Take your stereotypes of Palestinian society, put them on hold, and visit the Dar Al-Kalima Health and Wellness Center and the Dar Al-Kalima School, both on a hill overlooking Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, hemmed in by the Israeli security barrier, home to three camps of Palestinian refugees. It is a place that not only is famous for the church honoring the birth of Jesus, but also for sitting in the cauldron of Israeli-Palestinian tension. And while it may be most famous for its Christian sites, it is a majority Muslin city.
Yet here at Dar Al-Kalima, a group of Christians are creating a place that is breaking through many of the boundaries and stereotypes that are so common in the Middle East. (Dar Al-Kalima - the school, health and wellness center and a college, are all projects of Christmas Lutheran Church, the partner church of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg.)
Consider the pride with which Rami Khader, the manager of the health and wellness center, spoke of the girls' soccer team that is on the verge of competing in national championships. The program for women's sports, he said, "is a good way to advocate for equal rights for women and equal participation for women in sports."
The members of this year's soccer team - ages 16 to 23 -- will become the coaches of the next generation of women soccer players from Bethlehem.
The swimming pool at the health and wellness center has hours for men and hours for women -- something you might expect in a heavily Muslim culture. But it also has family time when men and women and children can all swim together.
"We try not to advocate separation," Rami told us.
The community nurse, Raida Jeries Mansour, talks about bring older women together for mutual support, first from the churches, then from the mosques. More barriers are broken. In the private Christian school, 57 percent of the students are Muslim this year.
Naila Kharroub, the director (what we would call a principal) said the goal is to have an equal number of boys and girls, an equal number of Muslims and Christians. While the Muslim and Christian students have separate religion classes to learn about their own faiths, they share a common prayer time drawing on verses from both the Bible and the Koran, they learn about the commonalities of each other's faiths in joint classes once a month.
It is no secret that these children live in a place of intense conflict. So Kharroub has made peace studies a high value in the curriculum and in the overall tone of the school. (She was thrilled that we brought a peace banner from the children at Memorial UCC for the school, shown in the picture above).
"We believe peace at first comes from the inside of the person," she said.
The staff works on promoting peace between the children, who come from a wide range of backgrounds. "You know in our part of the world, we do not have peace," Kharroub told us. "In our community, we have to raise our kids peacefully if they are going to have a good life."
Equality of the sexes. Respect for different religious traditions. A commitment to non-violent techniques to solve disputes. These are values that are helping to create a place within the world that bit by bit, may change the culture around Dar Al-Kalima. And along the way, they are making a huge impact on the lives of the people touched by these institutions.