“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”^
Maybe Nathanael meant it rhetorically, but I agree with Philip. “Come and see!” Out of Nazareth came a fabulous hostel breakfast, our zippy little rental car*, my favorite souvenir of the trip, lots of stories, and…Jesus!
During our trip, we stayed all but three nights in Abraham Hostels. They’ve got affordable hostels in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv.**
Since we stayed in multiple hostels, we could hop on the free shuttle that ran daily between the three locations. The shuttle from Jerusalem to Nazareth deposited us and our luggage right at the hostel for bonus convenience!
Nazareth seemed like a good hometown–narrow, winding streets and friendly, but not overbearing, shopkeepers
I was on the fence about the platter I wanted, but instead of offering to lower the price when I said I’d think about it and come back, the shop owner shrugged and said, “As you please.” Signs posted prominently declared that the prices were fixed. We got that feeling many places we shopped in Israel: “You can buy my stuff. Or not. I’m not going to beg.”
The only super persistent vendor we encountered was at the Yehuda market in Jerusalem. “Girls, put down those cups and hold out your hands!” (Dumps dried fruit into our palms.) “Quick, eat it! You mix with hot water and it’s amazing. Try this kind. Where are you from? America? You are beautiful. I’m not just saying that because you’re buying my tea. Why are American women so beautiful? So sensitive!”
We snorted and bought the tea.
It was good tea. Don’t judge. I’m sensitive.
In Nazareth, we covered the main sights in half a day. We moseyed through the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary was told she’d be the mother of the Christ.
Across town, we poked our heads into the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church, where Mary heard the news as a good Orthodox. “The real spot is probably here,” said a shopkeeper and jabbed at a point on our map halfway between the churches. “It’s my friend’s barbecue place. You like barbecue?”^^
We also popped into the International Mary of Nazareth Center. It’s an event center/chapel/theater/garden/museum/a bunch of other stuff run by a French mission. We were greeted by the tiniest Japanese woman who had the cutest French accent. “She is adorable,” hissed Liz. “I love her!”
She radioed Clara, another volunteer, to set up the theaters so we could watch two of the four multimedia presentations about Jesus’ birth, ministry, and resurrection. While we waited in the gift shop, another tourist wandered in. “Where are you from?” inquired the tiny woman. “China,” said the girl.
“Oh!” our adorable friend clapped her hands in delight. “I am from Tokyo!”
The girl stared at her blankly. “Huh?”
“In Japan!” she offered cheerfully.
Liz had to go into the garden before she choked with laughter.
After the multimedia shows, which featured great sound effects, dramatic lighting, and lots of references to Old Testament prophesies about Jesus, I asked Clara if many Jews came to see these movies.
She said yes, Jews and Muslims both visited their center. “Do some Jews accept Jesus as the Christ?” I asked.
“Yes, some,” she said. “But it is hard to know how many. It means turning away from their family and their culture. So they do not tell anyone.”
Gradually, we pieced together Nazareth’s story from chatty shopkeepers and the members of a church where we went for Bible study.
At one time, in the not too distant past, Nazareth was 70% Arab Christians. (One guy told us 60%, another 80%–so I averaged.) Now it’s more like 35% Christian. Why were they leaving, we wondered. It’s not a case of genocide, as in Syria and Iraq. Where were they going? It matched what our guide in Bethlehem told us: that West Bank city used to be 65% Christian, and now it’s 19%.
“The Jews hate us. The Muslims hate use. They push us out,” said Mr. Abu-Sinni, proprietor of the once-renowned Kol-Bo—a shop in the old market of Nazareth. “They won’t buy from us, they won’t marry us. If a Muslim loves a Christian, there will be war with the families.”
“Where do they go?” I asked.
“America…or Canada,” he said. “My daughter moved to Houston. I’m going to see her at Christmas.”
“Are you Christian?” he asked us. When we said we were, he asked, “Christian Christian? Or just Christians in name? You go to church? You read the Bible?”
He was 82 and retired from the Jerusalem Post. He said he was the only Arab journalist on staff at the time. “When I was young, I traveled all over the world. I would get up close to the people and talk about their lives—their politics. When I got home, I would speak to hundreds of people about these countries. Now you will go home and people will ask you about Israel, and you will say, ‘The hotels were nice.’”
I laughed because we were probably the nosiest tourists in Israel. We asked so many questions our guides pretended to be engrossed in their smart phones to avoid eye contact and another round of questions!
“Please pray for us,” said the precious pastor, as we lingered on the church steps after Wednesday night Bible study. “It is very hard for the people here. It is hard to be a Christian here.”
He reiterated what Mr. Abu-Sinni said–Christians were leaving at alarming rates–pushed out by hostile neighbors.
But I was still puzzled. If a community is majority Christian, it can’t be bankrupted by a quarter of the population boycotting its businesses.
Unless they didn’t support each other.
In our search for a church to visit on Wednesday, we discovered two churches meeting in adjacent buildings–one split from the other a few years ago. If the same denomination couldn’t raise a united banner, it was difficult to imagine the other churches in Nazareth doing so.
“If the Christians don’t get along, how can they share the message about Jesus?” we asked Mr. Abu-Sinni.
“Yes,” he nodded thoughtfully, “You are saying words from my own heart.”
And from Jesus’ heart. I thought how well he knew us when he prayed for future believers: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17) He knew discord would trip us up.
“You are not alone in Nazareth now,” the pastor told us, “Now you have a family here! If you need anything at all, call us.” I pray that those bonds of love will unite every believer in Nazareth and all of Israel. That the truth and good news of Jesus would be lifted much higher than any differences.
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:3-4
*When our cab driver deposited us at the Hertz in Nazareth Illit, he raised his eyebrows skeptically, “You rent car? You drive?”
“You bet!” We waved and sped off in our little Chevy.
And promptly turned around because we couldn’t figure out what was making that dinging sound. (It was the parking brake.)
THEN we were off!
**A bed in a six-person dorm was about $20.
^^BBQ turned out to be code for SSP (Something Stuffed in a Pita)