I have just spent three weeks at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches with 16 other young Christians, Jews and Muslims on an academic inter-religious studies course.
After looking at the basics of each religious tradition, we explored how each faith relates and responds to migration; how migration fits into their narratives and how this generates a response to migration and migrants.
The formal educational elements of the course comprised lectures, discussion groups and visits to religious communities. Sessions highlighted some remarkable similarities – the centrality of migration to each of the three faiths’ narratives, albeit in different contexts; the call to look after one’s neighbour; and reflections on how to relate compassionately and respectfully to someone moving into your space, or someone whose space you are moving into.
These values offer huge scope for collaboration and shared experience, particularly on issues relating to social justice and cohesion – but they were not the course’s most stimulating parts.
The most motivation came from 17 young people from incredibly diverse backgrounds in one space, getting to know one another and living together with the explicit purpose of thinking about how we can get along better in future.
The experiences we shared naturally produced discussion – participants asking how I and another Jewish participant “just knew” which parts to sing together and which parts to say to ourselves in our own Friday-night service at the start of Shabbat; walking into St Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva to climb the tower for a great view of the city and asking my new Catholic friend why he bowed ever so quickly as we walked past the apse; asking for the first time what Muslims actually say while bowing and prostrating in prayer and getting a complete and personal response.
Over the three weeks we were free to ask each other deep, personal questions about faith, politics, society and everything else that created an open, respectful community and profound friendships. This openness took a leap of faith that we could trust one another entirely. Just as in wider society, this was not always easy. We came from countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia and from different socio-economic backgrounds. We held different views on many issues.
This diversity was even challenging within religious groups as well as across them – Secular, Orthodox, Calvinist, Pentecostal, Hijabi, Shi’i, Lutheran, Shomer Negiah, Sunni, Catholic and more, with a complete range of practices, beliefs and traditions. There were participants on the course who had never met a Jew before, let alone one who wore a kippa and strongly, publicly, identified as both Jewish and Zionist, and there was initial hesitation on all parts approaching each other and really talking to one another.
In particular, discussions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the role of women in religious communities kept us up until the early hours in heated conversations as everyone, no matter how close or far removed from these issues, had an opinion that more often than not was central to his or her entire worldview.
In some ways, we were together representatives of our religious traditions in their variety but individually we could be representatives only for ourselves. Throughout the experience, even though we may have had profound disagreements, it did not stop us sharing each other’s company.
We could not just isolate ourselves from the other; we had to live together with our differences, and we proved this is possible. We are able to connect with each other as closest friends with all our strengths and challenges, agreements and disagreements.
At the beginning of the course we were asked to write about our fears coming into the group. A recurrent theme was the fear of going home and the fear that nothing would change. Now I am back in the UK, I know that is not the case. All of us have come home more aware of others, more knowledgeable about ourselves and connected to 16 other people who are all leaders in their own communities and who I know are thinking and writing similar things.
In the face of growing intercommunal intolerance and what seems like constant reports of discrimination, persecution and violence towards or because of religion, the 17 of us are testament to the fact that we can live together, appreciate one another and work together on issues that affect us all.