Beit Al Liqa’ … hope is alive in Bethlehem by Julia Fisher
Beit Al Liqa’ is a complete surprise – a magnificent centre built, miraculously, during the recent intifada for the local community in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. This place is behind ‘the wall’, in another world where not many people go. But visit Beit Al Liqa’ and you see a building of such beauty and excellence which at its heart offers help and hope to those living in deprivation and sorrow all around. Two thousand years ago wise men went to Bethlehem and there they found the Saviour, the light of the world. Today, that light is still shining – you just have to know where to look for it.
Johnny Shahwan is the founder and director of Beit Al Liqa’. He was born in Beit Jala. His family have lived in the area for 500 years, Greek Orthodox through and through. “I worked as a jewellery salesman in Bethlehem,” he told me, “but in 1986 I decided to leave the country. My plan was to go to Germany because I had been leading an exchange of young people between the Lutheran church in northern Germany and the Greek Orthodox church in Beit Jala. However, God had a different plan for me.
My eldest brother was the priest of our town and the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent him to Toronto to care for Palestinian emigrants from Bethlehem living there. He said to me, ‘Johnny, you’ve been to Germany seven times, why don’t you come to Canada?’ I told him that if I could get a visa I would go tomorrow. Well, I got a visa.
My first week in Canada was a turning point in my life because I met a group of young people on the streets giving out Christian literature. They invited me to their church and when I went there I heard for the first time in my life that Jesus Christ, who was born in my home town, died for me on the cross. I had been a very ‘religious’ person. But in Canada, I met Jesus as my Lord and Saviour and my whole life changed.
I stayed there for seven months and on my way back to Israel, I stopped in northern Germany to visit friends. In a prayer meeting there, in a small chapel, I met my wife and seven months later, in 1988, we married. I attended a Bible School in Germany and gained my BA in Theology and it was then God revealed to me that He wanted me to share His love with others back here in my home town. And so in 1992 we returned to Beit Jala as a family; in four years we had four children!
In our Arab culture families are very close. So it’s a custom that when somebody who has lived outside the country returns, everybody comes to greet and welcome him home again. And they all said the same thing, ‘We can’t understand Johnny. Every young person in this country looks for a foreigner to marry so they can leave the country. But you are bringing your foreigner back here!’ This was the opportunity for me to share how, just like them, I’d thought of myself as a good Christian only to discovered that I’d been far away from God until I got to know Jesus personally as my Saviour and my Lord. So, I told them, that’s why I came back – to share this love with you. We started teaching them from the Bible. For two years, we had meetings in our home many evenings each week and during the day I taught in a Christian school. Because we had four young children, we got to know many families very quickly. We started to have children’s home meetings, then a youth home meeting, and a Bible Study home meeting. In three years we saw many people coming to know Christ as their personal Saviour and our groups were growing.
We looked for another place to meet and found a small coffee shop on the main street of Beit Jala and we called it Beit Al Liqa’ which means House of Meeting – a place where we could meet each other and the living God. The local people were curious to see a new shop in town and they came in to talk. We gave them the good news and God changed many people through that coffee shop; over 70 young people came to know Christ as their personal Saviour. It was like a revolution in our time! We had never known such a move of God in our area. All those young people had been involved in throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers, fighting with each other, drinking alcohol and taking drugs, and now, a few months later, they were quiet, smiley, helpful towards others and listening to their parents. People wanted to know how come they had changed. And it was then we heard the rumours … Johnny is giving them drugs to make them happy! They didn’t understand that the Holy Spirit can change the hearts of people and make them different. Many of those young people are the pillars of our evangelical churches here in Bethlehem today.
In 1999, people in Bethlehem were looking forward to the millenium and the possibility that many tourists would come to celebrate 2000 years since the birth of Jesus and bring their money with them. However, their hopes were dashed when the intifada, the uprising of the Palestinian people against the Israeli military, started in October 2000. Thousands of families emigrated. Unemployment soared. Schools shut. There was shooting on the streets. Here in Beit Jala fanatical Muslim people came from the villages around to use our homes to shoot across the valley to Gilo – a suburb of Jerusalem – and the Israeli tanks fired back and many houses were severely damaged. For two and a half years we lived in a war zone under curfew. While the rockets were falling on us, we asked God what to do.
