Light in dark places, by Julia Fisher
“I have seen the Saviour you have given to all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and He is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2: 30-32)
What do you do when you are a minority group living amongst people who are hostile to your beliefs? How do you develop a heart of compassion towards those who want to silence or even destroy you?
This is the challenge facing both Jewish believers living in Israel and evangelical Arab Christians living in the West Bank in places like Bethlehem.
My husband and I recently visited Israel to gather more stories for the weekly radio programme called The Olive Tree (1) and to meet with many of the people we are working with through The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund (2). There are many stories that stand out but here I have only the space to share two with you.
In Jerusalem we met a young Israeli believer; I cannot tell you his name because to do so may cause him problems and jeopardise his work. The best way to describe him, in my opinion, is to call him a fearless evangelist in the model of Stephen or Paul. He goes into situations where angels may fear to tread! Such is his passion to share his faith with his fellow Jews so that they are told about Yeshua being the Messiah, he often goes into the very heartland of orthodox religious Jewish communities such as Mea Shearim and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. There he starts to tell the people that Yeshua walked the streets of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, was crucified but rose again three days later. He tells them that Yeshua died in their place – He was the ultimate sacrifice and paid the price for their sins. He explains that He is very near and is ready to forgive them their sins and welcome them into the Kingdom of God. A crowd soon forms, and whilst some of these religious people listen with interest, others are hostile and start to jostle him. They curse him and spit on him and yell at him to be quiet and not to use ‘that name’.
But this young Israeli believer knows that many of the people in these orthodox Jewish communities are hungry to hear more … he knows because they are ‘phoning him and asking to meet privately in order to study the Old Testament scriptures with him and be shown where the Messiah is mentioned. It is perhaps surprising to hear that the majority of Orthodox religious Jews do not study the Bible (the five books of Moses and the writings of the prophets), rather they study the writings of the rabbis (the Mishnah and the Talmud).
Are we living in prophetic times? Are these the ‘last days’ that the Bible talks about? If so, then we can expect to see more and more Jewish people coming to believe in Yeshua – even the most Orthodox.
The other story takes place in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Although only five miles south of Jerusalem, to enter Bethlehem is to enter another world. Here the population is entirely Palestinian, the majority being Muslims. A small percentage of the population are orthodox Christians whilst an even smaller percentage describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Whilst the orthodox Christians are considered part of the status quo because the church has been there for centuries, the evangelical Christians, who have appeared more recently, are despised by both the Muslim population and the Orthodox Church. In short they are not welcome.
But Bethlehem without Christians would be a dark place indeed. Here, in the very place where the light of the world was born, evangelical Christians are shining brighter than they have ever shined.
Why is this so and who are they?
Bethlehem used to be a predominantly Christian town. That was until the town was placed under the control of the Palestinian Authority and encased behind the security wall that snakes around the West Bank. Add to that the effect of intifadas and a down turn in the economy with fewer tourists visiting the Christian sites and souvenir shops and the result is the Christians were ‘starved’ out of town and the majority decided to emigrate in order to enjoy the benefits of a more peaceful and prosperous future. And who can blame them?
However, others remained to maintain a witness in the town. Talk to them and they will tell you how the Lord impressed on them that He wanted them to stay and be a ‘light’ to their fellow Palestinians even though they were despised and impoverished due to lack of work.
One area where Christians (helped by Christians from other nations) have been able to help the Palestinians living in Bethlehem is by caring for the many disabled people who live there. The percentage of babies born with genetic abnormalities is very high due to close family members marrying and having children. Hence there are many children’s homes in Bethlehem caring for these unwanted babies. But what do you do when they grow up and become adults?
Lifegate is the name of a centre run by a German husband and wife team who are Christians. They have lived in Bethlehem for over twenty years – he is a social worker, she is a physiotherapist. Their aim is to take these disabled people (the majority of whom are from Muslim families) and teach them a trade so that they can earn a living and avoid being destitute. My husband and I visited the new Lifegate centre – it is breathtaking in its size, the quality of the building, the facilities it offers and the vision of the German couple mentioned. We saw deaf teenage boys learning how to mend shoes. We watched girls in wheelchairs working at knitting machines producing stylish garments that can be sold. In the carpentry workshop we saw young men learning to both make and restore furniture – the quality of their work was superb. We visited the pottery where plates, cups, bowls and other decorative items were being made and decorated. Under the watchful eye of their tutor, the people working here, although physically and mentally disabled, were producing work of an impressive quality.
We listened to the German director as he explained how every person is assessed to see what they are capable of and then helped to achieve that goal. This Christian couple are bringing hope and making a tremendous difference to the lives of many Muslim families, not by preaching, but by ‘loving their neighbour’. They work closely with various Israeli organisations and health experts. The co-operation between this German couple and Jewish agencies reveals they are acting as a bridge between these two communities – Israeli and Palestinian – at a time when it is impossible for Jewish people to enter areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
You may be wondering how they have managed to raise the funds to build such a large and well equipped centre. We asked that question! The reply we received was that the majority of the money came from many people giving small donations. No money was accepted from people who are ‘Israel haters’ the German director told us. He is adamant that as a Christian, he is there to help anybody regardless of who they are. He is also acutely aware of the times in which are living and he knows his Bible.
We saw how being a light in a dark area means that you shine brightly! The contrast between dark and light, hope and despair is great in areas like this.
We returned home from this latest trip feeling we had met some truly significant people in God’s eyes; people who will never be rich or famous. Rather people who are doing what they have been called by God to do.
The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund exists to help believers in the Holy Land regardless of whether they are Jewish or Arab/Palestinian. We do this by sharing their stories on air, in articles like this or in books.
(1) The Olive Tree is broadcast on Premier radio (16.45pm each Sunday) and Transworld radio (12.45pm each Sunday) and now the programme is also being broadcast in the United States on www.oneplace.com. You can also listen to the programmes on www.olivetreefund.org. I hope you are tuning in!
(2) The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund. For further information about our work or if you would like to send a donation, please either visit our website www.olivetreefund.org or write to The OTRF, PO Box 850, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 9GA, UK