Journey from the MidWest to the MidEast ...

The Indianapolis-based International Interfaith Initiative (III), in collaboration with the Village Experience, led a trip of a diverse group (including representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical, and Hindu religious communities) to the Middle East from December 27, 2009 to January 9, 2010. It was a follow-up to the very successful III Mideast trip of 2008. Read about the adventure on this blog. Look for partnership opportunities for your group at ... and be part of the next trip from Indy to the MidEast.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Charlie Wiles reports on the trip

The mission of International Interfaith Initiative simple yet daunting: “Foster Interfaith Cooperation and Strengthen Civil Society.” An example of how III sought to realize its mission came with the latest interfaith trip to the Middle East. III collaborated with The Village Experience on the second annual Middle East Journey, which returned to Indianapolis on January 9, 2010. Eleven individuals from Central Indiana -- representing a variety of religious, community and academic organizations -- traveled together from Amman, Jordan south through the desert sites of Petra and Wadi Rum to the Gulf of Aqaba then north through Arad, Israel, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and several villages in the West Bank of Palestine, to Jerusalem and then to the northern Israeli towns of Haifa, Acco, Cana and Nazareth before ending the journey in Madaba, Jordan.

Charlie stands before the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The two week trip included many amazing opportunities to engage local people and organizations working toward positive change in the region. Just Amman we spent an evening sharing a meal with Iraqi refugees and listening to how they are struggling to survive in Jordan; we met with Fr. Nabil Haddad, an Orthodox Priest who leads a program called “Coexistence” promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue; we listened to a lecture at Jordan University entitled “Muslims In America” that was given by IUPUI professor Edward Curtis who is there on a Fulbright Scholarship; and we visited many historic and ecologically sustainable gift shops in the city.

Participants of ME journey meet with Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan (Photo #1)

In the Middle East, history collides with the present in ways that are sometimes graceful, at other times quite tragic. Meeting with Iraqi refugees early on in the journey reminded me of the many mass exoduses of populations from one region to another throughout history in the Middle East. Baghdad, once the center of civilization, now has a very uncertain future as multiple forces violently struggle to gain control. The people we met, each human story that rattles the conscience, contributes to the well-worn fabric in the unfolding drama in this region.

We then traveled south through the desert to Petra and Wadi Rum, spending New Year’s Eve in a beautiful Bedouin “style” lodging that included sleeping in a tent and eating food prepared in an underground barbeque. It was a fascinating party in the middle of the Jordanian desert with an eclectic mix of culture, good music, a wonderful feast, and dancing with travelers from many countries.

Riding a camel in Wadi Rum, Jordan (Photo #2)

We crossed from Aqaba, Jordan to Elat, Israel on Friday January 1st, and were treated to a Shabbat meal at the first hotel we stayed in Arad. It felt good to participate in prayers and ritual that have been alive in that region for thousands of years. Day two took us to the Dead Sea and Bethlehem, where we stayed in a Palestinian refugee camp. We visited an under-resourced clinic meant to serve 25,000 Palestinians who are living in a “seam zone" between the 1967 border and the barrier that separates the Palestinians from Israelis.

The barrier route as of May 2005. Seam Zone, the area between the barrier and the 1949 Arab-Israeli armistice line, is colored in blue-green.

The journey then took us to Jerusalem for two days, where we visited the Old City, Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial), and participated in a local interfaith dialogue with the Interfaith Coordinating Council in Israel.

The conversations within our group were difficult at times as we traveled and observed challenging circumstances ... however it was enlightening to be together as a diverse group. I know for myself that my sensitivity to the narrative of the “other” was extremely heightened, and that offered me a much more in-depth experience throughout the trip. It is a unique opportunity to travel with eleven diverse individuals, each of us adding a unique piece to a puzzle as we try to better understand the world we live in. It was truly an honor to be a part of the experience, and I look forward to future conversations. It was gratifying to witness the many relationships that developed along the trip, between Muslim and Jew, Evangelical and Catholic, gay and straight, young and older. I am confident that many good things will develop as a result. Each and every one of us enriched the overall experience and I believe we all hold a piece of a puzzle that will lead to a better understanding.

Father Jeff Godecker and George Kelly praying together at the Western Wall
Our final days were spent in northern Israel and we visited the gorgeous port cities of Haifa and Acco before lodging in Nazareth for two evenings. It was dumbfounding to stand in the spot where Mary was told she’d give birth to Jesus and to then to visit the “Synagogue/Church” where Jesus proclaimed he was the Messiah.

Madonna at “Church of the Annunciation” in Nazareth

We also visited, dialogued, and shared a fantastic meal with several members of Evangelical Churches in the Galilee.

Arriving in the New York and Detroit airports after two weeks of intense and varied experiences in the Middle East and being bombarded with the latest news about the fate of Balloon Boy’s father was a bit of culture shock, to say the least- The twelve hour flight in the silver tube felt like passing through the rabbit hole and coming out on the “other” side in a completely new reality. The more I experience this, the more the saying “curiouser and curiouser” comes to mind.

International Interfaith Initiative constantly strives to find opportunities where each of us in our multiple identities can put a collective foot forward in making a better future in the Middle East, a region that is critical to a better future for all of us. It appears to make sense to work together with caring Jordanians to establish a medical clinic for Iraqi refugees who are struggling to survive in and around Amman. This effort would be more powerful if it came as a result of an interfaith effort here in Central Indiana and we will be working with many religious and community groups to make this happen. It will serve as a rich opportunity to increase understanding in our community.
When I came through customs in NYC the immigration agent asked if my visit abroad was for business or pleasure: I replied by saying a little of both, but mainly for business. He asked what type of business and I described it as an interfaith trip to better understand the issues that confront us in the Middle East. He said that it sounded like an admirable mission and wished me luck…

More about the Iraqi refugee project is at: Planning for the third Middle East Journey are underway and applications will be available on the website soon.

Article by Charlie Wiles. Photos by John Samples

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

JSam: InterFaith Moments, the video

This video is a sort of an audio/visual summary of our trip in Dec '09 and Jan '010. It is a little heavy on the Wadi Rum, but the place was a bit intoxicating. This will be the final version except for when I have to fix the typos that someone is likely to point out to me.

If it doesn't show here, it is also available on youtube at my JSamTV page...

Friday, January 15, 2010

JSam: More photos and another film

Fr Jeff has a wonderful summary of our trip below, but he still seems to have been holding out on us with his photography. For you fellow facebookers (and those willing to admit it) you can see some of his really nice stuff at Jeff's Photos.

I wish the whole group could have been with me a couple of nights ago when I had another experience similar but nearly opposite to our meeting with Sami Awad. It was in Kefar Saba near Tel Aviv where I spent the evening with the son of a holocaust survivor who is the subject of a documentary that is in the final stages of editing. His story (as he was telling it) was as remarkable as Sami's, but from the other side of the 'wall'. It included trips back to the site of the Warsaw ghetto and several other places he formerly knew only from stories of his father. I haven't seen the film yet but have been promised a copy soon and would love to share it with anyone interested.

