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Editor's note: The original version of this column ran Dec. 21, 2008.

Terry and Melissa Rhodes departed Fayetteville in July to lead and teach at the private Christian Jerusalem School in Bethlehem.

They and two of their four children witnessed continual anxiety among their new neighbors. The transition from life in Northwest Arkansas to the city of Christ's birth has been anything but easy for the former McNair Middle School teacher and his wife.

The Rhodeses told me that Bethlehem's limestone buildings literally glow in the sunlight. However, the peacefulness that idealized the little town in 1865 when the inspired carol was written about it has become a wishful message.

A 25-foot concrete wall with guard towers defines the quality of life.

"The older generation remembers when Jerusalem and Bethlehem could interact freely," said Melissa. "The two cities today are divided by this wall. People remember when they could visit their relatives in Jerusalem and maintain their businesses there.

"Today many grandchildren in Bethlehem have not visited their grandparents in Jerusalem for years. Residents have either sold or been evicted from their properties in Jerusalem. Each has become a city divided by conflict, fear and restrictions."

The two cities, much like Fayetteville and Springdale, have seen the six miles that separate them fill with urban sprawl.

The children of Bethlehem who constitute two-thirds of the population are forbidden freedom. Past conflicts and restrictions dominate their lives.

"Of the 30,000 people, about 20,000 are under 20," Melissa said. "The streets of Bethlehem are full of youth that cannot remember freedom of movement or hope, but know only bondage and restriction."

One of their high school's 73 students is Sara. She remembers the last Intifada (uprising) in Bethlehem. She was only 9 then and had to hide in a basement for a full day with her family, Melissa told me. Sara's family evacuated and relocated to the U.S., but has since returned to be close to relatives.

"Today Sara often covers her head [with] pillows at night trying to block out sounds of the military making raids into Bethlehem. She also lives in anxiety, and worries over what new restrictions will mean for her family."

Most young people have never left the West Bank because of the military restrictions, she said. The rare exceptions are cause for excitement. For example, when a Bethlehem high school basketball team recently was permitted to participate in a tournament in Israel, many students glimpsed the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, yet they live only an hour from it. A Muslim student on the team used his limited time after the tournament to visit grandparents whom he had not been allowed to visit in years.

"After celebrating a basketball victory with a visit to McDonald's, many Bethlehem students didn't know how to order their meal," Melissa said. "The enjoyment of shopping at a mall, ordering food or visiting family is often denied these children."

Christian children in Bethlehem are usually are given permission to visit Jerusalem just twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem both enjoy the Christmas season. Muslims make up about 85 percent of the population.

"On Christmas Eve, those of each faith go to Nativity Square to watch the Christmas parade. In Bethlehem, the religions live at peace. However, the Christian population is dwindling because of the difficult circumstances in Bethlehem."

Melissa told of Joseph, a high-school-age Christian concerned that his father may sell their hotel. It seems the tourist industry is unstable because travel to Bethlehem has become so difficult.

She said Joseph also remembers the last Intifada, when he stayed in his family's hotel for days without fresh water. Today, she said, Joseph wants to be an encouragement to Christians in Bethlehem, despite many frustrations and complications. For instance, he recently spent an entire morning trying to acquire the latest requirement for Palestinians, a magnetic I.D. card, then was told to return the next week.

The Rhodeses are determined to persevere to make a positive difference in emerging lives. Terry is principal of the 236-pupil school while Melissa teaches English and the Bible.

"Jesus chose the quiet village of Bethlehem, a lowly manger, a young unwed mother and a blue-collar stepfather," Melissa said. "The message of peace is one of hope for the people in Bethlehem."

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 12/24/2017

Print Headline: City of Christ’s birth

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