Yes, we are here. Still alive.
I received this message from Palestinian Christian friends of many years who are sheltering from the brutal onslaught of Israeli bombings with all the other Christians in Gaza in the two historic churches in that devasted enclave. Communications had been cut for several days with Gaza. It was a massive relief to my wife Karen and me to know that this dear Christian couple and their two children were alive.
The couple went on to message us:
There is a great need for prayer, safety, and peace. If you want to help, please, please help my children get out of Gaza after the war ends, if we are still alive. Their childhood dream has been lost. We want them to live in peace. Nothing remains here but destruction and blood. I am afraid to lose other members of my family. At the Orthodox Church (bombing), I lost my cousins and their families. I don’t want to cry anymore; my heart can’t take it anymore. It’s so heavy. We want to get out and start a new life.
My children are afraid of death.
Since the beginning of the Israeli-Hamas war, ignited by the killing of hundreds of Israeli civilians in communities near Gaza by Hamas militants, Bethlehem has been under siege. The Israeli Defense Forces’ closure of all the roads into Bethlehem is strangling its economy. With little money, families are conserving their resources. Few cars are on the road. Restaurants are closed. Schools are open intermittently.
These troubles are light, though — and everyone in Bethlehem knows it — compared to the devastation of Gaza. The prevailing mood in the city of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is one of depression and anger at the indiscriminate bombing in all parts of Gaza, and the thousands of innocent Palestinian lives lost, including 3,500 children.
Walking through the morning streets today, I met Maryam, an elderly Palestinian Christian who succinctly expressed the despair that Palestinians are feeling. An ordinarily cheerful person, words of grief poured from her: “What will the people in Gaza do when it rains? They have no shelter. Why the death of so many children? Who will stop this? I’m speaking from my heart. I am so sad.”
Even though foreigners streamed out of Bethlehem at the outbreak of the war, Karen and I felt we could not leave. Our task to lead the peace studies program at Bethlehem Bible College became more critical than ever. Staying is costly. It causes great anxiety for our adult children in the United States. We must also work through our moments of panic when an app on my phone alerts us to an incoming rocket.
By remaining in Bethlehem, we have been able to walk with our Christian friends through these dark weeks. Some faculty at the college have needed support when their family members were killed by an Israeli missile that struck the St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church in Gaza that was sheltering Christians on October 19. Vulnerable Palestinians in Bethlehem still need ministry. Yesterday, the Associate Dean of the college and Karen led a group of students in a time of hymn singing and prayer at the nearby St. Nicholas Retirement Home.
Maryam expressed that she feels sad, and so do we. We are sad that most Americans will never know the beauty and kindness of Palestinian culture, qualities that have touched us deeply in our twenty-five years of service in here.
We are sad that voices for justice for the Palestinian people are being silenced through loss of employment, expulsions from universities and intimidation. The narrative of these resilient, intelligent Palestinian people is suppressed.
We are sad at the eagerness with which Christians are supporting Israel’s brutal war machine, confident that they understand the exact meaning of Old Testament prophecies while apparently not reflecting on how those prophecies relate to Jesus and his teaching to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If Christians can casually quote a biblical passage to justify the death of thousands of women and children, those people may still be sitting in church, but they have departed from Jesus.
We are sad for our government, which once again has chosen militarism as their response to conflict. We’ve had to wonder — perhaps our nation is only happy when it is killing people.
We are especially deeply and painfully sad for the people of Gaza and for our friends huddled in a church, its walls flimsy to protect from the tonnage of bombs. When I visited Gaza a few years ago, this brave couple told me that they had decided to stay in Gaza because it needed the light of Jesus.
Gaza needs the light of Jesus and the hope and help of Jesus as never before. It will take decades to recover from this destruction. Israel also needs the light and life of Jesus; Israel is caught up in the destruction of war. Which is more damaged — a society that takes innumerable lives or a society that loses them?
We are here. Still alive.
When you read this, I pray it will be so.
It is raining this afternoon. God is weeping: “Oh, humanity. What have you done?”
Andrew Bush is director of the Bethlehem Institute for Peace and Justice at Bethlehem Bible College. He and his wife Karen are part of Methacton Mennonite Church in Norristown, Pa.