The 221st General Assembly ended with mixed feelings. While I was profoundly disappointed in the divestment vote, which I viewed as well-meaning, but misguided, I was somewhat satisfied that I had convinced the GA to approve my commissioner's resolution declaring that “Zionism Unsettled" does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My own perspective had been shaped by efforts developing interfaith discussions in my congregation last winter. The local rabbi taught a well-attended four-week class on “A Taste of Judaism.” I knew that upon returning home, I needed to reach out to her, explain what we did and did not do in Detroit, and build bridges towards an interfaith dialogue. Very quickly, it became clear that a group of us in the Presbytery of Great Rivers had similar views. We were disappointed in the divestment vote for various reasons, but wanted to turn lemons into lemonade. We wanted to find a way to build relationships, and develop interfaith dialogues, rather than create or exacerbate divisions.
The efforts initially began in a decentralized way. Throughout the presbytery, people began to reach out to the local Jewish community. A group of us drove to Springfield to have lunch with the Jewish Federation. I met with the local rabbi in Bloomington, and we decided that I would speak to her congregation at a Shabbat service about what we did and did not do in Detroit, and more importantly, how we might work together. Similar things occurred in Peoria and the Quad Cities. Inspired by the work going on to our north in Chicago, we moved to have the presbytery establish an interfaith working group.
Earlier in August, we gained presbytery support to create an interfaith working group. The Presbytery’s Visioning Team authorized and generously funded the working group through a transformation grant from the Synod of Lincoln Trails, and charged it to come back to the assembly in 6 months with a proposal for a permanent council. The new initiative is aimed at strengthening inter-faith relations, developing partnerships, promoting justice, and building relationships. We are initially focusing on developing a Presbyterian, Jewish, and Muslim dialogue, and will bring together people, educate our members about issues, and reach out to Jewish and Muslim communities throughout the region. We will co-sponsor events with inter-faith partners, bring speakers to address issues of mutual concern, and develop service projects bringing people together across faith lines. We intend to develop resources to equip our churches to understand the complex dynamics of the Middle East conflict, providing educational materials aimed to inform, but not indoctrinate.
While we are in the earliest stages of our work, there are good things going on in Central Illinois. Shortly after being named the moderator of the working group, I learned about a program taking place in my own backyard, mostly supported by local Rotary Groups, but partially funded by one of our own congregations. The “Friends Forever Israel Life Raft” brings ten high school students from Israel to the US for a 2 week intensive program. Consisting of 5 Jews, 5 Arabs, and two teachers, Friends Forever creates an environment where the students can connect with one another in an environment free from the normal pressures at home. The intense two weeks in the US creates bonds between students, and empowers them to realize that friendship is possible with anyone from a different culture, religion, or ethnicity. After their time in the US ends, the students return home to Israel, and then begin the hard work of continuing what they began. They meet together, over a year, extending what they learned here to their communities in Haifa and Nazareth.
I was able to spend a lot of time with Friends Forever. I witnessed the bonds these kids developed, and the challenges they overcame. When a group of teenagers from area high schools visited with them, I experienced what I can only describe as a “kingdom moment,” when the students ceased being Arabs, Jews, or Americans. They were kids first, capable of developing tight bonds. I am so glad my son was a part of this, if just for a few hours. While Friends Forever is not aimed first at impacting the Americans who encounter them, the program’s enthusiasm and sense of hope is contagious. Programs like Friends Forever, along with schools in Israel such as Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arabic Education in Israel are the keys for peace. We need to enable people to see beyond labels, and learn to communicate first. There is much that we, as a church, can learn from this program. It can provide another way for the Presbyterian passion for social justice to build bridges, instead of erecting walls dividing us.
I know that I will be be working with Friends Forever next year, and I am confident that the presbytery can use this as a way to build those bridges. We have turned lemons into lemonade. But there is much work to do. And much thirst.
Peace. Shalom. Salaam.
Learn more about the Bloomington-Normal Illinois Friends Forever Program on its Facebook page.