More than 100 people attended an online pilgrimage to Bethlehem in September, raising £1,200 for struggling families in the region.
The event was created and led by United Reformed Church (URC) representatives who went on a URC educational visit to the Holy Land last year, and was supported by Commitment for Life (CfL), the URC’s global justice programme.
CfL has ensured that the money donated towards the pilgrimage went to the Bethlehem-based Christmas Lutheran Church’s hardship fund.
The pilgrimage included a virtual tour of a shop owned by Issa ‘Jack’ Giacaman, a Christian olive wood carver in Palestine, as well as live commentary from Jack, his family and his minister from the Church of the Nativity, Father Rami; conversation with the Revd Dr Munther Isaac, the eminent Palestinian academic and Pastor of the Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem; a cookery segment showcasing Palestinian food and produce, an Arabic lesson, and much more.
“Covid has meant that tourism has fallen drastically in the Holy Land,” explained Clare Nutbrown-Hughes, Secretary for Dursley Tabernacle URC, who led the online tour. “People in Bethlehem are heavily reliant on pilgrims, and we were hearing from the Palestinian Christians we met last year, just how deeply this crisis was affecting their community: some families had been unable to pay rent since March, and churches were faced with an urgent pastoral situation in trying to find funds to support them.
“While we were in the Holy Land in person, we heard time and time again of the importance of connection, and of how much it means to people in the West Bank to welcome visitors. Equally, many of us in the UK have not been able to travel this year. So, in an attempt to help keep our horizons open, and to share some of the incredible welcome we received in Bethlehem, we decided to hold a virtual pilgrimage.”
Ms Nutbrown-Hughes continued: “There are lots of reasons why people don’t, or can’t, travel. Covid has made us look at how we can connect with one another across distances. In truth, we really didn’t know what to expect when we started organising the virtual pilgrimage, and it was amazing to have so many people join us. We were thrilled to be able to ‘be’ in Bethlehem for an evening, to look out over the streets and to go inside the Christmas Church, for example. Bethlehem is in many ways cut off from the world, and Covid has only exacerbated that. When Jack showed us the carved olive wood Christmas decorations in his shop, and all the stock that ordinarily would be flying off the shelves at this time of year, it was brought home to us the impact of Covid-19. He said, quite simply: ‘Muslims don’t buy nativity scenes.’
“But technology allows us to connect across the miles and restrictions, and Jack expressed how important that was to him and his community. I am really grateful to all the URC staff and representatives who supported the idea and made it happen, and I look forward to exploring ways we can build on and learn from the connections we have.”
“Feedback from the event has been overwhelmingly positive,” reported the Revd Dr Kevin Snyman, representing CfL. “Participants described it as amazing, clever and evocative.”
“I loved the opportunity to hear the perspectives of Palestinian Christians,” said Jenny Brown, who attended the online pilgrimage. “My mum, who was unfamiliar with the issues, was particularly struck by the sheer injustice of what she was hearing about. It was very special also to hear participants of the real-life pilgrimage last year share what had most impacted them.”
A recording of the pilgrimage can be viewed on YouTube, visit. The video description details how to donate, via the URC, towards helping struggling families in Bethlehem.
Image: Issa ‘Jack’ Giacaman, a Christian olive wood carver in Palestine.
Published: 9 November 2020