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.
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.
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.