Day # 3, Part I: Nazareth

TABGHA — From the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha to the White Mosque in Nazareth, the morning began and ended with song.

As we walked past groups of pilgrims from China and Spain, circling the stone cloisters arranged around an olive tree, a hymn began to ring out from the church. Standing before the altar and the underlying mosaic depicting the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Maria Safir chanted alone.

She sang “Aquí estoy señor,” a Spanish hymn, her voice echoing off of the simple wooden ceiling and the polished stone walls, as her fellow worshipers stood in silent meditation beside her. Outside the church two of our group’s members, Professor Greg Khalil and Radha Dhar, were approached by Chinese pilgrims from Shenzhen, who were eager to meet travelers from different countries. In just a few minutes, we had come face to face with pilgrims — both Christian and not — who had come to Tabgha, known in ancient Greek as Heptapegon, to commemorate this holy Christian site on the Sea of Galilee.

“You may find the pilgrims here as interesting as the church,” said Ophir Yarden, our resident expert, as we discussed the recent influx of Chinese tourists to Israel.

Framed by olive groves and rolling hills beyond Lake Tiberias, Tabgha is a place so quiet that we could barely hear our own voices over the sound of birdsong. In the property beside the church, Paul Nordhausen helps the Benedictine monks run an extensive recreation park for children with special needs.

Standing beside a newly built playground with a carousel equipped for wheelchairs, Paul pointed out that kids of many faiths and backgrounds come to play here together every summer. “From that gate on, it’s only humans coming in here, not Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish,” he said. “Only human.”

A few years ago, this tranquil peace was shattered by an arson attack on the church by a group of far-right Jewish extremists. While the church has since recovered and been rebuilt with the help of donations from devotees and assistance from the Israeli government, it was a scarring experience.

“I was here in the middle of the night and the church was burning,” said Paul. “It was very difficult, but luckily we had a lot of support.”

As we ended our visit, walking past one of the seven springs that gave Heptapegon its name, we stopped to contemplate what we had learned at the Dalmanutha, a place for prayer and meditation composed of several wooden logs arranged around a rock altar.

Our bus then wound its way above the Sea of Galilee and into the mountains surrounding Nazareth, passing by historic sites like the Megiddo Plain and the Horns of Hattin. As we entered Nazareth, the roadside signs quickly went from Hebrew to Arabic, and traffic choked the road ahead.

After a brief walk through the old city, we reached the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, its wide dome soaring above the narrow streets of central Nazareth. As we entered, I realized that I had forgotten that it was an important day in Christianity: the feast of St. Joseph.

In the cavernous upper basilica, I took a moment to kneel in prayer. In the course of our whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, I had neglected to consider my own connection to the sites we were visiting. Feeling the pull of the dozens of icons of the Virgin Mary, I said a few more Hail Mary prayers for good measure.

As I made the sign of the cross, a Portuguese song rose upwards from the lower basilica, where a group of Brazilian pilgrims was chanting hymns in a small chapel. Soon enough, however, my serenity was interrupted by an oncoming tour group behind me.

After leaving the church we walked to the iconic White Mosque, passing through the meandering lanes of old Nazareth and the city’s central market, where we would attend the midday duhur prayer.

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas welcomed us into the mosque’s courtyard, where we sat down to listen to his discussion of faith in the city of Nazareth. As the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, Nazareth is an important symbol of how several identities which we often consider to be mutually exclusive — Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian — can coexist within a single person.

Worshipper performing his ablutions before prayer at the White Mosque (Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Reciting a passage from the Quran, Sheikh Abu Anas stressed that there should be no compulsion in religion. “The solution is dialogue,” he said, recalling the surrender of Nazareth to Israeli forces in 1948. When the mayor of Nazareth, then also the imam of the White Mosque, decided to peacefully surrender, it marked what Abu Anas termed the “first Palestinian recognition of the two-state solution.”

“I don’t have two faces,” he said, looking toward his congregation, which was slowly gathering inside the mosque. “I say the same to my community in the mosque.”

As the call to prayer, or adhan, began to emanate from the speakers, the faithful shuffled into a room inside the mosque. After a brief sermon from Sheikh Abu Anas, all the men in attendance stood to hear the prayer. On each successive chant of allahu akbar, the worshipers bowed their heads, and then knelt on the floor to pray. Then they paused in prayer, their heads close to the ground, before rising to stand again. At the prayer’s conclusion, the rows of congregants slowly retrieved their shoes, exiting the mosque to resume their day.

Even in the relative noise of a city like Nazareth, we were struck by the beauty of the adhan. For the students Jonathan Harounoff, Natacha Larnaud, and Leah Feiger, this was a more personal moment. They all remembered being woken up by the song of the call to prayer in their childhoods in Morocco, Dubai, and Zanzibar. “I felt warmth,” said Leah.


In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

As published in Religion News Service (RNS)

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).


Day #1: Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV — After a nine-and-a-half-hour flight, the Covering Religion team landed in Tel Aviv at 10:30 a.m. local time. After getting through customs and obtaining international cell phone service, we met with our Columbia professor, Greg Khalil, and our local expert, Ophir Yarden of ADAShA, a Jerusalem-based organization that specializes in interreligious tour experiences.

