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By Brian Keepers
The sound of Israeli jets rumbles above us like a chorus of thunder. The students keep working, seemingly impervious to the whole thing. We are at Shepherd’s High School in Beit-Sahour, a town nestled up against Bethlehem in the West Bank. A group of fifteen artists connected with our church—painters, musicians, writers, and dancers—have come to put on a four-day arts camp for Christian Palestinian students. We were uncertain how many kids would show up, if any at all. School is out for the summer, and the blistering heat makes it almost unbearable to be out in the midday sun.
Much to our surprise, nearly forty students show up on the first day of the camp. They are curious and eager. We break them into groups—visual art, music, and creative movement. Our team of artists meets with the students, learning with and from each other in a nimble dance of reciprocity. It’s beautiful.
That’s when the Israeli jets roar across the hazy West Bank sky. We foreigners are unnerved, on edge. There is news of unrest in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount. And we figure that the sound of Israeli jets cannot be good. But the students are unfazed. This is a part of their daily reality. The sound of fighter jets, an invasive wall of separation, Israeli soldiers carrying M-16s. All of it to remind them of the occupation. As if they need to be reminded.
Our goal is to let these kids just be kids—to give them a respite from the ongoing conflict and invite them into the joy and play of being creative. So we divide the kids up in their area of interest and take them to separate spaces in the school building to work on a project. At the end of the week, we will have a student show where each group will present their work to all the parents.
The creative movement group meets to start working on a tableau, a French word meaning “picture.” These students will enact scenes from the story of Jesus’s life set to music, sort of like a living painting. Marijke, my colleague and the group leader, explains this to the kids and asks for volunteers to play various parts in the tableaux. “Who will be Mary? Joseph? The angels and shepherds? And what about each of the disciples?” Students eagerly volunteer. Lastly Marijke asks, “And who would like to be Jesus?”
Silence. Glances bounce around the room. At first we think we’ve committed a cultural taboo. Perhaps it is inappropriate to represent Jesus or God. But then a girl named Rana, the smallest and shyest in the group, speaks up. She gestures with her hands, as if to state the obvious. “Marijke,” she says quietly, “we all do! We all want to be Jesus!”
It’s a holy moment and we are ambushed by both its innocence and depth. Of course they do. Of course they all want to be Jesus. They are Jesus. The face of Christ in their beautiful faces, the joy of the Spirit in their singing and dancing, the radiance of the Father in their generosity and kindness. We see Jesus in them. We encounter Jesus’s presence through their playfulness, laughter, and hope.
The next day, the students take us on a tour of Beit-Sahour. They take us to one of their churches, a splendid Greek Orthodox structure. There are words written in Arabic on one of the outside walls. “What does this mean?” a member of our team asks. Reme, one of the oldest students, translates: “The writing says, ‘You belong to Jesus and now I am sending you out like Jesus into the world.’” Then she goes down the line and points to each of us. “That means you are Jesus, and you are Jesus, and you are Jesus….” She says it so confidently, so matter-of-factly, like she is the teacher and we are the students.
In the back of my mind, I envisioned that part of our task in coming to Shepherd’s High School was to help these kids recognize Christ living in them. As it turns out, they didn’t need anyone to help them see this. They knew it already. It was these kids who helped us recognize Christ living in us, the “hope of glory” (to borrow St. Paul’s phrase). “Who would like to be Jesus?” “You are Jesus, and you are Jesus, and you are Jesus…”
Could it be that we not only see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized but it is they who help us to recognize Jesus in our own faces? Jesus in our own humanity? Jesus who is with us and who sends us into the world to bear witness to the light of his hope?
More often than not, it is among those to whom we are sent that we come to more deeply discover and embrace our own “sent-ness.” Our own belonging to Christ as his beloved. Our own vocation as disciples called to join the Spirit’s work of “bringing about the wonder of a new world” (Oscar Romero). This happened to me in Beit-Sahour, beneath the sound of roaring Israeli jets, in a school and town held hostage by a wall, among a group of Palestinian teenagers who looked us in the eyes and reminded us all, “You are Jesus, and you are Jesus, and you are Jesus….”
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. He is married to Tammy and has two daughters, Emma and Abby. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at Western Theological Seminary.