This morning we left Mar Elias and I’billin. I was, quite honestly, a little sad to leave. I felt like I’d only begun to get to know some of the people and their stories. And, I was a little nervous about what it would be like to stay in Bethlehem, in the “occupied” West Bank.
But before we headed south, we went east… to the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and the fishermen disciples were called Galileans because they were born and raised in the area around the Sea of Galilee (which, by the way, is a fresh water lake).
On our way to the Sea of Galilee, we passed a small town called Migdal, and we learned that in Jesus’ day and in His language of Aramaic, this town would’ve been known as Magdala. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ ardent followers, was from this place – hear it this way, Mary of Magdala. Now we know!
We also learned that the Magdala of today is a kibbutz, which is a Jewish settlement where everyone shares the work and the fruit of their labors. A kibbutz has a very communal feel, and all in the community share the same purpose, be it agricultural or as an area of lodging for guests/tourists.
Boat Ride on the Sea of Galilee
Our first stop of the day is also a kibbutz, Ginosar – an area for tourists. This is where we got on a replica fishing boat from Jesus’ day and took a quick tour of the northern parts of the Sea of Galilee.
As we pulled away from the dock, one of the boat’s men hoisted an American flag up one side of the flagpole while our national anthem played. It didn’t take long till we were singing along and feeling nostalgic.
After a fishing demonstration, which yielded no fish, they gave us time to purchase some great “sea” trinkets.
Despite our empty nets, this lake is teeming with all kinds of fish. The fishermen of the Bible, like Peter, James, and John, are for real. This is where they fished, where they worked day-in-and-day-out before Jesus came along! One of the most popular, famous fish in the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water tilapia called St. Peter’s Fish, so of course later in our day, we had to eat some!
Mount of Beatitudes
After lunch we went to the mountainside area where it is believed Jesus gave His most famous speech, the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). Specifically, the eight-sided church we visited – the Church of the Beatitudes – emphasized the part of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Each of side of the church represents one of the Beatitudes, while the ninth Beatitude (blessing those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake) is symbolized by the dome overhead that reaches to heaven.
The church is pretty, and the gardens are beautiful, but what I love most about this mountainside is the view. You look through the crepe myrtles and oleanders to the blue lake beyond with the Golan Heights cliffs in the background. Absolutely breathtaking!
We learned the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes is made a very passive verb in our English translations. But in the original Greek, the word is active, as in “be a blessing” or “go and bless.” So, the next time we read the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, we need to consider how we, as believers, might be a blessing to those who are “poor in spirit,” and so on… Kinda changes the perspective, doesn’t it!?
Just down the mountainside was our next stop – Tabgha. I don’t know what it is about this word, but I love it! On our 2014 trip, we did not have the chance to stop here, so I was excited to see the place that holds the name I’m so intrigued by.
As we stood in some lovely, relished shade on a sidewalk overlooking a little stream, our guide told us that Tabgha comes from two Greek words: hepta, meaning seven, and pigin, meaning springs. So this place is known as the “area of the seven springs,” and history records that there were indeed seven springs in this fertile area in Jesus’ day but only six have been located today.
Tabgha marks the site of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Five loaves and two fish — that’s what the disciples could find, but it was all Jesus needed to feed the crowd who’d gathered that day on the mountainside.
To commemorate the famous feeding of the five thousand, the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha has a famous mosaic of the two fish and the basket of four loaves of bread. Wait! Four loaves of bread? Our guide said the fifth loaf is in the Lord’s hands, blessing it for all to consume. So clever.
Nearby is a Christian site claimed by the Catholics as the place where Jesus conferred the papacy to Peter. In other words, Catholics believe this is the site where Peter was made the first Pope.
As Protestants, we’d say Peter was charged with being the rock, or foundation, of the new church. Either way, this is an important site!
If you know Peter’s story, you know that the night Jesus was arrested, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that he would deny Christ three times before the rooster crowed (see Matthew 26:34 and John 18:27). And from that moment, Peter carried much guilt and shame, for he loved Jesus very much.
It was on the rocky shore where we stood that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples one morning.
Peter and a few other disciples were out trying to catch fish – quite unsuccessfully — when Jesus called out to them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat. They ended up catching 153 fish – that’s a LOT of fish. (I’d love to know who counted them!)
Peter realized the voice who’d called out to them was Jesus’ so he swam to shore to meet Him. And there they all had breakfast together. It was after breakfast that Jesus engaged Peter in a dialogue about forgiveness. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Three times Peter emphatically said YES, Lord, I love you. Then Jesus replied each time to Peter – “go feed my sheep” or “take care of my sheep.”
