I am just over halfway through my sabbatical, writing from 35,000 feet as we travel from Boston to Taiwan for the autumn meeting of the Bishops of The Episcopal Church. This next chapter on my sabbatical journey will feature three weeks in Taiwan and Japan where, along with the gathering of Bishops, Ann and I will visit the Anglican Church in Japan and spend an additional week in Taiwan. Bishop Lai has invited me to be part of his diocesan Clergy Retreat and to preach at Saint James, Taichung. I am very honored by my colleague’s invitation. Bishop Lai and I were ordained bishops in the same year (2001) and have served together as bishops in The Episcopal Church for over 13 years now. While we come from very different cultures and experiences, it has been a joy to work together and build a relationship and friendship across the many miles. This is my first visit to Asia (Ann’s too) and we are looking forward to the experience very much. I’m sure there will be many stories to share upon our return.
The just completed first portion of my sabbatical was centered on the Holy Land and the work of Kids4Peace there and in the United States. This includes our own Vermont Chapter and the ministry of the Jerusalem PeaceBuilders Leadership Camp in Brattleboro. My “relationship” pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine came in the midst of the conflict in Gaza, which added an unexpected and challenging dimension to my time there. While I was not in (or near) Gaza, the impact of the conflict was felt throughout Israel and Palestine. I felt safe throughout my time in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and Bethlehem, and still the conflict was an ever present reality in the lives of those with whom I visited. The seemingly intractable situation and its consequences of violence, destruction, loss of life and deepening enmity is tragic indeed.
The Tantur Ecumenical Center on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the Bethlehem checkpoint, was my “home away from home” for two weeks. I had a south facing room that looked out over Bethlehem, divided from where I was living by the separation/security wall and all the wall represents in the reality that is Israel/Palestine today. For sure it is a complex reality, without easy solutions, yet I still believe that through dialogue and a mutual awareness of the fact that violations of human dignity lie very much at the heart of this conflict, peace is possible. Clearly the current rhetoric and violence on all sides is not leading to any sort of lasting solution. I spent much of my time during the first part of my sabbatical trying to deepen my own knowledge and understanding of the history and circumstances that have brought us to this point of such tension and conflict. I still have much to learn. I lament deeply.
My relationship pilgrimage in Jerusalem included many opportunities to visit, share meals and conversation with many Kids4Peace families and with the Kids4Peace Jerusalem staff. Each encounter was rich and rewarding. Perhaps the most important thing I experienced during those times together was the actual, physical meeting together between Muslim, Jewish and Christian families connected with Kids4Peace. In “normal” times such conversations among Christians, Jews and Muslims would be unusual, but these conversations seemed to me exceptional and remarkable amidst the reality of the conflict impacting everyone’s lives. If ever there was an “excuse” to pull back from the building of those relationships, the conflict in Gaza offered the perfect rationale, and yet my experience of these Kids4Peace families was just the opposite – they actually went deeper in their relationship building, even as they risked being honest in sharing with each other what they were thinking and feeling. Those conversations were not without their own tensions from time to time, but on occasion after occasion I found myself giving thanks for the gift of sitting in these sacred circles. In the end, all 99 of the young people scheduled to come to the United States as part of the various Kids4Peace camps kept their commitment, a true testimony to the hard work of the Kids4Peace Jerusalem staff and the families themselves. Surely, there is something in their witness that might guide the leaders of Israel, Palestine and others to see a better way.
My time in Israel/Palestine also included a bus trip to the north to visit with the Reverend Dr. Kamal Ferah in Nazareth. Father Kamal is a gentle, warm, smart and wise man with much to teach and a willingness to share his knowledge and experience with great generosity. We visited many sites together and he taught me much about this part of Israel, its history and current realities. Most memorable of all was our visit to his childhood home – the northern village of Bar’am. Bar’am was a Christian (Greek Melkite) village, which in 1948 was occupied by Israel Defense Forces. At age five, Fr. Kamal was one of the boys chosen to offer a sign of hospitality to the soldiers in the form of bread and salt given to the commander. Shortly after that, the villagers were instructed to leave the village for “two weeks” because it was too dangerous. That “displacement” continues to this day, a long “two weeks” for people like Fr. Kamal. Even though the courts have ruled that the land should be returned to those who were displaced, the decision when to do so lies in the hands of the Israeli military who continue to cite “security” as the reason for the continuing “displacement.” In the interim, the houses of the village were destroyed, so that today there are only ruins. The church itself has been restored and a Saturday Mass is permitted. In addition, some younger adults have recently begun to offer a ministry of “presence” in the church and among the ruins (which are now part of a national park where visitors come). They are there to tell the stories of their community and their families who once lived there and hope one day to return. Their story was not told in anger (although I am sure there is anger and resentment there), but in sorrow and hope, with a deep commitment never to forget. While I was there, preparations were underway to host a two-week summer camp for the children of Bar’am, children of families that were displaced to other villages in 1948. It is a camp I hope to visit one day.
