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A Letter From Bethlehem

by Peter Bray, FSC

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“I have never seen the sea.” “I have never been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” “I have never been able to visit my relatives in Jerusalem.” “I have never been able to visit Al Aqsa Mosque.”

These are statements made to me recently by students of Bethlehem University in Palestine. The students are from the West Bank and have green Israeli-issued Palestinian IDs, which means they need special Israeli military permission to go through the separation wall to get to the sea or to Jerusalem.

They have never received it.

As I listened to those students, I reflected on my own life, having grown up with the freedom to go where I wanted and to do what I liked. This was in the small town of Waitara in Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It was a far cry from the experiences of these students at Bethlehem University. My older sister and two brothers had a very safe, peaceful, predictable childhood in a beautiful country with wonderful opportunities, all of which are denied to our students.

I had the privilege of being a first-day pupil when the De La Salle Christian Brothers opened a new school in New Plymouth about seven miles southwest of Waitara. The school, Francis Douglas Memorial College, was named after a young priest who was killed by Japanese soldiers during World War II for not revealing where the men who came to him for confession were hiding.

The brothers who taught me were not exceptional men, but they were dedicated and sought to do the best for us. One of them invited me to think about being a brother. At first I was not really interested, but over the course of a year I prayerfully reflected on what he had said and watched the brothers more closely. I became much more aware of their community life, their joy in being together and the deep sense of mission that energized them. I decided to explore their life some more and went to Sydney, Australia, to begin my preparation for life as a De La Salle brother.

The first teaching opportunities I had in Sydney provided me with the best possible start to my life in community and my professional life as a teacher. Over the years, the brothers I have lived and worked with have inspired, encouraged, supported and enabled me to grow as a person and as a teacher.

In May 2008, I was invited to consider becoming the vice chancellor to Bethlehem University. I had never thought about coming to this part of the world, but I responded positively to the invitation and arrived in Bethlehem toward the end of 2008.

I came to Palestine, where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian, and I have often been asked: What is an unashamedly Catholic university trying to do here? My response is to go back more than 2,000 years to when Jesus began his ministry in this part of the world. There were no Christians here at all, then, so what was he trying to do? Jesus makes it very clear in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 10, verse 10: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” That is what Jesus was seeking to do and that is exactly what Bethlehem University is seeking to do. It is at the core of everything we are doing.

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