Father Rick Byrum of St. James Episcopal Church; Deacon Eric Stoltz of St. Brendan Roman Catholic Church; and Dr. Mahmoud Abdel-Baset of the Islamic Center of Southern California, who together also organized the pilgrimage.
Three other clergy also participated, including the Rev. Dr. Reinhard Krauss, Co-Pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Rolling Hills Estates and President of the South Coast Interfaith Council; Rabbi Leonard Schoolman of the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City; and myself. The majority—38 of us—were laypeople from several congregations.
We traveled together as members of the three “Abrahamic,” monotheistic faiths, purposefully worshipping together and at holy sites common to all. Arriving on the Sabbath, Friday evening, we welcomed the holy day at dinner in our hotel with our first Shabbat in Israel, led by the two rabbis. Saturday morning we celebrated the joy of God’s gift of the Sabbath day. On Saturday evening, after having visited the historic Al Jazar Mosque in Akko, we had the profound experience of praying to God in the manner of Muslims. With the call to prayer (adhan), we stood shoulder to shoulder in rows, kneeled repeatedly with foreheads bowed to the carpet, and offered prayer (salat), rising at the end to wish one another the peace of God, saalam alaikum, and responding, alaikum salaam.
On Sunday we visited the Synagogue Church in Nazareth, a small church built on the traditional site of the synagogue where Jesus began his public ministry. On this day of resurrection for Christians, we worshipped and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. When communion was served, the celebrants invited all the pilgrims to come forward. The Christians received the elements, and the Jews and Muslims, crossing their arms over their chests to indicate that they could not in faith receive communion, came forward and received God’s blessing. By the end of this second day in the Holy Land, we had worshipped in all three faith traditions, and, with each of us profoundly and spiritually moved, what had begun as a pilgrim group with three faith contingents became truly one interfaith pilgrimage.
What bonded us was our common worship in one another’s services and at each other’s holy sites. Rather than holding “interfaith services” in which accommodations are made to the beliefs of each faith, we shared as much and as fully as possible the worship experience of all three faiths. We understood that we all pray to the same God who has called us to faith in the tradition of Abraham, whether it is through Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad (peace be upon them). We all acknowledged that there are aspects of the other two faiths and worship that aren’t compatible with our own faith and worship, but at the same time, we could offer prayers of our own faith in the worship context of others.
The Dome of the Rock, the traditional site of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and the ascent into heaven of the prophet Muhammad and Islam’s third holiest site, and the Al Aqsa Mosque had been closed to non-Muslims for the past six years for political reasons. Yet the Muslim pilgrims were determined that we, their brothers and sisters in Abraham, would be able to enter with them. One of the men spent the morning seeking out the leader (Sheik) of Jerusalem’s Islamic community (Waqf) and got permission for us to go into both places. When we pilgrims finally entered together, emotions and tears and embraces overwhelmed us all— Muslims because of the importance of these sites to their faith, Christians and Jews because of the sacrifices the Muslims made to share these two holy places with us.
In the plenary session the last evening of the pilgrimage, the most commonly acknowledged spiritual— and emotional—highlights of the experience mentioned were praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall, communion in Nazareth and at the Cenacle (the Upper Room) in Jerusalem, prayers along the Via Dolorosa, and visiting the Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif with the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. While the women had to remain in a designated area at the Wall, all the men were able to go forward and pray, some putting slips of paper with written prayers into a crack of the Wall, which are collected and burned as an offering to God at the end of each day. One of the Jewish pilgrims was moved to tears, affecting all, as he prayed in his late grandfather’s tattered prayer shawl (tallit) which he had brought for this purpose, and found himself comforted in the arms of a Muslim pilgrim. Several of our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers commented on how they had gained a sense of the profound meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death for Christians as they participated in the prayer service along the Way of the Cross.
At the end of our journey together, we acknowledged having our own faith deepened and our understanding and appreciation of the two other faiths enhanced. It is important to have faith groups travel to Israel and Palestine to speak with representatives of other faith groups in that part of the world about how their faith and circumstances are informed and affected by the social and political conditions in which they live. However, the kind of experience we had is equally important to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the three Abrahamic faiths in this country. Just as important is how we were received by the Israelis and Palestinians we encountered on the pilgrimage— as signs of hope and peace. Information and pictures on the pilgrimage can be found at http://www.abraham.la .
CHARLES G. ROBERTSON JR. is pastor of Wilshire Church in Los Angeles and president of the pilgrimage’s sponsoring group— Wilshire Center Interfaith Council of Los Angeles.
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