I had tried to do my homework before my trip to Bethlehem this summer. I was excited to be joining a team from my church, All Souls Langham Place in London, to help with the ‘Around the World in 7 days’ camp for children. I had heard of the famed hospitality of Arabs, and I also knew a bit about the difficult political situation in Israel/Palestine from the news. I tried to read a little about the history of the area and spent time on YouTube practicing the beautiful curls of the Arabic script and learning a few phrases. Yet despite the preparations, there were still quite a few surprises in store for me when I arrived.

The first surprise on travelling from the airport was that Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on the same roads as Israelis. I later learnt that the Palestinians from Bethlehem can’t travel freely to Jerusalem, despite it being seven miles away, and that it’s illegal for Israeli citizens to make the opposite journey. Shocking indignities such as these hit me in a powerful way and made me reflect on how I would control my anger and respond with grace were I treated in such a humiliating and dehumanizing way. Other signs of tension that we saw – armed foot patrols, vehicle checkpoints and walls with high watchtowers – were all familiar to me as I grew up in the midst of another conflict in Northern Ireland. But in Bethlehem these things were accompanied by a suppression of what I considered standard civil liberties, and this was difficult to see. I hope I will continue to remain shocked by these things and don’t become dulled to the injustices. What is a Christian response? This is something to keep seeking.

My next surprise was much more flippant: blonde Palestinians! I remember a few years ago being surprised to find out that a significant proportion of the Palestinian population was traditionally Christian, having unconsciously associated Palestinians with Islam before then. But when the kids arrived at the camp I discovered that as well as beautiful dark-eyed children there were blonde, blue-eyed ones. It’s not what I had envisaged when thinking of Arabic-speakers from the Middle East. The locals seemed to think that these were people descended from the Crusaders, around a thousand years ago. I suppose we say similar things about the swarthy Irish people- that their forebears were stranded Spanish sailors from shipwrecked Armada galleons in the sixteenth century!

The third slight surprise is more of a disappointment: that during my time working with the children I didn’t learn more Arabic vocabulary. Many years ago I was told that a good target for language learning is to grasp three new words a day but three was my total after the first week! (Those words, by the way, were ‘ready’, ‘slowly’ and ‘bathroom’). I consoled myself in that I had learned the names of all thirty of the children in my group – not very easy. It took me quite a while to distinguish Reeme, Rawand and Raneem, all very pretty girls! The language barrier was of course a frustrating problem. Despite trying to learn simple phrases like ‘I have a pen’ and ‘Do you want water?’ I found that body language and facial expressions were the most effective means of communication with the kids! As I took my group of 9-10 year-olds around their daily activities of dance, craft, sport and English lessons, I had to rely on wonderful translators both from Bethlehem Bible College and the wider community. One of the great highlights of the trip for me was getting to know these people. I found the stories they shared very personally enriching, and as I leave the camp I think these are what will linger in my mind the longest.

As someone who loves the Bible I slightly loath to admit this next surprise, but I was amazed that the kids sat rapt during the Bible story each day. Alongside a translator, a guy from our team taught them various stories from the Old Testament and the gospels. Examples were Daniel in the Lions’ Den, The Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Like most children aged 5-10, the kids at the camp were lively and boisterous during the day’s activities. We got them excited at the start of each morning with fun songs (once you’ve experienced ‘Boom Chicka Boom’ you don’t forget it!). Once the Bible story started, however, all eyes were on the front of the room and not a whisper could be heard. It reminded me of the power of storytelling and the universality of Jesus’ method of communication.

What didn’t come as a surprise, however, was that the kids were funny, clever, naughty, temperamental and just the same as children across the world. The same can be said that there can be joys and misunderstandings when working with adults from a variety of backgrounds as well. Somehow it also wasn’t a surprise that we didn’t see a single cloud in the sky for the whole two weeks.

As well as praying for growth for ourselves, as an All Souls Team, we had also prayed that we would be able to serve the people of Bethlehem Bible College by running a quality, amazing camp that the kids and their parents absolutely loved. And I have to say that in many ways we felt the Lord answered this prayer. To the glory of Jesus Christ.