CHICAGO -- An ambitious initiative aimed at helping to shrink a divide between the Middle East and the rest of the world has deep roots in the heart of the U.S. Midwest.
The Abraham Path Initiative was founded in 2007 by the Chicago-born Harvard Negotiation Project senior fellow William Ury to create a cross-cultural, long-distance tourism route along the approximate path once walked by Abraham, the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In the six years since the initiative began, about 250 miles of the path have been developed, connecting 40 Middle Eastern communities and offering visitors the chance to walk the trail with the help of local families, who host them as well as optional walking guides.
The path, which has been compared to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, has been walked by about 4,000 people.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based initiative has brought together people throughout the world, including in Chicago, where art dealer Paul Gray, Ury's cousin and an initiative board member, and social activist Dedrea Gray hosted the inaugural gathering of Chicago-based supporters of the path in their Near North Side home on Monday night. Similar groups have been formed in London, Sao Paulo and Boulder, Colo.
"The purpose of the path is to remind us all of our common origins, our common humanity -- to remind us of our roots, and in doing so to help us envision and rediscover our common destiny on this planet," Ury said Monday via videoconference from Colorado.
"The path is the hosts' window to the rest of the world and it is visitors' window to what the Middle East is really like," Ury continued.
The Grays have both walked parts of the path multiple times. Paul Gray was part of the original group from the initiative that traveled to the path in 2006.
Though Dedrea Gray was not along for that first trip, it wasn't long before she visited the area for a trip she described to HuffPost as "rigorous, it's different, it's not going to a spa."
"It's something more that's going to change your life, meeting the people and talking to the people and learning about their lives," she said.
Pivotal to the path's intended impact beyond its storied setting, of course, is the act of walking it.
As Stefan Szepesi, the initiative's executive director, wrote in a Monday HuffPost blog, "Walking is the time-tested engine of the mind: when done alone it opens a unique thinking space; when experienced together, it brings out the conversations you would not have when sitting down facing each other as opposites.
"Walking through a region generally portrayed as uninviting, if not hostile, was not only practically possible," Szepesi continued, recalling his first time walking in the region. "It was also beautiful, inspiring and safe."
While the path still has a way to go toward the initiative's goal of home-stay availabilities for visitors and walking guides along all 3,000-plus potential miles of trail. That work that may take more than a generation to finish.
"A platform for a Middle East that is a beacon of hope for the world rather than being a place right now, which is considered to be the big problem -- that is the long-term dream," Ury said Monday.
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