As soon as we past through the checkpoint the difference becomes as stark as when you pass from the fertile Galilee to the desert. You understand and can sense that you are in a place that is poverty-stricken, depressed and so different from anything you've experienced before.
The first thing that happened was that before we even went to the church of the Nativity we were herded into a 'Gift Shop - to peruse the olive wood carvings of crucifixes, Jerusalem crosses and holy families. As you come in the door you're handed a shopping basket and people are just standing at counters and various stations waiting to help you and ring up your purchases. There was a certain desperation to it all - which may or may not have been
real. Everything felt very contrived and orchestrated and made me more than a little uncomfortable.
Having grown up in the 1980s - the height of the Cold War and the Evil Empire talk - and the hype about the 'bad' Soviet system and the 'artificial' sense of society they created - I related this experience to that propaganda . . . So I was left to wonder if the feelings reflected a reality - or my own imagination.
We walked uphill to the Church of the Nativity - but I was struck by feeling very closed in by the buildings and by the barren-ness - not in the desert sense, but in the sense of commerce, tourism, hustle and bustle. It was early in the morning but still, "O Little Town of Bethlehem . . ." with its 60% unemployment and refugee population obviously suffers from some crushing poverty.
How much are we (as in we Americans) corporately blame as we allow right-wing evangelicals (like John Hagee and CUFI) to de-humanize and de-legitimize the Palestinian population. I don't know the answer -- but I felt enough guilt that I couldn't look anyone in the eye.
I shouldn't have been surprised when the street vendors approached us - hawking beads, postcards and trinkets. There is no other source of income except for the steady stream (trickle) of foreign tourists who are able to come in.
The Church itself was - a church - a very old church - with a very small entrance! It's more than a little worn around the edges and divided between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. It was also the site of the great broom fight of Christmas 2011. . . which our guide would not talk about! I was really interested in this "war on Christmas" which would no doubt have special significance in the city of Jesus birth.