To my delight and at times surprise, I’ve recently found myself involved in different conversations of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. I’ve also witnessed a growth in other ecumenical groups in our area, and continue to learn of colleagues in different locations entering into similar conversations of their own. And I hope all of this means we’re on the cusp of some kind of new season of increased dialogue, relationship and, ultimately, cooperation between people of faith.
But one of the dynamics I’ve noticed and have tried to make sense of is that the groups involved in these conversations tend not to be the largest congregations in town. And I’m wondering why that is.
The Jewish and Muslim communities in my area are small and seem to have always been, but the churches involved in these ecumenical and interfaith conversations are smaller compared to some of the other congregations in our area. And in many cases — and this seems significant — smaller compared to former versions of themselves.
Take my congregation. We’re not a “small” church, but by no means one of the larger churches in town or of any denomination and certainly not Baptist. I would say we are “stable,” and in many ways even “growing.” But there’s also no denying that we’re a much smaller congregation than we were 30 or even 20 years ago. Yet I’m convinced there are certain conversations and partnerships we can have as a church now, in our smaller state, that a previous, larger and more “influential” version of our church simply could not have had.
My hunch is that there are certain dynamics within large, bellwether congregations that discourage engagement with difficult or potentially volatile issues. Perhaps no one wants to mess with a good thing or, more likely, their size is a product of a fragile and often unspoken agreement not to delve into anything too controversial. And when it comes to partnering with other churches or organizations, it’s easy for larger congregations to assume they are already sufficient within themselves and wonder what’s to be gained.
There’s a certain irony to this — that being less influential would somehow open us up to conversations of consequence. But in reflecting upon this dynamic, I remembered the work of a group I first came to know on a visit to Israel and Palestine some years ago.
Musalaha, which means “reconciliation” in Arabic, is an Arab-Christian nonprofit based out of Bethlehem dedicated to promoting reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, mostly by working with youth. They do this by creating what they call a “culture of encounter,” where they bring groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth together in various settings. At first they tried to bring them together at different community gatherings in their hometowns, but found that these meetings simply did not work. At best they all just sat in the same room together but resisted any kind of meaningful engagement, and at worst things occasionally would get violent. A new approach was needed.
That’s when they decided to experiment with an approach that has become their signature ministry: an immersive experience they call the “Desert Encounter.”
On a Desert Encounter, Musalaha takes a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth on a literal journey into the deserts of the Sinai, Negev or Jordan. They ride on camels (what else), go on hikes, set up camp together, share chores and even tents. Musalaha has found that in this wilderness setting, transformation is not only possible, but almost inevitable. This from the Musalaha website:
“We have found the desert to be a uniquely neutral atmosphere, where everyone is in the same position, working together to negotiate the hardships of the desert sun or a stubborn camel. The challenges of survival and cooperation provide an excellent occasion for relationships and open communication. Each trip has been a unique experience of cultural and spiritual discovery.”
Of course, all of this is deeply biblical. In the scriptural imagination the desert serves as a kind of liminal space where, far removed from the comforts and structures of “home,” individuals and groups of people find themselves vulnerable to a new awareness of God and each other.
At the risk of adding yet another metaphor to describe this current season of religious life, I wonder if our church and so many churches like ours, are in a kind of desert season. A season where many of the comforts and structures of “home” have been ceded — we’ve all been made quite aware of that. But also a season where, stripped of these things, we might be vulnerable to a new awareness of God and each other.
If this is true, then perhaps this new movement of dialogue and cooperation I’m sensing is really a kind of “desert encounter.”
Here we are in a “uniquely neutral atmosphere, where everyone is in the same position,” without the pressures of being the big, bellwether church downtown. And in this vulnerable state, we’re finding ourselves suddenly open to ways of “working together” to “negotiate hardships.”
We often think of a survival mindset as something to overcome, but the desert encounter suggests that if we properly understand our companions on the journey — or even that we need companions on the journey — “the challenges of survival and cooperation provide an excellent occasion for relationships and open communication.”
In my experience, most churches are well aware of the things they’re no longer able to be and do in their communities. This loss has often been made crystal clear. What perhaps has not been made as clear is all that we can do and be for our communities now that we couldn’t before, all that’s now possible because of who and what we’re not.
And perhaps more importantly, all that’s possible when we realize we don’t have to do and be alone.