This is the holy conversation that freed Peter from shame because he accepted Jesus’ forgiveness AND the call to lead Jesus’ church.
On the rocky beach of the Sea of Galilee where this redemptive breakfast took place is a little church called the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy. There’s something special about this cute church that I just love! It adds a charm to the beach and serves as a reminder to me that Peter is the rock of our church!
After a very hot day in the mountains of Galilee, it felt really good to put our feet in the Sea of Galilee! It was not an easy feat because of all the rocks, but we found a way!!
Just a minute or two down the road was the town of Capernaum – rather, I should say the ruins of Capernaum.
Capernaum is basically a ghost town with lots of interesting architectural remains to inspect, along with one modern church that looks a lot like a spaceship. Really.
A bit of history to give some context into Capernaum — its name means village on the border. Herod the Great had three sons, Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip. When he died, his land was divided into three parts, one for each son. And guess what, Capernaum sat at the border between Philip and Antipas’ lands. A little Greek drama for your day!
Capernaum was a strategically built city as it was on the Via Maris, an ancient road that linked Egypt to Israel and Syria (and on to Mesopotamia). This city was vibrant, full of life and trade, so it’s hard to understand why it’s a ghost town today. Many would say it’s because as Jesus left Capernaum the last time, He cursed it to a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorra.
And why would He do that? Because He spent MUCH time there – teaching, preaching, and healing – yet, very few Capernaumians followed or believed Him.
Other biblical events that happened in Capernaum — the four friends who lowered their lame friend through the roof of a home so Jesus could heal him, Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the centurion’s son who was in Capernaum when Jesus healed him from Cana.
I mentioned the “flying saucer” church. It really is a saucer-shaped building that sits up on some “legs” so that it hovers over the remains of Peter’s home, the one in which Jesus was a regular guest and where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. This church was built in the 1980-1990s.
But before that church, a long time ago, there was a Byzantine church, destroyed by the Persians. A group of Jews had helped the Persian army do this, so twenty years later the Byzantine Christians came to Capernaum and destroyed the entire city.
And that is how it has remained since (except for the space ship…I mean, church).
Among the ruins of Capernaum is the synagogue where Jesus and Peter would have entered to teach. We could see two layers of stones in the remaining walls and foundation. The upper, lighter rocks in the wall would have been from the seventh or eighth centuries, but the lower, darker (basalt) rocks date all the way to the first century.
Some interesting notes about synagogues: their front doors always faced the direction of Jerusalem, their seating would have been benches around the sides of the room (rather than the rows we’re accustomed to), and a pit for their ritual baths would have been in the center. Muslims also have a bath in their mosques, and both traditions would use these baths for purification purposes. The Muslims wash only their extremities while the Jews totally submerge themselves.
From there we had a lunch at the Tanureen — had that St. Peter’s fish! Refueled, we were ready to hit the road.
The Jordan River
We made a quick stop at the place on the Jordan River where people can be baptized or Christians can “remember their baptisms.” It was such a beautiful, peaceful setting along the bank of the Jordan that day. We had some time to go to the river’s edge to touch the water and splash it on our faces or head in remembrance of our baptisms, and after some quiet time we sang “Amazing Grace.”
For me, the most touching part of this moment was watching and listening to the Polish Christians next to us sing-along with us. We all love the same Lord, and music is the language that knows no boundaries.
As we started to depart, our leaders engaged in conversation with the pastor from this little group.
And one of the young women in the group, who was really good at interpreting for us, thanked us profusely, saying:
“We understand the grace too.”
It absolutely brought tears to my eyes. God is really expanding my worldview — I’ll carry her Polish-accented words with me forever.
“We understand the grace too.”
Our fast and furious morning slowed down as we drove south for about two hours to Bethlehem.
Before I go any further, let me say that the trip up to this point had been pretty different from the trip I’d experienced in 2014. But nothing could really prepare me for what we would experience behind the walls of Bethlehem. As I try to faithfully convey the things I saw and the people I met, I hope to share at least some of what we experienced.
As I tried to think through the best way to share these first-hand experiences and revelations, I decided I’d stick to chronological, so these moving, troubling moments ebb and flow in and out of our “site”-seeing tours.
Back to the narrative:
Believe it or not, Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, so I loved that we got to get a glimpse of it before we turned south again, onward to Bethlehem. The views only whetted my appetite for the next day’s tours of Jerusalem.
If you’ll recall with me, I told you places like Nazareth and I’billin are cities filled with Arab Palestinians (Christian and Muslim). So while they are Israeli citizens, they do not have all the same rights and privileges as the Jewish Israelis. Well, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, the area where Palestinians have their own land and are not Israeli. Life is starkly different for these folks.
