Father McDermott blesses a parishioner during Mass. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
The Rev. Ray Webb and Brother Peter celebrate Mass in Bethlehem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Brother Peter lives near the separation wall, and each week joins other men and women religious in praying along the reinforced concrete structure. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Students enjoy the campus of Bethlehem University between classes. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Brother Peter speaks with student ambassadors. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Students attend class at Bethlehem University. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
“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.
We are seeking to create an environment, develop an atmosphere, provide opportunities for our students to acquire the knowledge, gain the skills and develop the attitudes and values that are going to enable them to do what Jesus wanted — that is, to live life as fully as they possibly can, despite the military occupation with its various restrictions and confinement within the concrete wall and other barriers surrounding the West Bank.
One of the opportunities offered by the university is a place for Christians and Muslims to come together. For a significant number of the Muslim students, coming to Bethlehem University is the first time they have met a Christian. Many speak about it as an enlightening experience for them.
There are many challenges facing us as we seek to provide quality higher education for our students. The most obvious are the restrictions on movement. At present, 46 percent of our students come from East Jerusalem. To attend class they must pass through a military checkpoint at the wall each day — an unpredictable and humiliating experience. What these students face on their way to and from the university is the possibility that their bus may be stopped once or twice or even three times by different groups of Israeli soldiers. They can be questioned, interrogated, arrested; they could have a gun held to their face without any warning. You can imagine how they might feel by the time they arrive at school.
I am deeply concerned about our undergraduates and the potentially disheartening lives they face. We need to keep them aware of and committed to their dreams. Yet every day, they live with the possibility of their homes being raided in the middle of the night and some member of their family being taken away. The question that arises: What can we do to help them deal with this unpredictability, this injustice?
I focus on three things:
First, when students step onto our campus, I want them to know they are safe. No one is going to interrogate them or arrest them here. No one is going to point a gun at them on our campus.
Secondly, we are a Lasallian institution and so I keep emphasizing something that was key for our founder, St. Jean Baptiste de La Salle: I keep reminding the faculty and staff here that they need to be brothers and sisters to one another — and older brothers and sisters to the young people entrusted to them. This means when our young men and women come here, I want them to know that the adults they are engaging with are their older brothers and sisters who are really looking out for them and want the best for them.
Thirdly, when they step onto campus, students are walking into a predictable environment. There are classes at set times. There are expectations of them in class. There are assignments they have to do and exams they have to take. They know what to expect.
My hope is that all of this will develop peaceful minds and hearts, forming young people who are able to keep hope alive. At Bethlehem University, we are seeking to develop a community that is an oasis of peace in the midst of the uncertainty and adversity that characterizes so much of their lives. In this community, we work in solidarity with the students to educate for justice as we help them recognize and develop their gifts.
As a De La Salle brother, I walk in the footsteps of St. John Baptist de La Salle, the founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools more than 300 years ago and the patron saint of all teachers. As such, I seek to work with people at Bethlehem University to create here an authentically Lasallian institution. This means we are sensitive to the needs of individuals and respect them as God’s beloved creatures. We are seeking to provide a human and Christian education for the young people entrusted to us.
At the heart of De La Salle’s mission was his awareness of living in the presence of God. Therefore, an important aspect of my life as a brother is to recall that, in the midst of the busyness of the day, I exist in the presence of God.
One aspect of this is De La Salle’s comment toward the end of his life. When it seemed as if all that he had devoted himself to establish was going to collapse, he responded: “Lord, the work is yours!” This is a mantra that has characterized my life here at Bethlehem University. So many times, I have been confronted with situations where I had no idea what to do. I sought advice, listened to people, read, prayed and reflected deeply — but in the last analysis, it was a step out in faith.
One thing that sustains me through all those times is the awareness that I am part of something much larger than my little agendas. This is God’s work I am about. So, with others, I seek to figure out the most life-giving thing to do, and then move with confidence and trust.
Being in Bethlehem has been a life-changing experience for me. It has been by far the most difficult job I have ever had because of the complexity of the situation, the unpredictability of life and the restrictions the Israeli military put on us. Learning to live with the ambiguity of the situation is an ongoing challenge.
However, it is only in the dark that we can see the stars. I have never been in a place where it is so obvious that what we are doing is worthwhile. To see secondary school graduates come here and watch so many of them grow into these amazingly confident, articulate, knowledgeable, principled young people means I can put up with all those things that make it challenging.
I am so blessed — and I am so grateful that I am so blessed!