Catholic social teaching tells us that people were created in the image and likeness of God, and as such carry an inherent dignity, value, and worth. This was one of the main tenets underlying the work of Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Over his long career, he worked tirelessly in helping restore the dignity of the marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. Nowhere did he feel this was more needed than in relation to the Holy Land and for our Christian Palestinian brothers and sisters, whom are often called the “Forgotten Faithful.” Fr. Drew worked tirelessly to bring awareness to and connection between Christians in the West and their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.
In Bethlehem, there is one particular young man named Michael whose presence provides a snapshot of the broken relationship that we as Christians in the West have with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, one that Fr. Drew always dreamt of seeing repaired.
Many of the pilgrims who visit the Church of the Nativity can't help but be moved by the experience of visiting the site where Jesus was born. Some have waited their whole lives to travel to this spot and experience this very real, physical link to the life of Jesus.
Upon leaving the site of His birth, they are given a chance to encounter the reality that Jesus is still alive there today. Jesus never differentiated between those in need and himself: "For truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). So it is here in this courtyard, visitors can still encounter him in the form of a young, handicapped, Palestinian Christian man named Michael.
Most days, Michael can be found in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in Palestine (see image below). He sits not 50 yards from the very spot where the only perfect baby ever was born. Michael, however, was born with multiple birth defects. His right side is withered, and he is unable to speak. When pilgrims first encounter Michael, they generally have three responses, each providing an example of the importance of Fr. Drew’s work of bringing awareness and establishing connection.
Upon leaving the Church, many of the visitors simply don't see Michael. They might be looking at their cameras, engaging in a conversation with a friend, or just happen to be looking another way when they pass.
Some look right at Michael, whose need is obvious, and then purposely turn away, choosing to ignore him.
Finally, maybe 10% of people, in their compassion, reach out their hand. They may reach out with a donation, or a caring touch, or a word of encouragement. If they do reach out their hand, they find not just Michael, but experience the reality of "Christ being present with us." The first day I encountered Michael, I stooped down, touched his arm, and called him by his name which was printed on the card he held. He started to cry.
It is in these same three ways we respond to our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Whether we refer to them as "Christians of the Holy Land" or "the Living Stones," they are ethnically Palestinian Arabs. They trace their roots back over 2,000 years, being listed in Acts 2:11 as one of the ethnic groups present at the first Pentecost. Today's Christians in the Holy Land are their descendants and are also Palestinian, and therein lies the core of our relationship with them in the West.
As with the majority of visitors who just never saw Michael in the courtyard, many simply don't realize there even are Christians in the Holy Land. So, the Christian experience is often never included or even considered. They are often referred to as "the Forgotten Faithful," and can feel isolated and alone. For instance, how many pilgrims have traveled all the way to the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine) and never even met their fellow Christians living there? This is one of the reasons the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (the Catholic Church) itself is leading pilgrimages: to make sure these connections are made and that the Christian experience is shared. It is important we also reach out and let our brothers and sisters know they are still a vital part of the universal church.
There were also those in the courtyard who looked at Michael and turned away. They saw a need and then made a conscious choice to avert their eyes. In the West, words like "Palestinian" or "Gaza" often conjure up negative images, not because of a person’s firsthand experiences, but because of the things we have seen on the "news." In fact, while some may initially voice their support for the "Christians in the Middle East," this can change once they discover that those in the Holy Land are Palestinian. Their support can become muted or even vanish when they realize this reality. Christians in the West can also turn the other way when they understand that the main reason Christians are suffering and leaving the Holy Land isn't because of ISIS or Islamic Jihad. They are suffering because of a 55-year-old Israeli military occupation that is crushing them.
Finally, there are those who see Michael and realize the truth of this man's situation and the very real need that it entails. Acting on their compassion, they choose to embrace that and extend their hand in love and solidarity so that Michael would know he is not alone. Today, there are many clergy and religious, national, and international church organizations; aid and relief organizations; and activists and lay people who are reaching out their hands to help ensure that the poor, marginalized, and suffering in the Holy Land are not forgotten. When we also reach out with understanding and compassion, whether to Michael sitting alone in the courtyard or to our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters being marginalized and forgotten, we discover we can still grasp the hand of the living Christ in the land where he was born. And this was a dream of Fr. Drew’s.
Sir Jeffery M. Abood, KCHS, chairs the Catholic Advisory Council of Churches for Middle East Peace. He was knighted by the Vatican into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. He has edited two books: A Great Cloud of Witnesses: The Catholic Churches' Experience in the Holy Land (2014) and Is Peace Possible? (2020) with the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.