Friday, July 8, 2011

Please repeat the question!
 by Fred & Gloria Strickert

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

This has to be one of the strangest questions I have ever been asked.

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

I have to admit the circumstances were a bit unusual. It was 5:00 in the morning and I had just been awakened by Israeli Security calling from Ben Gurion Airport.

“Redeemer Lutheran Church.” I responded assuming he had a question about our church in the Old City. But as I carefully listened to him repeat the question a third time, I realized this was to be one of the most unusual telephone conversations I have ever had.

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?  In Iowa. Cedar Falls, Iowa. You must explain the meaning of this name. Bethlehem. Are they Palestinian?  Are they an anti-Israel organization?”


It soon became clear. He was interviewing a young woman whose family attends Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. A month earlier she had written telling me of her plan to visit Israel and that her pastor at Bethlehem, Cedar Falls had encouraged her to contact me.

As a single, 20-something female traveling alone, she had been pulled out of the line at passport control and taken to a screening room where she was interrogated for four hours before being allowed to pick up her luggage and pass through.

That seems to be quite common these days. Several weeks ago Gloria and I were leaving for vacation and sailed through airport security no problem. In fact, we were given a pass to the Dan Airport Lounge for free drinks and snacks prior to boarding. Later that evening on another flight, our colleague, also working for the church, also holding the same visa, a clergy visa—but young, single, white, female, and traveling alone—was taken aside and asked to stand at the ticket counter for the next three hours to wait to check in until they were already boarding the plane. Then when they finally checked her in, security escorted her to the plane not allowing any stops along the way. So, yes profiling is common here.

And so for the young woman this morning, I had written welcoming her on her visit, giving her my phone number in case she had any problems, and also offering her to come crash on our couch since she would be arriving so early in the morning. And of course I began that letter, “We are especially happy to have a visitor from Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We know your pastor well and we have many friends there.”

When security had her empty out her backpack onto the table, there was my letter of welcome.

So the early morning question over the phone, “What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

Somewhat bewildered I realized the significance of the question, “In the States we often relate the names of churches to the life of Jesus.”

After a bit of silence on the other end of the line, I continued, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”

“Oh!” he responded, seeming unsure whether to believe me.

“I know the people at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I can vouch for her.” I could have added that I also know the people at Christmas Lutheran Church, in Bethlehem, Palestine, and we travel there several times a week. It is totally legal and safe. There's a lot I could have said, but it’s never wise to offer too much information. “Yes, I know the people at Bethlehem,” was sufficient.

He wasn’t easily convinced and continued to grill me for another ten minutes before hanging up.

Four hours later at 9:00 a.m., security called back a second time, this time another interrogator. “You know this woman? How do you know her?”

“Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I know her pastor. I have friends there.”

They took my passport number to let me know they’d be on my case if there were any problems. “Have a nice day,” they said hanging up.

At 10:30 a.m. there was a knock on the door. “I’m here to crash on your couch. Is your offer still good? I boarded my plane early last evening. I’m exhausted.”

“They let you through?”

A nod of the head.

“Is everything all night?”

“It depends. I had to sign a document, and, if I break it, I’ll be banned from Israel for five years and I’ll have to pay a fine of 50,000 shekels.”

“For what?”

She pulled out her signed statement for me to read.

“I had to promise that I wouldn’t visit the West Bank, that I wouldn’t go to Bethlehem.”

by Fred & Gloria Strickert