Preparing for Christmas and Remembering our Siblings in Christ in Jerusalem
By Heather Melton, UTO Staff Officer
In 2019 I was invited to go and visit the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East to see grant sites and to plan the UTO pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While there, Katelyn Kenney, the UTO intern at the time, and I spent some time touring some of the most famous places in Christianity with our amazing colleagues and guides from the Diocese of Jerusalem. One day we traveled outside the walls of Jerusalem with our driver, a young Lutheran man from Bethlehem, to see the sites in his hometown. He warned us of the crowds and the protocols to visit the holy sites.
We first went to the church of the Nativity, where the line wraps around multiple times inside the building. Pilgrims wait for hours to simply see and touch the place where Jesus was born, which happens to be a small room and slightly underground. Just above it sits three small chapels: one Orthodox, one Roman Catholic, and one for Protestants. What struck me while we waited in one of the chapels to enter, was the complexity of Christianity, the cacophony of languages spoken, the profound hopefulness of pilgrims coming to ask for healing or miracles in this place that was once just a simple manger.
Those of you who know me know that I don’t love crowds, so for me, the best place in Bethlehem is the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field. This church is down a road with trees on either side. You’re greeted with a large sign at the gate letting you know that this place is cared for by the Franciscans and that you are most welcome. There are a few small buildings on the edge of a large green field. When Katelyn and I entered the second building, it was very dark, with a low ceiling that had a star-shaped window letting light in from above. Inside, a small group of women were singing a familiar hymn about shepherds in an unfamiliar language, and it was holy and magical all at once. It was here that I felt connected to an ancient story that guides my daily life, in a building that was completely unremarkable and basically deserted, not in the ornate and crowded one where I expected to have that feeling. Each year as Advent begins, I think of this place and the beautiful people who call the West Bank home…the descendants of shepherds, who still bear witness to the miracle of the birth of Christ, who notice the holy and respond to it in the unremarkable and remarkable places.
I’m sharing this story so many years later because a year ago we started to finalize plans for the 2024 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We were hoping to announce it now and begin signing folks up to join us to visit UTO grant sites and pilgrimage sites like the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field, all holy places. We were going to see Jericho and the NICU that UTO funded in Nabulus, the Jordan River, and a school for the blind run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. We would stay at St. George’s College, the first site UTO funded in the early 1970s and at the vocational school in Ramallah, the most recent UTO grant site. Unfortunately, it isn’t safe for us to go in 2024, but we are hopeful that one day soon we can take folks to see what amazing things your thank offerings have done—coins that have become hospitals, schools, and more.
One of the remarkable things about the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, to me at least, is that it represents the Gospel directive to love as Jesus loved. Not a single famous holy site is cared for or marked by an Episcopal Church, but one is often just around the corner from a pilgrimage site. Instead of welcoming tourists, they welcome children to school, the sick to medical care, and offer trainings for those returning from prison so they can find work. To me, the Episcopalians in the Holy Land are a bit like the shepherds, everyday people who caught a glimpse of the holy and now share the Good News of the love of God through their faith and work.
They now need us to help them continue to be the face of Christ in their communities, to sustain their ministries though funding the UTO Challenge Grant. This Advent, please consider making a donation to the UTO Challenge Grant as a way of sending your love and care to our Episcopal siblings who care for the communities we’re hearing about each Sunday morning. This year, when we sing our favorite Christmas hymns and carols, may we take a moment to think about the Christians in the Holy Land who call all these places home and pray for them and support them. May our hearts, prayers, hope, and love shine like the stars over Bethlehem this Advent and Christmas season.