The Common Good

Becky Garrison: A Palestinian Pastor Speaks

An interview with Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, general director, The International Center of Bethlehem; senior pastor, Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church; and president, Diyar Consortium.

Can you give us a snapshot of what daily life is like for people living in Bethlehem?


The "little town of Bethlehem" is becoming more and more like a prison surrounded with a 25-foot high concrete wall. Once the wall is completed there will be only three gates leading in and out. The situation has a psychological impact on people living here. On the other hand, 75 percent of the people in Bethlehem live on tourism. In the last seven years, the situation for tourism was very difficult, which resulted in a very high unemployment rate (over 55 percent).


But daily life goes on as if it were normal in Bethlehem. Kids go to school, right now to summer schools. People go out shopping and dining, etc.



What drew you to wanting to serve Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church and why do you continue to serve as pastor of this church?


I grew up in this church; was baptized, confirmed, and got married here. I felt a call to serve Christ in his hometown and especially among the young people. I'm here by choice. I can leave tomorrow and immigrate to another country where life is much easier and where I can get a much higher salary, get better services, etc. But I believe that the Lord wants me to be here and to be here now, where the need is greater.



What is Diyar?


Diyar is a consortium of three Lutheran-based, ecumenically oriented institutions (Dar Annadwa (ICB), Dar al-Kalima College, Dar al-Kalima Health & Wellness) serving the whole Palestinian community, from "the womb to the tomb," with an emphasis on children, youth, women, and the elderly through unique programs that are contextual and holistic in nature.



What is the mission of The International Center of Bethlehem?


Our vision statement is "that we might have life and have it abundantly." Everything else around us is telling us the contrary: that we will not have life and definitely not abundantly. But the Christ came for this reason and he is calling us to be agents of life. The center is "the" cultural hub in Bethlehem trying to create a cultural life where there isn't. We train needy women that they might earn a livelihood. We produce TV programs that aim at helping people to become pro-active in shaping their future. And we have two major programs: One of them is Bright Stars for children and young people ages 6-16, that they will know that there is life before death that is worth living.


The other program is an authentic tourism program, where we arrange tours for international groups to meet "land, people, and cultures," and to follow the footsteps of Christ today in the Holy Land. Groups can stay at our guesthouse and enjoy hospitality at our center.



How are you implementing this mission during this recent conflict in Gaza?


The conflict in Gaza is a very difficult one. People now are convinced that we are dealing with so much politics, but there is no concern for the "polis," for the city and community ... and that there is too much religion in Palestine and yet too little spirituality. We have too many peace-talkers and only a few peacemakers. Our mission is therefore about caring for the community not through words but deeds. Our mission is to introduce a different kind of spirituality that gives people room to breath. Here at our center we show the potential for our people and country in a way that people can touch with their own hands. It's all about giving a foretaste of the kingdom to come here and now and in the midst of a difficult context.



What does it say to you that these conflicts are happening in the place designated as the birthplace of Christ?


Christ came to this, our land and world, because this is where he is most needed. The light is needed in dark contexts, and hope is crucial at times of despair. And he helps us to become agents of transformation.



How can people support your ministries?


They can do that by participating in the "Three P's": that is prayers, personal visits, and projects. We have an office in the U.S., in D.C. at Capitol Hill. Through this, Bright Stars of Bethlehem, people can also support our ministry financially and even donate online.



Becky Garrison took her first pilgrimage to Israel in January 2007, making a short visit to Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. She touches on this trip in her forthcoming book, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail.

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