By Gilbert (Budd) Friend-Jones
ATLANTA'S "WORLD PILGRIMS" MODEL TRANSFORMATIONS LIVES
What happens when a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew walk down the street together? The beginning of a bad joke, right? Wrong. The Muslim was Plemon el-Amin, imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam. The Christian was James Lampkin, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Northside Drive Baptist Church. And the Jew was Sherry Frank, executive director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. The street was Yerebatan Caddesi in the old city of Istanbul.The year was 2002. This walk marked the beginning of a remarkable experiment in interfaith community-building by a city nearly 6,000 miles away.
The brainchild of Wayne Smith, Atlanta’s World Pilgrims has brought more than 350 Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and others into a mutually uplifting fellowship with one another. Today it is common for people of many faith and practice traditions in Atlanta – and differing sects within those traditions – to join one another for feasts and celebrations, to advocate for common goals at the legislature, and to pray and work toward common ends. It wasn’t always so.
At the beginning of 2001, most Atlantans knew almost no one in faith traditions other than their own. We lived spiritually segregated lives, separated by inertia, fear, and a lack of mutual understanding. In the aftermath of September 11, Atlantans felt a deep need to reach out to others and process the calamity together. Because of our ignorance of our own community, we didn’t know how.
But Wayne Smith did. He was a Presbyterian minister who had led the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba during Carter’s administration. He went on to found the Friendship Force International, an amazing effort of people-to-people diplomacy during the Cold War. Even now it continues to bring strangers together into community across the planet.
A New Way to Travel
In 2002 Smith developed an idea called “World Pilgrims.” He decided to take a diverse group of local people on a pilgrimage somewhere together. He envisioned a spiritual journey, not a tour, a pilgrimage, not a shopping spree. For him, the itinerary barely was worth mentioning. Traveling together was all that mattered. “There are three ways to get to know another person,” he said with common-sense wisdom. “You can lend him money. You can go into business with him. Or you can travel together.”
Smith developed a simple plan that can be replicated in any community in the world. Working primarily with the Abrahamic faiths at the time, he recruited three faith leaders – El-Amin, Lampkin, and Frank. Then, with the indefatigable interfaith activist Jan Swanson at his side, they recruited the “Pilgrims” – Jews, Muslims and Christians, making sure that each faith group included women and men who reflected the ethnic, cultural, and theological diversity within that tradition.
When Smith booked a Turkish bus for the group, he explained to the bus company staff the nature of this interfaith journey. “Oh!” they replied, “You will need three buses!” It took some effort convincing them that a single bus would do.
Everyone shared in leading the community during the journey. At various sites, or on the bus, wherever we traveled, we told personal stories of our faith experiences. We shared humor, songs, stories and information. Since we rode the bus from Istanbul to Şanlıurfa to Ephesus and back to Istanbul, we had lots and lots of time together.
Upon boarding the bus, some of us wanted to jump into conversations about Israel, Palestine, and other hot-button issues. The leadership team discouraged it. They assured us that we would get to these topics, but not until we had come to know each other as the uniquely individual human beings that we are.
We visited historic synagogues in Antakya (Antioch, in English) and Izmir, and the Grotto of St. Peter in Antakya, where Christians were first called by that name. We walked through Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Rumi Mausoleum, and the supposed birthplace of Abraham, along with numerous sites sacred to all three faiths. Local Turks applauded us. Some Turkish imams even encouraged the Christians and Jews among us to join the prayer lines in their mosques.
During a Pilgrim-led Christian worship service amidst the ruins of the great Basilica of St. John in Ephesus, Muslims and Jews joined in making cash “offerings” as part of the liturgy. $230 USD was collected! It later was given to a young waiter who needed it to pursue his education.
What We Learned
As Smith predicted, we learned much about our own histories and each other’s by traveling together. If we had circled Atlanta on Interstate 285 for ten days on a bus, he maintained, we would have achieved the same result. Certainly Turkey was more fun. We succeeded in creating an interfaithcommunity that endures to this day, though a number of us have moved away.
Our informal conversations were as revealing as those that were more organized. The Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” How interesting it was for Pentecostals, Catholics, and Presbyterians to try, together, to answer simple questions about Christianity from earnest Jewish and Muslim inquirers who knew nothing about the religion! How fascinating it was to hear such differing interpretations of the Qur’an from devout Muslim believers. How sad it was to discover that there is not a single inspired text that the three Abrahamic faiths share in common.
Many of us Christians believed that only monks have enough time to pray three or five times a day. We quickly became disabused of that notion by the frequent stops at wayside mosques so that Muslim Pilgrims (and we) could pray. Our Muslim Pilgrims rose in what seemed like the middle of the night, every night, to bow toward Mecca and offer prayers.
We learned to welcome Shabbat with non-alcoholic wine. We listened to painful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious stories of discrimination shared by a gay rabbi, a Muslim feminist, an African American athlete turned civil rights activist, and a Baptist preacher whose grandchildren had HIV-AIDS. We learned about the centuries of our intersecting histories, for good and for ill.
The Tougher Issues
The political tensions never fully dissipated. I remember the night we finally decided to talk openly about the situation in Israel/Palestine. We sat in a large circle and passed a “talking stick.” As long as a person held the stick, he or she could speak. No back talk was allowed. The stick passed from person to person until all of us had an opportunity to have our say. The stick went around again until everyone was satisfied that they had said what they felt important to say, and heard what they needed to hear. Though we did not reach a consensus, we learned an important lesson of how to listen respectfully.
As we approached the end of our journey, a number of us tried to compose a single interfaith prayer that would be genuinely inclusive of our differing traditions. We failed, but we also learned that our concerns can be carried Godward on the words of another’s prayer.
The focus of World Pilgrims has expanded from the Abrahamic faiths to include Asian religions and other faith traditions. Since that first pilgrimage to Turkey, Atlanta pilgrims of many faiths have traveled together to Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Canada, the Grand Canyon, Jordon, Israel, Palestine, Greece and other destinations. Some have been movers-and-shakers of the Atlanta establishment. Others have been teenagers, college students, and 80-year-old travelers. Always the format has been the same.
The walk that began on Yerebatan Caddesi in Istanbul wound through Jerusalem, Athens and Amman, and later in Atlanta, down Peachtree to Sweet Auburn. World Pilgrims now forms the backbone of that city’s many interfaith programs, and contributes to Atlanta’s religiously cosmopolitan life.
To learn more about World Pilgrims, contact me, Budd Friend-Jones, at firstname.lastname@example.org, 224-623-9200.