Over winter break, a group of students and faculty members from an array of religious and cultural backgrounds traveled to Israel on an interfaith pilgrimage. Father James Erps, S.J., the director of Campus Ministry, came up with the idea as part of an interfaith initiative.
Dr. Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies, was one of the faculty members who Campus Ministry initially reached out to and then participated in recommending students, who were selected based on certain criteria.
“It was a small group because this was the first time we did this, so [Campus Ministry] wanted to make it careful and thoughtful,” Hussain said.
During the trip, the group visited various holy sites for the three Abrahamic religions. One of Hussain’s favorite moments from the pilgrimage was visiting the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem.
“A young African priest from Burkina Faso showed us around and talked about the issues of interfaith dialogue,” Hussain said. “Catholics and Muslims have to engage with each other, and interfaith dialogue in Africa isn’t a theoretical thing. It’s very real, so it was really powerful to hear him talk about his experiences and his thoughts on what we were doing.”
Rachel Haik, a senior journalism and communication studies double major, is a student who had several powerful religious experiences during the trip. Haik said it also felt special to observe and immerse herself in the traditions of her peers that she hadn’t previously expereinced.
“I finally learned more about how my God fits into religions other than mine,” she said. “I left feeling confident that the God that I pray to is the same God my Muslim and Jewish friends pray to. Who are we to fault someone for believing one thing over another when we’re all fundamentally preaching the same thing, which is to love your neighbor and love God?”
Another valuable moment for Hussain was visiting the Dome of the Rock, a very important site for followers of Islam.
“Last time I was there ... they were doing renovations and the interior was all construction and scaffolding,” he said. “This time they were done, and the inside was beautiful. The art and the colors were just stunning. It was a really powerful moment.”
Hussain said that the small size of Israel provided some interesting moments. However, Hussain said that perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the trip to him was its interfaith component.
“As an interfaith group, it was really powerful,” Hussain said. “For a Muslim student to pray at the Dome of the Rock or a Catholic student to take communion at a church in Bethlehem on Orthodox Christmas, or to see the place where Jesus was crucified ... these were all really powerful experiences.”
Ahmad Khalifeh, a senior mechanical engineering major, said that he also noticed some aspects of everyday life in the region that he found troubling, particularly the segregation between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
“That’s something you can’t really ignore when you go to that region,”said Khalifeh.
Khalifeh, who is a Palestinian-American, had visited the region before and seen the wall prior to this pilgrimage. One disappointment he had with the trip, he said, was less immersion in Palestinian culture than he would have liked. The lack of discussion with locals about the conflict and its impact on them was “a shame,” said Khalifeh.
Despite this, Khalifeh said that the pilgrimage provided him with many extremely powerful experiences, for which he is grateful. Haik said that the lessons she took away from the pilgrimage have greatly impacted the way she perceives the world and interacts with people of other faiths.
“Since I’ve been back, I’ve been to Shabbat and the Muslim student Friday prayers, and I’ve never in a million years thought I would go to those things,” Haik said. “It’s really special to enter a space that belongs to a religion that is foreign to me. It makes the world feel smaller and I see that we really don’t have many differences. It makes no sense to harp on our differences when we have so much in common.”