Ophir led us to what he described as one of the rougher neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan. In past decades, the neighborhood was a place where Tel Avivans went to buy shoes. Now, it’s home to a diverse population of migrant peoples, including refugees, asylum seekers, and workers from places like Eritrea, Ecuador, the Philippines and Thailand. There we met Lisa Richlen, an Israeli-American Ph.D. candidate and an expert in working with Tel Aviv’s migrant communities. Many of these migrants are Christians, including West Africans from countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Churches serve as cultural as well as religious centers for these communities.

Tel Aviv’s largest Pentecostal church is somewhat hidden in Neve Sha’anan. But a lot of businesses in the area offer more than what they advertise out front. Ethiopian restaurants double as community centers. Bodegas line the streets selling knockoff sneakers and designer brands, but also sell Israeli SIM cards. Lift Up Your Head Church is located in an unremarkable beige apartment building, which it shares with an Escape Room franchise. After a short walk from the bus stop, we met two pastors serving the West African community in Tel Aviv.

“We come here to refuel, for God to empower us,” said Pastor Jeremiah Dairo of Lift Up Your Head. Dairo, who moved to Israel from Ghana in 1987, works with Christians from across African diaspora in Israel. Dairo’s church movement started in Jaffa, but has since spread across the country. He said that there are now over 40 associated Pentecostal churches in Israel, the largest of which can attract 100 to 200 churchgoers each weekend.

Sign leads the way to the Lift Your Head Church, Tel Aviv

Dairo insisted that his movement is “rewriting the bible,” saying “I’m not here to tell you what happened to Ezekiel. I am telling you what God has done through my life.” Pentecostal churches, one of the fastest growing Christian movements in Africa, heavily emphasize the individual’s connection with God. A typical service at Lift Up Your Head begins with an hour of Bible study, in which Dairo will pose a question for his congregants to ponder. They then “share testimonies” together, which is when Dairo asks his followers to “tell us what the Lord has done” for them personally. The next part of services involves worship music. Behind the pulpit on an elevated stage, a drum set, guitar and bass guitar are still out of their cases since the last service. Dairo said his churchgoers “enjoy and entertain themselves before God” and “dance our problems away.” They see this moment as a call to share the word of God. “By the time we leave here, somebody’s life has turned around,” he said.

The African churches also perform important social functions for their community. Lift Up Your Head supports homeless asylum seekers and migrants, even those that are not Christian. “They have nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” said Pastor Solomon Tetteh, a Nigerian Pentecostal minister. “We see them through this storm.” Tetteh’s church also does significant work with the disabled community, including paying visits to the homes of migrants with visual impairments.

The migrants in Israel need all the help they can get. In the last few years, Israel’s right-wing government has been trying to deport the migrant communities of South Tel Aviv, including the West Africans. The Likud government often refers to these people as “infiltrators” and threats to public health, as there are higher rate of prostitution and drug abuse in their neighborhoods. However, Dairo and Tetteh remain optimistic about their community’s long term success here. They answer the government’s apathy toward them with love. To them, Israel is the promised land. “God supernaturally positioned us in this country,” said Dairo. “Most of the time we depend on God because we don’t have outside support,” he said, adding that “once God has called you, you will make a way.” Both pastors also praised the opportunities they were afforded in the country. “Israel is a miracle. Staying here every day is a miracle,” said Dairo.

But mostly, West African Christians feel inspired by the history that surrounds them. Living next to the places where Jesus walked is awe-inspiring for Dairo. “Some of the things and places we have read in the Bible — we have seen it and know it’s real.” It’s enough to convince him that he has a home in this place, too.

(Image courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)


A church of many languages thrives in Brooklyn

The sounds of Arabic and Syriac could be heard at Our Lady of Lebanon, the Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights on Sunday, Feb. 10, as the church celebrated the annual feast of St. Maron.

 

At the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral was brimming with worshipers, some who joined the Mass at different intervals after it had begun. They padded across the church’s red carpets, with grand chandeliers suspended from the arched blue ceiling overhead. Mother Mary, painted above the altar, is crested by the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Unlike Roman Catholic churches, which largely say Mass in English in the United States (some parishes offer other languages, like Spanish, according to their parish needs), Maronite churches such as Our Lady of Lebanon have a Mass (or “Qurbono”) that combines English, Arabic and Syriac. The readings, for example, are recited first in English and then in Arabic.

 

The Rev. Bishop Gregory Mansour’s Sunday homily was one of the only parts of the Mass that was solely in English. On Sunday he spoke on the gospel reading, John 12:23-30. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Mansour quoted. The passage is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus died. Mansour used this scripture to address the feast day the cathedral was celebrating. “This could very easily apply to St. Maron,” Mansour said, given how the saint’s influence and following grew following his death.

 

In his homily, Mansour described how the legacy of St. Maron lives on. The saint, he said, was an “open air hermit” who travelled into the mountains to be closer to God, and went on to build a church there in the elements. But he said he wanted to highlight the lessons that can still be learned from the saint. He said there was something special about the “particular feeling” you “might be doing God’s work”—a feeling he suspected St. Maron had when he was building his community.