The whole group still haunts my thoughts, and I look forward to seeing many of you again. Also, our Team in Galilee sends their greetings to you all; many of them felt a special connection to whatever it was we were doing there. -jsam

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The experience of the inter-faith trip to Jordan and Israel both strengthened my faith and left me with questions. . Before I get to that, however, let me say how much joy this trip brought me. The joy includes: 10 other good, moral, humorous people with differing outlooks and backgrounds; conversation, music, tasty food, beautiful land (especially Wadi Rum, the hills around Jerusalem and Nazareth and an evening ride on the Sea of Galilee), celebrations with food and drink, and visiting memorial places of important events in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
I also had the joy of meeting many “strangers” , meeting those who are different only to find that deeper than the differences is a common humanity. I also experienced hope in these “strangers” living in the midst of tension, difficulty and poverty.
I feel a deeper emotional connection to Christ which had to do not only with walking the same land but with meeting those who practice his teaching even when they may be non-believers. Father Haddad, a Melkite priest, works as a clear believer in Jesus Christ for dialog and cooperation with Muslims. Akmed, on the other hand, clearly helps people to practice non-violence in the refugee camp in Bethlehem but has no active faith practice. If you took away Fr. Haddad’s cassock and references to Jesus, it would be hard to tell the difference between the two from a moral and behavioural standpoint. Someone once said, : just because someone is secular doesn’t mean that he is godless.”
I found myself more touched by the living faith of others than in the “holy places.” ( This is not to say that the places were not touching.) My own faith was strengthened by people like Father Haddad, the Iraqi Refugee meeting in Amman, the people of the Holy Land Trust, an organization dedicated to a non-violent approach to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis; an Arabic Christian funeral procession and burial, Mass in the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem, the bells on the feast of Orthodox Christmas, the continual Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers, and a simple meal blessing for Shabbat prayed by the Jewish member of our group.
I find that my faith in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is strengthened. The prophetic voice of Isaiah rings true for Jerusalem in his time and in ours. The book of Psalms has an emotional reality for me that it did not have before. The Gospels have a grounding they did not have before. But I have also come to better realize just how radical the teaching of Jesus was for his own time and even more so for our time.
(NOTE: A two week experience in Jordan and Israel makes me an expert on very little if anything.)
The Mideast conflict is about much more than religion. It is about land, homeland, national identity, security. But what is the role of religion in the conflict? For starters, it certainly is about the history of three faiths All three religions have a claim to their origin and early development in this land called holy. Each regards Jerusalem as a most holy place. Jerusalem is sometimes called the ”center ” of the world, a place of God’s special and powerful presence. Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish presence are very visible. It would be hard to imagine anyone not thinking of Jerusalem as a religious place. And yet, on our trip religion took a very distant third place to the politics and the culture of the region. Religion is part of the conflict but at what level? Is it merely background? Are people embarrassed by religion and its checkered history of crusades,colonialism and western ways?
I wonder about the failure of religion to significantly contribute to peace and a morality that clearly treats all other human beings as human beings. The three religions seem to fail with a record of violence and prejudice. Yehuda Amichai, an Israel poet, writes: Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers/he’s forgotten something/but doesn’t remember what it’s holiness/sometimes turns to love. In the case of Christian history the forgotten something would seem to be the Sermon on the Mount. The last political tool in the Mideast to be used is that Sermon.
I believe religion can play a positive role. Consider the following words of Martin Luther King: True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force –tension, confusion, or war; it is the presence of some positive force – justice, good will and brotherhood. All three religions have a clear summons to those positive forces in their own Scriptures. A quote from the Koran serves as an illustration: Have you seen the one who denies religion? It is he who pushes away the orphan, And who does not urge the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who worship, Who are absent-minded in their prayer; Those who make a show of themselves, And refuse neighborly assistance. (Sura 107) Christians and Jews can find the very same sentiment in book of Isaiah.
But challenges remain for the three religions because religious people are often perceived and as breeders of hate and intolerance. The historical case for that perception can be easily made. Unfortunately, the perception is also based on encounters with extremists in all three religions while ignoring the basic goodness and kindness of millions of people over the centuries and into our own time.
One of the most haunting moments of this trip was the visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. As I wandered through horror after horrer, I I wondered how a Jew could still believe in God. A Paulist priest responded, “ How can Christians believe in Christ when the Holocaust was mostly perpetrated by baptized Christians?”
One of the more profound ironies that I found on this trip is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem to get along better in the north part of Israel. But the north seems to be more secular. The cities of Haifa and Akko seem good examples. In Akko, the public display of religion in shops and on the streets, disappeared altogether. It would seem that secularism has a gift to offer the world that the religions are still struggling to develop.

Another important question raised by this trip is religious identity. All three religions seem to be fighting for a stronger identity which has been riddled by their own history, competition for salvation and the rise of secularism and materialism. The struggle for strong identity has also resulted in the rise of fundamentalism and radicalism. All three religions seem to be fearful of being overwhelmed by the other two. All three religions fear the power of our secular culture, particularly in the West. All three religions seem to fear the insights of psychology and historical research. And there are good reasons for these fears .
In Israel, which one would assume to be one of the more religious places in the world, only 20% Jews practice their faith. Statistics in our own country report something similar despite all our protestations that we are a Christian country. Faith in the Holy and the Divine often seem to slip totally into the realm of the private. Even this inter-faith trip seemed more secular than religious. Religion will continue to struggle with the issue of idenity. Over-simplified answers, authoritative pronouncements and rigid definitions will accomplish little.
We still struggle with the question, “What does it mean to be Christian in the world we live in?” While the fundamentals remain the same, the world is vastly different than it was in the time of Jesus. On the trip I kept trying to touch the Jesus of his time. My answer to that quest is that it is almost impossible. I am not able to think or feel as a first century Palestinian Jew did. Connection to the land is vastly different for an urban American than a rural person from the country. I have privilege and security that would never be dreamed of in the time of Jesus. Our consciousness has changed (for better and worse). We have powerful destructive capabilities and positive opportunities that have altered how we think. Our everyday sense of the “true” is more relative or riddled with doubts. Our identities tend to be more individualistic. We slip in our of religious beliefs rather easily. In the time of Jesus and still in parts of the world, to change faith is to leave the “tribe”, and without the tribe the person has no security or identity.
Who is the God we believe in when we know we must mix and work and be hospitable to those who have a different view? Who is the God who “permits(?) “ a holocaust or the genocides that have happened since. What does worship mean in a secular and diverse culture? How is prayer integrated into a secular life style ( I know that the way I put that is contradictory but frankly our prayer and lifestyles are often not integrated.)? What does salvation mean and how is it mediated? How do we remain faithful to our own truth while acknowledging the truth of others? All three religions in their theology and in their behaviours must wrestle with these questions within their own traditions and with each other.
What of the Christian and Catholic role in the Mideast Conflict? In one way, Christianity is a minor player because it is largely an Arab and Israeli conflict. The United States and other Western countries have security issues as well in this region which also makes them players. But I would suggest that they often think that Israelis and Palestinians think just like people in the West. Transplanting Western values without recognition and understanding of values that may be very different is a huge mistake.
The best thing that the Christian and Catholic Church in the Middle East can do is to promote cooperative humanitarian and educational efforts and to gently insist on the God given value of human dignity. The Church promotes both Israel’s right to exist and the right of the Palestinians to homeland. . In addition the Catholic Church needs to continue to maintain Christian holy sites not just for tourism but as places of quiet prayer and meditation and then also be a public advocate for the rights of Christians. At one time, Christinas represented 20% of israel’s population. It in is now less than 2% . More and More Christians feel excluded. And before it does anything else, the Catholic Church needs to continue to promote a better relationship with the Greek Orthodox.
Borrowing from a speech by Cardinal John Foley Christianity also has the following to offer the Mideast A theology of reconciliation and forgiveness; a belief in the separation of church and state; freedom of conscience; a commitment to education; a Christianity not tied to one particular culture; commitment to a struggle for social justice.
Much more could be said. My questions have not been about doubt in my own faith. I affirm my faith in Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Catholic Church. But a Church and a Catholic people that do not grapple with these questions will cease to be an effective voice in a complicated world. The great gift of trip like this one is that the traveller cannot help but notice how complex the world is and that sound bites, twittering, blogging, sounding off, finger pointing, and human prejudice do not and will never bring peace.
I conclude with the words of Archbishop Fouard Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem ( note that he is also a Palestinian ) When will we realize that a land deserves the adjective “holy” only when the man who lives there becomes holy? This land will deserve to be called “holy” when she breathes freedom, justice, love, reconciliation, peace and security.”
Fr. Jeff Godecker

Monday, January 11, 2010

Being more confused is the easy part...

