Our day started with a visit to the School of Joy. Founded by Fr Mamdouh Abu Sa’da in 1993, the school is dedicated to helping young people from 6-23 years with special needs and those who have been abandoned. Based in the firmly Christian region of Bethlehem called Beit Sahour, the School of Joy is a living example of the call from Jesus to help the poor and least able in society.
Upon arriving at the school, we were warmly greeted by Fr Mamdouh and some of the teachers. We then entered the building and visited some of the classrooms. Although we were interrupting the classes, I’m sure they didn’t mind meeting and greeting some pilgrims from another country.
Whilst there was naturally a language barrier, we still managed to mingle with the kids. Speaking for myself, I put the Arabic that I’d learnt in the past couple of days to good use: “Salam, ana ismi James”, which means “Hello, my name is James.” At the very least, they would know who I am!
We were then ushered to one of the empty classrooms, where Fr Mamdouh gave us a talk about the work and mission of the School of Joy. It was lovely to hear about what they’ve been doing here, to help the young people. These kids were amongst the most in need in Bethlehem; their families had abandoned them and their futures were bleak. But thanks to Fr Mamdouh and his dedicated team of teachers and other staff, they have given new hope and smiles to these children.
As well as education, the school teaches the children practical skills such as carpentry. We were told about their programme to teach them how to carve olive wood into ornaments, wall-hangings and many other souvenirs that then go on sale to the many tourists who visit Bethlehem each year. The profits from sales then help generate funding for the school to continue its mission.
The money for the School of Joy is also used in other important ways. Fr Mamdouh introduced to us a young man called Peter; he can’t hear or speak, and has no parents, but funding has now permitted him the use of hearing aids, which allows him to communicate with others. He was an endless source of joy and incredibly friendly; a shining child of God.
Peter is just one of the many examples of young people who have benefitted from the work of the School of Joy. Here, they are loved and cared for as children of God, with the same dignity and value as everyone else. As Fr Mamdouh said to us, “I see the Lord in my children. What you do for them, you do for me.”
After the School of Joy, we went to Ein Karem, to the Church of the Visitation. This is where Mary visited Elizabeth, six months into her pregnancy. This is also where she hid St John the Baptist, behind a rock save him from Herod’s soldiers (Matthew 2:16).
We then had Mass at 4pm with Cardinal Vincent and local representatives from Bethlehem. Palestinian media were in attendance, covering the event for their audiences. The Cardinal began the Mass by saying, “We welcome with great warmth representatives of Bethlehem.” It was a beautiful Mass, with young people from the School of Joy there too.
The homily was given by Fr John Farrell. It focused on how the Word became flesh; being in Bethlehem, it was the perfect theme. He asked us who can know the mind of God; how can we join in with this knowledge? To answer these questions, Fr John asked how we know each other. He answered by saying we have to use our words – and with our words we tell stories to communicate who we are. In a sense, we gossip. And so it is with God. The four gossipers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of Jesus. Through these gossipers, we come to know the wisdom of God. And so, in the little town of Bethlehem, the Word became flesh, and through this we were given a glimpse of the mind and desires of God.
At the end of the Mass, the Mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, gave an inspiring talk. When it was known that Pope Francis would be visiting, the Bethlehem authorities wondered what to give him as a gift. They decided on a piece of art, a sculpture – the Lamp of Bethlehem. Vera asked us “Is the candle of Bethlehem bright enough for peace?” She asked us to work to increase the oil in the lamp – the Lamp of Peace. She ended her talk with a message to us all: “You are most welcome; merry Christmas and a happy new year!”
In the evening, we had a reception, with everyone from both the youth and main pilgrimages in attendance. Starting with drinks in the lobby, we moved down to the dining hall, where we ate with the Cardinal and all the priests and also representatives of the Bethlehem local authorities.
So, it’s been a long, long day. But it’s been incredibly rewarding, eye-opening and inspiring. Today, I felt much closer to the people of Bethlehem than ever before. The lives of these Palestinians made all the more real by their shared love of Christ and the desire for peace, rooted in God’s love.
God bless the people of Bethlehem!