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Stepping into the story

Viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a different lens

Munther Ishaq, the Palestinian student I won't be seeing in the seminary café anymore, gave me a tip at graduation: If you want to write about my home, skip the politics. Do stories. People need to come and see what God is doing here.

He handed me a primer, Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire, by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen. It's possible you know Brother Andrew better from his bestseller, God's Smuggler, chronicling rollicking exploits sneaking Scripture behind the Iron Curtain. He's also the guy who loaded his Citroën with Bibles and drove all day from Holland to Czechoslovakia in August 1968 when everybody else was driving out, a step ahead of Soviet tanks. He needed a vacation.

In Light Force, Brother Andrew picked Israel for his R&R. But oh my brothers, you know what Jesus is wont to do with vacation plans (see Mark 6:30-44). A chance meeting with a Palestinian believer who tipped him off about Palestinian lovers of Jesus in Bethlehem and adjacent Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (Andrew had known of only Messianic Jewish congregations before) was intriguing and led him to a man named Bishara Awad.

Bishara Awad's story goes like this: Born to Christian parents, he was 9 when a stray bullet in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war felled his father and landed him in an orphanage. By the '70s Awad was principal of Hope Secondary School for boys, where he wanted to impart Christian influence but was getting nowhere because you can't help angry and bitter boys when you're angry and bitter yourself. So Mr. Awad prayed, "Lord, I beg you. Forgive me for hating Jews and for allowing that hatred to control my life."

By the time the Dutchman landed on his doorstep in 1981, Mr. Awad was brimming with a vision to share, and took his visitor to a back room of Hope School, which he pronounced the home of Bethlehem Bible College. An exodus of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, especially in 1948, 1956, and 1967, could be stemmed, he thought, by raising up leadership.

A year later that leadership was already flexing its spiritual muscle. Part of the emigration hemorrhage had been the Qumsieh family in Beit Sahour, and Nawal Qumsieh and her husband were giving it serious thought, too. Just then two students and a teacher from Bethlehem Bible College showed up at their home with testimonies of the love of Jesus. Nawal rebuffed them initially, but happened to mention her back problems. The delegation asked if they might pray for her, and the next morning she awakened healed. With permission of her husband, she enrolled at Bethlehem Bible College.

Another strand in the school's embroidery: As a boy, Jerusalem-born Labib Madanat had read God's Smuggler, under the Arabic title meaning, "In Spite of the Impossible," and in manhood visited the college to hear the author speak.

In 1994, a van carrying Labib and Brother Andrew was headed back to Bethlehem from Gaza where they had shared the gospel with 400 Hamas leaders over dinner. (This is a long story involving Brother Andrew's earlier visit with the Beirut Bible Society to deported Hamas people in the southern Lebanese camp of Marj al-Zohour.) Euphoric, Labib exclaimed, "I think my God is too small!" And he ran by his traveling companion an idea for a bookstore in Gaza.

How to cut the red tape? Go straight to Yasser Arafat, present him a children's Bible in Arabic for his new baby daughter. Permission granted. The Teacher's Bookstore today holds discussion groups on the second floor and shows the Jesus film.

Munther Ishaq ate at my home in 2005 (I served lamb, a lucky guess), where I gathered my children from their far-flung preoccupations to listen to tales from a foreign land-and perspective. He fielded skeptical questions with grace while I sat back in wonder, his face aglow like Stephen's (Acts 6:15).

Munther now joins the staff of Bethlehem Bible College, where his boss will be Bishara Awad, and where he will step into the story and become part of it-that beautiful weave God weaves, under the radar of CNN, under the panoply of legions of angels in worship who watch history unfolding.