I came back from the Middle East with new experiences and slightly more confused about some things then before I left. Then I read this story and realize how much more we all have to learn:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pieces of a puzzle

Arriving in the New York and Detroit airports after two weeks of intense and varied experiences in the Middle East and being bombarded with the latest news about the fate of Balloon Boy’s father is a bit of culture shock to say the least- The twelve hour flight in the silver tube feels a bit like passing through the rabbit hole and coming out on the “other” side and in a completely new reality. The more I experience this the more the saying “curiouser and curiouser” comes to mind.

As we spent the last 24 hours of our Middle East Journey I couldn’t help but reflect on the many adventures and the mini adventures that comprised this 2 week odyssey for 10 Americans and 1 Indian living in the Midwest, USA and traveling from Amman, Jordan south through the desert sites of Petra and Wadi Rum to the Gulf of Aqaba then north through Arad, Israel the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and several other towns in the West Bank of Palestine, to Jerusalem and the Israeli towns of Haifa, Acco, and before ending the journey in Madaba, Jordan.

The Middle East is a place where history collides with the present in sometimes graceful and other time’s quite tragic ways. Meeting with Iraqi refugees early on in the journey reminded me of the many mass exoduses of populations from one region to another throughout history in the Middle East. Baghdad once the center of civilization now has a very uncertain future as multiple forces violently struggle to gain control. The people we met, each human story that rattles the conscious, contributes to the well-worn fabric in the unfolding drama in this region.

Identity becomes a central theme in the Middle East and our group must have looked quite curious to many of the people we encountered, a multi-faith group of Americans (and one Indian) traveling together to share insights through a wide variety of experiences. Experiences that included: listening to Fr. Haddad describe his Coexistence program, Professor Edward Curtis field questions from Jordanian students regarding Islam in America, listening to Palestinian refugees and peace activists, rabbis and priests in dialogue in Israel, and meeting with Arab-Israel Evangelicals who are striving to maintain their community in Cana and Nazareth. People are forced to live their identity in this part of the world where it is not simply a luxury to discuss differences if you choose. It makes me more aware of my privileges as a white male living in the United States and it helps me to better understand the challenges faced by minorities in my own country.

The evening before leaving Israel we took a little time to take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. As fate would have it we enjoyed calm seas and a lovely sunset. We listened to the American National Anthem and an Israeli peace song as we sailed through the historic waters. The weather was clear and we could see Jordan and the Golan Heights and I wondered what the future holds and what role we could play to make it better for all of us.

It was an amazing opportunity to travel with 11 diverse individuals, each of us adding a unique piece to a puzzle as we try to better understand the world we live in. It was truly an honor to be a part of the experience and I look forward to future conversations. I came to realize that my role as one of the organizers was to facilitate a conversation between and among the members of our group and the many wonderful people we came in contact with. It was gratifying to witness the many relationships that developed along the trip, between Muslim and Jew, Evangelical and Catholic, gay and straight, young and older. I am confident that many amazing things will develop as a result however I am also aware that much can be done to improve future journeys. Each and every one of us enriched the overall experience and I believe we all hold a piece of a puzzle that will lead to a better understanding.

I constantly strive to find an opportunity where each of us in our multiple identities can put a collective foot forward in making a better future in the Middle East, a region that is critical to a better future for all of us. It appears to make sense to work together with caring Jordanians to establish a medical clinic for Iraqi refugees who are struggling to survive in and around Amman. This effort would be more powerful if it came as a result of an interfaith effort here in Central Indiana and I believe it would be a wonderful opportunity to increase understanding in our community. As an American, a husband and father, a veteran, and a white-male from a Catholic family, I am compelled to continue to try to make a difference- When I came through customs in NYC the immigration agent asked if my visit abroad was for business or pleasure and I replied by saying a little of both but mainly for business. He asked what type of business and I described it as an interfaith trip to better understand the issues that confront us in the Middle East. He said that it sounded like an admirable mission and wished me luck…

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Scattering, chattering and the ubiquitous sweater

Well, I am about an hour out of Indy over what I think is the great state of Alabama, Sitting in what is my first real cramped seat thinking of the last 24 hours. We said good=bye to Israel, then Jordan and especially Faiaz and of course each other. We broke the group leaving John behind in Israel and then fractured it more at the Hotel in Madaba as Kelly will travel to Cairo, Kenya and I can't remember where next, Tim and Michael are off to Paris and Becca and Jeff each are taking a later flight to the states. We were a team and as we converge on our own lives that we gave up for two intense weeks together, some of us lost phones, hats, shirts, and we all lost som ignorance and gained knowledge. We all lost some stereotype and gained understanding. But mostly we all know that we haven't gotten the answer just a lot more questions which I say is the purest form of education. If we were getting off the plane with real answers I think we would have failed. I look forward to unpacking some of what we will likely take with us all the days of our lives and look forward to how you all have enriched my life and my professional persona.

I am sure we will all find a way to stay connected both in our striving to do whatever it we as individuals set out to do by taking this trip and as new found friends. But I know one thing, my next clothes purchase will be an argyle sweater and I will likely never stop noticing them for a long time.

Welcome home, however you define it and remember we shared something special, you can call on me when you want, need or desire.

May the Holy One bring you into the arms and hearts of those that care about you and as always bring peace to you and to people the world over.

Friday, January 8, 2010

JSam: Marsalami, y'all

See more trip photos by clicking here:

My new friends went off and left me in Nazareth this morning. They would probably tell you that I just didn't get on the bus, but here I am and there they go toward the Jordanian border and their flights to Cairo, Paris, Kenya, New York, Chicago and wherever else these folks are headed.

As my mind and enthusiasm shifts to the work I get to do here in Israel over the next week with the Galilee Team of the Christian HolyLand Foundation, my emotions are still spinning over the experiences of the last two weeks with this Interfaith group. There were plenty of hugs to go around as they all saddled up right after breakfast, but I have to admit that there was a particular satisfaction in the sincere embraces with Father Jeff and George. That is not to diminish in any way the relationships that developed with others in the group, but I suppose Jeff and George and I perhaps traveled the furthest together in terms of how far we came in terms of leaving our presuppositions behind and crossing over to new understandings. At the same time, I don't have to think very hard to remember specific blessings that each of the people in this group left me with. And when you add that to all the things we witnessed, experienced, and participated in along the way, it's been a pretty incredible trip.

Yesterday I had the deep pleasure of introducing my traveling group to the Team of Arab ministers I work with here in Israel. Our time was cut short by just not watching the clock closely enough, but we enjoyed a lunch at the Church in Cana that was provided by the Team, and that was probably our best meal of the trip. Then we spent an hour in fellowship and song and discussion that seemed to open hearts on both sides--the travelers and the Team.

Thank those of you that have been following our trip on this blog or over on Facebook, and Thank YOU to all the people on this trip that have made me a little better person with a little stronger faith than what existed just a few days ago.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

kol ha-olam kulo,

Our trip comes to an end tomorrow, we drive back to the Amman airport for the long day of travel home. I will miss this group. I will miss the quips, the quirks and the questions. I will miss this land. I truly love what Israel has to offer and no more so than today while on a boat on the Kinneret as our boat captain sang Oseh Shalom and then Kol Ha-Olam Kulo. This world is a very narrow bridge, and it is imporatant to not be afraid.

This group has challenged itself. But it is so remarkable that we were able to follow our own desire to take out of this trip what we needed. There was a real piece of tourism on this trip. Moments like the Kinneret certainly felt that way. As did Petra and Acco. But we weren't tourists. We also weren't pilgrims going to solidify our faith by touching the pieces left behind by a shared history. We were seekers and finders, teachers and learners, rebels and disciples. We moved together and alone. Through it all we tried to make the joys sweeter and soften the blows of hurt and attempt to understand the confusion that may be the Middle East.

But I walk away with a better understanding of Shalom, Salaam and Peace.

