Church of the Nativity

Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David.  However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was.  It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years.  It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.

Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity.  This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace.  The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena.  However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration.  The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church.  When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.”  However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.

When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways.  The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space.  Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations.  Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling.  To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary.  According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus.  However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that.  Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church. 

Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important.  It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20).  However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried.  Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.

Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.

I realized that the only photo I took while I was in Bethlehem was of this coffee shop, whose name I found amusing.

Sources and Further Reading

“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Lidman, Melanie. “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow over Christmas.” National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas (accessed November 30, 2019).

“Siege of Bethlehem.” Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html (accessed November 30, 2019).

“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

DuSable Museum of African American History

After the American Civil War, freed slaves began migrating to the northern United States.  This trend continued into the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ku Klux Klan revived in 1915, and as African Americans in the South sought better job opportunities in the North.  The migration of African Americans to the North between 1910 to 1960 is known as the “Great Migration.”  Because of the Great Migration, the two cities with the largest African American populations are located in the North: New York City and Chicago, respectively.

Because Chicago has a rich African American history, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened up in Chicago in 1961.  The museum originally began in the home of its founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, but in 1971, moved to its current home, which is a beautiful building that used to be an administration and police lockup facility.  Located on the South Side of Chicago, where most African Americans live, the museum is named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian trader who is considered the first permanent non-Native American resident of Chicago.

The main exhibit of the museum provides a timeline of African American history, beginning with the slave trade, but then eventually narrows down to Chicago’s African American history.  One aspect of Chicago’s African American history that the museum highlights is the Pullman Car Company, which used to hire African Americans as porters on its trains, and paid them better than many other jobs that hired African Americans at the time.  The museum also mentions the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.  This tragedy, which occurred in 1955, was one of the many injustices of the South that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1965, he was invited to Chicago to address the segregation there, and started what became the Chicago Freedom Movement.  If you would like to learn more about Chicago’s unfair housing situation during that time, read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun.  Unfortunately, the violence and poverty of Chicago’s South Side would probably not be in such a sad state if African Americans had been integrated equally in Chicago when they first arrived.  Chicago’s historic practice of housing segregation is why such a large number of African Americans live south of the Chicago River in the first place.

In 1965, the northern Chicago suburb of Winnetka invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak there, because it had segregated housing rules at the time. You can see this plaque at the Winnetka Village Green.

Chicago is considered by some to be the birthplace of modern gospel music. The first gospel choir was begun in 1931 in an African American church called Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which is still an active church today.

4501 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653

This church attests to how the South Side has historically been the home of Chicago’s immigrants. Before being an African American neighborhood, Bronzeville was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Note that the Church’s cornerstone is using the Jewish year (which is based on rabbinic calculations of the Bible’s genealogies) rather than the Gregorian calendar.  It used to be a synagogue called Temple Isaiah. In case you’re wondering, 5659 is 1898.

Some famous African American jazz musicians lived in Chicago for a while. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has the homes of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. They are still lived in, and not open to the public.

Nat King Cole’s Chicago home: 4023 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653
Louis Armstrong’s Chicago home: 421 E. 44th St. Chicago, IL 60653

One final exhibit at the DuSable Museum that I thought was kind of fun was an animatronic of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987.  The exhibit has Harold Washington talking to you.

If you want to learn more about Chicago’s African American history, then the DuSable Museum is a great place to start.

Sources and Further Reading

Bada, Ferdinand. “Cities with the Largest African-American Populations.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/cities-with-the-largest-african-american-populations.html (accessed October 26, 2019). 

“DuSable Museum of African-American History.” The New York Times, January 30, 2013. https://archive.is/20130130235748/http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/north-america/united-states/illinois/chicago/attraction-detail.html?vid=1154654606497#selection-1415.0-1415.42  (accessed October 26, 2019).

“The Great Migration.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Great-Migration.pdf (accessed October 26, 2019).

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Landers, Betsy. “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka.” Winnetka Historical Society. http://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/martin-luther-king-jr-in-winnetka/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

“Museum History.” The DuSable Museum of African American History. https://www.dusablemuseum.org/museum-history/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

Ralph, James. “Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1438.html (accessed October 26, 2019).