Due to the going onslaught of the Israeli-Palestinian War, Bethlehem is not what it used to be any more on Christmas day for the 142,000 Christians in Israel. The celebrations have been held off for the last two years because of the conflict.
The evangelical pro-Israel International Christian Embassy had a performance on traditional Christmas carols on Public Square near Jerusalem municipality building. It was a 40-member choir and 12-piece ensemble, but few were there to hear.
There are about 40,000 Filipinos who are employed in household in Israel, most of them illegally. Like many foreign workers, they work long hours and are often exploited and sometimes harassed. On Christmas Eve, some Filipino caregivers came to the Jerusalem Baptist Church that is a few blocks away from the city hall; at the church they held Christmas Eve service and dinner.
"Everything here has political overtones," Bruce Mills, a deacon of the church in Los Angeles said. "But if we're talking about the spiritual dimension, what is more humble than to see caregivers, who are foreigners in this and, coming here to witness a service at the birth of the Jewish Messiah?"
Jerusalem Baptist Church is located in the 70-years old building named Baptist House. The church was rebuilt 12 years ago when the original church was burned down in 1982. Today, the church is the home of four independent congregations: the English-language Narkiss Street Church, which meets on Saturday mornings; the Hebrew-speaking Messianic Jewish congregation, which meets Friday evening; the Russian-speaking congregation that also hold services on Saturday; and the English-speaking Jerusalem Baptist Church, which meets on Sunday mornings and is the only one of the four that calls itself Baptist.
Moreover, the church is active in outreach programs and had much success among the caregiver community. More and more Filipinos joined each year. During the Christmas carol, the choir was made of 90% Filipinos. The caregivers were able to pass the word among the Filipino community and invite them to the Christmas worship and feast.
Ellen Kingry, the choir director and a Southern Baptist representative in Israel, said the Filipino members "really encourage and support one another to an amazing degree. They may have theological differences but they are always supportive and helpful to one another."
At the service, two Filipino congregants gave personal testimonies on how they became believers and were baptized in the Jordan River. Fernando "Andy" Segovia, a radiology technician who witnessed two other people baptized during an outing organized by the church, said, "At first I didn't feel a part of this. I had come along because it was a free trip. But suddenly I heard a voice inside me and I accepted Jesus Christ. Now this Christmas I am myself testifying on how to be born again." Segovia left his family at home to pursue the profession as a caregiver; his entire family line is Roman Catholic, some were even priests and nuns, yet now he attends the Baptist church only at the acknowledgement of his father.
Doreen Tomes, who used to work as a bank teller in Manila, gave a testimony on her conversion from a Catholic family. "My family knows about my conversion. But this was my personal choice. I wanted to see the holy sites and to be baptized in the Holy Land."
Although her safety is of concern in Israel, Tomes believed that it is important for her to remain in Israel and continue the outreach as she did for Christmas. "We wanted some of our Filipino friends in the caregiver community to know how Jesus changed our lives. Most of them have other professions, which they have given up in order to come here to earn money for their families. I want to share the goodness I've experience here with others."
Maritass Garcia, whose family also is Catholic and left her husband and son in Philippines to work in Israel, said she was moved by the sermon and the fellowship at the Baptist church. "It was my first time celebrating Christmas without my family. I am very, very homesick, but I had such a strong experience that night. When I heard the message of the pastor I was amazed and happy; it gave me comfort. I felt choked up during the sermon. I don't know why."
Georgescu Paun-Livius, the most recent non-Filipino that came in to faith at the church, immigrated from Romania with his Jewish wife a few years ago. Originally Roman Orthodox, Paun-Livius was baptized last summer, and now his wife is also coming close to faith. "This church is the light for many people," he said. "Even people who are not believers come here for the special atmosphere and warmth, and think about faith in a serious mode."
"In the midst of all the tensions and attacks, life goes on." Said Mills, noting on the lives of the congregants in Jerusalem. "None of our members has been harmed. We remain 'normal' worshiping Baptists, and we think it's important to reach out to the caregivers who are here to help. For a Catholic Filipino to come to the Holy Land and see these sites, and examine the Bible, the natural implication, it seems to me, would be for them to come to faith."
By Tony C.