To all a traditional Jewish prayer for travel:
May it be Your will, LORD, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth. May You send blessing in our handiwork, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our humble request because You are God Who hears prayer requests. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who hears prayer.

Safe journey to all.

JSam: The Day Before the End of the Beginning

There is an interesting sense among the group of travel fatigue combined with an eagerness to be home, and heavily flavored with the approaching melancholy of bidding farewell to new friends. A sometimes pointed conversation last night about the differences of expectations associated with "Interfaith" vs. "Intercultural" further contributed to the community building among us, and I think added to future trips. A few of us have been a bit disappointed relative to the lack of faith expressions as opposed to faith comparisons or understandings. As we have tried to respect the differences between us in this bridge building journey, I think we (certainly I) have been reluctant to interject too much of those things that are at the heart of our personal walks. There has been quite a bit of doing that in small settings or one-on-one, but not so much in group meetings, and I think some of us just expected a little more of that on a corporate level. However, as we said last night, had that been more a part of the corporate experience, perhaps those more intimate moments would not have happened, so it is difficult to be too conflicted about those elements that might be too conflicting. Yanni, it's been a great trip, and now as it ends tomorrow I look forward to the new beginnings of these relationships and my new understandings that have resulted from this Interfaith experience.

Today will be an interesting time as I get to reconnect with my Team of Arab ministers here in the Galilee (, and to share my affection for them and the work they are doing with this group of travelers. I'm trying to not project too much on this time of fellowship and discussion, but at the same time I believe it to be a great opportunity for better understand of this work as well as for the Team to have a different (and better?) view of what is trying to be done on an interfaith level. I would ask for your prayers for today, but most of you will be sleeping while we're going about our business and it will be time for another blog entry by the time you read this. I do know that there have been many prayers lifted up for this trip, and as I shared with Saleem last night, I am convinced that God has been riding along with us from day one. Nush kerrob!

George (yaakov) refers below to a picture that Paul took that was a really interesting moment as we approached the Temple mount a couple of days ago. I'll include it here just to silence those among us that think I forgot to upload it. It can also be found here with several other shots of that event:

The new, as well as the old, photos from Paul and myself are located here now:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

There was a moment yesterday that I was transported. I wish I could explain, but with all the emotion, from the walk along the security fence, the refugees both in Behtlehem and Amman, to a building community on our bus. But walking through the Herodian period museum I looked down to the bedrock. For over 3000 years people have been living there and often in opposition and yet through fighting, destruction and hate that same day, I watched a Jewish kindergarten walking through the Muslim quarter on a field trip, listened to some boys arguing Talmud in a yishiva in the Jewish quarter and spoke with a Turkish man, opening a new store in the old shuq whose family had been in the Muslim quarter for generations. These images give me hope. Hope made more real by an interreligious council working to bring Palestinians and Jewish Isrealis together. I have hope as I listen to young Israelis say that Israel needs to be more than about fighting. Our group hopes we can make a difference. I think I sense a difference, I can't deny the problems of land, water and culture clashes, but there is a picture of a my new friend Hyam and I, her in Hijab and me with my kippah, walking on the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary. Every journey begins with a single step.
Oseh Shalom bim'romav, hu ya'asheh shalom, aleinu v'al kol Yisrael, v'al kol yoshve tevel, v'imaru amen.

May the one who brings peace to the heavens, bring peace to the whole of Israel and people the world over. and let's us ALL say Amen.

Photos linked

The pictures from the trip should be a little easier to find now. We really didn't plan on shooting 3,000 pictures and posting nearly a third of them, so we didn't have a good organization plan for these, but they can now all be linked from here:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Jerusalem Reflection

I am sitting in the lounge at the convent in Jerusalem trying to figure out what from the past two weeks I should write about - there is so much to say and no real way to express the emotions one feels in a situation like this. We have walked through the holy sites of Jerusalem, we have met people living in refugee camps in Jordan and Palestine, we have crossed the border posts as a local, we have camped under the stars in the Wadi Rum, we have drank beer in an Israeli bar, and we have talked and talked and talked....
One thing I will never forget on this journey is reconnecting with Yasir and Zena. I met this young couple last year on our trip (they are with me in the picture at the top of the blog). They are Iraqi refugees and have since had a baby boy named Amar. This is an amazing family and they are awaiting their relocation notice in Toronto, Canada. I can't wait to connect with them as soon as they are able to start their lives anew.
It is so fun for me to watch as people experience this part of the world for the first time. I can see the fire in Sheila as she takes in every thing around her and searches for a solution. I can see the empathy that flows from Hyam as she hears stories of struggle and hardship. I can see the motivation that is brewing in Becca as she plots a way to connect people at home with her new friends in the Middle East. And most importantly, I am having the time of my life watching the men on this trip "suffer" through sleeping in bunk beds, being cold at night, taking a shower without a curtain, and not having complete control over what is happening around them - as us girls like to say (and often get accused of) - high maintenance!

Blogging 101

Question: How do you delete a post on this blog?
Answer: If I knew you wouldn't be reading this.

Monday, January 4, 2010

JSam Photos from Monday: crossing from Bethlehem into Jerusalem

1/5/10 10:44 EDIT: Paul Gibson's latest photography is here:

Crossing the 'border' was disturbing today; I hope it comes across in the limited number of photos that we were allowed to take during the process.

One of the 'kter flumie' photos of the trip so far was taken at the Western Wall today as Father Jeff and George Kelley prayed together in an apparently spontaneous moment of fellowship and worship. Both of these guys have contributed mightily to the trip and it has been a pleasure to get to know them.

By the way, I discovered today that Father Jeff is blogging about the trip on his Butler site. It's good stuff and worth the visit over there:

George helped set the stage at the Western Wall visit this afternoon. If it works, you should be able to see a bit of video of that here:

I wasn't able to walk with the group to several sites today as my feet got in the way of each other on the Mount of Olives resulting in a bit of a tumble on the stone stairs. It felt for a few hours as though I might have stumbled into a serious knee injury, but after babying it for the rest of the day I suspect it will be functional tomorrow.

And this has nothing to do with this trip (I don't think) but I ran into a minister friend of mine from Toronto, Canada in the middle of Old Jerusalem today. Nizar Shaheen was leading a group from Australia and we literally bumped into each other entering a souvenir shop. It was a nice moment, particularly since I was hobbling along quite lost at the time and he was able to point me toward the Damascus Gate!

Thanks again for following along; I'll let my photographs speak for the rest of my day.

• Day 8 begins here with the Bethlehem border crossing:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

JSam: Oh, Little (messed-up) Town of Bethlehem


Nowhere is the Palestinian / Israeli struggle more acute and observable than in Bethlehem. Gaza may have worse living conditions, but it is very difficult to get in and see it first hand. Bethlehem is still actively pursuing the tourists’ dollars and pilgrims are still actively pursuing the site of Christ’s birth so the gates remain open most of the time. The city is safe, the people are wonderful, and the conditions range from residents able to afford Beemers and Benz, to the refugees who are now entering their third generation of births behind the green line and in camps like the one we are staying in and toured today. This temporary facility has grown from about 900 people to more than 2,000 and is now into its 61st year. There are many such places still providing made-shift services and shelter to families who were forced to leave their homes in 1948.

We also visited a medical clinic today that is the only such service available to about 25,000 Palestinians just outside of Bethlehem. There were very few meds on the shelves or working instruments in the building. We did some incidental cleaning, performed a few maintenance tasks, and picked up litter around the outside of the building. Then one of the group went out on their own and--in the name of the group--found a pharmacy and bought a bunch of antibiotics, sterile pads, and other basic medical supplies for the clinic. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to save a few lives and heal a few wounds. It’s more than was there when we got there. It was an amazing moment...

