“Hey Beth, what are you doing this summer?”
“Well, Father, I don’t really know, probably just staying around here and finding a job.”
“Why don’t you go to the Holy Land?”
A suggestion from my pastor was all it took to spark my interest, if reluctant at first, in spending the summer this year in the Holy Land. It was enough to get me to read a short book and enter my essay in a contest. The contest was sponsored by the Madison, WI, Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher, who wanted to build solidarity between Christians in the Holy Land and their own city. They kindly and generously raised the funds to send one student from the local University Catholic Center. Through their interest, effort and generosity, I have landed myself a spot interning and volunteering at the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s Bethlehem Ecumenical Center for Research and Development.
photo of Bethlehem from HCEF offices/ECRD
Here’s a typical day in my life in the Little Town.
7:30 a.m. I wake up, a little sleepy, and get ready for the day in my room at HCEF’s guesthouse, and then after some friendly “good mornings” with the office staff, I’m out the door.
8:10 a.m. The weather is warming up, but not too hot yet as I walk a quick 10 minutes to the Church of the Nativity. I’ve been here two weeks but stop on my way up a flight of steps to catch a glimpse of the incredible view. Bethlehem is a city just bursting with beautiful, historic, and fascinating views, especially for a girl from the flat state of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, also creeping into the views at times is the imposing cement wall that weaves in and out of the Holy Land, and cuts off travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem for many Palestinian Christians, though the cities are only six miles apart.
8:30 a.m. Mass in the Grotto of the Nativity. Now that’s something I’ll probably never be able to get over. It’s usually in Italian, which I’m getting the hang of following, but just realizing I get to celebrate the Eucharist, the presence of Christ, in the place where he was “made flesh and dwelt among us” is incredible! It’s so wonderful I try to make it there as frequently as I can.
9:30 a.m. I start getting down to business at HCEF. This morning I’m working on a presentation to help explain one of their programs, the House Rehabilitation Program. Sorting through testimonies and photos of thankful residents of the Holy Land reminds me first how glad I am to be able to help them, even in my small way. And second, it reminds me how kind and friendly nearly every person I’ve met has been.
HCEF office/ Ecumenical Center for Research and development (ECRD), Bethlehem
9:35 a.m. Speaking of friendly people, I get side-tracked for a few minutes having a very interesting conversation with one of my co-workers. He explains to me how, though the staff in the office is made up of young professionals, the number of talented young Palestinians who stay in Bethlehem is shrinking. He says out of his eight closest friends from school, he is the only one who remains. Why? He smiles and shrugs, explaining that if he was blessed enough to be born in the land of Christ, he should stay. Again, I’m struck by the willingness of Palestinian Christians to proudly discuss their faith. I’m also reminded of what I’ve heard about the challenges they face; mounting unemployment, seriously restricted travel, inflation, and a lack of opportunity. This all just makes my coworker’s eagerness to stay more inspiring.
Beth Mueller with HCEF Engineer Khalil Hanania
12:00 p.m. I take a break to cook some lunch in the kitchen of the guesthouse. We tracked down some tortillas and great cheese in a store in Bethlehem last week, so I make a quesadilla! Mexican food in the Holy Land may seem a little bizarre, but it sure tastes great.
1:00 p.m. I start to grapple with another part of my project. Designing and creating this factsheet about the program is right up my alley, as I am a journalism major and interested in possibly working for a nonprofit someday. However, getting used to telling a computer program I want to type left to right, not in Arabic, is still a little tricky. That accomplished, I finish out the day strong.
5:00 p.m. A short phone call on the U.S. line lets me connect with my best friend from school. It’s so nice to catch up a bit, and I tell her all the details from my trips to Ramallah and Jerusalem this week. It has been especially interesting for me to get to visit these places along with native Palestinians, and observe the challenges they face to travel to cities that are only a short drive away. It hits me as I’m explaining things to her how much I’ve learned in a short time about Christians here, the conflict, and even little bits of Arabic and culture.
5:30 p.m. I relax a little bit, answer some e-mails and ponder what I should do for dinner: Arabic food from Manger Square or leftovers and more relaxing? A tough call. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Stay tuned for more updates from my stay in the Holy Land; especially for more information about the programs of HCEF, the lives of Christians in the Holy Land, and visits to the Holy Sites of Christianity.