A University in Bethlehem: Vice President for Development Shares Bethlehem University with Hometown Parish

There’s a university in Bethlehem — not the Bethlehem near Delmar, just outside of Albany; I’m talking about Bethlehem University in the real “little town of Bethlehem,” in the Holy Land!

I’ve been at Bethlehem University for nine years. As a graduate of LaSalle Institute in Troy and a parishioner of St. Pius X parish in Loudonville, I am honored to share some reflections on what it is like to live in the Holy Land.

Bethlehem University is a Vatican-sponsored Catholic university — the only one in the Holy Land — located about 600 meters from the birthplace of Jesus and the Church of the Nativity.

Since its founding in 1973, Bethlehem University has been conducted by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, the same order that conducts LaSalle Institute in Troy and the LaSalle School and Christian Brothers Academy in Albany.

The ancestors of the Palestinian Christian students at Bethlehem University include the people who knew Jesus, Mary and Joseph as their neighbors, and the shepherds who saw the star over Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.

Living here gives me an opportunity to understanding more about their roots and heritage, which are your and my roots and heritage in faith, as well. What a blessed opportunity I have to appreciate the wisdom of the past and discover the God of the present!

The young and not-so-young Christian and Muslim Palestinians in the Holy Land teach me a lot about God, building on what my parents and teachers began. I have re-learned that our God is one: the same God for Muslim Palestinians, Christian Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

We all share Jesus — with some different beliefs and understandings about His nature, of course. We also seek to share this world and, in particular, this land where Christians believe the miracle of the incarnation took place, where God became one of us through Jesus.

Bethlehem University is an unashamedly Catholic university that Muslims feel comfortable attending. (The State of Israel forbids an Israeli Jew to come to Bethlehem, so we have no Jewish students.) With a Christian population of less than two percent in the Holy Land, two-thirds of the faculty are Christian and two-thirds of the students are Muslim.

It works very well! Each student — Muslims and Christians together — takes an interreligious understanding course co-taught by a Muslim and a Christian professor, exploring Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

“You cannot talk about pluralism in the abstract. It has to be experienced,” said Lubna Alzaroo, a fourth-year English major, at an ecumenical and interreligious conference this summer in London.

As a Muslim woman from Hebron, she spoke of getting to know Palestinian Christians when she came to Bethlehem University: “We share the same culture, the same background. We even share the same joys, hopes and suffering.”

The Middle East can be volatile: rife with religious and political conflict and expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, all negatively impacting the security and freedom of Palestinian Christians and Muslims and Israeli Jews, as well. However, our one God is, “I am,” and not, “I was.”

I ask myself, “What can I do today to make it a better day?” At Bethlehem University, we bring people together in meaningful dialogue; we value our uniqueness and discover our commonalities that make us whole. In so doing, we discover that God is present in “the other.”

Still today, God is made manifest here in Bethlehem — and also in the Albany Diocese, wherever we gather in His name and seek the face of God in “the other.”

(De La Salle Christian Brother Jack Curran, PhD, a native of the Albany Diocese with relatives still here, has been vice president for development at Bethlehem University since 2003. Rev. Adam Forno, pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph’s parish in Rensselaer, is on the Bethlehem University Foundation board of directors, which supports the university. To watch a video on the school, go to www.bethlehem.edu/news_events/saltandlight.shtml.)