Letter from Bethlehem

15 April 2017



15 April 2017


Greetings from this holy city of Jerusalem as we celebrate, yet again, the mysteries of Easter here in the city where it all happened!


Every time I get the chance to be part of the ceremonies here I am conscious of how blessed I am and what a privilege it is for me to be here. There is something very special about being in this place of such historical, spiritual, political and personal significance to so many people and to have the chance to reflect on the events that happened here, maybe not in the exact places as they stand now, but certainly in this vicinity over 2000 years ago. To reflect with other people who also believe is a great boost to my faith and helps me hold the mystery and to engage in the liturgical ceremonies that re-enact the events we remember.


As we entered into the mystery of Jesus suffering, crucifixion and death we could not help but remember the people in Egypt who were killed or injured last Sunday. Such an event confronts us with the challenge of how to respond. At Bethlehem University, last week we gathered faculty, staff and students for a short time of remembrance and prayer with Christians and Muslims joining together to stand in solidarity with the people who are suffering there in Egypt. It was a simply gathering, but was a powerful statement that we, as an unashamedly Catholic university, can gather Christians and Muslims and those with no faith and can stand together at such a time reflecting the values that are central to our life together, namely respect for each individual and acceptance of our differences. It was important that what was said acknowledged that there are certain words we cannot use if we are to reflect our Christian heritage. Thus, we cannot speak about revenge, about hating the perpetrators of this horrific act and somehow we need to find words that express our horror, but still contain the central message of Jesus to love – a significant challenge.


The situation here in Palestine is, in my opinion, getting steadily worse. The expansion of the settlements and the increased pressure being put on our students is leading to a very difficult situation. In discussions with several people I am trying to make sense of what is happening and how Bethlehem University can contribute to helping people live a life that is more free and enhanced. It seems to me that the unpredictable nature of so much of our students’ lives has a debilitating impact on them. When they leave home to come to campus they do not really know what to expect. They could be stopped by a soldier and have a gun pointed at them and told to hand over their ID. They could be detained and have no idea why or for how long. If they are coming on the bus from East Jerusalem the bus could be stopped and they could be told to get off and each be searched and/or interrogated, and so it goes on. As I think about this unpredictability I sense there is an institutionalized chaotic structure that is deliberately disruptive. Such activities create uncertainties among our students as well as faculty and staff and the sheer randomness of such things leads to a debilitating experience for these people. I believe it is out of such an environment that violent individuals emerge as they strive to deal with this chaos. Because of the conditions in which so many Palestinians live, what has happened is that these conditions have led to many dysfunctional relationships and embittered individuals. It is these who can become violent and destructive.


So, the question that arises for me is how Bethlehem University can be a source of light and life in the midst of such an environment. I believe there are many ways in which we are responding very positively. When students walk onto our campus I want them to know they are safe and that there are people here who really care about them. I want them to know that there is a predictable environment into which they have stepped that provides them with a structure to their life on campus: there are classes that begin at a certain time; there are times for sport and times for prayer; there are exams set to occur at known times; there are places in the library where they know there is silence and places where they can work together; there are expectations of them in class and on campus, etc. In a very special way there are expectations they can have of the adults with whom they interact, that these adults are committed to be older brothers and sisters to them and will treat them with respect and not as the soldiers treat them.


I think in the predictable environment we are creating and the atmosphere we are developing here there is the potential to create an oasis of peace out of which students with peaceful hearts and peaceful minds will emerge. If we can develop such students, then they will go from our campus with a different perspective towards the chaos into which they will step. At this Easter time when we talk about dying and rising I am conscious that what Bethlehem University is doing is contributing in a significant way to enable people to live beyond the immediate urge for revenge, beyond the temptation to hate and see the “other” as enemy. The Church’s mission does not allow us to use such words, but instead, as we reflect during this Easter season, we become conscious that we are called to work out of what Jesus calls us to, a spirit of love, a spirit of letting go, of self-emptying, of being able to forgive. It is easy for these words to slip off our tongue, but here in the mess of the Holy Land, it is a constant struggle to keep such values in the forefront of our minds and have them lived out in the reality of daily life.


Against this background it would be easy to become morose, disappointed and bitter. However, my experience in so many areas of life at Bethlehem University leads me to rejoice in the ways people are responding. Even though I am in my ninth year here, I am still continually amazed at the resilience of our students and the inspiration they continue to be to me. I still find it difficult to believe at times that at this stage of my life I have the opportunity to be engaged with such amazing young people, so many of whom find ways to live life to the full despite their restrictions.


Because of our mission to serve the Palestinian people through education, we are constantly looking for better ways to do this. This results in an ongoing review of our curriculum as well as a desire to provide better facilities in which this curriculum can be delivered. The latter has resulted in three significant projects being developed at present. We received $10 million from the Saudi Fund for Development to transform a disused hospital we had purchased into a teaching hotel and a teaching restaurant while moving our Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism to that site. The plans for that project are almost complete and work should begin in the next few months. It is expected that will take almost two years to complete.


At the same time, there is a new facility for our Faculty of Nursing and Health Sciences being planned and we have $2.5 million of the $3.7 million we need for that. It is hoped that will also begin in the next few months and be ready for the 2018-2019 academic year. Apart from the obvious desire to have more adequate facilities for our students, one of the aims in this project is to provide facilities that could be made available to nurses and doctors in the area for in- service training and so embed Bethlehem University even further into the local community, as another way of serving the Palestinian people through education.


While not on the immediate agenda, we have been planning a visitors’ center and fitness center for which we already have over a $1 million of the $1.7 that is needed. However, because of the other two projects, this is on the backburner at present and we will get to it in the next few years.


It seems to me what we are doing at Bethlehem University is seeking to help people here live life as fully as they can in the midst of the chaos that surrounds them. It is about helping them to see that dying and rising is a central part of the Christian mystery and I feel privileged to have been changed as a result of standing with them. The cross of Jesus is a reality in so many lives here, even if the people don’t necessarily articulate it that way. The resilience that so many of our students show in carrying that cross and bring new life to others is a constant source of inspiration to me and I treasure the opportunities I have to engage with the students.


As we celebrate in this ancient, holy city I pray that God’s peace may be in your heart and that you will grow in an ever-deepening awareness of God’s amazing love for each of us. May the experience of this peace lead you to find practical ways to live as a peaceful and life-giving person.


He is risen! Best wishes


Brother Peter Bray FSC, EdD Vice Chancellor


[The picture is of Clemens, a regular visitor, praying before Our Lady of the Wall]