The final few days of my time in Israel/Palestine were spent in Bethlehem, where I was hosted by my friend George Rishmawi, whom some in Vermont will remember from his visit with us in conjunction with our 2005 Diocesan Convention on Global Mission at Lake Morey Inn. Beyond the hospitality of his time, George refreshed my acquaintance with Bethlehem, its sights, sounds and current realities, since it has been several years since my last visit. He also shared information about the Abraham Path project, with which he is now very much involved, and offered a good history and teaching lesson on the importance of water and the role it plays in the complex reality of this land.
As we traveled through the various municipalities that make up greater Bethlehem, I was struck this time by a heightened sense of confinement being experienced by the people. Security measures are tighter than ever. Confiscation of land for the separation/security wall’s construction continues. Most new home construction by Palestinians is vertical, since there is not much land left upon which they can build. This is a cultural shift for Arab families who are used to living side by side in what we might consider extended family compounds. Lack of tourists (war sure takes its toll on that!), means lack of income and all the consequences that flow from that circumstance. Over and over I heard how frustration at the lack of progress in dealing with the issues of occupation, refugee return, and human rights violations creates social unrest and its attendant consequences. Still there is a remarkable resiliency along with fervent expressions of hope in the people of Bethlehem who continue to pray and work for peace.
Included during this time with George in Bethlehem was my first visit to the desert and a guided trip through the desert to a magnificent view of the Dead Sea from above. Our host for this trip was a Bedouin man, who became our host as well at his family home/camp (complete with camels!), where we shared bread, tea and conversation following our desert pilgrimage. I also visited Holy Nativity Church, where we prayed for peace at the birth grotto of the Prince of Peace and lit candles for peace, the work of Kids4Peace and for the people of Vermont. A final highlight of my time in Bethlehem came on my last Sunday morning when I went to the local Greek Melkite church, where George and his family are members. I simply intended to be in the congregation, but the local priest (when he discovered who I was) invited me to vest and con-celebrate the Eucharist with him. He indicated that his sermon was on Christian unity and that my presence was a gift (and I gather a good sermon illustration!). It was quite and honor and an experience I won’t soon forget.
Returning home to Vermont, my sabbatical journey continued with the opportunity to be part of the Jerusalem PeaceBuilders Leadership Camp, run by the Reverend Nicholas Porter and his wife, Dorothy, at their beautiful Acer Farm in Brattleboro. The Leadership Camp is an extension of Kids4Peace in the sense that the 15 and 16 year old participants from Jerusalem and the United States are, for the most part, graduates of Kids4Peace summer camps who demonstrate exceptional leadership potential. Nicholas invited me to be a volunteer counselor for the camp and so I spent the last few days of camp session #1 “learning the ropes” and then spent the full twelve days of camp session #2 as part of the adult team working with these exceptional young people. Nicholas invited me to bring my work around the subject of “dignity” into the camp curriculum and I was glad to do so. It was well received. After twelve days of summer camp, I was exhausted, but I was also very much blessed and nourished by this time and work.
The first leg of my sabbatical journey, with its focus on the Holy Land and Kids4Peace ended with my participation in the four-day Kids4Peace International Summit held at Adelynrood Retreat Center in Newbury, Massachusetts. This gathering included staff and leaders of Kids4Peace from the Jerusalem Chapter as well as the several North American chapters, including Vermont. Vermont was very well represented at the Summit with nine participants, including Dr. Henry R. Carse, founder of Kids4Peace. I am very committed to this work. I believe in the Kids4Peace mission and philosophy and welcome the deeper involvement of folks from throughout Vermont in this important ministry. At Diocesan Convention we will hear from the Reverend Lisa Ransom co-chair of our local Kids4Peace chapter, as well as from the Reverend Nicholas Porter and his ministry with Jerusalem PeaceBuilders.
Other highlights of this first part of my sabbatical include time with our granddaughters, the ordination of two priests from Vermont (Sean Lanigan in Long Beach, California and Mark Genszler in North Bellmore, New York), the ordination and consecration of Alan M. Gates as Bishop of Massachusetts, work around our house in Newfane and, of course, some golf. All in all, it has been a rich and rewarding sabbatical time so far, and I have every reason to believe the journey ahead will be just as gratifying.
I am most grateful for this gift of sabbatical time and grateful for all those who make this gift possible, especially the members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team and the many diocesan leaders who continue to guide the work of our common life in the Episcopal Church in Vermont. I am also grateful for the work I know many are engaged in with Del Glover, Craig Smith and Christine Graham around the future of our mission effort in Vermont, as well as all those who are helping prepare for what promises to be a fantastic Diocesan Convention. Thank you to each and every one of you for your prayers and support. I feel most fortunate indeed!