Hear the clinic head's response and comments on peace by clicking the video below:

The day ended with a sneak preview of
Little Town of Bethlehem, a new documentary film featuring Sami Awad who heads-up the local Holy Land Trust. It was very moving and compelling. It is scheduled for an October release in the United States, which seems an awfully long time away in this ever-changing land of things that are always the same. I was also intrigued by the PNN where we saw the film; the Palestine News Network. With ten employees they a

re producing a lot of programming, most if not all in the name of non-violence and peace. I haven’t had a chance to look at much of their work yet, but I’m looking forward to following them at

I continue to be pleased/touched/humbled by the ‘community’ that has developed within this disparate group of pilgrims, seekers, and curious. We have idealists, philosophers, and timekeepers; changers, compulsives, and BSers; liberals, conservatives and re-constructionists; and then there’s that whole Catholic, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and whatever thing. I wouldn’t dare suggest which labels belong where, but THEY know who they are, and they have all become very special to me in a very short time... well... most of them.

P.S. • Day 7 begins here in one of the Refugee Camps of Bethlehem:

Day 6 Photos

• Day 6 Begins here with stops in the Dead Sea and Bethlehem:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

This Year in Jerusalem

I am back in Israel. It is a long time coming. As I sit here in Arad, preparing for the ride north I hear the morning worship of a group of Nigerian pilgrims here for the Eastern Christmas. Their charsimatic service rings through the lobby of the hotel as the sun rises on another day in the region. One more experience to take in.

On New Years eve I was able to sit in a desert and watch the sun slip behind the mountains and later track the moon's race across a night sky chasing Orien until both disappeared behind the mountain. Previously that day I sat at the base of the mountain and thought about how this hunk of rock explosing out of the desert must have looked to the first people who found their way here. Building their homes and temples into the rock makes sense. They found comfort in this powerful structure and what must have been seen as an eternal presence.

On New Year's morning I was privledged to watch the first light of day as the sun rose over the same mountains I had spent time thinking about the day before. The light seemed to wake up the desert and to our ancient ancestors certainly must have been awesome, in the true sense of the word, inspiring fear and reverence.

I think too often we dismiss the religious traditions of old as pagan, or quaint, or worse turn the great gods of old into comicbook superheroes. We don't stop and look at our own story as fodder for similar treatment. In fact when it happens often times there are protests or worse. But we should explore what we mean when we discuss dig up ancient cultures' dieties for our entertainment. Sometimes even modern expressions of these cultures for our amusement should be questioned. Too often it feels like going to the zoo.

But that is not the point. The mountains, the sky, the sun and the changing weather all spoke to the people of the ancient world as much or as loudly as any god speaks today.

There was a break in my writing and I have now found myself in Bethlehem. I stood in line for the Chruch of the Nativity but JS and I bugged out at the last minute to share lunch and a powerful conversation. Many people spoke to me about the trip suggesting I be worried about visiting the West Bank and Jordan. In Jordan many told me not to wear my Kippah and even here in Bethlehem I don't feel comfortable with it on. But my real concern was spending two weeks building a relationship with someone who identifies as Evangelical. JS has shown me a new face of that and for that I am grateful. As we continue to grow as a group I find the moments of pursuit of of understanding each other and ourselves are as powerful as the rock carved city at Petra.

Last night I shared the Shabbat family ritual of candles, kiddush and Motzi. I explained a bit of the meaning and worked to connect something that is important to me into a meaningful experience for all. I hope I hit the mark. It is these shared moments that help the group grow closer. It is these shared moments that really explores what we mean by interfaith.

JSam: The Year isn't all that's new

I hate when I lie, and that's the truth!

I promised Hyam that she'd have no problem getting through the Israeli border today. Apparently her number came up and the border guards kept her behind for more than 2.5 hours for whatever reason they do those things. She survived, and I think it was actually an important moment for our group to see what sure appeared to be bold discrimination against a young Arab woman by the soldiers. I was very impressed with how Hyam processed what I think was really pretty traumatic for her, and very pleased with the support for her shown by every member of the group. After leaving the secured area without her, Charlie even managed to talk his way back in, went to bat for Hyam with the passport people, then got himself yelled out by a guard for his troubles.

As amazing as this week has been, one of the highlights for me so far has been being able to worship with the group tonight at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat. George (not Charlie, as previously rumored;-) led us through the ceremony (photo to the left) that has been practiced by Jews every Friday night for thousands of years. His explanations and patience with us allowed for a very significant time of reflection on my faith, the rituals in which the sacrament of my Lord's supper is rooted, and the respect and appreciation that can be shared by people of differences when they are all seeking the same God.

Yesterday (New Year's Eve) was pretty much a play day as we got to ride camels and jeeps while laughing with and at each other. There was also a little testosterone that kicked in (left) that is causing some sore muscles today. You can check out the picture links for more about king of the sand dune.

If you're on Facebook, I think you can also follow some of the real time photos and updates we do there. Try if you are a Facebooker.

My flickr pictures are here:
• DAY 4 Begins here on the way to Wadi Rum, Jordan:
• DAY 5 Begins here on New Year's Day and into Israel:

Paul Gibson's photos are here:

Friday, January 1, 2010

Iraqi Refgees

The day before yesterday, we visited the Jesuit center and I realized how much I did not know. There were many women in their early 20s who were fashionably dressed and attractive. Their nails were done, their hair was freshly cut, many of they wore high heels . It was hard to believe that they were refugees. Their appearance brought what they were going through closer to home. These are everyday people who until a few months or years ago were in University finishing their engineering degrees, updating their status on Facebook, living a normal, peaceful lifes until the war began. The war is as surprising and shocking to them as it is to us. They are the people that have to deal with the consequences, not us. What they want most and were asking us for was stability and security. The process of gaining citizenship is extremely difficult. Many of them are unemployed and are basically living in limbo. Seeing them and listening to their stories made me realize what they real consequences of war are. I consider myself to be fairly well exposed because of my experience to hardship and poverty in Africa, but nothing prepared me for this. I was in a state of shock. I understood how humiliating it must have been for these people to ask complete strangers for help. Their long term needs are relocation. I did not know what to tell these people, it was a very rude awakening because all I understood about war in general was what we study in class. The Middle East was always something very abstract to me until we spent an evening with them having dinner together. At the dinner table. I was not sure what appropriate conversation would be, fortunately I was advised to listen and from other conversations, most refugees just want people to listen.

How we can help

We spoke to a young doctor who connected with Charlie. Immediate needs that can be served would be through raising money or getting donations for medication in general. There is also a child that needs medication for his stunted growth-his mother cannot afford the monthly injections needed for her child. The young doctor we met said that the refugees need to build a clinic and hire some staff which can be done provided that the money is raised.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

JSam: Petra and transparency

Saying that our Wednesday visit to Petra was amazing is an understatement. It is remarkable to walk through these cave homes and the temples of the people who lived and worshiped here more than 2,000 years ago. To be able to do that as part of this Interfaith group, and to hear the various insights from the varied faith backgrounds, is a privilege.

I continue to be impressed with the transparency of the individuals and organizers of this journey. Conversation has been very candid, very caring for the most part, and particularly constructive to my ability to process what I’m seeing and hearing.

Some of our group are pretty nervous about crossing into Israel on New Year’s Day. They’ve heard stories--true or otherwise--about how tough the questioning can be as part of the entry process. I don’t think there will be any problem at all, but I remember the first time I came in I was very nervous, and some of it turned out to be justified. But this will be my 9th time to Israel in the last few years and I haven’t seen any problems beyond routine extra bag checking and a few extra questions. Getting out has actually been more stressful for me, but even that has been more positive than negative so I’m hoping that all holds true on Friday and the Israel portion of our journey gets off to a great start.

I’ve just learned that it’s supposed to be below zero (c) tomorrow night when we’ll be sleeping in desert tents. Today was cold enough that I had a shirt, two sweatshirts, and and a vest to keep me barely warm enough, so I may have to visit a local merchant on Thursday for an extra coat of some kind.

