Spiritual free-diving in a religiously diverse world

By Annegret Kapp
8 Aug 2007

The chapel at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, in which young adults from five continents have gathered for an early morning meditation, is quite an unusual place of worship.

The light shining through the stained glass windows designed by the Taizé community in France shines on a set of religious symbols as disparate as Orthodox icons, a Lutheran cross and a drum from an African Christian community.

Even if you listened to the songs, the bible text read by a participant from the USA and its interpretation by her fellow Christian from Hungary, you would not link the worship to one denominational tradition.

But this ecumenical way of celebrating is not the most particular thing about the morning’s moment of worship and spirituality. The young people assisting it are even more diverse than the worldwide Christianity normally represented at Bossey. You might guess it from the headscarves in colourful flower patterns and the kippot on some of the heads in the circle. For July’s summer school brought together 21 young Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over the world and afforded them the opportunity to get to know each other - including each other’s spirituality.

Not all the morning worships during the last weeks were held in the chapel either. Two conference rooms in the institute have been equipped as improvised “mosque” and “synagogue”: one with blankets and a prayer rug spread on the floor in the direction of Mecca; the other with chairs - for women on the left, for men on the right and a writing board, which still shows a quote from the Torah and the explanations the Jewish participants gave to their fellow students.

Whereas one religious group a day prepared and held these moments of prayer, the others were invited to assist and participate to the level they personally felt comfortable with.

“Our goal is not to mix our religions and build a new global one, but to understand each other’s identity better,” says the Russian Orthodox Christian Morris Gagloev.

For Steven Bell, who is awaiting ordination as a priest with the North American order of the Paulist Fathers next summer, experiencing each other’s spirituality can also help to strengthen one’s own prayer life. He was impressed by the richness of song and chant in Judaism and by the discipline of Muslim prayer.

As Valeria Gatti, a Roman Catholic from Peru, puts it: “If you see your friend approaching God the way he or she does - that is so beautiful!”

The friendships forged at Bossey have played an important role in the learning process for the participants. It has allowed for frank discussions during daily lectures and workshops, even when touching on difficult issues like politics and gender.

Therefore the fact that the young adults have lived together one month under the same roof, sharing moments at the beach and in the kitchen as well as hours in the conference room, is essential to what those who took part in it call “a unique experience”.

Surely they will never forget the Shabbat dinner prepared along the instructions of the Jewish chef they discovered in there midst, with Muslims pealing potatoes and Christians chopping vegetables.

Looking at the student’s schedule, with group discussions often continuing until nine o’clock in the evening, it is astonishing how attentively they took part in the academic sessions.

These discussions drew on the strong presence of local religious expertise from all three Abrahamic faiths including lecturers from the universities of Geneva and Lausanne, and also saw contributions by international specialists. Their diverse backgrounds shed a light on divisions existing within each faith group and introduced students to both Sunni and Shiite Islam, orthodox as well as reformed Judaism and the great variety of Christian denominations.

As the participants themselves have a wealth of experience to share, lecturers had to be prepared for many pertinent questions and comments. For example, following a presentation on “Affirming and living faith identity in a pluralistic world from a Christian perspective” by Rima Barsoum, who works on Christian-Muslim relations at the World Council of Churches (WCC), Said Abdalla told his fellow students about the situation in his native Kenya and the Muslim minority’s fear of being proselytized. Saba Wallace, a participant from the two percent Christian minority in Pakistan, wondered: “How can dialogue happen when partners are not equal in any sense?”

The young woman, who works for NGOs in advocacy and interreligious dialogue, says she came to Bossey with many such questions, which she has no chance to raise in her usual context. With her multiple identities, being Pakistani, female and Christian, she feels frustrated and looked down upon both in the West and in her home country. Her tale makes it clear why Fr. Prof. Ioan Sauca, the director of the Ecumenical Institute, stresses the need to provide a “safe space” for young people from countries where interfaith relations are not always harmonious to discuss their concerns. Nature added to his promise with a symbol of God’s promise for peace from the biblical story of Noah: On their first day in Switzerland, participants in the interreligious summer school saw a double rainbow in the sky over Bossey.

So did they succeed in building an interfaith community? A small group discussion on a WCC text about the challenge of pluralism leads the participants back to this question.

Eden Curtasan, a computer science student and collaborator of the Rumanian Muftiad, the traditional Muslim minority of Turkish-Tatars, is sceptical about speaking of community too fast, like he says politicians often do. Still, he was positively surprised by the summer school: “I actually came expecting some boring peace blah-blah, but finally I couldn’t even touch the books I brought because the programme was too interesting.”

The intense academic programme was also a consequence of the students’ demand to make the best use of their time at Bossey. For Jihàd Omar, a Muslim from South-Africa, the students’ push for a fuller schedule, although it was first linked to some frustration, was yet another community experience of working towards a common goal.

Gatti even came to see it as a disadvantage for her compatriots that their almost exclusively Christian context offers hardly any opportunity for inter-religious encounters: “This experience is like a pair of new glasses.”

The biggest surprise, says Bell, was that young people of all three religions face the same dilemma: “They discover their spirituality, but it is not played out in the religion’s institutional building - the mosque, the church, the synagogue - because that is so steeped in traditional values which don’t mesh with their personal experience.”

The young people’s readiness to uncover the roots of their own religion and become Christians, Jews and Muslims in a deeper sense was greeted at the closing ceremony by the three academics who, together with the institute’s director, had dreamed up the interreligious summer school three years ago.

Rabbi Marc Raphaël Guedj, former chief rabbi of Geneva and president of the foundation Roots and Sources (Racines et Sources), Hafid Ouardiri, president of the Interknowing Foundation (Ta’aruf) for the promotion of knowledge about Islam among non-Muslims, and Rev. Dr Hans Ucko, WCC programme executive for inter-religious relations and dialogue, called this premiere, which Ouardiri described as “spiritual free-diving”, a success to be repeated in the coming years.

For the students, the ceremony at the end of the summer school was also the moment to say goodbye to their new friends who were returning to countries often perceived as enemies. The testimonial three of the participants gave at the event was symbolic both for the difficulties these pioneers of interfaith exposure at Bossey had to face and for the flexibility with which they mastered them: Grigory Gendelman, a Jewish participant from Israel, relied on the translation of the Israeli Palestinian Shireen Nadjjar in order to express his gratitude for the “Bossey experience”. Nicole Wood, a Methodist from the USA, remembered laughing and crying with her “petit Bossey family” - and so they did, when Faizeh Mazandarani from Iran switched from Farsi to English to say: “I am not sure if we will meet again on earth, but I am sure we will meet again in heaven.”

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(c) Annegret Kapp. The author is the World Council of Churches (WCC) web editor, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg, Germany.

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More information on the interfaith summer school is available at:
http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=2715

And on WCC work on interfaith dialogue at:
http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=2940

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