Lost In Bethlehem

Inside The Wall

We were expecting our oldest son, David, to be home for the holidays after his first semester of medical school in Beer Sheva, Israel.  He had a pre-paid flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, New Jersey, so I needed to book his flight from Newark to Florida.  I booked a flight departing one hour after his arrival, thinking all would be well.

Yesterday I woke up thinking, Oh no, I forgot about him having to go through customs! I spent four hours on the phone, speaking with Israeli and American airlines, travel agents and online booking services.  The last person I spoke with advised me to keep his flights as is, because nothing else was available on Christmas Eve.  I called David and told him about the situation…how he needed to print up all his boarding passes beforehand, bring no checked luggage, and haul a– at the Newark airport.

We prayed, not attempting to guess at how God could work it all out…just trusting He would.  At 5:00 this morning, the phone rang.

It was a collect call, which my husband is not fond of, especially the international kind.  An automated voice: You have a collect call from…and then the pause for the caller to speak his name.  I heard, “I made it!”  David’s voice.  That was all I needed to hear, and I hung up, praising God.  We collected David and his backpack a few hours later at the airport, and all is well.

As a gentle Florida rain patters on the roof this Christmas Eve, and all go off to bed early after a long day, I remember a not-so-peaceful time last year in the little town of Bethlehem.

Steve and I were celebrating our 25th anniversary with a two-week biblical tour of Egypt and Israel.  On this particular day we were to venture behind “the wall” in Israel to visit Bethlehem.  Without going into a lengthy history lesson, Israel found a way to minimize terrorist bombings from the Palestinian West Bank.  (The West Bank is on the eastern side of Israel, but on the west bank of the Jordan River.)

They built a wall…a very big, thick concrete wall.  It provided more security and peace for the Israeli’s outside the wall, but more hardship for the people behind the wall.  What used to be a fifteen-minute excursion venturing outside Bethlehem now became an hour-plus ordeal of going through intense security…if you happened to have the proper permits to be allowed to leave Bethlehem.  Good for the Israeli’s outside the wall…bad for both the peaceful and extremist Palestinians within the wall.

Our mission was to visit the Church of the Nativity, which claimed to house the site of Jesus Christ’s birth.  My husband and I took most of these “holy sites” with a grain of salt, because who really knows where the actual Bible events took place?  We simply reveled in knowing that we were in the Bible lands.

As we entered the church of the Nativity, we had to crouch down and go single-file through the tiny entrance.  They kept it small over the centuries to keep out animals and vehicles that could possibly facilitate commercialization of the holy site.

Once inside, we discovered there were actually three churches within the site—the Armenians, the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.  I was mesmerized by the architecture and artwork, blindly following lines of people throughout the majestic cave-like structure.

I followed the people in front of me outside to the courtyard, only to discover that the members of my tour group were nowhere in sight.

Let’s see…they said the bus would immediately leave Bethlehem after this stop.  Did they leave me behind???

I frantically surveyed the outside courtyard—no familiar faces.  I approached a young priest.

“Did you happen to see a group load onto a bus?” I asked him.  “Do you know where the buses go?”

“Honey,” he said with a bewildered smile, “I have no idea where I am.  I wish I could help you, but I’m just another tourist.”

I circled the courtyard, went back inside the church, and then ran outside.  I slowly realized I was lost.  Holy crap. They told us to leave everything on the bus.  I had no money, no passport, no nothing.  Just a silly palm-held video camera.

I ran down the street, eyeing rifle-toting Palestinian soldiers on every corner.  I was lost in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem with no ID and no money.  I envisioned days and possibly weeks of trying to get out of Bethlehem to reconnect with my tour group.  I couldn’t stop the tears.  They flooded my eyes and staggered my steps.

Man, I screwed up big time.

Think, girl, think.  Where did the bus drop you off?  Where is it going to pick you up?

When you’re in a tour group, you tend to fall into the follow-the-herd mentality, not paying attention to details about locality, i.e. gps coordinates of the group drop-off or proposed round-up.

I remembered the bus station.  Yes, we stopped in a bus station.

I quickly walked in a vaguely-remembered direction, asking each rifle-toting Palestinian at every corner, “Bus station!”  I didn’t want to sound like a stupid, lost tourist, so I tried my best to wear a rather gruff demeanor, to match their intimidating military garb and weaponry.  They answered in kind and pointed me toward the bus station.  Despite their heavy artillery, they were rather friendly and accommodating, and I was most grateful.

I eventually found our bus, empty, except for our Muslim driver, Eunice, who quickly became my dearest friend.  He diligently called our group on his cell phone, till he reached them and told them I was safe.  (They had been searching for me for quite some time.)  When my tour group came back to the bus, our pastor found me and commented on how resourceful I had been.

I didn’t feel resourceful.  I cried…and cried.

David has since made friends with a Christian family who own and operate a Bed and Breakfast in Bethlehem, who want us to come stay with them.  I look forward to the opportunity…to another chance at Bethlehem…to enjoy this little town of our Savior’s birth.  May it truly be a more pleasant visit, as we take in the profound impact of this little site upon the entire world.

Peace, and Merry Christmas to all.

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