I’ve apparently lost my journal and audio notes of the trip to this point, so I’m particularly pleased to have this blog to remind me of at least some of the experiences I’ve been writing about to myself. Now, if I could just remember what else might be in those journals that could come back to bite me...

We’ve heard several reports that we have a bit of a following back there in Indiana and elsewhere. I don’t think that will warm my body on New Year’s Eve, but it does warm the heart and keeps us a little more connected. We also appreciate the comments you make to our posts. Thanks for staying with us...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dr. Edward Curtis

Dr. Curtis the author of, "Muslims in America, A Short History" was kind enough to come and talk to us at the hotel. Dr. Curtis is the millenium Chair of the Liberal Arts and a professor of Religious and American Studies at Indiana Univeristy-Purdue and is now teaching at the University of Jordan with the Jordanian- American Commision for Educational Exchange. We were invited as a group for a lovely spicy lunch at the Univeristy and then proceeded to hear a lecture about Muslims in America. I was surprised to see the interest many of the students showed in his lecture. Pauls pictures will show that the room was packed and extra chairs kept being added to the room as more and more students came in to hear the lecture. Many of them wanted to know why Islam was not percieved well in America. The main idea of the lecture was that Muslims have played an important role in the formation of U.S history. He emphasized that Muslims should not be percieved as foreigners in America. There were Muslim Generals that defended the Confederacy in the past. There was even a period where Muslims made up 30 percent of the population in North Dakota! Like Father Haddad, Dr. Curtis wants to promote intercultural understanding.

How you can participate!

you can sign up for a trip to Jordan by following the link://

You can also purchase a book!

Iraqi Refugees

Yesterday, we talked to Jenin Jaradat. She has worked with Iraqi refugees in Jordan for a number of years. She is a Kuwaiti who was forced to flee from her life in Kuwait during the war with Iraq. I was very moved that she has now dedicated her life to helping refugees, Iraqi refugees as a way of giving back to the community. Jenin told us that among her numerous experiences one of them was as a community service officer with the UNHCR.She is now an independent consultant who not only has good local knowledge of the Middle East as well as years of experience with Aid organizationslike Save the Children and UNICEF. She is sensitive to both the culture of the Middle East and the West and works seemlessly between them. Jenin has a good head for organization and management. She applies modern project management principles that uphold accountability and ensures the integrity of the projects that she works with. She has had years of experience assesing risk management as well as money management. Risk management is especially important because small tasks can end up being very expensive and time consuming.

How you can Help!

Jenin said that funds are begining to run low andf will finish in 2009 as most aid organizations are beginning to pull out and hand over their operations to local aid organizations. Many of UNHCRS programs are being stopped. She mentioned that there is an important music therapy program being sun by the Noor Al Hussein Foundation that needs fuding in order to continue. For more information please contact Charlie Wiles! She also mentioned good psycho-social programs being run by Terre du somme(?) and the IMC. This amy be a good place for an internship? I am not sure if this is possible or just an assumption? Jenin will have to be contacted about this. I will email her and ask her what programs need volunteers!
Our first conversation began with Father Haddad- A christian Arab. His main aim is to educate both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East about Americans. He does this by opening doors to all faiths at his Church in Amman. He explained that it is important to do so because many Arabs he has encountered immediately associate U.S foreign policy with, "Marines Boots and Donald Rumsfeld". He emphasized how important it is not only to connect with Americans on a high level but make efforts to build personal relationships with Muslims in your local community. He tried to do so by hosting an Iftar at his church. In Indianapolis, making efforts to engage local Muslims would be an important step to increasing our understanding of Islam.
After coming to Jordan, I realise that I had many misconceptions about Islam and I now relaize how important it is for me to address those

JSam: All Alone Together

One of the hard things about days like we had on Tuesday is that it can take longer to write about than to experience. The day was full of surprises, affirmations, yawns (from sleep deprivation) and forgetting that we've only known each other a couple of days.

As I read other people's blog entries here, I am struck by how many of us felt alone as we started this journey. I mentioned this to one of the others who wrote that, and they looked at me and laughed. I thought it was because I seemed so all-together that no one would imagine me feeling alone. When they settled down they admitted that when they were contemplating their all-aloneness, they took comfort in the fact that they were not 'that evangelical guy!' They made the point that nearly everyone here will be somewhere in Jordan or Israel where they are part of the majority of the population, but I will always be a minority within a minority. Seems like I heard that from Saleem in Nazareth a few times.

My first big takeaway from today was the class at the University of Jordan where we witnessed a packed room full of students listening to a lecture on Muslims in America. The Professor was Dr. Ed Curtis from IUPUI who is here on teaching for a year. I was particularly taken back by the clarity and passion of the students' questions who clearly wanted to know why America was scared of them and what they could do about it. I know there are some easy Talk-Radio answers to that question, but these kids seemed really sincere in pursuing their curiosity on the subject.

I'm embarrassed by my second takeaway. I knew there were Iraqi refugees somewhere out there, but I had no idea how many, how many are in Jordan, and how distressing their stories are of families being broken up by bureaucrats that aren't interested enough to give reasons why they send one family member to this country and another to another country and just don't give an answer to another. This story needs attention. I had dinner with refugees Khalid, his wife Janet, their daughter Raya, and a friend of theirs, Michael. However, they are no longer just names to me.

There was also a lot of talk today in nearly every setting about hopelessness and how individuals respond to that in different settings. Many people here have obviously learned how to simply exist in the midst of having nothing to hope for. I suspect we're not through with that conversation. After all, faith is the substance of things hoped for...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

coffee mugs and good wine

There were times yesterday I felt alone. One moment was clear to me, I saw a
coffee mug with an outline of modern Israel drawn from the Golan to Gaza to Eilat with one word written across the land. PALESTINE. A statement of hope to erase the Jewish people from the land. As I pondered what this meant to person standing in the shadow of a mosque built by a man who reached peace with Israel the shop owner offers to make us coffee as we wait for the woman to properly prepare themselves for the mosque. I wonder if this man who jokes with us in broken English about buying trinkets to take to our wives would really think if he could read my mind. My mind troubled by the idea that a kitchy coffee mug could have such a powerful political statement. Would he really care? I wonder if this isn't for the foreigners, sometimes ignorant of the complexities of the politics, religion and ancient tribal biases that are reduced to the photos of funerals or forced smiles at summits. I wonder if this isn't for the man I met on the plane, who's guitar case screamed No War and who's politics felt like a conversation in Kindergarten. Or maybe the free lance journalist who was looking for conflict in West Bank. Flying into Jordan to cross into Israel that afternoon he kept wondering if he would be harassed at the border. His Jordanian seat mate tried to calm his nerves but for him, his mind was made up. He was looking to expose the "evil Israelis" and again, the so-called journalist didn't seem to have a clue of what he spoke.

I am tired at times of how we reduce our understanding of the world to nine words or fewer. How we spend a great deal of our energy looking for the the simple in the complex. What I love about this trip is that we want the complex. We want to walk into the uncomfortable and come out the other side with a better understanding of self and others.

Conversations develop in an incubated environment that we are creating. Why it is important to me to spend the bulk of my gift shopping in Israel and why someone else feels more compelled to do it here. A conversation that was comfortable and helpful for both of us.

At dinner there was concern about how I would celebrate the Shabbat. I was amazed by the question having felt religiously alone at times during the day. I was asked to lead a small Shabbat service at dinner on Friday. I don't think I can express what that meant to me.

But later, after opening and discussing the level of fruit in the various Jordanian wines we purchased talks turned to the Finnish immigration policy, Reba MacIntyre and the parking lot at a Dead show. The group is coming I don't feel quite so alone.

Charlie says ....

