Learning from the Irish Experience
“If you asked me one year ago to share a room with a Palestinian, I would have slept outside,” Chaim shared. Yet he came to Musalaha, a first-time Israeli participant, because he decided that the time has come “to love and listen.”
“I came to Musalaha in 2010. A Messianic Jew offended me, and I decided not to come to Musalaha events anymore. I talked to my priest about this anger at Jewish people and the pain that I felt, and he told me to pray for them for 30 days. I told him I can’t. He told me to do it. I told him it wouldn’t be sincere. He told me it might be words at the beginning, but I would come to mean it, and wish them true peace. I listened to him. My words were meaningless at first, and then half way into the 30 days I began to mean it. I found I truly want the Jewish people to find peace with God. My heart changed toward them, and I returned to meeting with the other side,” paraphrased story from Mary, a Palestinian participant.
Stories such as these were common on our August 26 – September 1 trip to Lucan, Ireland. We took a mixed group of 21 young adults, experienced and first-time participants and a few leaders, to a beautiful, peaceful and relaxing guesthouse that is often used for reconciliation initiatives between Protestants and Catholics.
From the beginning of our trip, it became clear that we had a group with diverse opinions. The theological diversity, particularly within the Israeli group, stood out immediately. At first, people were cautious, even argumentative and aggressive, yet these relationships grew and “the openness, willingness to honestly share and be vulnerable grew as the time passed,” an Israeli leader shared. The first day we spent a lot of time explaining how it is okay to have different opinions, and how we are free to have different theological understanding of issues while still believing in Jesus. Younan, a Palestinian participant, insightfully noted, “The Bible is what really should unite us as a body, but in our case it’s being used as a point of great division.” In spite of the challenges, “we managed to create a safe environment,” another leader said afterwards.
Each participant wrestled with reconciliation in their own way, sometimes as those just-introduced to the process, other times as those struggling to stay involved as they felt discouraged with the lack of progress in our societies. There were many misperceptions that the first-time participants had, yet the experienced participants were able to help and guide them as they learned a lot of new information. Our new participants were uniquely positioned to offer their enthusiasm to our veteran participants and they brought a new encouragement and energy to the group.
Our theological differences and the lack of support for reconciliation in our respective religious communities were the subject of much discussion. In one of our sessions, after learning about the Irish conflict from a local Protestant and Catholic, we heard from a Northern Irish man who has been involved in church leadership and reconciliation for several decades. He shared how, during their conflict, anyone involved in reconciliation efforts was marginalized by the church. He shared a moving story with us about elders from his church. They happened to have a conference in an area where a particular paramilitary group was engaged in much violence. People in this group approached the church leadership asking for prayer as they were about to make a decision to either continue with the violent struggle, or cease violence and pursue reconciliation. The speaker shared how their church was able to play a positive role in encouraging this group toward reconciliation, in spite of the fact that they were a minority voice.
Afterwards, we reflected on this more. While religious institutions can serve as an obstacle to peace, rather than be agents of it, we can choose to be part of our religious communities and act differently. Tamar, one of our first-time Israeli participants, noted, “If we commit ourselves to reconciliation, we should continue. The outside political and social circumstances will always change, but we should remain firm in our commitment.” We returned home, seeking to do just that. Our experiences haven’t ended; they have just begun. Many participants are eagerly seeking fellowship with one another outside of Musalaha, and we are determined to remain faithful to the commitment we made in Ireland – to walk the path of reconciliation, to be a voice for peace in our religious communities, and to do so, even on the margins.
by Jack Munayer