By Jean A. Cotting
Jerusalem is partitioned by many walls, both ancient and modern. I was there in June to learn more intensively about overcoming divisions, as a member of a project called “Building Dialogue Across Conflict.” The project was sponsored by a grant from Trinity Wall Street and led by Virginia Theological Seminary. This two-year effort brought together Christians from diverse backgrounds to engage in constructive dialogue amidst division and contestation. Four teams from Liberia, Tanzania, Jerusalem, and the United States met for two academic years to discuss what constructive dialogue means within their cultural contexts. In Jerusalem, the four teams met for 10 days at St. George’s College to share this work, to pray, to have fellowship, and to explore sites sacred to our shared faith.
Noted academic professors and church leaders delivered lectures that approached the topic from theological, scriptural, and missiological perspectives. They shared the preliminary overviews of the chapters that each will contribute to a workbook that will be available after the project is completed.
The daily small–group discussions were especially enriching. My group consisted of a Palestinian rector, the academic dean of Cuttington University in Liberia, a Tanzanian priest (the third female priest ordained in her diocese), and a Liberian youth minister who works with the Zogos, children left abandoned by the war and living on the streets. These sessions bridged cultural gaps but also revealed much common ground. I heard firsthand accounts of the horrors of the Liberian civil war, and I gave my group mates a crash course in Western family systems theory. A recurring theme was how difficult it is to engage in dialogue when wounds are deep and stretch across generations. Our attempt to overcome these barriers drew us together.
Vannessa McCormick, one of my fellow Virginians, reflected after the conference was over: “The need for peace, reconciliation, and justice is worldwide. It made me look at these issues as global, not just something happening in the USA. It was wonderful experiencing the Holy Land with Christian brothers and sisters from around the world.” The majority of the 32 participants were Anglican, but Roman Catholics, Baptists, and non-denominational Christians were represented as well.
The issues explored by each team varied widely. Our Liberian colleagues explained the obstacles to communication where people struggle to heal from the widespread trauma caused by civil war. The Tanzanian team shared their insights about the rifts and divisions caused by land disputes resulting from government-induced population shifts. We learned from the Palestinian team what their communities face with the partitioning of their land and the walls of separation. We on the U.S. team focused on the seminary community’s grappling with its past association with slavery, a history steeped in racism, and the ongoing issues surrounding race in our community. We all have been part of the struggle to overcome the ways in which local communities and countries have been broken up and segregated by the walls and partitions that we humans create, both literally and metaphorically.
Woven through these conversations were opportunities to see beautiful and significant religious sites in the surrounding area — wading in the Sea of Galilee; visiting Jacob’s Well; spending a quiet contemplative moment in the Church of Dominus Flevit (where the Lord wept over Jerusalem, Luke 19:41-44) while gazing out at the Old City; and celebrating the Feast of Pentecost at St. George’s Cathedral with hundreds of others from all over the Anglican Communion, each praying and singing simultaneously in their native language.
I was affected most deeply by visits to the home congregations in the West Bank of two of the Palestinian team members. The hospitality we experienced was gracious and the pride that the Christian communities have in their congregations was moving. We prayed and sang at Christ Church in Nazareth with the Rev. Nael Abu Rahmoun and enjoyed a bountiful lunch at a nearby restaurant, Al Tahooneh, hosted by the Jabour family, members of the Christ Church community. We also visited the Church of the Good Shepherd in Nablus where the Rev. Jamil Monir Khadir’s congregation introduced us to kanafe (a delectable local dessert).
It was inspiring to witness how these congregations thrive and proclaim the gospel despite many hardships and obstacles they face. Though the number of Christians in the region has been severely diminished in recent years, denominational divides continue to be bridged. The desire on the part of these communities to continue to engage in interfaith dialogue with Muslim and Jewish neighbors, despite the ongoing heated contestation, was humbling to witness as an American.
We ended with an afternoon at St. George’s Cathedral, reflecting on what the experience had meant for each of us. The Rev. Canon Fuad Dagher considered this interlude the most moving aspect of our time together. “One single unforgettable memory is when we gathered in the Cathedral the last day and each one of us brought astone and reflected upon it,” he said. “It was a genuine, real informative wrap–up for the whole time we spent together on Building Dialogue.”
Dagher, the Diocese of Jerusalem’s canon for reconciliation, talked about the deeper impact that the project has had on his work: “I was able to discover how important the work we’re all doing in this part of the world, which we call the Land of the Holy – mainly building bridges of peace and dialogue and getting people of different faiths closer to each other –through the feedback and insights of our friends from the different groups and their appreciation to all of us the Palestinians.”
For me, Israel and the Palestinian territories are an amazing land. To share my first visit to these hallowed places and engage in sacred, yet difficult, conversations with friends both new and old was a privilege that I will treasure always and carry with me into future ministry.
Jean A. Cotting is a rising senior in the Master of Divinity program at Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Southern Ohio.