(Hymns, 1985, no. 208.)
It used to be just another Christmas carol. But that was before the summer of 1985. I had just turned nineteen, and I was feeling rather mature because I was on my own in Israel, thousands of miles from home. And I admit, I did feel rather charitable giving up my whole summer to work at an orphanage in Bethlehem. I confidently swung my new bag over my shoulder. Walking to the bus stop, I naively felt noble and generous, a little like Mother Teresa. Fortunately, this sense of smugness was smothered within minutes by a young truck driver.
I was trying to pin back a piece of hair that had fallen out from my French braid when he honked. I tried to get out of his way, but there was no sidewalk, just dirt. As I jumped aside, I could actually feel the truck sweep my skirt hem. I nervously wiped the sweat off my forehead and into my sun-bleached bangs, caught my breath, and then kept walking toward the bus stop.
Later, when the bus dropped me off at the bottom of the hill below the orphanage, I was still nervous, and I was still sweating. I wiped my forehead with one hand, clung to my shoulder bag with the other, and started walking up the hill. I had been excited about meeting the orphans, but now the excitement was mixed with apprehension.
I hesitated to go in once I arrived at the orphanage. Just then the door opened from the inside, and a beautiful Palestinian woman in her late twenties greeted me with a brilliant smile that instantly comforted me. Judith introduced herself as the director of the combined school and orphanage. She spoke beautiful English (for which I literally thanked heaven). Judith took me to meet the children, and for the next few moments, I felt like a visitor from another planet. I was suddenly conscious of my blonde hair and my pale skin.
I greeted the children in Arabic as each one told me his or her name. A few of the children seemed to understand that I was trying to say good morning, and they acknowledged me with an encouraging smile or giggle. But most of them just stared. They stared at me from a distance no farther than a few feet, but I felt very distant. I sat on a small table in the front of the class, and Judith finished giving their lesson for the day. Not a single child was paying attention; they were all staring at me with enormous, innocent, brown eyes. Suddenly the bell rang to dismiss class. The sound startled me, and I stood up. Then a couple of brave girls took me by the hand and led me to the playground, which was actually just an area of asphalt with some lines painted on it for ball games.
When we got outside, the children discarded all the inhibitions they might have felt as I sat in the classroom. They swarmed around me, and I endured somewhat compassionately the continuous caressing—until I noticed the oozing sores on several hands and faces. Then I merely endured. I couldn’t really move anyhow, because they had me sitting on the asphalt; three were on my lap, several more were attached to either my legs or my arms, and there were a couple more hanging around my neck from behind. The black asphalt had been absorbing the summer sun all morning, and I was sure that if I didn’t get up right then I would be baked. As I attempted to get up, one of them discovered a brush in my bag, and she obviously knew what it was for. With sheer delight she brushed her matted mass of black curls. Then she proceeded to attack the tangles in another little girl’s tresses. When her victim started to cry, she moved on to another. I tried to comfort the little girl who was crying, while I reached for my brush and other items from my purse that were being passed around. I wasn’t successful at either attempt.
Somehow the afternoon passed, and after I practically peeled the last few orphans off me, I made my way back down the hill to the bus stop. My head throbbed. My skin itched. My eyes burned. My back ached. And I knew that I was no Mother Teresa.
I thought of her work, and then I thought of one much greater: Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, … for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14.) Something in my heart changed then, and I prayed that somehow I could feel some of the love he had for the people of this land. As I walked on the ground that he had made holy so long ago, I truly believed it would happen.
The days passed one after another. It became easier and easier to have my hair brushed and braided and pulled by the orphans. I came to enjoy the challenge of carrying three semiadequately nourished children on my back while balancing the opposing tugs from a child or two on each arm. The Arabic language became more familiar to me, and the simple English phrases and songs I taught were now more familiar to the children.
After we sang one day, the quietest little girl came and tugged on my shorts. I picked up her frail frame and held her close. Her heart was beating against my chest, and I felt a tear drop onto my shoulder. She whispered a question to me in Arabic. She asked if I would be her mother. My throat was tight with emotion. I managed to say, “I love you.” Even my capacity to verbally express my love for her seemed inadequate, weak, when compared to the powerful feelings of tenderness and protectiveness that filled my heart to overflowing. At that moment I felt that I understood something of what Jesus may have felt when he was with the children.
Since my return from Bethlehem, I have thought often of that moment when, briefly, I loved with a greater love than I had thought possible. Now, each time I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I am reminded: