Lea Colvill: Tea in Bethlehem

By Jeannie Babb

Lea Colvill, T’15, was sitting in the Nashville airport waiting for her flight when CNN announced that the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine had been broken. She wondered if she should cancel her trip. The Diocese of Montana was helping fund her pilgrimage as Bishop Brookhart personally wanted her to experience walking through the Holy Land as part of her seminary education. It was already late August 2014, and she was about to begin her senior year at The School of Theology. This was her last chance to make the trip as a seminarian. Now, with news of the broken ceasefire, no one would fault her if she asked her husband, Kevin, to drive back to the airport and take her home.

Colvill remembers weighing her decision, there in the terminal less than an hour before takeoff. “St. George’s College is in a Palestinian neighborhood close to Jerusalem. I thought that was a safe spot because the Israelis would not bomb that close to Jerusalem, because of the tourist-based economy. And Palestinians weren’t going to bomb a Palestinian neighborhood. So that was the kind of mental calculus I used to continue on my path.”

She notes that St. George’s College has a bomb shelter, but they did not use it even when the sirens sounded in the distance. She trusted her hosts to gauge the situation. The violence always seemed to be about an hour or two behind them. “We’d get home and realize that we left a particular spot at 3 p.m and at 5 p.m there was a riot.

Because of the broken ceasefire, Jerusalem was almost empty. Colvill and her fellow pilgrims were able to move freely between the sites and ease through checkpoints in minutes rather than hours. She was not oblivious to the downside of her good fortune. “The merchants were desperate for customers. There was a real and horrifying fear of hunger and lack of healthcare. I mean, this isn’t a little recession, the absence of tourists is a disaster.”

Colvill was in awe of the marble Temple Mount stones from the Herodian period. They were quarried north of the Temple. She was told about a pilgrim’s song that says, ‘Oh the stones of Jerusalem, you are amazing.’ “The smallest stones are two and a half tons at the base. Higher up on the walls, the crusade era stones get smaller. But the base stones are as big as houses—40 feet by 10 feet according our tour guide.”

Speaking of awe and surprises, she adds, “Another thing that surprised me was that the place of the crucifixion was so unimportant to early Christians that it became a cucumber field. We [Western Christians] put so much emphasis on the cross. Palestinian Christians are all about the meal and the tomb of resurrection.”

Some of the male pilgrims visited an ancient monastery called Mar Elias, where women were not allowed, so Bethlehem Bible College arranged for Palestinian Christians to host the female pilgrims in their homes to chat and drink tea. Colvill and the other women worried about the sacrifices their Palestinian hosts made to honor them so generously, knowing their hosts were suffering additional economic hardship because of the broken ceasefire and its effects on tourism. “Middle Eastern hospitality being what it is, they were socially obligated to give us very nice snacks: really nice chocolate, really nice cookies, and that kind of thing.”
Bethlehem is a tiny town surrounded by Israeli settlements. Colvill says, “Our hosts told us they are afraid to leave their town to go through an Israeli settlement, for fear that they’ll just be shot. They believe that. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true. But they think they’d be shot with impunity.”

Their son, who was providing translation, supported his own family, his parents, and the wife and children of his brother who had been killed. “One source of income for 19 people. And if you leave Palestine, you don’t technically have a right of return, ever. So he has to have two passports in order to come home to see his parents. He said those who leave to be a student, perhaps in England, cannot go home unless they go back illegally.”

She was moved by the Palestinian family’s commitment to holiness. “They’re working really hard not to be bitter, and to pray, and to be holy about the oppression they live next to. Even visiting with us was dangerous for them.” All she could offer in return for their hospitality was the knowledge that other Christians were seeing them and hearing their story.

Christians only constitute about two to three percent of the residents in the Holy Land. This family felt it was important for them to be disciplined in their peacemaking, because it was the best hope for the nation as a whole. The living stones of Jerusalem, and the most beautiful, are the people committed to peace.

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