BETHLEHEM (BP)–“No, dribble with your left hand!” David Swenson shouts to a middle schooler struggling with the basketball.
It could be practice anywhere, with a coach working hard to drive home roundball basics.
But this is Bethlehem, a few miles from where Jesus was born. Sun-baked white stone buildings surround the rough concrete court where players and coach sweat in harsh Middle East heat.
Swenson has set up orange cones for players to dribble around before moving toward the hoop. It’s clearly a strange detour for some.
Swenson and his wife, Joyce, are Southern Baptist workers who moved here with their four children in January 1996 to establish a ministry. Ultimately, the “game” the Swensons want to teach is the same good news that arrived here some 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus,
the region’s most famous son.
Sports will be a main key to being here and getting to know people.
Already Swenson has learned his way along the rough roads that seemingly meander off Bible pages and through the rugged valleys and hillsides. A few miles from his home is Shepherd’s Field, where the birth of Christ was announced — and where today’s robed shepherds with flocks easily could be first-century ones.
Drive with Swenson, and he’ll casually tell you that on that flat-topped hill there King Herod had his summer palace and back there, in Bethlehem, was Rachel’s Tomb. Those three spring-fed pools here go back to the time of Solomon. These days Palestinian boys haul water home
Historical events merge with current ones: The West Bank starts just outside Bethlehem on the way from Jerusalem. (Palestinians now call it the Northern District of the Palestinian Autonomous Region.) During most of 1996 only a few Palestinians have been allowed into Jerusalem;
others are turned back at an Israeli military checkpoint at the city limits.
Swenson has learned where the military checkpoints are and how to swap out cars — the Israeli-registered yellow-plated car for the Palestinian-registered blue-plated car, which can’t enter Jerusalem. Most days life is calm here, but there’s always an edge, a tension in the background that never goes away completely.
“The Israeli soldiers want to know why anybody would want to be here, and (they) look at us like they can’t believe it,” Joyce says. But as Americans the Swensons come and go with relative freedom; the main inconvenience is the traffic jams at the border.
Basketball doesn’t approach the passion of West Bank politics, but it comes close.
Respectable and vocal crowds turn out for games between church or private club teams. Swenson attends all the local games, getting to know future players and getting himself known. Locals like the idea of having
an American help with their game — basketball has American roots after all — especially an experienced coach with a good grasp of the basics.
So far, Swenson coaches the basketball teams of the Catholic Action Club, the Orthodox Club and the Arroup Refugee Camp Club. During the summer of 1996 he also helped the Beit Sahour Lutheran Church operate a summer ministry program.
Early in 1996 a second Southern Baptist couple arrived to help. Jim and Gail Stephens of Houston will work with the Swensons in a sports partnership. Jim, a winning high school coach in Houston, also has a good grasp of sports basics. For now, though, they are immersed in Arabic studies.
Eventually the two couples hope a church will emerge from their work.
More than 60 percent of the people in this area are traditionally Christian, the highest percentage in the region. Catholic and Orthodox church buildings are scattered across the city, with a sprinkling of Islamic mosques. But even among the “Christian” community, few know Christ personally.
For now, meeting people and getting to know them is an important task for both Southern Baptist couples.
It will help them tell about the meaning — the real meaning — of that baby born just down the road almost 2,000 years ago.