Rev. Marcia Cham
Even twenty years after my sabbatical, while reading the paper, listening to the news, teaching a Bible Study, or just remembering, images of my Tantur experience flood my memory, trigger my mind, and sometime distressed my heart. Images:
My husband struggling to get CompuServe up and running for email to the USA. The Palestinian women climbing over the walls of Tantur. The Israeli soldiers giving chase to the Palestinian Women and me holding my breath. A holy moment of “bread breaking” with a Palestinian woman aboard an Arab bus. The challenge of balancing Tantur’s course work with Sabbatical Time. Walking the Wadi Kelt and praying the land during Holy Week. Getting acquainted with the workers in olive wood factories in Bethlehem. During the Arab-Israeli Co-Existence Seminar, meeting and listening to those seeking peace and co-existence. The joy of Vivi the house matron and her skills of tending to us. Yours truly attending the Bat Mitzvah of a friend’s family at Kefar Saba who had decided to live in Israel. The young girl requested that I wear a clerical collar so those who attended would know that she had a Christian friend. (I was the first Christian she had ever met.). A group of us searching for ice cream on the road to Bethlehem. Being told at the first shop, “We don’t carry ice cream this time of year.” Determined to get our ice cream, we walked on. At each store along the way we were greeted with smiles and, “you are the ones looking for ice cream.” The experience reminded us how fast news travels in the land. The Class Modules and Professors. Ken Bailey presenting the cultural picture of God, in the parable of the prodigal, picking up the hem of his robe and running to meet his son. Nafez and Laila Nazzal presenting Islam and its complex sociological dimensions. Jim Fleming sharing his volume of knowledge of the geography of land, indeed the fifth gospel. Dennis Madden’s Peace Studies and his discussion of Martin Luther King’s principals of peace making. Yehezkel Landau’s dedication to “Open House” and his insights about Judaism. Rev. Naim Atick’s story brought tears and tore at my heart. Tom Stransky’s introduction to the churches in the Holy Land during Christian Unity Week. Witnessing the variety of Christian expression, which boggled my mind and touched my heart especially when we ended the week with the “Breaking Bread” at the Melkite Church.
Naively, I thought when one signed on to attend an ecumenical institute that others would be ecumenists. That was not the case. At times, the tension outside the walls was nothing compared to the tension inside the walls around holy orders and struggles over the Lord’s Table. The tension came to a head in Nazareth at the Galilee Hotel.
After settling in our hotel, several of us walked to the Church of St. Gabriel-Greek Orthodox...the site of Mary’s well. A baptism for a four year old boy was process. As we quietly backed out, a man who might be the grandfather motioned for us to come forward. We stood behind the family and watched as the Dad and Priest oiled the boy’s body and poured water over the boy. The mother dried the boy off and the proud grandparents presented new clothes for the boy complete with the price tags hanging from the shirt and pants. Dressed in new clothes and lighted candles, the family circled the altar three times. The grandmother presented the child with a gold cross and goodies were brought out and the celebration began which included offering us goodies and motioning for me to take the family portrait. We carried the joy and the inclusiveness of the celebration back to our hotel.
However, the inclusiveness ended at the dinner table where some shared their stories of their identification as priests of the Word and Sacrament and questioned mine. Some felt they could not even be with Protestants, some desired to be more open but were pulled by the careful teaching from their childhood. Another had never met a Protestant face to face and another had been deeply hurt by the Irish political struggle. My heart ached for the damage Protestant did to Catholics in some areas of the world.
Hurtful remarks were made by all of us. I tried to refuse to go to mass at the Church of the Annunciation but two more inclusive priests insisted I go. Actually they sandwiched me between them insisting others needed to see that God was not going to strike anyone down for sharing in their Eucharist. The intensity of that experience was important for the entire program. We studied the BEM document in small groups. Slowly each of us began to see the other and that is when real dialogue began to take place.
A priest, the ecumenical officer for the Albany diocese, and, I volunteered to share in facilitating the Ash Wednesday Service to be held in the Wilderness on our way back to Tantur. We both lead the service and we both offered ashes. Holy moments happened as light pierced into the cracks of long held beliefs and traditions and biases as some accepted ashes from me while others, still skeptical, watched with new eyes.
The Tantur Experience seeped into my life, my ministry, my understanding of the delicate balance between peoples of the Holy Land twenty years ago and is still their nudging me and calling me to pay attention and learn. I am forever grateful for the experience.
Reverend Marcia M. Cham (pictured right, to the left is Tantur Matron Vivi Signiora) is a retired clergymember in the United Church of Christ.