The 2nd annual Middle East Journey from Indianapolis, Indiana USA arrived at our hotel in Amman, Jordan late on Sunday evening December 28th after a challenging 11 hour overnight flight from JFK Airport in NYC. Somewhere during that 11 hour flight I questioned the sanity of making such a long journey to explore our interfaith differences and commonalities however it did not take long to recognize the richness of the collective experience and the value that it adds to our individual perspectives particularly when we participate in such a grand adventure.

A conversation with John, a conservative Evangelical Minister, immediately after arriving at the Queen Alia Airport was enlightening for me as a liberal somewhat agnostic with a solid Catholic upbringing. The neutral setting of the Jordan airport, and being away from the media charged atmosphere back home, helped reveal how much we have in common and I believe that there is much that could be accomplish if we could discover ways to work together on issues of common concern.

It also felt like an honor to be with George, the religious education director at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, as we maneuvered through customs and he shared with me some of his observations and apprehensions arriving in a Muslim country. And it was fascinating to be with Hyam, a young Muslim woman on our trip, when she arrived at the airport shortly after we did having flown in from Cairo after visiting extended family over the past two weeks. On the way to the hotel Hyam shared many stories about her experiences in Egypt, the time she spent with aunts, uncles and cousins, and she spoke about how the experience both informed and created some anxiety about her decision to participate in an interfaith journey through Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Admittedly traveling overnight on a cramped airplane is exhausting however being with a conscientious group of diverse individuals on an adventure through the Middle East is exhilarating and I look forward to the experiences and conversations that lie ahead of us-

Monday, December 28, 2009

FIrst day in Jordan

What a full day! We started with a wonderful conversation at the interfaith research institute in Amman with Father Nabil Haddad. Shortly after that, we visited the Citadel and then headed over to a super cool eco-project called Wild Jordan for one of the best lunches I've ever had (and I think the group will agree!). Next was two handicraft projects 1) Jordan River Foundation and 2) The Hand Project. Both were great examples of how Bedouin women and local artisans are being employed to create handmade items. The group then went off in many different directions - I chose to walk through the souk and see another mosque. Father Jeff and I stumbled upon an amazing pastry shop and helped ourselves to some delicious Arab sweets.
I'm excited that we had such an interactive and engaging first day and look forward to 2 more weeks of the same!

JSam: Day 1 and Photo Links

Except for Becca missing her flight yesterday due to the weather in Chicago, and now being stranded in Germany for reasons having apparently nothing to do with anything other than confusion at the airlines, this journey is off to a great start. We're still hoping Becca is able to work something out to join us late on Tuesday, but right now we miss the viewpoints and curiosity that we all were expecting from her.

I've learned things at every stop today, sometimes from the people we were meeting, and sometimes from others in our group. My prayer for this trip has been for God to use all of us to draw us closer to Him. I am well aware of people back home that worry about compromising one's own faith in an experience like this, but that is the furthest thing from my experience so far, and it has not been necessary to be judgmental of other's theology in order to have my relationship with God grow a little stronger.

37 years ago my father was involved with starting a Christian Church in a Jewish Temple in West Lafayette. It was a very positive experience for me personally and in many ways prepared me for the work I'm involved with today, but I had never really gotten any feedback from the landlords as to their thoughts on the interfaith 'experiment.' I was relating that story to some of the group tonight and George said he was familiar with the story and had over the years talked to people with that Temple and related that they spoke highly of the experience and were a bit proud of having been a partner. That was not an earth-shattering moment or anything like that, but it was a nice little reminder about how God is upstream working on things that we cannot imagine.

The only photo I'll include here is one that I can't get out of my head... the refugee camp in Amman for people who fled Palestine during the 1948 war. It's still here and occupied and a troubling reminder of the people price that is being paid.

Paul Gibson has the kool camera and photo skills, and you can see his picts on my Flickr site by clicking here.

Click here for more of my photos (more than you want to see).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Preparing to go

I am happy we will be able to have the experiences that we will share in the Middle East in a few short days. As I pack I think about what this trip will mean to me, over all I look for my own growth. One thing however I find myself thinking of the late Israeli poet laurete Yehuda Amichai and his life long struggle with wanting peace. Here are three of his poems that may help us think about what we are working towards. ~George

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the Had Gadya machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

My Child Wafts Peace

My child wafts peace.
When I lean over him,
It is not just the smell of soap.

All the people were children wafting peace.
(And in the whole land, not even one
Millstone remained that still turned).

Oh, the land torn like clothes
That can't be mended.
Hard, lonely fathers even in the cave of the Makhpela*
Childless silence.

My child wafts peace.
His mother's womb promised him
What God cannot
Promise us.

*Known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs it is traditionally seen as the place that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are buried.

An appendix to the vision of peace

Don't stop after beating the swords
into ploughshares, don't stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

Have a wonderful Christmas if you are celebrating and I look forward to sharing the journey.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Count down to the trip!

Only 5 days until the group departs! Charlie, John, and I are packing our donations and finalizing all the itinerary details to make this an amazing trip for everyone involved. I'll be posting photos of possible handicrafts we can sell in The Village Experience store and hope that all of our followers will let us know what they think. Be honest! Tell us what you like and don't like and if you would purchase it in our store if we made it available. This will help us consult with the groups to make sure we have a win-win situation with them. Thanks so much for supporting our trip and hopefully you'll join us in 2010!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Midwest/Middle East Friendship Dinner

The Midwest/Middle East Friendship Dinner on December 9, 2009 was a great success despite 12 degree temperatures attracting over 120 people and raising over $3,500 for the three organizations we will be meeting in Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Middle East Journey 2009 Leaving Indianapolis on December 27

Press Release

Date: December 7, 2009
Contact: Charlie Wiles (317) 466-0114 or
Middle East Journey 2009 Leaving Indianapolis on December 27

International Interfaith Initiative is collaborating with The Village Experience to host the second annual Middle East Journey leaving Indianapolis on December 27 and returning on January 9th 2010. Middle East Journey is a delegation of conscientious citizens from diverse faith and vocational backgrounds who are traveling to the Middle East to learn about and participate in programs that are effectively building a better future for the region. This year’s delegation includes a dynamic group of individuals that represents the rich religious diversity here in Central Indiana. Among the 11 participants is the Catholic Chaplain at Butler University, the Jewish education director at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, two members of 91st Street Christian Church, a Hindu Masters student at UIndy and the daughter of one of the leaders of Al Huda Mosque in Fishers. We are also traveling with a civil rights attorney and a woman who has dedicated her life to reduce recidivism in our community. The goal of the journey is to continue building relationships based on mutual trust with individuals and organizations working for positive change in the Middle East.
This year’s Journey will take us to various sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in Palestine. New Year’s Eve will be spent at Wadi Rum, a breathtakingly beautiful National Park in the southern desert of Jordan.

The journey begins with a meeting with members of the Iraqi refugee community in Jordan. The meeting will take place at the Jesuit Center in Amman where the priests have befriended hundreds of Chaldeans who fled Iraq after the war began in 2003. The delegation will also meet with Professor Edward Curtis, an IUPUI professor who is on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching at Jordan University this semester. In the West Bank of Palestine the delegation will participate in a volunteer project and learn about youth development programs implemented by the Holyland Trust. The delegation will also hear about a “narrative” project at Bethlehem University where social studies teachers from Israel and Palestine are working to develop a common history of significant events in the region since early 1900.

The delegation then travels to Jerusalem to meet with members of a Jewish-Arab dialogue project organized by the Interreilgious Coordinating Council in Israel. Leaders from this project, Rabbi Ron Kronish and Imam Mohamad Zibdeh, spoke at a conference here in Indianapolis on October 23 this year. The delegation will also meet with a church in Cana, a village in the Galilee area of northern Israel, that is a partner with 91st Street Christian Church on various projects that foster interfaith understanding.

All too often we hear only negative news from this awe inspiring region of the world when in fact there is much to celebrate and many projects that we can support for a better future for everyone! Interfaith efforts are a unique expression of American optimism and are one of the keys to help facilitate this change.

Liz McWhirter: "But Why Go Boldly?"

