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An eye-opening experience

St. Cloud couple visited Holy Land, got firsthand look at Palestinian life

Last April, the Rev. Dennis Raymond and his wife, Naomi, of St. Cloud, got to do what few other people have… travel through the Palestinian area of the Holy Land, Israel, and meet a number of Palestinians.

The trip came about because of Naomi’s brother, Mark Solyst, a pastor at English Lutheran Church in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Dennis and Naomi Raymond relaxing in the Palestinian quarter during their trip to the Holy Land last April. Contributed photo

“My first exposure was a visit to his church when they hosted a ‘Bethlehem Event’ in which their whole church was transformed into the first century city where Christ was born,” said Dennis. “They have had a long-term relationship with Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, which is on Palestinian soil. Many people in his congregation have visited Palestine and have made connections with Palestinian Christians there.”

A group of 20-30 people from that church meet once a month to pray for the people of Palestine and Israel. When a woman married to a Luther College professor who taught at the university in Bethlehem for three-month stints offered to take Mark and his wife, and others interested, on a tour of the Holy Land, “Mark contacted us, and we signed up,”Naomi said. “Though we initially had some reservations, the woman offered to include us in going around the Palestinian area in our tour.”

Contrary to what many people might think, Dennis said, “It’s usually not much of a problem for tourists going in and out of Palestine, especially with a tour group and especially if your vehicle has an Israeli license plate. Going back into Israel, a Palestinian license plate would likely get you scrutinized.”

Naomi added that they were able to go into the Palestinian area, “because our driver was a Palestinian who had a special permit to drive on both the Palestinian and Israeli roads. The Palestinian people were not allowed to drive on Israeli roads as a general rule.”

The Raymonds said they met some wonderful Palestinian people, including Adham, who lived in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp just south of Bethlehem.

Adham, who speaks English, Italian and Arabic, shows the water tanks they use to collect rainwater. Contributed photo

“He’s a well-educated engineer,” Naomi said, “now working at an upscale Jewish hotel.” He spoke English, Italian and Arabic. He and his family live on the third floor of his house, his brother and his family on the first floor, and his parents on the second floor.

“He took us up to the roof and showed us the water tanks. They were allowed water for two hours two days a week, so they needed the storage tanks,” she said.

Another group of Palestinians were the Nassars, a Lutheran Christian family who own a farm on the highlands just south and west of Bethlehem. Located over 3,000 feet above sea level, the farm has a strategic position. The Nassars have papers going all the way back to the Ottoman period registered and in their possession, proving their claim to their farm.

“They have been very creative in their survival,” Dennis said. “They set up the first solar power system in Palestine for their electricity, have cisterns to collect rainwater, and instead of building on the ground, are renovating caves underground on their land. Daher and his family were very hospitable and showed us around the farm teeming with vineyards, apricot and olive groves, as well as animals. But they are not just farmers, they also are avid proponents of living peaceably with their neighbors no matter who they are. The farm has an educational and environmental program open to anyone who would want to come and offer help as well as understanding their peaceful ways rooted in their Christian understanding of what it means to be a people of faith. Hence it has been called “The Tent of Nations,” and they have become a beacon of light and a sign of hope for the 11,000 Palestinians who live in the village below.”

A stone at the entrance to the property says: “We refuse to be enemies.”

The Daoud Nassar family at their Christian Lutheran Church. Contributed photo

Dennis said the Palestinians did not fit their preconceptions. “They rather humbled us with their faith commitment to nonviolence and peace. Another thing that surprised me was the way in which Christians and Muslims embraced each other’s faith and culture.”

The beliefs of Daoud Nassar (Daher’s older brother) are similar, Dennis said. “He said, ‘We simply refuse to be enemies. Rather than telling the other he is wrong, we help the other to discover, by our loving and peacemaking actions, that he might be wrong. The crucial question is: How can I turn the perspective of someone who believes that I am his enemy?’”

Dennis added that as a Christian, that approach is certainly in line with what he has observed in the gospel he is committed to. “I am truly humbled by the way in which he has grasped that message and is seeking to live it out.”

Going through the Israeli checkpoints is difficult, Naomi said. “When we arrived at the turnstile, I was caught in the middle and could not move forward or move back. All was regulated by the soldiers. It was an awful feeling. Finally, they let me through. I can’t imagine having to go through that every day in order to get to work.”

Daher Nassar shows some of the grapes they grow. Contributed photo

The Raymonds visited a wood carving shop, where the shopkeepers worked with olive wood, and a glass-blowing factory and shop in Hebron.

“In Jerusalem,” Naomi added, “we visited the old city where there were many many open shops on both sides of the narrow streets. Everything was open. Very little concern about theft. They sold almost anything… food, jewelry, clothing, shoes, scarves, candy, etc.

“Palestinians are no different than any other people,” Dennis said. “Like all of us, they hope for a bright future for their children. In all, we connected with some memorable and wonderful people.”

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