On our recent trip to Israel, we took a group into Bethlehem for the first time since 2004.
In something called the second “Intifada,” terrorists had used Bethlehem as a launching station for attacks against Israel. Israel responded with a security fence that effectively sealed off Bethlehem and its surrounding neighborhoods from Jerusalem.
Tourism in the city dropped dramatically and quickly. It wasn’t impossible to get inside the city, but it was far too much trouble to even try with a big group.
Other things that happened? Unemployment in Bethlehem skyrocketed to 50 percent. A large Christian population shrank to one that is barely existing.
Oh, the foolishness of choosing terrorism over tourism!
In time, things calmed down.
In recent months, it even became legal for Israeli citizens to enter Bethlehem again. That means we don’t have to recruit new guides and new busses for tour groups.
But in the end, it’s still just a tour of a church.
Our group of 59 waited in line for an hour, taking in the candles, the icons, and the ancient stones of the nearly 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity. Interestingly, the church is undergoing a massive, $17 million remodeling effort. Scaffolding was everywhere.
When we finally reached the small alcove that “marks the spot,” we did what tourists do. We took photos.
And then we left.
All in all, it was rather unfulfilling. Aside from being able to say you’ve seen the place, there’s no warmth of Christmas at the Church of the Nativity. There’s no transforming magic by being in the old church. I’ve never heard a song there!
And thus, the lesson.
Going to a place doesn’t transform anyone, whether it’s Bethlehem, Israel, or Bethlehem, Georgia (population 601, near Athens).
But if you can meet the person celebrated in Bethlehem, everything changes.
If a church – any church – ever forgets this fundamental truth, it will soon be reduced to tradition, ritual and what amounts to visits from tourists.
You don’t have to go to Bethlehem to meet Jesus. But at least the ancient city is back in business … and choosing tourism over terror.