On bombings and hope for the future
This morning I arose to spend the day with about sixty teenagers from the United States, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel, and Palestine. They are Jewish, Muslim and Christian, and they are all participants in a program sponsored by Auburn Seminary in New York called “Face to Face/Faith to Faith.
This project is among the most compelling things I’ve seen in my first year of travels as Moderator of the General Assembly.
When I woke up, it seemed like it would be a fairly easy day. I was being offered the opportunity to sit in on the deliberations of the teenagers, who have just three more days before the program ends and they all head home.
However, on the way down the hill to breakfast, I received the news of the bombings in London this morning. Forty more dead, hundreds wounded, another senseless round of violence in a cycle that seems to spin ever more quickly and wildly out of control.
I can think of no place I would have preferred to spend this difficult day than with this courageous group of teenagers.
Five years ago, the folks at Auburn decided to do something significant and real about the rising tide of violence in our world. The idea is pretty simple, really, though the logistics and the group dynamics are quite challenging. Students from the participating countries must be sixteen to eighteen years old to participate for the first time. They are chosen for their diversity, their commitment to their faith, their location in places of violence in the world, and their openness to energetically engage those who are different.
Students arrive in New York from all over the world, and head off to a camp an hour north of the city (another great thing a Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center is offering our denomination – this one is the Center in Holmes, NY). Then, they embark on a two-week adventure of getting to know one another, learning and practicing the communication skills necessary to share and listen to one another’s difficult stories, and becoming a new generation of practitioners of peacemaking.
Today’s news of the bombings in London evoked a watershed of deep sharing, tears, and a realistic assessment of the hard reality they confront as they go home. This afternoon, many of these young adults shared painful, rarely told stories of the ways in which their own families have been touched by the violence. One young woman said that for the last ten days she felt this was a safe place. “The bombings reminded me,” she said, “that no place is entirely safe, but I’m still glad I came.”
I have seen a lot of great things our church is doing as I have traveled. This fits in that elite category I’ve created in my mind of “The Church being Church.” This program insists that God can help us to manufacture hope, even in spite of the clear-eyed assessment that the situation could easily be categorized as hopeless.
Over the last few months, I have heard a possible consensus growing among Presbyterians, many of whom have disagreed with one another about our action at last year’s assembly to start a process of “phased, selective, divestment” from companies whose activities support the occupation of Palestine and the terror of extremists in the Middle East. Whatever we may believe about the assembly’s actions, it seems that most of us can find common ground on a commitment to invest in efforts to build a strong and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Auburn’s program is a gift to our church. They have already been hard at work at developing the foundation for a resolution to the madness of a growing violence that, all too often, is fueled by religious extremists. They aren’t complaining. They aren’t wringing their hands. They’re just partnering with Christian, Jewish and Muslim colleagues around the world to defy the madness. They are making an investment in peace.
Please check out the website for Face to Face/Faith to Faith at:
This program doesn’t just deserve our support, it deserves to be copied and emulated. They have to raise almost half a million dollars every year to make it go, and they need our help. They also could use help from pastors and lay leaders in identifying the teenagers in your area who would make good participants. Together, we can grow this work.
Tonight, after that very heavy afternoon session in which the kids shared so deeply with each other, someone pulled out a guitar as we finished dinner. The first song, sung with gusto by sixty teenagers who stood arm and arm on top of the picnic tables and the benches in the dining hall, was “Stand by Me.” The organizers tell me that when the teenagers arrived they brought with them most of the stereotypes about one another that have been so destructive in the world. It’s not that they’ve unlearned all the racism and hatred and bigotry and violence that they’ve been brought up on in just two weeks. However, they’ve learned to see one another as people, and to rethink some of their own assumptions. One young man pleaded with the group today, “When you go home and you see other people, look them in the eye and see that they are people, just like I am.” Those words - "Stand by me" - take on an entirely new meaning when song by these young adults who have experienced hatred in such profound ways.
Today, I received a wonderful gift from God. I sat on the edge of a moment of intimacy shared by a group of teenagers - Muslims and Jews and Christians – who dream of leading the world into a new and lasting kind of peace and security. “Look at the way we’re sitting all mixed up with one another after just one and a half weeks,” one young woman said. “Imagine what we can do in a year.”