This is my first trip to Europe. I've had the chance to rent a bike and tour around the beautiful English countryside that surrounds Madingly, a small town (there is only a few homes, a pub, town hall and a church) right outside of Cambridge, England.
One day when biking I pulled off on a "public bridleway." This is a new and fascinating phenomenon for me as a person from the United States; these pathways criss-cross through otherwise private fields and property, connecting for the public small towns and roads that can be reached by foot and often by bike. After about 100 yards of bumping down the path, the bike refused to move any further.
As I inspected my bike, I realized that my wheels were covered in the dirt of the field. Upon closer investigation, I realized this was not just any dirt but the finest clay England's farmland had to offer. After carrying my bike back to a grassy patch, I spent about 20 minutes scraping the stuff off with my bare hands. As I felt the clay between my fingers, I realized something: Now I know the feel of England's dirt (at least the dirt near Madingly). It was sort of like the clay I have used in pottery class, the kind that comes in as a brick in a plastic bag -- brown, slippery, sticky and heavy.
In Madingly I've been participating in an intensive summer interfaith program hosted by the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme. This program has brought together Jews, Muslims and Christians from the around the world, including 10 Ibadhi Muslims from Oman, most of whom had never met a Jewish person before this conference.
All 25 of us were dropped into "the princess castle," a designation ascribed to Madingly Hall of Cambridge University by my 3-year-old daughter during one of our late night FaceTime chats.
For us, this hall and its gorgeous gardens and grounds began as neutral territory; it has now become our home.
During the week, we attend lectures on the three faiths and practice Scriptural Reasoning. There are deep and sincere questions that are raised during these sessions: What does faith mean to Christians? Why do the Omani Muslims often wear hats? What does it mean to be a prophet in the Jewish faith?
But beyond questions are the connections forged across what seem to be uncrossable chasms. As a Christian woman, how can I relate to a strictly observant Omani Muslim, who just began learning English three months ago? From my Christian perspective, I would argue that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Where there seems to be no common ground, stepping stones appear and chasms are bridged.
One of my new friends is a preacher of Islam in Oman, who began as a shepherd of 40 sheep when he was 10 years old. He loved to read so much that he would fish books out of garbage cans near the schools and libraries of his village. At age 14, he began speaking about Islam on the radio. He did not see his wife's face and hair until after their separate wedding parties. I am a woman, and I don't cook. He shares his story and I show him a video of my husband teaching my daughter how to make muffins. We listen, learn and mostly we laugh.
From the sound of this some might say, "Well isn't that nice? A beautiful vacation in the English countryside, but what are you really accomplishing? Shouldn't you be working on the conflicts? What about Israel-Palestine? What about suicide bombing? What about Quran burning by Christians? What about blaming Jews for killing Jesus?"
To those who would ask such questions, I would say that it is true: We do not all agree and we will leave here with no plan that will fix problems caused or encountered by our respective religions. Instead, we will leave here with faces, stories, echoes of laugher, tales of struggle that automatically humanize and make complex the conflicts we face on a daily basis. These, my new brothers and sisters, through clear devotion to God's will, sincere questions, personal stories and joyous laughter, have etched themselves into my heart; their joy is my joy, and their sorrow is mine as well.
In other words, this program is comparable to my experience of feeling the English clay -- the clay actually slipped and slid between my fingers. No one can take that experience away from me. I have a certain knowledge about English clay that now is a part of me forever, not a technical or conceptual knowledge, but a knowledge that comes only with encounter. The kind of encounter that makes your bike get stuck, that makes your assumptions about how the world works malfunction. So that you have to take your bare hands, scrape at the clay and feel for yourself in order to know it.