Paths (Part 46: Christmas at Gunpoint in Bethlehem)

About this time I was contacted by a defense attorney in San Luis Obispo who was defending MD in his upcoming trial. He asked if I would fly down and testify on his behalf, which I agreed to do. Basically, he just wanted me to describe for the jury various aspects of the training course, and give my perspective on the whole experience. I answered his questions on the stand, and explained as I saw it, the rationale and purpose behind it all, and also tried to illustrate for the jury the many good aspects of our time together, and the reasons it was beneficial in my life’s journey. After returning to Seattle I never learned the exact findings or outcome of the trial, but I deduced that MD lost, because I heard several years later that he was still being held in the facility in Atascadero. This really saddened me because he remained my friend, and I loved him, and all he had done for me. I wished I could have done more for him, and hoped still that a better outcome would arrive.

The following year I met someone through a friend and we began to date. A year after we first met I asked her if she would like to visit Israel with me, so we took a three week vacation, visiting friends I had made while serving there, and then driving around the country visiting all of the important and well-known sites, as well as those lesser known places special to me. When we returned to the US we got engaged, and about six months later we married. Instead of a honeymoon we decided to return to Israel and volunteer together for six months with Holy Land Ministries.

Our first home together was not far from the women’s shelter in a Jewish neighborhood, down a narrow alley. The apartment was simply furnished but with several unexpected features. For one, we had bunk beds. So my new wife, Patty, took the upper bunk and I took the bottom. Secondly, many of the electrical outlets and switches were missing covers or were broken, and inside these openings in the walls one could discern the antennae and little exoskeletal bodies of our new housemates—congregations of cockroaches. In frustration one evening, Patty defied the law of conductivity, and poured a container of water into one of these outlets, in order to drown out a group of cockroaches living there, and surprisingly it worked pretty well without shorting out the circuit or electrocuting herself. But perhaps the most unexpected thing about the apartment was that the bathroom and shower had been painted black; only the upper third of the walls and the ceiling were black while the lower parts were white and tile. It was a strange choice of color but we grew accustomed to it after a few days, but then grew suspicious, and upon closer examination, realized it was actually a thick layer of mold, rather than paint. Once I scrubbed the mold away, which took a long time, the room, actually the entire apartment, smelled a whole lot better.

There are many new challenges in combining one’s life with that of another person and navigating these changes. Living in a foreign country is also a challenge, as is working with people who are in distress, which is common to homeless shelters. Learning to navigate our new marriage within this framework was eye-opening. Patty had never lived outside of the US before and on our previous short vacation, hadn’t really experienced some of the difficulties of life in Israel. It is a small country and everyone is trying to stake out their place, so some of the common courtesies one expects, such as stepping aside to let another pass on the sidewalk, or saying ‘excuse me’ didn’t come into play very often there. The lack of these social graces took some time, and some tears, for her to work through, and it required of me to be more thoughtful and understanding towards her, to do my best to make our relationship as safe and secure and joyful as possible in order to counter some of the blows coming from our new environment. It was helpful to practice forgiveness on a moment to moment basis, expect not too much from people, and be grateful when kindnesses were offered to us.

While Patty helped the women and children in the shelter, I worked in the office writing the monthly newsletter, which went out to donors around the world, and helped take care of other administrative issues, as well as continued repairs on the facilities and on the vehicles. We had an older van that was used to shuttle people to various appointments and which I used once a week to pick up a load of bread that was donated to us by one of the large commercial bakeries, about an hour away. I enjoyed getting out of the metropolitan area of Tel Aviv and exploring some of the back roads on these little excursions. I found the Israeli countryside intriguing with its little villages, rugged hills, synagogues, mosques and minarets as well as the signs of its troubled reality: the barbed wire fences, road blocks, barricades, warning signs alerting travelers about possible unexploded mines, or not to pass due to kidnapping or other terrorist activity in the area. Along with these things I might also encounter a herd of goats being shepherded by a young boy from one side of the highway to the other, or a group of camels grazing alongside the road, while their Bedouin caretaker smoked a cigarette and gave me a nonchalant wave as I passed.

At Christmastime Patty and I rented a car and drove up to Jerusalem. This was visit number five for me, my influenza visit. It was lightly snowing outside, and I spent a good part of the first night in bed with chills and aches throughout my body. I didn’t want to waste our time off together however, so we drove down to Bethlehem to see what was happening there. It was Christmas Eve so the place was packed with visitors. We drove through the checkpoint in the security wall and then continued winding our way towards the center of town. Having never been to Bethlehem before I wasn’t sure exactly where to go and where to park. It was night, and this was before the time of mobile GPS, so I just continued to follow the crowds. Eventually I realized that ours was the only car on the road as more and more pedestrians filled the street, packing it from side to side. We were carried along from street to street as the crowds grew thicker and I knew now that we probably weren’t supposed to be taking our car in this direction, but there was no way to turn around and nowhere to go, the crowds were so dense.

I continued to drive at a walker’s pace until eventually we found ourselves at Manger Square, the heart of the festivities, and a roadblock preventing us from going any further. Inside the vehicle that blocked our passage was a sudden hustle of activity and several police got out and looked towards us. At the same time men in a different type of uniform came across the road and all of them conversed while gesturing towards us. Eventually one of the officers came down and explained that we weren’t supposed to be there. Apparently they were in the midst of a joint operation between Israeli police and the security detail of the PLO, because the head of that organization, Mahmoud Abbas, was about to pass by and they needed to keep the area secure. I explained that we couldn’t turn around and I gestured to the crowds behind us. He left us and the combined group of Israeli and Palestinian officers discussed this a little further and then he returned and said hurriedly that they were letting us pass to enter the square but we had to hurry, make a sharp right and drive as quickly as we could out of the area. I had no idea where we were going, but I did what I was told and soon we found ourselves alone, on unlit streets driving away from the square. Only we weren’t alone at all. This was the route Abbas was about to take so stationed every fifty yards or so, along both sides of this dark alley stood black-hooded PLO security guards, holding their rifles and standing at attention. The only way we saw them was as our headlights briefly lit them up as we hurled our way past. It grew increasingly uncomfortable as we found ourselves farther and farther away from anyone, alone in the night with these faceless guards, armed and looking very insidious in the darkened gloom.

Eventually I turned off this alley and found my way to a lit street and I could see a way back up the hill to the security wall. I was still quite shaken by the unknown aspect of this adventure, not really certain of what might happen, and Patty was in tears sitting beside me, so I felt pretty bad having subjected her to that. Unfortunately the adventure wasn’t quite over yet. As we approached the security detail at the gate we stopped and waited for them to gesture to us to come closer. I’m not certain what they gestured, but it appeared to me they wanted me to drive towards them so I did. In that moment so many things happened it is difficult to remember them all, but suffice to say they weren’t gesturing to me to come towards them. In a panic, several guards drew their rifles and aimed them at our windshield, and others screamed at us, I assume, telling us to stop. Which I did as quickly as possible. Patty was nearly hysterical by this time and I just wanted to understand what they wanted me to do. I couldn’t see very well as floodlights drenched our car and blinded me. We didn’t move, waiting to see what would happen next. The guards lowered their weapons and one of them walked up to my window and in a grumpy tone of voice said something I didn’t understand. He waved us past and we drove gratefully back to our room at the hostel. We spent the remainder of Christmas Eve safely in our room, far from the madding crowds.

(to be continued)

~FS

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