Armed soldiers kept watch over Bethlehem’s Manger Square and the church where Jesus is believed to have been born. In the Christian world on Christmas Eve, there is no more sacred spot — nor, in Palestinian-held territory, a more perilous one.
Thousands gather at the spot for midnight Mass, though the church is far too small to accommodate more than a few hundred worshipers. The rest gather in the cold to watch on giant TV screens as a caravan of Palestinian leaders gather.
I gasped up the hill frequently stopping to catch my breath. Shortness of breath is a symptom of my heart condition. But it wouldn’t stop me from taking my wife and daughter to Israel, where they wanted to see the icons of their faith. It would also be only the second time my 14-year-old daughter would have seen anything outside of her homeland, the Dominican Republic. The first was Hollywood, an unholy spot on many levels.
In the Israel week on our own, we had been to Old Jerusalem, the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee. I had tried to make our journey unique, avoiding those tour groups that swarm over the same spots.
Buses converge on Bethlehem, a cold winter wind blowing across the square. I had told my ladies to see it all at their own pace. Who needed to be slowed down by a gasping old man? But nothing was going to stop me from seeing the church and, if I was lucky, sneaking inside for a picture of the service. Surely they knew of my TV reputation.
I got nowhere, stranded outside with other tourists. Among them was a small group from Peru — a priest, his family and an 11-year-old girl. She was not discouraged to be excluded from the Mass.
She told me she planned to be an English teacher. Perhaps to console her, I told her that our conversation was as spiritual as any sacrament. She pressed her stuffed pony over her lips.
Even in a faith based on equality, privilege rules. It is important to take back the moment, just as I had done with the little girl.
Israel is full of such contradictions, divided by border walls between its government-controlled territories. Somehow, many people of these cultures have found a way to lovingly co-exist.
I have rarely felt safer or more welcome than we did there. Somehow, my two lively young women and I found a way to make it work for us. They swam in the Dead Sea and I rode a Bedouin camel, a foul-tempered beast that snorted disapproval as his shepherd made him stand up with me on his back.
On our last night in Jerusalem, we dined in a smoke-filled cafe where men of Jewish and Muslim faiths gathered for their annual New Year’s feast. Once again, they were intent on showing how to lead by example.
The next morning, we left for the airport — three weary travelers proving to ourselves that walls and security are inconsequential in a loving world. I was thinking about that as I handed our passports, one U.S. and two Dominican, to the airline staff at Ben Gurion Airport.
“Where was the U.S. green card for Leticia?” they wanted to know. Travel home to the U.S. would be impossible without it, they told me.
Surely a quick phone call to the right U.S. bureaucrat would solve everything. “I didn’t know my daughter would need it,” I told them. They let us board with a warning.
But, all that changed in San Francisco 15 hours later. Leticia might not be allowed to enter the country — not for any reason. So, this was the border security I had been hearing about on the evening news. We were becoming our own news headline.
After an hour of interrogation, fingerprinting and scolding, they let her through.
So, if you have a green card, bring it with you.
I will always remember the rules for peaceful co-existence — pacifying the adults who make them while hurting the children who must live by them. Stuffed animals and worried adults can do only so much.
Dave Silverbrand’s columns and other writings are available on his website, http://www.davespeople.com.