One of the unexpected gifts that I have received as a VTS seminarian has been the opportunity to connect with people from across the globe. My formation process of becoming a priest has been enriched and transformed by working and studying with classmates from all over the world. VTS has also given me the opportunity to travel as part of programs offered through the Center for Anglican Communion Studies.
For the past year I have been part of a seven-person project team from VTS made up of students, staff, and faculty, participating in a program called “Building Dialogue Across Conflict.” Along with corresponding teams from Liberia, Tanzania, and Jerusalem, we met in Jerusalem for ten days in early June to discuss engaging in constructive dialogue amidst division and contestation. The topics discussed were widely varied. Our colleagues from Liberia shared with us the obstacles to communication found in an environment that is struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the widespread trauma caused by the civil war. The Tanzanian team shared their insights about the rifts and divisions in the social fabric caused by land disputes resulting from government population shifts. The Palestinian team brought to the discussion the difficulties faced by their communities with the partitioning of their land and the walls of separation. We on the US team chose to focus specifically on the VTS community’s grappling with its past association with slavery, a history steeped in racism, and the ongoing issues surrounding race in our community. In their own way, each group has been struggling to address how its respective cultural context is broken up and segregated by the walls and partitions that we humans create both literally and metaphorically. I found it poignant that we were meeting in location in which life is conducted in the shadow of so many walls both modern and ancient.
The conference was further enhanced by a number of scholars who will be contributing chapters to a workbook that will be a product of this endeavor. The featured authors were Rt. Rev. Dickson Chilongani, bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika in Tanzania; the Rev. Canon Dr. Herman Browne, President of the Cuttington University in Liberia; Rev. Canon Fuad Dagher, Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Shfar’am, and Canon for Reconciliation at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. Authors from VTS are the Rev. Dr. John Yieh, the Molly Laird Downs Professor of New Testament, and the Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney, CACS Director, Associate Professor of Christian Mission, and Senior Program Manager for the Building Dialogue project.
We were also joined by Ms. Shadia Qubti, Lead for Faith in Development, World Vision, Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza, who gave us a personal and political orientation to the local context, and Canon Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Adviser for Reconciliation Programmes and Resources who spoke to us of her work in reconciliation on behalf of the Communion.
Woven through these conversations were opportunities to see many beautiful and significant religious sites in the surrounding area. I would be hard pressed to select a favorite memory: wading in the Sea of Galilee, visiting Jacob’s Well, spending a quiet contemplative moment in the Dominus Flevit 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 think though that the experience that impacted me most deeply was visiting 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 Christians have in their congregations was touching. We prayed and sang at Christ Church in Nazareth with Rev. Nael Abu Rahmoun and then experienced an overwhelmingly bountiful lunch at a nearby restaurant hosted by one of his parish families. We also visited the Church of the Good Shepherd in Nablus where Rev. Jamil Monir Khadir’s congregation introduced us to kanafe, a local dessert that defies definition other than to say it is extremely delicious. What was most inspiring though was seeing the ways in which in these congregations are thriving and proclaiming the gospel despite many hardships and obstacles faced by the Christian communities in these areas. Though the number of Christians in the region has been severely diminished in recent years, the extent to which denominational divides have been bridged has greatly increased. 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 something that as an American observer I found quite humbling.
Israel and the Palestinian territories are amazing lands. To share my first visit to these sacred 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.