A stranger in Bethlehem

Esteban Garcia in front of one of the entrances to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo courtesy of Esteban Garcia.

By Esteban Garcia

In this season of expectation—of waiting once again to celebrate the birth of Jesus—I find myself reliving a recent journey to the source of my faith. Just as Christians before me have done for 2,000 years, I took a pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

I had planned a trip to Israel and Palestine with my friend Isaac months before, excited for the chance to explore new places with an old friend. I looked forward to seeing Tel Aviv and the modern Jewish state. I also yearned to connect with the ancient home of my Catholic faith.

What I could not foresee was the death of my grandmother two weeks before our trip. As I flew back and forth between my home in Washington, D.C., and my family’s home in Los Angeles, the excitement of my upcoming trip quickly and quietly evaporated. In my deepest grief, I wanted to stay close to my grandmother and my family. How could I travel? Returning to Washington in the days after her funeral was difficult, and the thought of flying thousands more miles further east felt impossible.

But this wasn’t just any trip. I had the opportunity, the blessing, to make pilgrimage to our Holy Land, where my grandma herself had traveled sometime in the 1980s. Thoughts of my own plans sparked memories of the pictures of my grandmother, smiling and posing with people I didn’t know in places far away. I decided I had to go. Even in our most difficult moments, blessings endure.

My heart was heavy with grief, but filled with love and appreciation for the blessing of my grandmother’s presence in my life. This trip to the Holy Land became, unexpectedly, a journey of communion. It was a communion with my grandmother, as I retraced her steps from years earlier. And it was a communion with our collective Christian past. Both connections reminded me of the exuberance of our faith and of the importance of one of its most basic teachings: amarás a tu prójimo, “thou shalt love thy neighbor.” I had learned this principle, among others, from my grandmother. It played over in my mind as I approached those sacred sites, nourished by the vitality of her faith.

I was a stranger to Bethlehem, now a big town in the heart of Palestine, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had returned. Though I was clearly an American, in my bright white polo shirt, skinny jeans, and tan Birkenstocks, I felt that I was in my spiritual home. Many miles from my everyday life and still many weeks away from Christmas, I was gripped by an awe that I suddenly and vividly remembered from years earlier in the pews at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Weary from a long day of preparation and celebration, thousands of us gathered for midnight mass to celebrate the birth of our Savior and to experience together the wonder of his story.

In Bethlehem, at the source of my faith, the awesome message of Jesus washed over me again, and I shared that sacred moment and place with my grandmother.

Esteban Garcia is a media relations specialist at Bread for the World.

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