We entered Bethlehem through what is called Check Point 300. It was highly monitored and the walls were tall, long, and imposing.
Our tour bus got through without any trouble because of the permissions granted tour companies. But all those permissions had to be obtained ahead of time. Once we got past the gates and the soldiers, we turned slightly so that our bus’s path ran parallel to the wall.
We weren’t quite sure what to make of the artwork on the actual wall and the buildings near the wall, but it didn’t take long to see that the art was full of sarcastic, if not caustic, humor about the wall and the Bethlehem’ites’ oppression. On one hand, I wanted to snicker at the “political humor.” On the other hand…well, I wanted to cry. Before I’d driven through Check Point 300, I knew of the wall. I knew of the soldiers. But the reality I experienced felt much more like entering a prison… It was all extremely sobering.
It didn’t take long before we were in the narrow city streets. After the wall, it surprised me to see so much life happening. Cars. People. Shops. Bethlehem itself didn’t look any different than the other small Arab cities we’d been through on our trip. It’s obvious that space is a premium in all these Palestinian towns as everything and everyone is literally on top of each other. As I watched out my bus window, my mom’s heart wrenched as I watched two boys ride in circle after circle after circle on their bikes in their tiny sidewalk area because that’s all the space they had. Oh, the things I take for granted.
Bethlehem is our guide’s home, so he had much to share. He became animated and demonstrative in ways he hadn’t before. He told us that as a boy, he would walk or ride his bike to Jerusalem. That sounded nostalgic and sweet until he pointed out that this wouldn’t and doesn’t happen today. Because…wall. In fact, like the vast majority of Palestinians, he can’t even drive his car to Jerusalem.
Here’s why. As a Palestinian who lives in the occupied territory, such as the West Bank (where Bethlehem is), he has to go through a governmental process to get work permits, travel permits, and building permits. And it can take months or years to get these.
Our guide and driver are some of the more fortunate men of Bethlehem because not only do they have jobs in Israel, but they were able to acquire the appropriate permits to have these jobs. And, more importantly, our driver was able to get the license plate that allows him the freedom to drive his bus on both sides of the wall.
Let me explain. In Israel there are multiple colors of license plates. Green plates are for Palestinian cab drivers, blue is for Israeli military police, and red is for regular Israeli police…to name a few. But the two main plates are yellow and white. Anyone with a yellow plate is allowed to drive on any Israeli road and through checkpoints. In other words, if someone has the yellow plate, they have the all-clear to go where they want, when they want. Only Israeli citizens have yellow plates, which means Palestinians do not. Palestinians have the white plate and are only allowed to drive behind the walls in Palestinians land, but not on certain highways…even in Palestinian lands. And certainly not through any checkpoints.
Our guide’s license plate is white, which means he – just like most Palestinians – cannot drive his car to his job in Israel. He must stand in line at the checkpoint each day, sometimes for hours, walk through the checkpoint, and then pay for a cab to take him to his work once he gets through the wall. Every. Day.
To get through the checkpoint in order to go to work, a Palestinian must have a work permit, which will list where in Israel he is allowed to go, for what hours of the day, and for how many days. Every. Time.
Welcome to Bethlehem!!
So, Bethlehem. We sing a song about it at Christmas because this is Jesus’ birthplace. Mary and Joseph, his parents, lived in the day of a big census, so they had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the census required them to be in the place of their birth – and Bethlehem is where Joseph’s family had been from originally.
Bethlehem and Nazareth are the cities where Jesus was born and where He was raised. And once He began his ministry, many of the Jews He’d grown up around followed Him, became his disciples. And then after He’d ascended, these followers started the church – what became known as the Christian church.
If you’re like me, that’s pretty much what I knew of Bethlehem’s history.
Over the years, Bethlehem became a city of Christians. Each century tells the stories of many believers coming into the land of Jesus’ birth to build churches and worship the Son of God.
Our guide told us that it wasn’t that long ago that Bethlehem was entirely Christian. Maybe we’d call them Arab Christians, but whatever we call them, they were believers in Jesus…since the beginning. We’re not talking about some far away people group who were converted by missionaries. We’re talking about people, still living in Bethlehem today, who can trace their family trees back to the early church builders in Acts.
Let that sink in!
Sadly, the number of Christians in Bethlehem is only 30% of the population today.
Happily, we met MANY of these Christians on this trip, and they are amazing! Their faith is strong. Their identity and hope are in Christ. And they seek reconciliation with Israel – they advocate for a peaceful resolution. More on that later.
