Monthly Archives: December 2013

Lessons in Interfaith

For those of you who really know me, you know that in addition to crossword puzzles and the color grey, one of my true loves in life is interfaith. When I say interfaith, I don’t just mean the study of comparative religions, although I do find that facinating. In the words of religion scholar Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, interfaith (or pluralism) is “the energetic engagement with diversity and the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” (Read more here!) Living in Jerusalem, I am in a place where the lines of religious difference can be stark. The concrete separation barrier, in addition to depriving people of land, employment, and family, keeps many Muslims, Jews, and Christians from encountering one another. Although I don’t necessarily believe religion to be at the center of the conflict of this region, I don’t doubt the role it can play in dividing people. However, this week has been full of a couple beautiful lessons in interfaith, lessons that have renewed me and my hope that maybe religion can also play a role in reconciliation.

Lesson #1
On Sunday, the first day of December and of Advent, a few friends and I headed to Bethlehem for the annual Christmas tree lighting. The lighting is held in Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity. This church is built on top of what is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. My friends and I were there a bit early because we wanted to check out the holiday bazaar that was set up around Manger Square. As we walked around, eating cupcakes and admiring the handicrafts, we saw both Christians and Muslims walking around with us, enjoying the festivities. It was amazing to see not only the tolerance of this Christian event, but the acceptance, appreciation, and mutual celebration. While we were walking around, there was Christmas music blasting from the loud speakers. We heard Jingle Bells in Arabic more times than I can count. But while we were roaming around, a really amazing thing happened. Directly across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity is a mosque and five times a day, the call to prayer is sounded from every mosque reminding Muslims to pray. While we were walking around, the call to prayer was sounded twice and each time it began, the Christmas music was stopped. Although this might seem like a small gesture, the way that this action witnessed a much larger sense of respect and coexistence was truly beautiful.

Lesson #2
One of the implications of living in Jerusalem is that for the first time in my life, I am a religious minority. Christians comprise only 1-2% of the population in Israel/Palestine, a very small number. Coming from North Dakota where religious diversity often means Lutheran or Catholic, this is quite a different experience for me; one that I am really cherishing. Helen Keller is no exception to this as the majority of my students are Muslim, along with quite a few of the teachers. However, this week began the Christmas preparations for everyone in the school. We decorated the big tree for the lobby, made Christmas crafts, and blasted the Christmas album of Fairouz (a very popular Lebanese artist) across the entire PA system.
On Monday, I printed out a Christmas tree coloring page for one of my classes and while in class, the teacher asked me if I would tell the Christmas story to the students. All of the students in this class and the teacher are Muslim. So, I told the story and she helped to translate it into Arabic for the students. When I got to the part about the angels and the shepherds, the teacher looked at me and asked if I would sing the song. I assumed that she meant “Angels We Have Heard On High”, so I obliged and began singing. The students were busy coloring, not paying much attention to me, until I got to the Gloria’s. It was at this moment that the students realized they knew the song, stopped coloring, and began singing with me. It was such a beautiful thing. After I was finished, they sang the entire song back to me in Arabic and I was speechless. I do not think that I will ever forget that simple moment and the exchange, the sharing of our cultures and our faiths that happened there. It is so enriching to experience my faith through the eyes of another, particularly the eyes of these children. In these moments, I am the student and they are my teachers and I hope that we can continue to learn together.

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Fall Retreat!

Two weekends ago, the J/WB YAGM 6 headed out on our fall retreat with our fearless leaders, Julie and Jeff, and our trusty van Bernadette for a few days of reflection and relaxation in the Holy Land. We had a full itinerary traveling to Nazareth and Tiberias, the region known as the Galilee, and I’d like to share a few photos with you from our time there!

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This lovely photo is from our tour of the the Old City of Nazareth. We were given a tour of the Old City by Linda, a woman who has been working at the Fauzi Azar Inn, a hostel in the Old City for four and a half years. Our tour included stops in a coffee store, an amazing spice shop, and this clothing shop. Kevin and I volunteered ourselves at a local shop to be the models for some first century dress and it was so fun! It was great to get a tour that included meeting and talking to some of the local shopkeepers and not just seeing the sites.

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This photo is of a mosaic from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Basilica is the largest church in the Middle East, which actually made me a little anxious to visit. As one of the traditional sites of the annunciation, I was expecting lots and lots of shine. Although I can appreciate the grandeur, I’m not always a fan of huge churches whose every inch is covered in gold. However, this church was not that. The courtyard of the church was almost completely surrounded by multi-cultural depictions of the Mary and Jesus. The majority of the pieces were mosaics and some of them took my breath away. Although hard to capture on a camera, I am in love with this depiction from Thailand.

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One of our mornings was spent at the Sea of Galilee, with time for journaling, reflection, and taking in the peaceful sound of the water. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire retreat, it was exactly what I needed to recharge.

We also spent time at Capernaum, where Peter’s house is traditionally thought to be; Sepphoris, an ancient town where many believed the adolescent Jesus spent a lot of time; and The Mount of Beatitudes, traditionally celebrated as the site of the Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was a full weekend, but as a group we spent time reflecting on the context of the theologies of Jesus in light of life in the first century and how those theologies still challenge us today. I am so thankful to be surrounded by a group of thoughtful young adults and for the guidance of Jeff and Julie as we continue to navigate this year together.

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Something Strange

To begin, it’s been awhile, so I apologize. Life here has been moving full speed ahead, I’m hoping to get in a few posts today…sorry if I flood your inbox! I want to tell you a little story about something strange that happened a few weeks ago. I got to school right before 8:00am, like usual, and was informed that there would be a tour group from the UK coming to visit the school that morning. Alright, good to know. I was then informed that I would be giving half of the group, numbering about 30 total, a tour of the school. Ok, I can handle that. Then, I was told that I would be giving the entire group the PowerPoint presentation about Helen Keller School, a PowerPoint that I had seen once. I am certainly learning to go with flow here. The group arrived and I gave them the presentation. It was one of my less stellar performances, but no matter. After the presentation, the group was divided and we headed out for the tour. We visited a few English classrooms, a special education classroom, and the kindergarten and in each classroom, I felt something so weird.

As I was introducing these strangers from England to the students, I realized that I was thinking of them not as THE students, but as MY students. Not mine in the sense that they belong to me, but mine in the sense that I belong to them. I have now been at Helen Keller for about three months, and these kids have started to get to me; they are becoming a huge part of my community. The strongest sense of this came when I took the group into the kindergarten. The littles were sitting down in the kitchen for their mid-morning snack and when I walked in, they all yelled, “MISS SARAH!” It is hard to put into words the feeling of a welcome like that. Once the group had made their way in, the kindergarteners wanted to sing for them. What song? The Wheels on the Bus, of course. I spend one day a week in the kindergarten and knowing about my love of music, the teachers have asked me to use music to help teach the kids English. And what song have I been teaching them? The Wheels on the Bus, of course. Watching the students sing and do the actions for the tour group brought me such a sense of pride, but not in the way you might think.

I was so proud, not just because the kids were showing the group something that I had taught them, but because they were showing them something they had learned. We had done it together. The smiles on the kindergarteners faces while they were beeping the horn on the bus was more than enough to sustain me for quite some time. That morning was one that reassured that although life here is difficult on so many levels, I have community. Sometimes that community is my fellow YAGM’s and country coordinators, sometimes it’s the congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and sometimes it’s a group of four and five year olds who still don’t really know how to blow their noses. I don’t think that I could be more grateful for that.

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