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Commentary: Bethlehem - though divided - still offers a glimpse of peace

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2008 - Having just returned from a trip to Bethlehem the first week of December, I have a new perspective on the words from the familiar Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The small town once poetically described by the words, "how still we see thee lie," today reflects the scars left by the action verbs that can be used to mark her history -- "sacked," "rebuilt," "conquered," "captured," "fortified," "expelled," "demolished" and "rebuilt."

Life in current-day Bethlehem lies in sharp contrast to a place where the nights were marked with "deep and dreamless sleep [as] silent stars go by." The "little town's" 30,000 residents are vividly reminded that any serene days of the past will not return any time soon as a 24-foot concrete wall is being erected to separate the people of this Central West Bank Palestinian area from their Israeli neighbors.

This reality was strikingly visualized when I visited the Bethleh em home of an architect who had drawn plans for new ministry buildings in the city. His home at one time was valued at $2.8 million, largely because it overlooked the olive groves that had belonged to his family for hundreds of years.

Standing on the balcony of that home, one could now see only the 24-foot concrete wall less than half a stone's throw away. The acres of olive groves, which are literally in the backyard of that home, are quite inaccessible to the family. To check the centuries-old trees and to harvest their produce requires that the owners exit through one of three gates in that wall - no simple task - and travel around that wall to their backyard. What was once a casual stroll to the olive groves behind their home is now a journey of many, many miles.

The gray starkness of that concrete wall only too accurately reflects the atmosphere hovering over present-day Bethlehem. With outside access to the region becoming increasingly difficult, the tourism market, an economic staple for the region, continues to dwindle. Unemployment in the area tends toward 50 percent. Meanwhile, the tall, gray concrete wall that will eventually stretch about 550 miles continues to be built marking yet another verb in their history - "separated."

Somehow, in the midst of those challenges, a sense of expectation remains in Bethlehem echoing, "Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light." While the Christian leaders and people I visited there did not exude overt optimism for the future, they were still filled in a quiet way with hope.

Their hope was exhibited in service to others in a K-12 school, a college, a wellness center and The International Center of Bethlehem, all sponsored originally by the pastor and people of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and all of which gain outside support from a U.S. group known as "The Bright Stars of Bethlehem." These acts of service reminded me of how so many respond in our own country during tough or troubled times.

Although Bethlehem today is not exactly the way we picture it on our Christmas cards with idyllic, pastoral and peaceful scenes, there is still something special about being on the streets made prominent in the Christmas carol. As one stands in Manger Square, one still gets the sense that "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Regardless of one's personal circumstances, challenges, setbacks, or anxieties, the fears of the day still seem to melt away in that place, and hope rushes into one's heart akin to that of when "Silent Night" was sung in the middle of a war zone and rebroadcast at the close of a Bob Hope Christmas Special.

Maybe this is true because, despite its current economic or political clime, Bethlehem is still the place where Christ was born - where many still travel to achieve just a sense of the peace described in a Christmas carol about a night long ago in this little town of "dark streets" and "deep and dreamless sleep."

Lasting peace in the Middle East may, or may not, be achieved in my lifetime. But, I am thankful that one night in Bethlehem I had a taste of its transcendent meaning once again.

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Gerald B. Kieschnick is president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. 

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