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670: Evangelical Lutheran, Beit Sahour, Palestine
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The Evangelical Lutheran Church, Beit Sahour, Palestine
Mystery Worshipper: Iconoclast.
The church: Evangelical Lutheran, Beit Sahour, Palestine.
Denomination: Lutheran.
The building: Hidden behind a wall, this is a stone building with a tower, with clean, modern lines inside. The atmosphere made me think it could have been a non-conformist church in the UK, except for the illuminated shooting star over the cross at the front. This was a reflection on the name of the area: Beit Sahour means "house of those who do not go to bed early" – referring to the shepherds, seeing as the "shepherd's fields" of Bethlehem are nearby.
The church: This is a Palestinian community on the West Bank; the lay pastor is also the headmaster of the Evangelical Lutheran school, from whose pupils most or all of the choir was drawn. It hardly needs saying that this is a community living in hard times. Travel anywhere outside the Bethlehem area is difficult if not impossible for Palestinians, which makes the people very isolated. There are very few tourists at present, which is affecting the local economy badly.
The neighbourhood: I think it's fair to say that bombed and bulldozed houses are an unusual feature, though to the locals this is simply normal life under occupation.
The cast: Tthe service was let by the pastor, whose name I failed to get.
What was the name of the service?
Morning worship, as far as I know – it's not easy when it's all in Arabic.

How full was the building?
Less than half full; it was striking that the choir of 15 would have outnumbered the congregation by two had not our party of 18 from the UK been there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The pastor welcomed us warmly before the service and gave us sheets with a synopsis of his sermon in English (they were expecting us).

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews are plain and modern, but overall quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
No crying babies, but a general hum as people arrived and greeted one another.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We welcome today at this service our brothers and sisters from England."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just a hymn book which was in Arabic.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, and an electronic piano for choir pieces.

Did anything distract you?
I was distracted initially by trying to count the congregation. I noticed that someone in the row in front looked very depressed and this was quite a distraction. But since most of the service was in Arabic which I neither speak nor understand, I was often not concentrating too hard, especially during the sermon. I also spent some time wondering whether two items on the wall were in fact Christmas decorations, and if so were they left from last year or already (in October) up for this year.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I think I would describe it as fairly straight – not happy clappy and perhaps rather westernised. The service started with the hymn, "How Great Thou Art", and they had English sheets so we were able to join in. The pastor explained from time to time where we were – for example, "we confess our sins". I guess the service followed a fairly standard liturgical pattern.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Warm but unexciting delivery. He seemed to be reading from his notes, but not obtrusively.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was Matthew 5:38-48, read in English by a member of our group and in Arabic by a member of the congregation. The sermon notes contrast the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye", which is still the preferred approach today, with Jesus' call to be free from revenge and follow the law of love. "How can we forgive our enemy? How can we love those who take our land and destroy our houses and imprison and kill our children? Jesus' words are not meant for a certain people or time. They are meant for all people in all times." The notes convey a sense of realism as well as holding to the need to heed Jesus' teaching.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The welcome we received from all the Palestinians we met was deeply moving. It was a special experience to share worship with them.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm sorry but this time it has to be nothing!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance: not only was I with a group but we were all ushered into the adjoining hall where we were served with turkish-type coffee and each of us went round and shook hands with each member of the congregation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Typically middle eastern: sweet and served in tiny cups.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I think I really need an English speaking church, but the welcome was a great attraction.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was glad to be a Christian because it was so good to be able to be with these people, but the actual service – probably not.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The welcome we received.
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