An Atheist’s Pilgrimage – Bethlehem University

The TL;DR version: I had a great time at Bethlehem University and my friend is trying to fundraise for a scholarship for one student. If you wish, you can donate here.

In October of 2019, I joined a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese of Anchorage and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher (EOHS). My friend Fr. Gabriel is a Dominican priest and a Knight Religious in the EOHS. I rules lawyered my way into visiting Israel & Jordan with him to help fulfill his knightly vows. You see, nowhere in his vow “Lead a pilgrimage of non-order members to the Holy Land” is there a specification that you actually need to take Catholics, something I got the archbishop that had just administered that vow to confirm. Suffice it to say, a few years after that vow, I was the atheist with a busload of devout Catholics and priests for two weeks of fun wandering around Israel and Jordan.

I got asked “Why are you here?” more than a few times by my fellow pilgrims, along with their sincere hope that I would have a Road to Damascus conversion moment. That did not happen and the answer I usually gave was a variation on “We are all here looking for something.” It was gratifying that at least a couple of the group starting turning to me for supplementary information like I was an extra guide. Considering our actual guides were archaeology professors, and the leader of the group as a whole was the former Archbishop of Anchorage, that was a hell of a vote of confidence from them. The most important lesson I think I taught, because it was my answer to the casually racist question “What is he/she?”, went like this:

  1. It is possible to be an ethnically Palestinian Arab,
  2. Who is an Israeli citizen,
  3. That follows the Catholic faith.

The fact that it didn’t compute even when I described them in the same terms is disappointing:

  1. It is possible to be of Irish descent,
  2. Who is an American citizen,
  3. That follows the Catholic faith.

The nodding at the latter explanation that this all made sense, whereas the brow was furrowed at the former like I was speaking impossibilities, drove me nuts. This is important point to share because I want you to understand what a special place Bethlehem University (BU) is in light of this.

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has founded a lot of schools and had various orders who’ve promoted education, but none have been quite as dedicated to this as the De La Salle Christian Brothers. At the turn of the last century, they’d founded a variety of schools all over the Levant and the one in Bethlehem was elevated to being a post-secondary education university after Pope Paul VI promised to bring that support to the Palestinian people in the occupied territories of the West Bank. It took almost a decade to make that transition, but in 1973 Bethlehem University opened with a mission to educate the people of the West Bank to help create the cadre of skilled professionals that would be needed to rebuild, hell, to have a functioning modern society. To teach the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists we collectively need to make tomorrow better than today. You will note that nowhere in there did I say that BU was teaching Catholics to be those professionals. While Bethlehem may still have one of the highest proportionally Christian populations in the West Bank (though a straight numerical minority) and the university was opened by the Catholic Church, Bethlehem University is open to everyone and most of the student body is Muslim. The thing they all have in common is that they are Palestinian.

One of the biggest votes of confidence any institution can get is that when you have people that can’t agree on anything else, that they do agree that you are worth protecting and want you there for their children. The last time I came across something like this I wasn’t expecting was Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC. During riots over the decades which had burned the neighborhood, everyone could agree that You Do Not Fuck With Ben’s. White, black, cop…doesn’t matter, Ben’s is here for the community and it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood without it. In a way, it is the community. I made a point to talk to every student I could and, damn, I wish the average student at UC Berkeley were as proud to be there as they were to be at BU. They know that their university isn’t just a hope for the future but they’re the stewards of what’s here now. As an example, the Palestine Museum of Natural history had opened at BU not long before we got there. As one of the places of longest human occupation, learning how people have endured there for millennia may be essential for continuing to live there as the climate changes.

Another part of here and now is a recognition that what keeps a lot of towns going was tourism, and BU has a program for that as well. We got to the visit was the test restaurant & kitchen of the BU Tourism Institute. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at the Culinary Institute of America’s test restaurants, you know what we got to enjoy. Students were running the front of the house, cooking in the kitchen, serving tables all as part of their curriculum. A couple of students got very excited to talk to me when I pointed at their bar, which wasn’t open at that time of day, and asked about their experiences with it as I saw an interesting selection of things on their shelves. They were just getting to cocktail making and bar-backing in their course work, so I made sure to teach the fine art of the Manhattan.

For our meal, every table was joined by some students to discuss their experiences at BU and let us ask questions of them. The student that shared our meal was an economics major with plans for an MBA after she graduates, ideally from NYU or Columbia if she can swing it. Unfortunately, also at my table was a less than enlightened American priest who triggered this exchange that I’m obliged to share with you.

Priest: So, when did your family convert?

Student: [very confused, with the worried look that her English might not be good enough to understand a question] What?

Me: [knowing exactly what Priest was assuming] Let’s see, it’s 2019, so I’m going to guess her family converted roughly two thousand years ago. When did your family convert in Scandinavia and Germany? Mid-900s?

Priest: [ignores me, turns to talk to his fishing buddy]

Hearing my response, the student picked up the subtext and thanked me afterward for answering as she would’ve been really uncomfortable yelling at a priest, even if he deserved it. I wish her the best and hope that COVID didn’t derail her plans too badly.

Even without COVID, Bethlehem University’s mission isn’t an easy one in light of the occupation. You think it’s a pain in the ass to place an order for supplies for your lab through your university’s janky procurement system? Try doing anything in the occupied territories through the filter of Israel first. While a previous Pope may have promised a university education to the Palestinian people, Israel made no such promise. One of the international relations students I met told me of the difficulty doing internships and going to meetings outside of the West Bank due to Israel’s travel restrictions. Getting approval to travel from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv, to get to the airport to then fly anywhere else, is not guaranteed which means the odds of missing a very expensive flight are high. If you think showing up to the airport two hours before your flight to deal with TSA is bad, this student would start his trip that should only be a one hour drive to Ben Gurion Airport two days before his flight was supposed to depart. Just to make sure nothing went wrong at the border crossing into Israel proper…again.

But the students and faculty of Bethlehem University are making do every day, navigating these challenges, and still managing make the leaders we need for tomorrow. This is why my friend Fr. Gabriel put together a fundraiser to try to sponsor one student for their full four years at BU. The EOHS as a whole does sponsor quite a few scholarships to the university, but Fr. Gabriel wanted to give his own thanks for the hospitality we received and support the mission of Bethlehem University that we both believe in. Many institutions give lip service to being derived from and supporting their local communities, but in my career I don’t think I’ve come across one as dedicated to it as BU. Their motto is “Enter to learn, leave to serve” and they live up to that.

If you’d like to contribute to this, please do. And thank you.