Sometimes the Spirit shows up

Reflections with Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Old City Jerusalem.

by Stephen Kriss,

Jerusalem. Photo by Dave Landis.

There were about a dozen of us gathered around fresh squeezed orange juice and a couple of tables just inside the Damascus Gate in the Old City.  Our group had been traveling for a few days in Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of the partnership between Franconia Conference and Biblical Seminary for intercultural education. It was the third time in a few years that I’d been back, engaging with initiatives supported by Conference congregations—Deep Run East, Philly Praise, and Franconia.  In some ways, the once exotic holy land was starting to feel both more familiar and more frustrating.

We were gathering after a long day to meet with two seminary students, both American Jews living awhile in Jerusalem.  I had met one of the students at a coffee shoppe in Philadelphia.  The second guy was his housemate, a Reformed Jew.   Our group had just returned from several days of staying with Palestinian Christians in occupied Bethlehem.  We’d heard their stories and seen the dividing wall.  It had been overwhelming and gut-wrenching, as usual.

It was tough to turn toward a conversation with Jewish students.  I had strategically set it up at a small refreshment stand, owned by a Muslim guy who had spent a lot of time in California.  He agreed to stay open late this night for the conversation.   The two students told their own predicaments, their own call as spiritual leaders, their struggle as Jews in Israel in the midst of injustices.  They told of slipping scared into Palestine, trying to hide their own Jewishness to see the other side of the story.  They admitted that they were a little afraid to come and visit with us in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

The conversation was both beautiful and tough.  The seminary students—both Christian and Jewish—shared openly from their own perspectives.  They asked questions.  They shared perplexities.  There was both wincing and hoping.

But maybe the most remarkable thing that happened that night was as our time was concluding, the shopkeeper chimed into our conversation.

He said, “Listening to you guys gives me hope.”

He said, “We have a long journey together to figure this out.  We have much to overcome.  It will take many years.  But maybe because we gathered tonight it will only take 189 years rather than 200 to move toward peace.”

Our Jewish friends trembled and teared up.  We witnessed something holy and lovely.  It was listening, it was acting, it was hoping, it was sharing space and moving beyond fears. It was next generation leaders receiving a blessing from a Muslim man probably older than their parents in the Muslim Quarter in front of a group of American Christians.

The moment was pretty amazing.  In these kinds of learning experiences, we do a lot of setting up, a lot of planning, but the Spirit shows up wildly and mostly unpredictably in the circumstance.  It’s something we hope for as leaders in our preparing and our journeying, something we wait for, but something unexplainable in the careful question, vulnerability and risk; in the exchange across boundaries, between young and old, in the midst of moving toward understanding.

This is why I believe in intercultural education, in missional movement across the globe. It’s the Spirit’s showing up when we take risks. It’s listening across misgiving.   Sometimes it requires movement and travel across thousands of miles and sometimes it only requires us to walk across the street, where we encounter the Divine in the face of fear, frustration, difference.