Tenx9 first-timer Brittany Sky Stanley tells of her first trip to Israel and the West Bank with her grad program, and how coffee helped her not miss the day, but unfortunately, didn’t keep her from missing an important site.
Ehjhjsdhfajkbflkax. It cannot be time to wake up. What time is it? 6am. That makes it, what? I don’t know, like 2am at home? Ughhhhhhhhhhhh. I have never experienced jet lag before, but this has to be it.
“Good morning, Roomie!” she says. She’s already showered, and is already smiling. I try to smile back and try really hard not to tell her to leave me alone.
I walk into our tiny bathroom. I look in the mirror. I am in Bethlehem. I look all right enough for that. I need coffee.
I put on pants and my hiking boots, throw my hair into a knot on the top of my head, and climb the stairs to the dining room. Where is the coffee? All I see is hot water. This day cannot happen without coffee. This trip will be ruined if I don’t find the coffee!
I watch as another tourist walks up to the hot water pot. He pours the water into his cup and spoons in these grainy brown looking things. Oh no. It’s instant. I know that I can feel melodramatic in the mornings, but this cannot be happening. I pour in the instant “coffee” and add a lot of cream and sugar.
I walk over to the table where the other students from my seminary are sitting. I know no one. I try to absorb all the energy I can from my cup of “coffee.” It’s already a struggle to force myself to make new friends but at 2am, I mean 6, it’s harder.
“What’s good? The eggs?” I ask the girl to my right. She has yogurt and bell peppers and a chocolate croissant on her plate. I could go for a chocolate croissant. This is the first day of vacation after all.
I grab a croissant and sit down at the other end of the table. I pull out my itinerary. I already know that I am going to the Church of the Nativity, Masada, and the Dead Sea today. I have had this itinerary memorized for weeks, but it makes me feel less alone to read.
I have been waiting my whole life to be here in this land deemed holy. I have had a great pull in the pit of my stomach for as long as I can remember to walk in the places that Jesus walked. I want to know why this place was the birth place of so much—of God, of community, of peace. I want to see what Jesus saw that inspired him to teach others to love each other. I want to find some strength to keep going.
Dr. Yeo, the New Testament professor from my school, walks into the dining room. He smiles at me and tells our group it is time to get on the bus. I grab my backpack and walk outside. It is beautiful here. It smells differently than home does. The sun even seems to shine differently. I walk up the steps of the bus and find a seat close to the front.
We drive to a parking lot that is five minutes from our hotel. We unload and make our way to the church. It is only fitting that we are in Bethlehem today. It’s Christmastide. Of all the places I have looked forward to, this was certainly one of them. This is the historic site of Jesus’s birth. This is the church built on top of the cave that housed the animals that provided the manger for Mary to lay her baby in. This is the place where so much began.
We walk up to the door of the church. The door is only as tall as my legs. Everyone bends way down to walk inside. I smash my head into the top of the doorframe. Awesome. All of these people are certainly going to want to be friends with me these next two weeks. I should have had more coffee.
I get inside.
I notice first the giant pillars. Everything is made of stone! This place is incredible. The craftsmanship! Dr. Yeo waves me over. The floor is opened up to another floor below. The floor below is the original church floor. Augustine’s mother, Helena, had this church built here to preserve this holy site. The original floor is impressive. It’s made of the tiniest mosaic tiles. Who had the patience to lay a whole floor like this?
I wander around the church. We have been told to be quiet. The third mass service of the day is going on in the holy cave below. When they are finished, we will be invited to line up. That line will lead us right to the holy manger.
There are gold and silver incense burners hanging up everywhere. There are beautiful icons everywhere. I wonder how many people have prayed to these holy images. I wonder how much money could be made off of them and used to feed the poor outside of the church.
I find an icon of the holy mother Mary up high in a corner. I assume the role of Patrick Swayze and I say the obligatory Dirty Dancing line, “Nobody puts baby in the corner,” and walk toward the prayer candles.
Dr. Yeo waves all of the students toward him. I walk to the group, even though I am not quite finished praying.
“We are going to go down into Jerome’s Cave for a mass service lead by our own Father Kermit!” he enthusiastically tell us. I suppose that’s neat. The three Catholics who joined our group will surely be glad to celebrate mass, but the other 16 of us are United Methodists. It will be cool to go to the traditional site of Jerome’s Cave–the place where the bible was originally translated into Latin. That’s a pretty important place too, I guess.
We walk the steps down into Jerome’s cave. There is a beautiful altar. The Catholics set out their wine and bread and proceed to lead us through a service. 45 minute later the priest blesses the elements, drinks the whole glass of wine, and shares bread with the three Catholics who chose the right denomination to be affiliated with. I am getting restless. And sleepy, and I really want another cup of coffee, even if it has to be instant.
They wrap up the service and we walk back up to the main level of the church. I make a beeline to the back of the now incredibly long line to baby Jesus’s manger. Dr. Yeo waves us all back toward him. I hope this means he has special connections and we will get to fast track to the front of the line.
The look on his face tells me this is not going to be good news. “We have to go,” he tells us. “The mass service took a little longer than we were originally planning, and we have too many other things to do today. It’s not a big deal. You can find pictures of the cave online…”
He keeps talking. I refuse to listen. Are you serious? This is the holy land! This is Jesus’s birthplace! This is the manger! This is the beginning! If I am not careful my anger is going to spill out in the form of tears. I take a deep breath and look at my teacher.
“Dr. Yeo,” I say cautiously, “That’s not very fair. I may never get to come back to the Holy Land.”
He looks at me with sadness in his eyes. I know I am going to miss it. I follow the rest of the group out to the bus. It is time to go to Masada.