Because it involves a very personal story, I don’t think I’ll use their real names. I’ll call them “Samer” and “Miryam.”
We spent last night in the homes of local Christian families in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem traditionally associated with the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the good news of great joy announced to a bunch of nobodies. Our hotel was right next to one of the three places that lay claim to being The Real Field!
I joined Werner and Rich from our tour group at a home where our hosts have a little four month-old granddaughter who spends the day with grandma while the parents are at work. We had a lively dinner discussion with Samer and Miryam’s son-in-law, who got his college degrees in the US. It seems he was once the only stand-up Arab at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University — and made a bit of a name for himself there by winning debates on Israel-Palestine.
After dinner, the children and grandchild went home, and we visited more directly with Samer and Miryam. He is a 50 year-old, successful businessman and, as mentioned, she is a stay-at-home grandmother. Werner asked Samer about the possible daily stresses of living under occupation, and his answer turned back to the 1970’s, when he was 12.
The Israeli army made regular patrols around Samer’s school, and one particular day, some foolish classmates decided to pelt an armored vehicle with rocks. Soon a dozen jeeps roared onto their campus. Their principal was ordered into his office, and all the students were sent into a few classrooms, into which the soldiers tossed tear-gas canisters. Samer said he thought he was going to die. His eyes and lungs burned. He couldn’t see, he could hardly breathe. Dropping to the floor and crawling through the desks, Samer was the first to reach the door. He began to run, and he could hear his classmates running behind him…
We could see that telling the story was weighing heavily on Samer–his voice was strained, his eyes full. He seemed to have surprised himself with the depth of emotion raised by his own story. It was almost though he were once again that terrified and powerless 12 year-old. Miryam looked at him with wide eyes, the way a worried wife looks at an emotional and struggling husband. Samer paused, and took a deep breath. Soon the conversation returned to soccer.
The next morning, we were at breakfast when we heard the sound of aircraft. Samer led us up to the roof, where we watched three Jordanian helicopters drop into Bethlehem, and we listened as the city’s church bells welcomed Pope Francis. Samer had a ticket to be one of a few thousand in Manger Square; our group planned on waiting to see the pope on his route between meeting with Palestinian political leaders and the mass in the square. Many Christians have left the hardships of Bethlehem in recent years, and only about 30% of the city remains Christian–and just of fraction of that number is Catholic. So the street was not exactly packed like a Rose Parade, and we easily found some curb space amid several Australian pilgrims. I must admit to a certain, unexpected welling of emotion when the pope-mobile passed just a few feet away.
Two men–Francis and Samer. One famous and lauded the world over–the object of both personal and official adoration offered to such a degree that it reportedly rather annoys him. The other bearing in his soul a suffering unknown to most of the world–a good, decent man seeking God’s best for himself and his family in consistently difficult circumstances. One man a kind of ultimate Somebody, the other man making his way among millions of near-nobodies.
Who matters? Who really matters? Samer matters, I believe, precisely because we do not know his story, or the millions like it, and we need to know it. Francis, I believe, gets the kind of attention he does precisely because he knows Samer matters just as much as he does.