We planned this trip with two Christian brothers who do this mission/tour trip with believers all over the world, bringing groups like ours into their homeland so that we can meet their people and see their situation with our own eyes. I’m so grateful!
After our experience in I’billin, I was fully expecting another “guest house” at a school in Bethlehem, so I was surprised when we walked into a legit hotel – the Manger Square Hotel. It is nicely done without being overdone.
We got our room keys and headed to our rooms till dinner, which we ate in the large group dining area. Several of us were excited to explore our surroundings, so after dinner we took a walk and ended up in…you guessed it, Manger Square! It’s actually a square, open area. The center is a walking/hanging out area. Shops and restaurants surround it.
We were out on a Friday night, so the Square was full of locals, as well as tourists like us. We had been encouraged by a friend who’d been here before to introduce ourselves to people we met and ask them to tell their stories. I guess we thought that might feel awkward, but what we discovered is that they are more than willing to share experiences and details about their lives.
As our little group approached Manger Square, several darling girls — I think they were sisters — came running up to us with big smiles and tiny giggles, asking us if we were from America. It took me a second to realize they were speaking to us in English. And they seemed genuinely excited to meet us. It raised our spirits and lowered our anxieties about entering this local night spot.
We made our way through a couple of shops and ended up sitting at a table on a sidewalk next to the Square. As we sipped on our first mint lemonades of the trip, I’m pretty sure our eyes rolled to the back of heads in sheer delight.
That night we met three different shopkeepers – John, Jack, and Mike. No joke! All Palestinian Christians. They were very friendly and talkative. They encouraged our questions and asked us to come back. I think someone from our group went back every day we were there.
We’ve learned a lot from our new friends. And we can only hope that our presence is an encouragement to them. Someone sees them. Someone listens. Someone cares.
One of the shopkeepers we spoke to showed us his stack of identification cards and permits. It was a crazy-thick stack (like 2-3 inches thick!), and he did his best to explain each one of them to us. He must keep them on him at all times, even behind the walls, because any Israeli officer can require him to show the IDs and permits at any time.
Because he is a business man who has been able to obtain special IDs and permits, he has much more flexibility than most of his countrymen. He is allowed to use the Israeli airport, for instance. Most Palestinians have to go to Jordan – another country – in order to fly somewhere because they’re not allowed to fly out of Tel Aviv…and that’s only if they’ve been able to obtain a passport (from Jordan), permits, and pay at the FOUR checkpoints between Bethlehem and Amman, Jordan.
This shopkeeper told us his wife does not have any permits or IDs except the basic ones, so she rarely leaves Bethlehem. Her permit only allows her to travel to Jerusalem 20 times within a set amount of time. If she were to travel to another city other than what’s on her permit, she would be arrested.
The shopkeeper showed us that on these permits, there are time allotments that must be obeyed. Most men who have obtained work permits to work in Israel (where the vast majority of jobs are) are only allowed to be outside the walls between 8 AM and 5 PM. That means they have to budget their time accordingly. Knowing it could take hours to get through the checkpoint, they arrive hours before their workday is to start. Then they must be at the checkpoint to pass back through no later than 5 PM. No excuses. If they’re late – the first time, they have to sign a document stating that they won’t be late again. The second time, they’re fined 1000s of shekels. The third time they’re put in jail and are never allowed a work permit again.
These are some of the challenges of being a Palestinian today. Some may wonder why they don’t just leave and go somewhere else. But I’m not sure where they’d go. There are already 1000s of Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries from the days of their expulsion (and don’t forget Jordan also has 1000s of Syrian refugees).
Then there’s the hope they cling to that they might one day get to go back to the lands that had been in their families for generations. To leave Israel is to give the Israeli government exactly what they’ve wanted all along… The land.
I told you at the beginning of this blog that I’d read Father Chacour’s book, Blood Brothers. Bits and pieces of what I learned reading that book have popped up in my mind off and on over this trip – like these men we were speaking to who are the second and third generations of Palestinians (since their expulsion from their land in 1948) still waiting for change, for justice, for reconciliation. It was 1948 when the Zionist armies pushed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians off their lands. 1948. And most of us have never heard their stories or understood their plight.
For whatever reason, God opened this door for me to step through, and over and over again, He has very clearly shown me that I’m to share my experiences with you. As truthfully and faithfully as I’m able, I will share what I saw, experienced, and learned on the remainder of this trip…and it will more than likely challenge you. I know it has challenged me. But I can also say it has made me a better person – one who doesn’t want to sit idly by and do nothing for a group of people who are slowly being exterminated, imprisoned in their own land, and forgotten by the rest of the world.
I for one want to be their encourager and friend – and this is one way I can do that.