As a Unity Minister, I take the word unity very seriously. I realize Unity is more than a denomination, more than a movement. It is the very essence of the Oneness that we share with all that is. It is our work to help the world see the unity that ties us all together in love. Charles Fillmore used to define love as that which binds the universe together.
It was my search for unity in the world that sent me on an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine this March with 28 Jews, Muslims and Christians. We were to see the holy sites of these three faiths, hear the history of these Holy Lands from three perspectives, and experience sacred services and prayers from these three religious traditions. Organized through reGeneration (reGenerationEducation.org) by Shepha Vainstein, a Jewish woman with a passion for peace from Los Angeles, our group was about half Jewish, a quarter Christian/New Thought, and a quarter Muslim. We were led by Rabbis Victor and Nadya Gross, Rev Gwynne Guibord, and Imam Jihad Turk. There was a method in their planning that helped us discover not only the holy sites with their history, but more importantly, the holy people in Israel and Palestine who are working for peace and unity despite a system that does its best to keep them apart.
This being my very first trip to the Holy Land, my familiarity with it came from the Bible. Let’s just say my vision was quite outdated. However, I was truly shocked to find a church or usually layers of churches built over most every site where Jesus was thought to have done anything. Many of the Christian churches in the area claim the right to these sacred places, including the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Catholic churches. Some places, such as the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, have a Roman church built over what is thought to be Mary’s excavated house or cave, encased in a larger Byzantine structure, followed by remnants of an even larger Crusader’s church; and all covered by an immense modern church structure. And of course, several places may lay claim to these ancient holy events, making things even more complicated.
The genius of this pilgrimage was that we went where most tourists don’t go and met people most newcomers don’t meet. Itaf Awad (itafawad.com), a female Palestinian peace maker, goes from village to village, in and out of Palestine and Israel, teaching “The Way of the Council,” listening circles designed to promote heart-centered peace. Her lovely tea house in an Arab village serves the local population as a place to meet and talk over issues. Her sister is a holistic medicine practitioner, bringing eastern, western, ancient and modern health care to the people.
In Bethlehem, the aunt and cousins of Dr. Ahmed Soboh, a friend of Unity of Pomona and local Islamic leader in southern California, gave me a personal tour of the town, the refugee area, an old palace, the Catholic Bethlehem University they had attended, and lunch on the hill overlooking the city with its concrete walls and the Jewish settlement on the hill. We stooped to enter the small entrance to the Church of the Nativity, where it is believed Jesus was born and where their grandfather was the first tour guide through this ancient holy site, again claimed by three religious institutions. Knowing all the guards, Aunt Jamileh, who had served on the city council of Bethlehem for eight years, whisked me around the crowd and into the lower levels quickly. I was amazed that these three women were all therapists with master’s degrees who were working to help children with disabilities in their own way, since the public schools in Bethlehem do not serve children with special needs. Listening to their stories of faith was like hearing miraculous healing stories in Unity: a deaf child taught to read and deal with his surroundings so well that he was able to attend public schools after about two years. Imagine my surprise, delight and hope to hear that the mayor of Bethlehem is a woman.
On Friday, Prayer Day in Old Jerusalem, our group split up: Jews and Christians went to the Western Wall while our Muslim friends went to the Muslim section above the wall, the women to pray in the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the men in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Trouble was expected, as there had been an incident the previous Friday when an Israeli policeman was seen kicking a Qur’an. As I approached the giant ancient Holy Wall, the air was filled with the sound of explosions. I had no idea what was going on, but those who had been there before knew it was not a good sign. Armed troops rushed past us up the ramp to the Muslim section. Thank God they used rubber bullets!
The women were locked in the Dome of the Rock while tear gas and sound bombs and rubber bullets exploded. They were terrified. The men from our group saw police and military scatter the people as they held their ground in faith. Jihad filmed it all with his phone. His uncle Mahfouz Abu Turk, a world renowned photojournalist, was not so fortunate, as he was shot while filming. He was rushed to the hospital for stitches behind his ear, surviving his eighth injury from Arab/Israeli clashes. Our group had just had dinner at his home the evening before. We were all shook up, turning to prayer, each in our own way, to be instruments of peace in this land filled with tension.
Suddenly the holy places did not seem so holy; they did not seem to be worth the suffering of so many. I began to question valuing land over people and remember how Charles and Myrtle Fillmore saw possessions as things that belong to God that we use for a time. Their wisdom would be a wonderful guide for many in this world that believe that happiness comes from possessing.
After shedding many tears in the Vad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where we saw the steps of genocide—the ultimate expression of race unconsciousness, unredeemed by spiritual wisdom—we moved on to places where Spirit is leading. Far off in the hills of northern Israel in a small Arab town is a bilingual integrated kindergarten called Ein Bustan (ein-bustan.org). Jewish parents drive their children to a Waldorf school where Arab and Jewish students can learn, play and work together, taught in both Arabic and Hebrew. This togetherness, which was once more common, is now a rarity, as it becomes more and more difficult for Arabs and Jews to even be together.
We do not talk much in Unity about injustice, but if we are to follow Master Jesus, then we had best remember that not everything done in the Holy Land is holy. Since Israel’s long occupation of Palestine in the West Bank, beginning in 1967, a number of Palestinians have lost their homes, their farms, their groves, and their ability to earn a living. Palestine has been carved up with Israeli settlements, walls, separate roads and borders. Many rights we take for granted have been lost. This does not take into consideration the 750,000 Palestinians whose lives were forever changed when the State of Israel was being formed in1948. Then 400 Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods disappeared, their residents fled, were expelled or killed, and most of their homes were wiped off the face of the earth.
“Divide and conquer” is not a new concept. Division keeps us from an awareness of our connection with others, and it keeps us from experiencing our wholeness. Division also keeps people from knowing the truth about each other and from knowing what is truly happening. Fear gives people an excuse to separate, and is easily used by egos to gain power, land or money.
What can we do, you might ask? Seek the Truth. Know that there is a moderate Jewish voice that wants to find peace for all in a two-state solution. J-Street is one group that wants the world to know and hear moderate Jewish and Palestinian voices. The Palestinian Authority is also pushing for a two-state solution, but may soon give up hope because of the Jewish settlements all over their country. Pray for inner and outer peace for Israelis and Palestinians, who do not want to live in the trauma of conflict. See the minds and hearts of all involved be lifted to spiritual solutions, including Secretary of State John Kerry. I believe that the Middle East needs the United States to mediate a plan for peace. We can find ways to support these efforts on social media.
If Unity is truly about unity, then let us pray and be guided to action to help the process of unity unfold in the Holy Land of the Middle East.