Come and See

March 13, 2019
By: 
The Rev. Canon Heather L. Melton, Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip answered him, “Come and see.”  – John 1:46

For those of you that follow the UTO Facebook page, you know that recently Katelyn and I were honored guests of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. In all my years of ministry (almost 21, if you’re wondering…), this was one of the top two most life-changing, hope-filled, and difficult trips. We saw all the holy sites that you are supposed to see, which were often overwhelmingly crowded and at which it was nearly impossible for me to feel prayerful or holy. With that said, I was in awe of the beauty of the places (I love mosaics) and the depth of the hope and faith of the pilgrims gathered in each spot. I experienced profound joy in listening to pilgrims singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” in a multitude of languages at Shepherd’s Field Chapel. I am so very grateful to have seen all of these places, but the most meaningful moments were found off the beaten path: when, on long car rides, people were sharing their profound hope and deep feelings about living as Arabs/Palestinians in occupation; when we were laughing together (often at my lack of biblical geographical knowledge); or when we were leaning against the front desk for a quick Arabic language lesson while waiting for the start of the next event on our packed agenda. I find that the best way to see the love people have for their homeland (and to join in on that love just a little bit) is often over the foods that are traditional to their areas. Suffice it to say, I have fallen deeply in love with Palestinian food and Palestine. I have struggled with how to tell the story of this place; you’ll see that Katelyn is continuing to work on her experience, as well. She’s a much better writer than me, so I have given her the lion’s share of recounting to you the stories of our time in Palestine. But I wanted to talk a bit about Nazareth, especially since you’ll be reading this early in Lent.

Nazareth was the first place we visited. It takes several hours by car to get there. We visited the Anglican church, Christ Church, which is just one block away and 64 steps up from where Mary was visited by the angel who told her that she would soon give birth to the son of God. The city is crowded, the streets are narrow (clearly meant for donkeys, not cars). The number of Christians in Nazareth, like in all of Palestine/Israel, is on the decline, but the priest is hopeful and sees the work that his congregation could do to be a sign of reconciliation, hope, and bridge-building in Nazareth. It is exciting work, from installing an elevator so the elderly can attend church (remember those 64 steps up to the entrance) to opening a café to create jobs for Christians (which are hard to come by and why so many Christians are leaving the country) and to provide a great spot for tourists who are hungry after visiting the Church of the Annunciation. After visiting Christ Church, we visited the affiliated high school. The school, which offers the best education in town for Christians and Muslims at little or no cost, is expanding its guesthouse to generate income. The school is fantastic and sits on the hill, so you can see all of Nazareth – all of its congestion, buildings, and right in the middle, Annunciation Church. We took a tour of the school, and got to interrupt a class. As we were leaving the classroom to head to another one, a 16-year-old woman came rushing out to stop us. Her name was Danya, and she didn’t want us to leave without hearing how grateful she was for her teacher. She didn’t know that UTO’s mission is encouraging people to practice gratitude, so she wasn’t trying to impress us. Her sense of urgency in telling us, I think, was reflective of the goodness within her and the greatness within this school community, in spite of financial needs for the physical plant. If you’re on Facebook, you can listen to her talk about her teacher. I asked her to repeat it and for her permission to film it because her gratitude was pure and profound. It is an example of the kind of gratitude I strive to show – urgent and from some place deep within oneself. I then told her about UTO. She smiled and said, “My mother always taught us the three most important words are thanks, sorry, and please.” I told her that if, in 12 years, my daughters were as smart and kind as she is, then I would be very proud, and I told her to thank her mother for me.

Can anything good come from Nazareth? It’s a great question and one I joked about in the car as we were stuck in traffic for almost an hour after the intersection to the road out of town was shut down. Philip’s answer is brilliant. He tells Nathanael to come and see. And like Nathanael, that is what I did that day in Nazareth. I saw it in the teachers and staff who work diligently to stretch every penny to make the school the best they can for these students. I saw the goodness in the students’ love for one another. I saw it in a group of girls laughing together in the hallway – Muslim and Christian together, just simply teenagers. I saw it in Danya, who rushed out to make sure we understood that her teacher and this school have had a profound impact on her life, not just in learning but in surviving and thriving as a minority group in the occupation. I even saw it when we basically were parked on the road trying to leave Nazareth and a shopkeeper brought out a cup of Arabic coffee for our driver, along with updates on the traffic. I saw it when another driver told our driver of an alternative route that is listed as closed but was in fact open so we could return in time for dinner. There is a lot of good that can come out of Nazareth, in spite of the challenges the city faces and seems to have faced since Jesus grew up there, played there, and found his voice there.

This Lent, I want to invite you to come and see, just like Philip did so many years ago, where in the midst of striving, challenge, fear, or loss, Jesus is at work doing good. Where can we find in the deep reserves our soul the hope and joy of the teenagers of Nazareth to believe that the world can and should be different and to work toward it? I want to invite you to come and see the Holy Land, not just as it was in the days of Jesus that we will follow so closely from now until Easter, but as it is today, full of challenges and opportunities. I want to encourage you to check out the awesome materials on the Good Friday Offering, which you can find here. Since 1922, the Presiding Bishop has been calling for the Church to take a special collection on Good Friday to support the work of the church in Middle East. Even today, our Presiding Bishop is encouraging us to continue to support the Anglican Church in its efforts to be a sign of the goodness that came out of Nazareth more than 2,000 years ago and continues to come out of it today.

I hope you’ll join me this year in making a donation to the Good Friday Offering in honor of all the goodness that comes out of Nazareth, from Jesus to Danya, and as a sign of our love, our hope, and our willingness to see all Christians in Palestine who work diligently each day, in spite of great challenges, to be a sign of the love and hope of Jesus Christ in their community and around the world.