I know, I know, I have already said more than once that I have a real sense of privilege at being able to be here – both in Palestine and at this hospital. To be given the time for a period of Extended Study Leave (ESL – aka Sabbatical – but not anymore… I believe this is so that there is a sense of purpose about it...) to undertake activities, study, prayer and worship that are both of interest and that ‘call’ to me is a privilege not afforded to all that many people. It is for this reason that I had a sense of wanting to use the time ‘well’ – to ensure that there was no sense of wasting time. As I have journeyed through the first month (and I realised today that it is just past the first month), somewhere inside there has been a deeper call to understand the sense what it means to be ‘one’. Jesus said, “May they all be one…” and I have been trying to comprehend what it means for different groups of people – be they grouped by nationality, faith, denominational practice, culture, race, gender, sexuality… and then there is the cross-over and mix of any number of these all together at any one time. My head has been full of thought (nothing new there for those who know me well!)
As each Sunday of my ESL has approached, I have wanted to find out where I can attend Church locally (unlike when I am on holiday and I don’t feel the need to be ‘in Church’ so much). There has been a deep desire to be ‘tethered’. This sense of tethering has felt much more than simply to be somewhere to worship: it is something more to do with ‘being’ with the household of faith to which I belong. It hasn’t mattered at all whether they are Anglican or not – and, in fact, the strangeness of language has, at various points, been lovely to lose myself in, challenging as I don’t know what is being said/sung, beautiful and mysterious and something akin to listening to the speaking/singing in tongues.
Having not succeeded in finding a huge amount of information on the net, I decided today to walk into the local community of Beit Jala, see which Church I came across first, and then join them. If the service was to be in English, that would be a bonus!
As I came into the outskirts, I pulled out my map and stood trying to work out where I was. A car pulled up and the passenger (a delightful young lady of about 12) asked if I needed help. I said I was looking for a Church – possibly St Mary’s. Her father asked if I wanted a Catholic Church and I said I didn’t mind. They asked me to hop in the car and they would give me a lift. (I should say that I had noticed a cross hanging from the rear view mirror – and any visible cross means an awful lot here than it does in the UK. I didn’t even think at the time that there would be any danger… in retrospect, perhaps I should be a bit more careful!) Anyway, once in the car, I said I was Protestant. “So are we.” said the father. Then I will come with you, said I! Thus I found myself in the Lutheran Church of Beit Jala, on Virgin Mary Street (!)
Now, I am an introvert (so what am I doing writing a blog?!) and am more than happy sitting at the back of a Church (like all good … Anglican/Catholics/Baptists – fill in the space with a denomination of your Church!) Alas, the two daughters from the car led the way to the front. Ah well. A few minutes later, the Pastor (Rev Saliba Rishmawi) appeared and with him another Minister. The Pastor came to say hello and asked if I was a Pastor too. "Yes! Ah, you are most welcome. You must come to join us at the front. We should be together and the people will see that we are one. Where are you from? Write it down so that I can introduce you properly. Come. Join us. This man, he is from Sweden.” So, in my pink sandals and carrying my hand bag (I kid you not!) I went to the back with them and formed part of the Procession into the Church (the ‘Procession’ being just us three ministers!)
The Service was completely in Arabic – hymns (which we sat down for), readings, prayers – all of it. The Pastor gave the reference in English (for me!) and from the sermon I caught the words, ‘facebook’, ‘like’, ‘I am sick’, ‘ I am well’ and inferred (who knows how) that he was saying something about real relationship. When we talked about it later I mentioned this and he said I was right! Goodness me, the Holy Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways!
Never mind having wished to take my usual place at the back of the Church, I found myself right at the front: “The people will see you and I will introduce you and they will know you are a Pastor. You will help with Communion. They will know you are a Pastor.” What an amazing welcome. As the Service began, I found myself almost moved to tears to be in that place at that time with that Pastor with those people – to be welcomed in Christ as one among many. As the opening hymn began, I leant over to the Swedish minister and said, “Well, this is unexpected.” to which he replied, “It was the same for me last week!” He read one of the readings in Arabic (impressive) and I sat humming along to hymns, the tunes of which I knew but not the words – alas. When it came to the Nicene Creed I was completely flummoxed. You try being a lone voice saying the Creed in English (from memory) whilst everyone around you is speaking in a completely unfamiliar language. It was really weird! In the end I simply kept repeating, I believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I figured that would have to be enough!
At the Eucharistic Prayer, I was invited to say the Words of Institution over the wine, having been preceded by the Swedish minister saying the Words of Institution over the bread. Saliba then repeated them in Arabic – just so everyone would know what had been said! When it came to the distribution, the Swedish Minister administered to one row of people, and then me the next. All of this was amazingly unexpected, and all was simple because the father and his daughters had stopped in their car to ask if I needed any help. As I ‘listened’ to the sermon, I pondered what it would be like if those travelling to Church on Sunday mornings in England – or anywhere else for that matter –were, if they saw people on foot, to pull over and ask people if they needed help or a lift, to discover that they might be interested in going along to Church too.
In addition to being welcomed to the Church by name, I was welcomed to participate in ways I would not/could not have expected in a denomination, Church community and country that were not my own. “We are one in Christ. You are my sister in Christ. While you are here, this must be your home,” said Saliba. And so, to my (spiritual) delight, I discover that they are holding a Service on Ash Wednesday which means that I will be able to walk there rather than take a taxi to Bethlehem. Rather like the desire to be tethered on a Sunday, so this desire has extended to Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Following the service, I was invited to go with Saliba to take Home Communion to a gentleman and his wife. The poor man is unwell and on oxygen... and in walk us three ministers with Saliba’s wife and daughter, and then three of the Church Elders arrived too. The chap who is unwell seemed to take it all in his stride! Out came cake, chocolates and Arabic coffee… there was much laughter and then, in the midst of it, a time of quiet calm for prayer and the sharing of the bread and wine.
My planned visit this afternoon to Bethlehem was put on hold as it was raining (and I was wearing sandals) and so I returned to the hospital was given an impromptu lesson in Arabic over lunch.
It was a morning of rich blessings and I have been challenged and consoled as to my welcome and hospitality of strangers. There has been much today to both learn from and receive – in so many good and wonderful ways.