by Yvette Hernandez-Becerra
Today we visited two completely different sites that showed me very different perspectives of Church. The first site was the historical Church of the Nativity. The church is a beautiful space full of intricate architecture, adornments, and beautiful religious imagery. Moving into the space, there are caves and beautiful stone altars dedicated in honor of people responsible with the creation of this place such as Saint Jerome, who is believed lived in this space while translating the Bible to Latin, Paula, a woman who contributed to the Latin translation, and her daughter, Eustochium who was also a contributor. On the surface, this place is a holy site where people come to worship. It is also a historical place where it is believed that Jesus was born. On the inside, this place felt like an amusement park. We encountered lines, sale of candles and oils to put on altars, hostile funnels of people trying to access the Grotto of the Manger and the Altar of the Magi, and people rushing people who were trying to spend some reflective time at these places. Besides the tourist traffic flow in this space, this church is a functioning place of worship for 5 different religious groups (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox) that creates a diverse flow of visitors who want different things, which creates conflict with the use of time and space. There are stories of fights breaking out, police intervention, and even deaths occurring as a result of the conflict among the different groups. We definitely felt some hostility as we were trying to make our way into the Grotto. Thankfully our guide intervened and we got some quiet time to visit the space.
After a yummy lunch, we went about six miles southwest of Bethlehem to visit a wonderful place called the "Tent of Nations." This place is located in area C in the West Bank, which is home to about 300,000 Palestinians and about 400,000 Israeli settlers. Land control here is pretty much dominated by the Israelis, even though it belongs to the Palestinians. The Tent of Nations is a large piece of land (100 acres) owned by the Nassar family for many generations. This Palestinian family’s land is located in the middle of three different Israeli “settlements” (I put the word settlement in quotation marks because they look more like fancy gated communities). The Israeli settlers continue to move in and confiscate land from Palestinians like the Nassar family; as a result, they have been fighting a legal battle for their land for 27 years. Even though they have all of the documentation to prove that this is their home, they face constant harassment from the Israeli military, and the legal battle continues. The patriarch of the Nassar family, Daher, shared with us that many times the military has come to the land to destroy the property, and because Israel controls land development they continue to deny permits to build on the property. This area where the Tent of Nations is has no water or sanitation services, no housing structures, and the main access road has just been cut off so all vehicles entering and exiting have to take the longer path to access Bethlehem. These conditions are not exclusive to the Nassar family, all of the Palestinians living here face the same difficulties every single day.
The Tent of Nations is a place of peace and hope. Daher showed us some of the things that he has created to sustain the farm and those who tend to it. Because they are not allowed to build infrastructure on the land, Daher has added lighting and doors to existing caves. To have access to electricity, Daher has added solar panels all around. He solved the water issue by drilling wells that hold water. He has created a water filtration system, and compost toilets. Because of his ingenuity and persistence, he is able to hold on to his land, and provide a safe space for all who seek refuge, and hope to all Palestinians facing the same struggles the Nassar family does.
Daher took us inside one of the caves where he offers refuge for families, and it was a powerful moment being in there, taking in nature at its finest. These caves offer natural insulation, and protection year round. I saw Daher’s will power work toward peace by being creative, resourceful, and hopeful. He told us that he doesn’t give up because he has hope for peace. He said, “they come and destroy the trees and what do I do? I start again. There is no finish, no stop.” This family is a beacon of hope. They have refused to be victims, refuse to hate, and refuse to be enemies. They have chosen to believe in justice by practicing non-violent resistance.
The visit to the holy site was pretty awesome, but I felt a stronger connection with the work being done at the Tent of Nations. Daher has taught me so much about what ministry really looks like. He is not just saying pretty things to inspire people or selling things to tourists. He is rolling up his sleeves and harvesting figs, almonds, grapes, and olives. The Tent of Nations offers a safe space for children during the summer, they offer computer skill classes to the women and young girls from the villages, and they offer work camps that teach people sustainable farming methods. They welcome visitors to learn about their story. They inspire hope to other Palestinians through their work of peaceful resistance.
To learn more about this wonderful ministry, visit their website at www.tentofnations.org.