables prepared lovingly for us by our new Palestinian friends. Our backdrop is the graffiti of the separation wall, which divides the West Bank in Palestine from greater Israel, and we do not forget where we are. These are still holy places.

Pop, pop, pop!

You can hear the backdrop of tear gas bombs being lobbed into the Palestinian refugee camps. The sounds are foreign to us foreigners, and I do not register it until the wind shifts and the air turns chemically sour, singeing the insides of our noses, making our eyes water. A minute later the wind shifts again. We return to the patio, our lunches, our fellowship. We go on. We eat. We pray. We listen. God is not a wall here, God is present in the perseverance that exists because of the oppression of the wall.

I leave Bethlehem and return to Winnipeg, a cold wintery paradise of freedom. I do not forget. These are still holy places. 

The separation wall in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. (Photo by Brandi Friesen Thorpe)

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