Lighting a beacon of hope in the Holy Land

Interview with vice chancellor of Bethlehem University

"Lord, the work is yours." This is a mantra that Jean-Baptiste de La Salle would famously use during times of trouble and Brother Peter Bray admits the words of his order's founder have echoed in his head many times over his eight years as vice chancellor of Bethlehem University. "I have never been confronted so often with situations where I have absolutely no idea what to do," he says. "What I have done these last eight years is to consult with people, to talk to people, to explore options, to pray about it but in the last analysis to take a step in faith and just do it."

Brother Peter, a New Zealander, left the Catholic Education Centre in Wellington to embark on his post in the Holy Land in late 2008. He arrived with over 30 years' experience in education – in his home country, in Australia and in the United States, where he earned a doctorate in leadership studies from the University of San Diego. Yet life at Bethlehem – a joint venture between the De La Salle order and the Vatican – is like nowhere else he has known, as he explained during a visit to Hope University on 18 March.

How unique are the challenges you face at Bethlehem University?
Without doubt this would be most difficult job I have ever had. There are four different areas of complexity. The Israeli-Palestinian thing is the major one – the Occupation has a huge impact on us so trying to get a handle on that and understand that is one thing. Then over 70 per cent of our students are Muslim so the Muslim-Christian thing is another element. Then it is a very tribal society so you have the whole tribal thing that impacts on the politics in all sorts of ways around Bethlehem; and then you have the family thing. Everybody is related to somebody at the university. And then there is the unpredictability. On Tuesday when I was in Brussels I got an email to say the students from Hebron had been told to go home before lunch as three young Palestinians had been shot and killed by the Israelis, so we wanted our students to get home.

There are also the restrictions under which we are operating that are imposed by the Israelis. For example, I feel embarrassed I can come from New Zealand and go anywhere in the Holy Land, and we have Christian students born in Bethlehem where Jesus was born whom we can't take into Jerusalem. These elements make it by far the most difficult job, but in saying that I've never been in a place where it is so obvious that what we are doing is worthwhile.

We have three to four thousand pilgrims come and visit Bethlehem University each year and we have a group of student ambassadors who engage with these. I sat there listening to these young people – confident, knowledgeable, articulate – and when I see that and see how much they are going to contribute to Palestine, you can put up with all that other stuff.

Can you talk about the university in terms of its size and the courses on offer?
We are the smallest university in Palestine, with about 3,200 students. We have five faculties – education, nursing, science, business and arts. And then we have an institute of hotel management and tourism. We don't have medicine, law, engineering. We were started in 1973 by group of brothers that came from United States so it is a liberal arts university.

How do you measure success there – is it about giving people hope?
One of our biggest challenges is keeping hope alive. There are three things I talk about in what we are trying to do. Many of our students come from fairly harsh backgrounds – from Hebron, east Jerusalem. When people step onto our campus I want them to know they are safe and there are people there who really care about them. We talk about creating an oasis of peace for them and one aspect I place a lot of emphasis on is I want them to experience some sort of beauty. So many people comment on what a beautiful campus it is. We want an oasis of peace and we want to be beacon of hope for them. In midst of all of the things they are dealing with, they have a sense of hope.

I interviewed a number of students for my presentation this afternoon. One of the students was impressed with the fact international people come [to the university] and he finds that a great source of hope – the fact that people outside are prepared to come and listen to them. I have thought about hope a great deal and I think it is different from optimism. When the Palestinians look back over the last 60-odd years there is very little that leads them to be optimistic. So I think hope has to be something different from that. It has to do with our students realising they are not going through this suffering by themselves. That there are people outside who really care about them and people from outside like myself and our eight Brothers here who come to be with them and to stand with them. That sense of solidarity is the source of what keeps hope alive among our students.

We are a Lasallian university, following Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the patron saint of all teachers, and one of the things he kept emphasising was importance of building relationships. I keep hammering [the point] that at Bethlehem University the faculty and staff need to be brothers and sisters to one another and then older brothers and sisters to the young people entrusted [to us].

What is the make-up of the staff and student bodies at the university?
Virtually all of them [teaching staff] are Palestinian because we can't have an international faculty because the Israelis will only give international people three-month visas. What I would love is to have international faculty and international students. We have a summer programme and we have international students come for that and we’ve been fortunate with the Fulbright Scholars – we've had a number and somehow the Fulbright Association has been able to arrange with the Israelis for Fulbright Scholars to stay for a year. One of the challenges we have is getting qualified faculty to Bethlehem University. There is the drain from Palestine. Fortunately in last two years we managed to get a guy who had been in Stetson University in Florida for 14 years and we attracted him back to become dean of research and another guy to be registrar – he had been in California. That is unusual.

As far as students, I would love to have a range of international students because so many of our students are restricted. I will tell the story opf Walid, who was part of the ambassadors' programme with a group of British pilgrims who came. The institute of hotel management has a restaurant where the students practise on our guests. There were eight pilgrims, Walid, another student and myself. Just in passing Walid mentioned he had never seen the sea. They were a bit shocked. He mentioned too that he can stand on campus and look into Jerusalem but had never been able to go there. Their world of experience is so limited so to have international students come and broaden their perspective would be so helpful.

We have an intern programme that we offer in the summer and there is a group in the US that funds that. For the last four years we have sent a dozen of our students for seven weeks to various parts of the States and this last summer Walid was one of them. He happened to be at Providence, Rhode Island and was staying with the Brothers there. One of the brothers took him down and showed him the sea and the irony is there is a place there called Galilee so he took him to Galilee to see the sea. He came back and said, "Brother I've seen the sea."