 

Mansour also drew attention to unique history of the Maronite Church. “We are the only church named after a person,” he said of the various Catholic churches, which also include the Roman, Chaldean and Melkite churches. He noted that the Maronite Church is unique because it has no Orthodox or protestant counterpart—Maronites say it has remained united since its founding, and has always been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. (Some scholars are in disagreement on this latter point.)

 

Mansour said the Maronite church never had the “luxury” of the corruption of the Middle Ages, obliquely referring to the period in which European Catholic leaders sold indulgences, forgiving sins for money. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Maronites were not in positions of power, and instead faced waves of persecution. St. Maron himself was an ascetic who chose a life of poverty. “This great church,” he said, “grew up in simplicity.”

 

This isn’t to say the Maronite Church is in conflict with the Vatican or with Roman Catholics—the Maronite Church is considered  “in full communion” with Roman Catholic Church.

 

But the Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with its own customs. For example, Communion is taken by mouth only and is dipped in the wine that Catholics say has been transformed into the Blood of Christ. While in many Roman Catholic parishes, the Sign of Peace consists of greetings, handshakes and hugs shared by congregants at will, in the Qurbono the Sign of Peace is offered at each pew by an altar server, who clasps his hands over those of the person closest to him. That person brings their hands to their mouths and turns to cover the hands of their neighbors with their own, and the chain of peace offerings continue down the pew.

 

The Maronite church also has its own local jurisdiction. Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral, for example, does not fall under the diocese of the Rev. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, but rather under the eparchy (or province) of St. Maron. Bishop Mansour presides over this area, which covers about 45 Maronite parishes in a vast area that includes the states of New York, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Maine. Both DiMarzio and Mansour serve on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops which reports to the Vatican.

 

In addition to highlighting the distinctive legacy of the church, Mansour seemed to temper outsize devotion to St. Maron. “Some people say St. Maron founded the Maronite church, but that’s not true,” he said. “Jesus is our founder, St. Maron was the follower.”

 


Thanking God for the big things – and the little ones – at a Harlem church

At the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street, the ground was shaking as Pastor Lawrence Brown paced to the crimson-red podium on the stage, armed with his iPad and Bible app. The subway train passing underneath the church caused the rumble, but Alvaro Stewart, a Costa-Rican builder next to me, said that the ground-breaking sound effects made the service “more biblical.” Brown wore a black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans to complete the modern look. The elevated stage was lined with a stunning arrangement of nine oval pots of artificial flowers, alternating red and white, with a U.S. flag on each end.

Stewart had just eaten dinner with the pastor, a meal consistent with the Adventist belief of maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit. Meat, alcohol and coffee were off the menu, which is why, combined with a day of rest on Saturdays, “we live on average five to 10 years longer than non-Adventists worldwide,” Stewart adds.

Thirteen members of the predominantly African-American community showed up to the Wednesday evening service, far from the 1,300 regulars who fill the spired, two-story Harlem church every Sabbath.

(Photo courtesy of Renee Nixon Simmons)

“Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,” Brown began chanting, as a West African pianist to the left of the stage played a rendition of the eponymous hymn. “Anywhere with Jesus I am not alone,” everyone answered.

Following the song, Brown thanked the devoted dozen for attending the service in spite of the arctic cold and invited personal testimonies from the crowd. “Would anyone like to talk about the goodness of the Lord?” Brown asked. Customarily, congregants would in two or three minutes explore their relationship with the Almighty by offering examples of the ways God changed their life that day or week. They would thank the Lord for giving them the fortitude to overcome challenges threatening to distract or derail them.

The room was quiet.

Senses were heightened as an ambulance’s colorful, shrieking siren suddenly illuminated the stained-glass windows. The ground shook again, almost in frustration to the group’s momentary reticence. But in the far-right corner of the church, by a book-sized locked gold box inscribed with the words “offering,” an elderly woman aged 74 rose and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus.”

“I lost my wallet today,” she said.

Amen

“But I did not lose my soul. Peace, and bless the Lord.”

Amen, Amen

Then, a middle-aged, olive-skinned man from California, with a scarlet-red scarf draped over his white jumper, got up and thanked the Lord for his spiritual family at this church. “I’ve been away for a few months and it’s great to be home again,” he said.

Amen

Next, a young woman stood up in the front row by the wooden charity basket and thanked God for what he did to her that morning. “I was with my sister until late the night before, maybe 1:30 a.m.,” she said. “And our Savior woke me up at 6:00 a.m. this morning so that I could help my sister who had no heat or hot water in her apartment. My sister and I prayed together, and the Lord revived her water.”

Amen

And as Brown was about to gesture to the pianist to begin playing the hymn “When We All Get to Heaven,”  his personal favorite, an elderly man in a cream suit and tie gently got out of his seat with the help of his granddaughter. “I am happy to say that I just turned 90,” he said, his voice raspy. “But thanks to Jesus, I can walk and I can jump, and I hope we continue this fellowship.”