The Resilience of the Grassroots
In his second blog post following a recent visit to Jerusalem and Amman, PhD student Austin Tiffany looks at the resilience of the grassroots.
Throughout the pilgrimage, the emphasis on the importance of the grassroots could not have been clearer. Down a narrow road lined with a couple of shops, we walked into a Sisters of Zion convent. A sister, who has devoted her entire life to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews (as well as Muslims), softly and humbly explained her story of dedication and faith. On Shabbat, the kind hospitality of a local couple welcomed ten guests into their home, sharing their faith, heritage and food on a quiet Jerusalem evening. We heard of humble and quiet dialogue groups determined and continuing to persist amidst the geopolitical tension and gridlock. In Amman, we visited the strikingly beautiful King Hussein Mosque and lost ourselves amidst the grand space that peacefully humbled us in a way only a mosque can.
King Hussein Mosque, Amman
Outside of Amman, we met Caritas staff at a local Catholic church. They introduced us to Christian refugees who have fled the violence in Mosul. The stories they shared, the pain they hold, the heartache they feel, the hope with which they inspire and the faith with which they move forward amid tragedies resonated deeply with each member of the group. These spaces and moments, often overlooked in the shadows of the sites mentioned in last week's blog post, seemed particularly sacred.
A refugee family from Iraq being cared for by Caritas in Amman
In the Holy Land, we heard many stories of pessimism and the loosening grip on hope as the political realm stalls and the religious realm becomes more divided. A narrative of distrust spreads, fed by news headlines and unnecessary violence. Yet it is not met without resistance. Tucked away in the alleyways and suburbs are grassroots organisations delivering not only care, services and housing, but they are planting hope in a region increasingly defined by despair. HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan poignantly expressed to us that religious leaders must begin to "step off the pulpit and into the streets". The role of the humble and faithful servants with dirty hands and feet should not go unnoticed. Their narratives must be heard for interfaith initiatives, both local and regional, to survive and thrive. Away from the Abrahamic Holy Sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, these local spaces breathe fresh air into the tension and offer sacred spaces off the beaten path of pilgrims.
The pathway towards the Baptism site of Jesus; a Greek Orthodox Church near the Jordan River is in the background
Many of the questions we asked were answered with the words "it's complicated". And if a few days of experiences and reflections on interfaith in the Middle East reveal anything, it is that the steps forward require collaboration and inspiration in order to wade through the complications of a land important to billions of people.
In order for the work of the grassroots to succeed, the political and religious heavyweights of the area must listen. The region and the world cannot afford for these positive stories of interfaith relations and encounter to go unnoticed. The words and wisdom of HRH Prince Hassan and Rabbi David Rosen represent examples of significant civic and political leaders who recognize the importance of the collaboration with the grassroots organisations.
This blog cannot solve the issues of the region; it will not result in a peace deal nor encourage encounter between East and West Jerusalem. Yet, if anything, I hope it communicates the vital importance of hope, the necessity of a listening ear and collaboration between the religious and civic and the dedication to continue improving relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims - even when the situation seems bleak.
If you would like to read more about the incredible organizations we visited:
Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding
Ecce Homo Jerusalem
Interfaith Encounter Association
Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies
Austin Tiffany is a first year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Austin's PhD research examines contemporary interfaith training of priests and rabbis in the United Kingdom and the United States.
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