A Summer in Bethlehem

What it was like to live in Bethlehem?

During the summer of 2017, I had the privilege to live in Bethlehem, Palestine and work through the Methodist Liaison Office. I am grateful for the funding I received from the Candler Advantage Program and the support that made my experience possible, as well as those of 13 of my fellow students.

My work consisted of three main projects but also included several other ongoing assignments, creating a dynamic experience.

Project 1Methodist Liaison Office, Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem, Israel.

Working in the Methodist Liaison Officer

Rev Kristin Brown and Rev John Howard at a working lunch in the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem.

Methodists have had an official presence in Jerusalem since the late 1800s. We don’t have a church building, as the Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Orthodox do, but instead, we invest our time and funds in a multitude of projects. I was able to visit many of these projects and contribute, as volunteers from all over the world have the opportunity to do. Through the relationship with Tantur Ecumenical Institute, I engaged with interfaith dialog between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. One of my favorite assignments was serving as driver and tour host for seven seminary students and faculty from Queens College in Birmingham, England. The days were long and filled with sharing the experience of social injustice in Palestine, and the joy of God’s healing grace. United Methodist preachers serve at St. Andrews Church of Scotland, and over the summer I was invited to preach there. I also worked on the website and social media for the Liaison Office.

Project 2Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem, Palestine.


Bethlehem Christmas Lutheran Church

J.R. Atkins outside Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Palestine.

The Christmas Lutheran Church and the Methodist Liaison Office have been close partners for many years. As a result of this relationship, I was invited to participate in worship, offer pastoral care, and build a new website in English and Arabic with Christmas Lutheran Church. They also gave me the opportunity to preach on my last Sunday in Palestine and I received a warm welcome from the congregation. For me, the highlight of this portion of my summer was working side by side with Arabic Christians and gaining an appreciation for their culture. I learned that having coffee is an invitation to be in relationship, not simply a hot cup of java. I found the Arabic culture to be extremely hospitable, the people easy to talk with and eager to engage with. One afternoon, I had lunch with a member of the congregation that lasted three hours. With my American concept of time, I was ready to leave at the midpoint. Yet, it was in the second half of our visit that the man opened up to me and shared what was on his heart and mind. It was one of the most heartfelt conversations I had all summer and we created a friendship that will last a lifetime.


Project 3The Tent of Nations, outside the town of Bethlehem, Palestine

Daoud Nassar J.R. Atkins

J.R. Atkins & Daoud Nassar looking over the back side of the Tent of Nations farm

The Nassar family has owned their farm since 1916, when their grandfather purchased it from the Ottoman Turks. They possess documents of ownership from each ruling power: the Turks, the British, the Jordanians and are now are struggling to maintain their ownership under Israeli rule. Their land is in Area C, which was created by the Oslo Accords in 1995. The Israeli Military is now in control of all aspects of society. Only through international support has the Nassar family been able to hold on to their land and continue to farm it. They insist on peaceful means of resistance to occupation.

My role was to create a self-guided walking tour of their family farm that created a connected between the land, with scripture and the visitors. Each of the 10 stations, such as a cave (for living), cistern (for water) and carob tree (for food) related to a Bible verse and was written on the tour guide sheet along with an exercise, aiming to create a personal experience. Each station was marked with a stack of rocks containing a number. Perhaps you or someone you know will visit the Tent of Nations and participate in the self-guided tour.

Through my work on the farm, I befriended the Nassar family and international visitors. The Tent of Nations hosts thousands of visitors each year. Some come to work on the harvest of grapes, almonds, and olives. Others come to work on the two-week summer camp held for local children. And still, others come just to work and connect to the earth in a spiritual way. They live in a cave or tent, drink the cool water from the cistern and eat family style with the other volunteers and Nassar family. This experience provided me some understanding of farm life Palestine and what is like to live under occupation.

Other Projects

J.R. Atkins at BBI giving a workshop

J.R. Atkins with Salah Amleh, Director of Bethlehem Business Incubator-BBI

In addition to the three main projects, I met new friends and identified more ways to interact with the people of Palestine. A partial list of additional projects is provided below.

My work supporting and encouraging the people of Palestine continues today through Skype, email, and social media. My goals before, during and after my summer are to (1) pray for peace in Israel and Palestine (2) help the people of Palestine through listening, visiting, with business skills and by going there and (3) encourage others to visit the Holy Land and meet the people of Palestine.

Christ at the Checkpoint TourIf you are interested in visiting Israel and Palestine, my wife and I are leading a tour in May 2018, following the footsteps of Jesus and attending the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. Then in June, I plan to guide a group of business professionals on a Bethlehem Business Exploration trip, touring holy sites as well as meeting with local business owners. Please contact me if I can answer any questions, or share a presentation on my summer experience with your class, group or association.

Stacey and J.R. Atkins in Biet Jalla

Stacey and J.R. Atkins at lunch in Bethlehem, Palestine.

Note: A more complete display of pictures can be seen at SlideShare.net.

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