Over Christmas, a lot of churches will put up an idyllic nativity scene, propping up shepherds and kings and mangers on their front lawn. I’ve seen some with a line from the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” posted over the stable.
Today we traveled to the West End to see what St. James’s Piccadilly Church chose to do instead: they wanted to raise awareness of what life is actually like in Bethlehem right now. And right now, Bethlehem is cut off from the world by a wall erected by the Israeli defense force.
So the church built a replica wall in their courtyard. It’s eight meters tall, because the real wall is eight meters tall. It blocks the view of their historic church because that’s what has happened to Bethlehem’s holy sites and historic places.
And, as the real wall has become one of the foremost places for protest art, everyone has been invited to add their prayers and poems and reflections and graffiti to the wall.
Twenty people from the church visited Bethlehem in October; they write on their website they decided to host this installation because:
“In 2009, Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a joint appeal to Christians throughout the world to understand and help to alleviate the desperate hardship the wall has caused. It is a daily disaster for ordinary Palestinian families. In hosting this festival, St James’s Church joins the movement in Bethlehem known as “beautiful resistance”, celebrating the culture, music, food and humour of those who live behind the Wall.”
I thought, Wow—this church is willing to put their money where their mouth is. They’re willing to take a stand for something they believe in. And they’ve taken a lot of flak for it.
The church’s rector Reverend Lucy Winkett responded to some of the criticism in this op-ed in The Guardian:
“We are clear that we are not “pro” one side or another but we are instead campaigning for equal human rights for all people regardless of ethnicity or background. Sometimes the church will speak on issues seen as political in order to advocate for people who are suffering. We are supporting the ordinary people of Bethlehem at Christmas because we believe it would be wrong to sing about the town and meditate on its importance to our faith without acknowledging the grievous situation its citizens find themselves in today.”
We went into the church to see an art exhibit drawn by Palestinian children. British artist Meg Wroe went to a school overlooked by the Separation Wall to lead this workshop and was told by their teacher, “When the kids reach [age] 10, all they draw is The Wall.”
The art was moving, and so were the prayers posted in response to it. But at the prayer corner, I was distracted by this notice:
“Please do not sleep on this pew.”
Well, that seems a bit rude, I thought. But then, as I moved past the prayer corner, I saw that the pew after that had a person peacefully asleep on it—by the look of him, presumably homeless, totally unbothered by everyone wandering through to look at the art. And the pew after that had someone asleep on it too, and the pew after that sheltered someone on the floor in a sleeping bag. In fact, as I continued up the aisle, every single pew on that side of the church had someone asleep on it, with the man on the last pew gently snoring away.
Ah, I thought. I see.
Here is a church that practices what it preaches.
Yes, they use their very ornate historic church building to host chamber concerts and cultural festivals and liturgical dance and Taize prayer services. But they also are not afraid to let homeless folks shelter in their church out of the rain and fall asleep on their pews in the middle of a major art installation.
In this lovely, old, stained-glass-gorgeous house of God, to me the most incredibly beautiful thing there was a dozen people, surrounded by their lives stuffed into rough shopping bags and dirty backpacks, asleep on the pews.
And I could barely breathe because of how… HOLY it felt.
As we walked from the church back to the Tube station, we passed a man sitting on the sidewalk with a few days’ growth of beard, holding out a hand-lettered sign on a torn piece of cardboard. I thought about the folks asleep on the pews and wondered if he knew about that church, a warm and dry space to rest.
A hundred paces after we’d passed him, it hit me what his cardboard sign actually said:
LOOKING FOR HUMAN KINDNESS”
Oh, God, my soul said to me. How can you ignore that? So we turned around and walked back, and offered to buy him a coffee and a sandwich at Starbucks next door. And he said, “No, thanks, I’m full of coffee, it’s all right.”
I didn’t really know what else to say except, “I’m sorry your sign says that.”
“Well, it’s how I feel,” he said.
“At least you’re being honest,” I replied. We wished him the best and he smiled at us as we went on our way. I kept thinking of all the things I could have said or could have asked him.
I almost couldn’t stand the juxtaposition as the sidewalk took us right under the arches of The Ritz, which bills itself as “The Finest Luxury Hotel in England,” to get to the Underground. Here we were in one of the poshest parts of London, swank dripping from every window, and yet as a homeless rabbi said two thousand years ago, “The poor will always be with you.”
The divide between rich and poor, which is rapidly widening in our society, is another kind of wall that separates us from one another—one that we have the choice to tear down ourselves. The wealth that permeates the West End and the symbols of it present in St. James’s church building are one of the reasons it is so powerful that they’ve opened up their doors. Its congregation helps run the Westminster Churches Night Shelter, which helps get homeless folks into permanent accommodation, and they host a drop-in crisis counselling service in their courtyard seven days a week.
Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust, says: “The most unhelpful thing you can do is be pro one side; it just adds to the conflict. We have to not only understand those people who are oppressing us, but try to walk in their shoes, and ultimately to really engage with what it means to love our enemies.”
For me, sometimes this means learning to love the rich. And then realizing….I am still one of them.
I will leave you with this poem by Robert Vas Dias, which was posted by the replica wall in front of the church:
let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar a better side, the other side is where the other side side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right my side with your words, your words spread fear you’re unreasonable, you disturb me, raise un- space, my living space which is mine by right and right to be where you are, because I am here and you’re on my other side, the other side of me.
by Robert vas Dias
of words I use to form my walls, to make my side
resides, I’m on the right side and you are not, the
because I am right and you are wrong, you disturb
and mine bind my wall with the mortar of reason
reasonable questions about sides, your living
yours which is not yours by right, you have no
because I am here you cannot be, you cannot be,
let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar
a better side, the other side is where the other side
side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right
my side with your words, your words spread fear
you’re unreasonable, you disturb me, raise un-
space, my living space which is mine by right and
right to be where you are, because I am here and
you’re on my other side, the other side of me.
I didn’t know I was on a side until a wall was built I didn’t know I’d created a disturbance until you decided to create a disturbance because you told this side even though I didn’t know it was a side because my side is a wall of shadows, the shadow on the light side, I’m a disturbance for each one although you cannot see me I will disturb you I am here, you’re on my other side, the other side of me.
by Robert vas Dias
and then I knew I was on a side, the wrong side
told me I was creating a disturbance so then I
me I lived on the wrong side, I’d always lived on
of anything, much less the wrong one, it’s wrong
side, the wrong side, I shadow you, you who live
of you, I am a shadow, I form a wall within you
I am here, and I will never leave you,
I didn’t know I was on a side until a wall was built
I didn’t know I’d created a disturbance until you
decided to create a disturbance because you told
this side even though I didn’t know it was a side
because my side is a wall of shadows, the shadow
on the light side, I’m a disturbance for each one
although you cannot see me I will disturb you I am here,
you’re on my other side, the other side of me.