By Liz McWhirter

There’s a nervous energy in the air. John Samples slows his sentence, stumbles around his next words, prefaces them with, “Allow me to use a term . . . hopefully, without the negative . . .”

Then, he drops it—

“Evangelical pastors.”

I look up at the eight other people listening to him. They’re all sitting quietly, smiling, waiting for the rest of the sentence.

John Samples’ words refer to the faith leaders he works with as Executive Director of the Christian HolyLand Foundation. Perhaps he’s exaggerated the need for semantic sensitivity in this setting, but what do you expect in a room of Muslims and Christians discussing faith and the Middle East? It’s risky business speaking up in a group like this. But that’s what I like about these people—they’re risky.

Risky because they’ve all signed up to travel to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank of Palestine in a group comprised of members from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu faiths. On December 27th this very mixed copany will be heading to one of the dicier regions of the world, a place where faith lines divide the land like livewires.

The group’s trip is supported by the International Interfaith Initiative, an Indianapolis-based organization that promotes multi-faith collaboration in order to stimulate creative cooperation and strengthen civil society. The group will be eleven strong on the day of departure, but tonight, only six of them (plus a few intrigued listeners) have gathered here in this cozy Broad Ripple abode to discuss their upcoming travels.

As I listen to these excited travelers (many of whom are meeting one another for the first time), it’s clear to me that I’m witnessing the planting of the first seedling of several fruits this trip will inevitably bear. Tonight’s meeting marks the beginning of an exchange of information, a running dialogue that will continue to deepen as they travel across sacred lands. The bond that will form, the friendships that will develop across faith lines . . . well, it’s inspiring.

But a unique bond and an enlightened global perspective are not the only positive outcomes these travelers seek. They also hope to positively change the people they encounter—whether by working alongside Palestinian refugees on a community project in the West Bank, or communing over dinner with Iraqi refugee families in Amman. At the very least, the group will simply be present for people, ready and eager to listen and learn from their stories of daily life and war, of struggle and of hope.

I ask the trip’s travel guide, Kelly Campbell, co-founder of the Indianapolis-based international travel and trade company The Village Experience, why they have chosen to travel as an interfaith group. She points out that most single-faith groups traveling to the Mid East visit only those areas connected to their particular faith; they usually see only those projects their congregations support. A mixed-faith group, Kelly believes, will branch out, will explore areas important to all the group members’ faiths.

And she should know: Kelly’s been on this trip once before—in June 2008 the International Interfaith Initiative took their first trip to the Middle East, returning with a passion to support and encourage the remarkable grassroots initiatives they saw working across the region.

It’s evident that the people gathered together tonight are approaching this trip as learners and observers, not as teachers, or Westerners with answers. Their itinerary is chock-full of meetings with peace workers in every place they will visit—including representatives from the Interfaith Center in Amman, several Bedouin women’s projects in Tel Sheva and Lakiya, the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in the Negev, the Ibdaa Cultural Center at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, and Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem.

The dialogic opportunities this trip provides would likely be applauded by Egyptian interfaith activist Mohamed Mosaad, who has said that interfaith dialogue “has to move from the five star hotels to the neighborhood mosques, churches, and synagogues. Religious people of different religious backgrounds have to meet frequently, listen to each other, communicate humanely, and share what they value the most: their individual religious and spiritual experiences.”

Though focused on experiencing the Middle East together, I learn several group members also have particular interests they hope to address during their trip. Kelly Campbell and her associate Sheila Viswanathan want to search out new handmade products from native women to sell in the Village Experience’s Broad Ripple store. Charlie Wiles, who directs the International Interfaith Initiative, is particularly interested in meeting with some of the family members of Iraqi refugees he has come to know in Indianapolis. John Samples is eager to connect with those living in the Christian communities of Israel, as he believes meeting people from the west who are willing to learn about them is a big encouragement for Arab Christians. Father Jeff Godecker, chaplain for the Catholic Community at Butler University and dare I guess the eldest member of the group, says what he’s looking forward to about the experience is, “the ability to see through somebody else’s eyes whose worldview may be very different from mine. The most attractive part [of the trip] to me is Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the same place.”

And what places they will stand together before!—Petra, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Nativity, King Abdullah Mosque. I ask Charlie Wiles, leader of the first interfaith Mid East trip, about the impact of seeing such sacred spaces from an interfaith context. “It’s enriching to hear how others interpret the sites we see,” he says. “For instance, when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre it was helpful to hear how a Presbyterian felt about the site, or hear how the Rabbi felt about the Western Wall, and the Imam felt about the Dome of the Rock. We all gained from hearing about the perspective of others.”

One group member’s perspective will be particularly sought after during the trip. Hyam Elsaharty is a non-profit worker in Chicago and will be the sole Muslim representative in the group. She confesses at the meeting that she’s been reading, “the ‘Idiot’s’—no, ‘the Dummies,’—no wait, it’s—Arabic for Dummies” in preparation for her trip.

Becca Huttsell, an Indianapolis resident who’s dedicated much of her career to working with the city’s juvenile offenders, cracks up and admits that she’s been reading Islam for Dummies. Becca tells me she sees this trip as “a myth-busting mission—for all religions.” Pointing around the room, she forewarns her fellow travelers, “I’m going to pick all your brains.”

She puts it lightly, but Becca’s words get at the heart of the purpose of interfaith travel. As British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks theorizes in his controversial book The Dignity of Difference, each faith has only part of the truth. When faith groups come together, they possess more of it.

It’s possible the witness these travelers will bear to the power of interfaith harmony could make a lasting impression. Charlie Wiles notes from last year’s trip, “When people asked about the composition of our group they were impressed with our diversity . . . I feel that is something we should promote about America, that we have examples of where diversity works for the greater good.”

The interfaith approach to troubled Middle East regions has certainly gained momentum, especially since Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s unprecedented announcement in March of 2008, calling for an interfaith dialogue amongst the world’s monotheistic religions.

Though much hope swirls around the words “interfaith dialogue,” for his part, John Samples is keeping things in perspective. He explains, “I am not one who believes peace for the region is right around the corner; I do not even know that it is attainable in any long-term, meaningful way. However, when the focus is on individuals, we can bring peace to families and small communities. And if there is ever to be peace in the big picture, it will be because hearts are changed in the people who will then change the leaders.”

In a word universal to the Hebrew, English, and Arabic languages: “Amen!”

Note: The five other travelers participating in the 2009 interfaith trip are: George Kelley, Sheila Viswanathan, Paul Gibson, Michael Sutherlin, and Tim Sutherlin.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

From the 2008 Trip: A look inside...

Yesterday in Bethlehem, members of our group were permitted inside a Palestinian refugee camp to learn about their troubled history and current situation. There is so much we as Americans don't know about the situation here - imagine not being able to make an outgoing phone call, not being able to drive your call outside of the "wall" and not having water for over a month at a time. It was eye-opening to see the different sides of the story first hand. I am confident that our group will return to the United States to share the many stories we heard and to encourage those we know to learn more about this part of the world outside of what our media shows us. I bid the group farewell tomorrow and head out to conquer more of Jordan. Have a safe flight!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From the 2008 Trip: In Israel

We are just finishing our time in Jerusalem and are heading off to Bethlehem this morning. We have spent the last two days touring the Old City, visiting the Holocaust Museum, and avoiding street closures on account of the French Prime Minister staying at the King David Hotel across the street.

Yesterday we also visited a Bedouin work camp and school in the West Bank, a trip that was coordinated by Rabbis for Human Rights. This was a challenging opportunity to hear about the various hardships that face this community, and a very enlightening experience.

Our lack of free internet in Jerusalem has prevented more updates to the blog, but we will be sure to post some updates and pictures before heading home on Friday...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

From the 2008 Trip: One More from Petra

Indianapolis group poses in front
of one of the iconic locations in the
ancient city of Petra, the "Treasury".