By Douglas LeBlanc
London had its painted elephants and Chicago gave painted cows to lovers of playful public art, and in 2009 the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler took that concept into a new realm with Peace Donkeys. It was one of a dozen major peace-building exhibitions organized by CARAVAN, a nonprofit ministry affiliated with the Episcopal Church that addresses East-West cultural and religious divisions through inviting artists into exhibitions on bridge-building themes such as “I AM,” “The Bridge,” “The Key,” and “AMEN—A Prayer for the World.”
Chandler’s choice of the donkey emerged from his knowledge of both Christianity and Islam. The donkey symbolizes peace in both faiths, and appears in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Both Jesus and Islam’s second caliph, Omar Ibn El Khattab, rode donkeys when they entered Jerusalem. The 45 life-size fiberglass donkeys painted by leading Middle East artists were first shown around Cairo and then at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Chandler, a priest who is an appointed mission partner with the Episcopal Church, grew up as the son of a pastor-artist in Dakar, Senegal, which he called “the heart of the arts in West Africa.” He was as rector of St. John’s Church in southern Cairo from 2003 to 2013.
Typical interfaith events drew a small audience of the same people, Chandler said, so he decided to organize an art exhibition focused on a bridge-building theme. He was taken aback when the exhibition attracted thousands.
“We learned that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and deepen friendships between those of different cultures and faiths in the Middle East and the West,” Chandler told TLC during a recent visit to St. Stephen’s Church in Richmond, Va.
While CARAVAN exhibitions have appeared in large cities such as Amman, Cairo, London, New York, and Paris, Chandler said he also seeks to have the exhibitions tour in places that are known for being more prejudiced against Arabs or Muslims, such as in more rural communities in the United States.
“These art exhibitions provide an encounter point, bringing people together that would normally never come together,” he said. “And in art there is no other.”
CARAVAN’s exhibitions usually open in the Middle East and then travel to the West. More often than not they are held in busy sacred spaces like Washington National Cathedral or in strategically located churches like St. Martin-in-the-Fields on London’s Trafalgar Square.
“Our experience has been that our participating Muslim artists are the most eager to have their work shown in cathedrals,” Chandler said.
One of CARAVAN’s next exhibitions “ABRAHAM: Out of One, Many,” which “focuses on what we all have in common because of our ancestor Abraham and on what we can learn from his life and faith about living together more harmoniously,” he said. “The exhibition is a response to the rising tribalism that is evident in the West and will involve three globally acclaimed Middle Eastern contemporary artists — one each from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith traditions. They are each creating five paintings that focus on five specific themes from Abraham’s life that can guide us today in our world.”
Another exhibition, under the working title “Ancient Harmony,” will explore the similarities between the art of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (the Bedouin and the Amazigh/Berber) and the indigenous peoples of North America, with a special focus on the Plains Indians and the Cherokee.
“The heart of the exhibition is to highlight that while today there is discord between the peoples of the Middle East and West, the historic indigenous peoples from both these regions had an inherent harmony, which is evidenced through their art,” Chandler said. “It is fascinating to see their artwork side by side. This will be an opportunity for indigenous peoples to play a strategic role in building peace in our world.”
Chandler said he is most passionate about encouraging interfaith friendships. “The heart of CARAVAN’s work is in providing creative ways that encourage new friendships to be made across religions and cultures, for it is through relationships that true transformation takes place,” he said. “And very often these exhibitions serve as the catalyst for the formation of new local intercultural and interreligious outreaches.”
One exhibition led to a priest-imam exchange initiative that now has had hundreds of participants. Through other exhibitions, Christians and Muslims have built continuing ties through food and music.
Chandler compares the differences between Christians and Muslims to the crescent moon, the symbol of Islamic faith.
“The thin crescent is that part of the moon that we can see because of the reflection, but when you see a crescent moon, the majority of the moon is dark. I liken the slim crescent to what we have different between us, and the large dark side to what we have in common. And it is critical that we build our relationships with each other on the dark side of the moon. We are so often blinded by the constant illumination of our differences that we can’t see all we have in common.”