Hello, I am Natalie Keller, a youth director and circus artist from Broomfield, Colorado. My passion for circus and youth ministry is intersectional, I love helping develop strength, courage and to blossom to their fullest potential. Whether I am helping our youth figure out how to comprehend theology, develop an audition for college or overcome abuse, I work to deliver the love Christ freely gave to us, and in turn they grow into incredible, passionate and caring adults.
Last year, I was offered an opportunity to travel to Bethlehem, Palestine to work with adults and youth to create a circus outreach program with a long time friend. Being the wanderlust, history, and theology enthusiast that I am, I quickly accepted. Soon I was on my way to an incredible and mind opening adventure.
Upon my arrival in February 2020, I was overwhelmed with generosity from strangers and a bit of culture shock. A Jewish man who saw us juggling in the airport between flights offered to drive us to checkpoint 300, which is the gateway to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. After the checkpoint we were surrounded by Palestinian taxi drivers who were perplexed that we didn’t know where we were staying. But because of the small-town nature of Bethlehem, they knew who was supposed to drive us to our accommodation and introduced us to our guide. When I woke up the next morning, it was clear the picture of Bethlehem in my head was nothing like the true Bethlehem.
The two weeks I spent in Israel and Palestine were magical, a part of the world that is truly a thin space, yet filled with strife. I struggled with the fact that where our Prince of Peace was born is now a war zone. We were volunteering at Dar Al Kalima, a school sponsored by Christmas Lutheran Church. It was such a treat being able to work with the children of Bethlehem! Most were multilingual, which made teaching easier, as did developing camaraderie among the students.
After our first workshop, the students were practicing handstands at home and climbing on each other at school, more students came to learn. They clearly hungered for an activity that wasn’t soccer. In Palestine, kids grow up fearful of their own government and the foreign governments surrounding them. Forty percent of the boys will end up imprisoned and girls will grow up to cater to their families or to tourists, while rarely if ever getting the opportunity to travel outside Palestine. Some women are fortunate enough to pursue college and have an exciting life of opportunity, but that is not the norm.
Unfortunately, our stay in Bethlehem was cut short due to COVID. Like many experiences on that trip, saying yes to God and trusting in God’s divine timing landed us in Jerusalem. However, our friends in Bethlehem ended up stuck behind a checkpoint and, because of rare cooperation between Israeli forces and Palestinian police, suddenly found themselves quarantined in their homes for 30 days after the first outbreak.
Upon my return home, my soul knew I had to go back to spend more time with the culture I fell in love with, the kids I adore, and the future of possibilities. I also knew it was time to decolonize my view of Bethlehem, and help the youth at my church learn our Christian family history. As God often sneaks up on us with opportunities, my current circumstance was no different. Rami Kader, the director of the program that brought us to Bethlehem, reached out about his new direction in life. He was now running the Makan Initiative and its main project, House of Bread.
House of Bread’s name has a dual meaning: it aligns with its mission but is also what Bethlehem translates to in Arabic. The mission is to feed, train, and employ women who are experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or other hardships to become skilled bakers.
Resuming life in Colorado and my role as the Children and Youth Director, I knew my Advent project would be creating family friendly ways to decolonize our view of the Nativity that would then create a richer experience of scripture. After a bit of brainstorming, I created an Advent Calendar for families that includes daily scriptures, activities that bridge learning about ancient and modern day Bethlehem, Armenian Orthodox Christmas and Chanukkah through food and discussion.
Because Bethlehem is in our hearts, hymns, and scriptures during Advent, it made sense to partner with House of Bread to help walk in the Way of Love through fun, educational activities. Designing this project, I did not want money to be a deterrent, so the activities are free to download, but if you are able to, a donation to our crowdfunding campaign will make a real difference in the lives of those who live where our Messiah was born 2,000 years ago.
The House of Bread Guided Journey through Advent is available to download here: house-of-bread-advent-book.pdf May it bring your household closer to Christ this Advent while deepening your understanding of the little town of Bethlehem.