Pray For Me, St. Joseph
Joseph greets me with a smile and warm handshake before serving me breakfast every morning in Bethlehem. I met Joseph two years ago during my first trip to Israel and Palestine and it has been a delight to reconnect with him this week.
Joseph is a Palestinian Christian and is always willing to share about his life and story. The one memory of him that stood out in 2016 was of him telling me about the hotel being shut down and commandeered by the Israeli army during one of the uprisings of the early 2000’s. For forty days, the top floor was used for army surveillance and sniper locations. Joseph was conscripted to prepare food for the army and not permitted to leave for the entire time they were there.
This week, thanks mostly to my wife’s curiosity, I’ve learned a bit more of Joseph’s story. His family comes from the area around what is now Tel Aviv. In 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, they were forced from to flee as refugees and found their way to Bethlehem. He and his family were given a tent and much later a one room structure in a UN refugee camp. They assumed that it would be a temporary move—that they would be allowed to return home once the conflicts settled down. Seventy years later, Joseph and his family still live in that same UN refugee camp. The camp has swelled over the years as many more refugees have had to leave their home and is now a congested urban jungle numbering over fifteen thousand souls squeezed into one square kilometer.
I asked Joseph about his family. He has four children, two sons and two daughters. The oldest two have recently completed university, one becoming a lawyer, the other an x-ray technician. I wondered how on earth Joseph managed to put two kids through university given what I knew of his situation. So I asked. He smiled and paused before saying, “Well, I managed.” He told us that he would go to England once a year loaded down with olive wood products from Bethlehem. For thirty days he would set up outside churches selling woodcarvings, cooking food, and collecting donations outside churches. He did this every year for the years when his kids were studying. He did this so that his kids could afford not only the exorbitant costs of tuition, but also the costs of transportation to get to and from Jerusalem each day, which is always a time consuming and expensive task for any Palestinian.
And so it went. Joseph would sell and cook and sell and cook and work, all the while doing without himself. He has no car, relying only “these size 42s to get around the city.” He has a larger house in the refugee camp now, but only because he spent years working himself into the ground so that his kids wouldn’t have to sleep “under the bed” in the one room house they were allotted. Additionally, Joseph would take time each year during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan to collect beans, rice, noodles, and other things for forty-five of the neediest families in the UN refugee camp where he lived. He still does this. I do not detect even a hint of pride in Joseph as he tells this story. A barely concealed anger, perhaps, but not pride. He is not special. Others are doing the same as him. It is what must be done given the conditions they must live in as Palestinians.
Joseph moves to clear a plate. He looks at the food remaining on it and says, “I don’t like to see food wasted. We never waste food here. If there is any left, I bring it home and give it to someone who needs it. Food is a gift from God and it is a sin to waste it.”
As I take my leave, Joseph wishes me a good day in the Holy Land. “Don’t worry about my story, just enjoy yourself here,” he says. But I wonder if that would be a sin on par with leaving food on the breakfast plate he has prepared for me. Can I share your story, I ask. “Of course,” Joseph says. “I have nothing to hide. I want people to know the truth.” I thank him and head out into a Bethlehem day.
Pray for me, St. Joseph.
The image above is of the city of Bethlehem, taken from the restaurant where Joseph serves us each day. On the first day we were here, I stood with Joseph looking out over the city and said, “It’s quite a view.” Jospeh shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not for me.”