Your Majesty, The Sultan Qaboos bin Said,
As a participant in the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme (CIP) Summer School, I thank you and the other generous donors for making this program possible. You have done so without fanfare, but I feel it is important for the whole world to know that Oman has chosen to support some of the most cutting edge interfaith work I have ever encountered.
The man from Norway responsible for the deaths of over 90 people, most of them young and on a retreat this past week, would like for the rest of the world to blame Islam for his actions. As outrageous and illogical as I find this motivation, I fear that there are many who will be persuaded by it. I fear that the Islamophobia that both feeds and is fed by this act of terror is a force against which few are willing to struggle. Please, do not misunderstand: There are many who will sympathize with individual Muslims or agree that not all Muslims are terrorists. But, Your Majesty, in my country, many equate Islam with a violent religion. This almost unshakable belief and misconception funds the distrust and suspicion many people in the United States harbor, allows for hate crimes against the Islamic community to continue and decreases the possibility that even people sympathetic to the Muslim community would engage with them in any meaningful way.
Truly, the barriers to authentic interfaith relationships and dialogue are great. But I write to let you know that Oman's investment in the CIP Summer School -- through funding and by sending 12 participants deeply engaged in ministries as imams, preachers, muftis and administrators in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs -- is possibly one of the most creative and promising experiments in interfaith work.
The three week CIP Summer School, in short, has provided a safe place for holy struggle.
In Genesis 32:22-31 it says:
"Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, 'Let me go, for the day is breaking.' But Jacob said, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.' Then Jacob asked him, 'Please tell me your name.' But he said, 'Why is it that you ask my name?' And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, 'For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.' The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip."
On July 11, 25 Jews, Christians and Muslims met for the first time outside of Madingly Hall near Cambridge, England. Most of us left worship communities, families and normal routines behind to join each other on neutral territory. This neutral territory was a crucial starting point for people coming together from such diverse backgrounds. In a sense, like Jacob, each of us began this journey alone.
Of course, our struggle was not physical. In fact, it could be argued that we have been treated as royalty, without need or want for three straight weeks. We were fed five times a day (each according to their faith's dietary laws) and every time I would come back to my room in the evening, the bed was made and the room tidy. The kitchen staff even came to indulge our evening ice cream cravings and would provide trays of coffee upon request. What type of struggle is this? It sounds more like hedonism.
Yet it is precisely this context, one in which we had no other worry or concern except to encounter the other participants in our group that holy struggle was made possible. By putting all 25 of us in one castle, which has since become our home, we have had to look at each other in the eye.
From this experience of staring my Jewish, Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye -- of studying our holy scriptures together, hearing their stories and perspectives; of walking, eating, arguing, laughing and talking with them -- l leave Madingly Hall both blessed and wounded.
Basically, what CIP Summer School has done for me is to concretize the fact that our lives are knit up together, our futures are inseparable. These participants have been etched in my heart and their faces, stories and lives are now present with me where ever I may go. This blessed etching that brings me great joy also functions as a literal wound.
I can no longer walk around in the world feeling that I have no part with my Omani Muslim brothers or that I have no part with my Orthodox Jewish friends. Their lives are caught up in my life and now it is my duty to live and share this experience with those who doubt any such encounter is possible.
To sum it up, Your Majesty, at Madingly I feel that I have experienced a glimpse of heaven. In the Book of Revelation in the New Testament it is written that God will make all things new and that all the nations will gather in the new heaven and a new earth. In this vision, I do not believe that we will all necessarily agree; I believe that we will continue to have distinctions and nations and languages; I believe that it will be something like the experience of living together with my friends from CIP Summer School. Thank you for your part in making this possible; I believe if more people had the blessing of this experience the world would be a very different place.
Follow Kelly Figueroa-Ray on Twitter: www.twitter.com/siemprechipil