Linda McNair followed a tug on her heart more than 6,350 miles to find relief in service in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
For more than two years she said she struggled with a stirring in her chest she couldn’t identify. And then last year an opportunity arose and as soon as she committed to it, she said she felt her burden lift.
For the past year, this retired elementary school teacher from Wrens, Ga., has volunteered and taught children in Bethlehem.
“When I got there, I just knew I was supposed to be there, that I was obeying and following the Lord,” McNair said.
At 72 years old, she said that it was hard to leave her family, the children she had raised, her grandchildren, her husband and her own church to enter a culture that was so different from anything she had ever known. But it was something she felt she had to do.
McNair returned in June after having spent nine months, a full school term, teaching a mix of Christian, Muslim, American and Palestinian fifth-graders in the private Jerusalem School. She had to pay her way over, rented a room from a family there and had to foot her own bills while volunteering teaching full time in the school.
In addition to more conventional classwork, students there also receive an hour of Bible classes every day, she said.
“There are a lot of Muslims in the school and we were able to teach them about Jesus,” she said. “There was this one little fellow from Saudi Arabia, and this was his first year in the school. They had moved back to where his father was from to get some peace. The little fella had never heard any stories about Jesus.”
Her first lesson was on the 12 disciples. A lot of visitors came in to tell Bible stories. She remembers that boy asking a lot of questions and when one group of volunteers came in to hold a Bible school a few weeks later, she said she saw the Lord at work.
“When they asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus, that little boy looked around and then held one finger up close to his body,” McNair said. “He was asking for salvation. It was all making an impression on these children.”
She said the children she taught seemed to know the Old Testament, and so they focused more on the New Testament.
“They would laugh and make fun of me when I pronounced things from the Bible differently than they did,” McNair said. “They were so sweet. I started out with Jesus and John, with them being cousins and their lives and the baptism. The next day this little boy walked in with a big box.”
Inside was a hand-carved olive wood sculpture of Jesus and John, and he wanted her to have it.
“He said his daddy made it,” McNair said. “I just cried and cried.”
She said the students brought her little gifts all the time, sandwiches and cookies, little tastes of what they had in their own homes. And there were times when she did go into some of their homes herself.
“This school doesn’t just end at 2:30 p.m.,” McNair said. “We are into the homes with the families all the time. We hold Bible studies in our homes or at the school. We go to the parks with them, take them shopping, any kind of activity to draw them more to the Lord and to show them the love of Jesus.
“The main thing is to show love, patience and understanding. Not teach and say this or that is the only way.”
McNair said that the people with whom she lived opened their home and arms to her.
“They were wonderful people who took me in like I was one of their own family,” she said. “They bent over backwards for me.”
She said that the town she lived in, Beit Jala, a Palestinian town in the Bethlehem Governate of the West Bank, while being physically and culturally different from anything she had ever known, did remind her of home.
“It’s just like Wrens, everybody knows everybody,” McNair said. “I’d walk in a store and they’d say, ‘You’re one of the teachers.’ They knew.”
And then, she said, it was also very different.
“God’s love was just there. I can’t explain it until you experience it,” McNair said.
“It was in those children and their families who opened up their hearts and their lives and they were just so open and honest and loving and kind. The love He put in my heart was unbelievable.
“The presence of God was so strong. You know a lot of times in America when you go to pray you feel like your prayers don’t reach any higher than the ceiling. Never over there. Instantly you can feel God answering your prayers. And some days I would come home and the Holy Ghost would be so real, you know I’m Church of God and we speak in tongues, well some days I would just walk in and the Holy Ghost would just fall and bless me and strengthen me.
“The presence of God was just so quick and so strong. At first I thought it was just me and my emotions. But not so, I talked to a lot of the teachers and everybody was feeling this way.”
And then, there was something else she felt there that she had never felt before.
McNair explained that while everyone was pleasant, she often sensed an underlying fear and distrust for the government. While she did not witness any of the skirmishes between the Palestinians and Israelis herself, she said she heard about them all the time.
“The Palestinians aren’t allowed to have guns or anything like that, so they used kitchen knives or rocks,” she said. “The older men would stir up the younger guys and they would go to the wall and throw rocks or something. Then the Jewish guards would shoot tear gas to make them go away.”
Things like that happened every week she was there.
“And if a skirmish like that happened the children knew all about it and would come in talking about it and how much they hated the Israelis (saying) ‘they won’t let us do anything or go anywhere,’” she said. “It was not a mad hate, it was more a lifestyle, like something they knew they were supposed to do.”
McNair said she also felt the fear in the people with whom she spent the most time.
“My landlord was always afraid someone was going to come in and take everything,” she said. “They had lived in Kuwait during Desert Storm and they had to flee for their lives from there because they were Christians and they believed Saddam was going to kill all Christians. They left everything and lost everything. So they have that underlying fear.
“For the Jewish people in Israel, it’s just a way of life. They have rooms in their homes for bomb shelters.”
Living with these tensions, she said, is just their way of life. All those emotions, in a place where so many feel a physical presence of their spirituality, in the footprints of the ancient world that gave birth to both religions.
“I guess with the horror they live with every day it would have to be,” McNair said. “Maybe that’s their strength. Living there, it showed me how some things are superficial and not to worry about it. Everyday stuff we go through … the worrying about this or that, it’s not necessary. It gave me more trust and faith in God, more knowledge that God is in charge and everything is going to work out for your good because He loves you.
“If those people can love each other and make do, I sure could come back to America and do that.”