God opened the door for me to visit people in their homes. For a few months, during the curfew, I was almost the only car on the streets of Bethlehem and I was able to drive around delivering food to needy people. The curfew meant nobody was allowed to leave his home.
Many people were injured … I put them in my car and brought them to the hospital. Most of the doctors had my telephone number and called me when a pregnant women was about to deliver her child, or when families needed medicine urgently. I was working like an ambulance driver during that time.
During those two and a half years of living under fire and under curfew, God laid on my heart to build this centre, Beit Al Liqa’. It is special because it was built during a war situation. We started building in October 2001 and by October 2002 we had finished. During that year we had 168 days of curfew. In a hopeless situation we were able to plant a seed of hope. We wanted to tell the people the war is not the end, we are preparing for a better future. Jesus is our hope and He came to give us life. So have faith in Christ.
People started to ask why we were helping them and putting our lives in danger to help them. I was constantly sharing that Jesus is our hope and He loves you and cares for you and He wants you to have a future in his home town. They were surprised to see a construction site during the curfew! Can you imagine where we got the materials from … the bricks, the windows, the electricity, the doors … it wasn’t just here in the corner! Everything came from outside, from places like Hebron and Jericho, into Bethlehem that was closed. Trucks came with materials to the checkpoint and we had a crane to move it from one truck to another. When the soldiers asked what we were doing, I told them, ‘We are building a centre for God.’ They looked the other way. God gave those soldiers grace, and they let us continue. There is an angel for each one of us, the Bible says, caring for us. During that time I had many angels caring for me, keeping me safe. Many times the bullets flew in front of my eyes. My car was hit by rockets twice, but I wasn’t hurt. People were injured around me, but nothing hurt me.
This place was built for His glory. Today we organise various activities. We have four football teams for those aged 7-18. Through sport we have reached many children and young people in the area who also attend the Youth Alpha courses that we run. Through the young people we have reached many families. Parents come and talk to us … they want to know why we do what we do … they can see we’re Christians but we’re not a ‘church’ in the orthodox sense. In the kindergarten, which offers day care, we care for 50 children aged from 3 months to 4 years old and they are all from different backgrounds; some are Greek orthodox whilst others are Muslim. Their parents know we teach the Christian curriculum to their children. We believe that if we sow seeds when the children are young, those seeds will develop. Indeed, many in our youth group today came to the kindergarten when they were young. On Thursday we have a Kid’s Club. We sing worship songs and teach them Bible stories and every week many children come and bring their friends and their relatives!
In the summer time, schools break up at the end of May and the children have nothing to do until the end of August. So we run summer camps. Every year hundreds of local children come and have a great time doing crafts and playing sport. And we teach them Bible stories. Many people are trying to leave the country because they cannot see any hope. Young people don’t understand the meaning of freedom. ‘What sort of freedom are you talking about if we can’t travel 6 miles beyond Bethlehem?’ they say. We explain how they can gain their freedom through faith in Jesus Christ because He said, I have come to give you life and life in abundance, ie a better life! ‘How can life get better if you are living in such a big prison?’ they ask. But gradually, many of these young people are experiencing a closer relationship with God and finding this to be true. We believe these young people are the leaders of tomorrow. Maybe there are many things we cannot change today because of the political situation; but we believe God will use these young people to influence more people in our country.”
Beit Al Liqa’ is a miracle … it has become a meeting place providing love and comfort to hundreds of people in the Bethlehem area where the population is largely Muslim. Johnny Shahwan and his wife Marlene have pioneered this centre but they cannot do it without our help. If you would like to send a gift to support their work this then please send your cheque (made out to The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund) to me, Julia Fisher, The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund, PO Box 850, Horsham, West Sussex, RG12 9GA. The Olive Tree Fund exists to support needy Arab and Jewish believers in Israel and the Palestinian Areas. For further information please email enquiries(at)olivetreefund.org or write to me at the address above.
For more information about Beit Al’Liqa – www.beitliqa.org
For more information about books by Julia Fisher – www.olivetreefund.org/books