Two weeks ago, the Christian community in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem area gathered together for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Services were held at many of the different denominations’ churches, including at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem/West Bank Young Adults in Global Mission (JWB YAGMs) helped to lead the service, in our debut as the “Young Adults in Global Mission Choir.”
Now, to be completely honest, I haven’t thought a whole lot about “Christian Unity” before coming here and serving as a part of YAGM. Before this year, my focus was decidedly more interfaith than ecumenical. As the vice president of the interfaith council at Vanderbilt University, I worked hard to foster dialogue between people of all sorts of different religious and ethical persuasions. My interest in intra-Christian relations, however, extended about as far as my education at a Catholic school and basic understanding of Catholicism.
Coming to Jerusalem, however, has exposed me to all different sorts of Christianity, each of which calls this land holy. One of my favorite things about walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem is seeing monks, nuns, priests, bishops, pastors, patriarchs, and other religious people of all varieties going about their daily business. It’s not uncommon to see nuns wearing habits buying cilantro or Coptic priests visiting with shopkeepers or monks checking their phones for notifications. In comparison to American Christianity’s relatively demure clerical collar, the sheer range of robes and hats and clerical symbols and crosses is absolutely astounding and simply does not get old.
The differentiation in the symbols and the dress of the different churches, as well as the incredible number of churches within just the Old City of Jerusalem (not to mention the rest of the land), drew my attention to the great span of Christian belief throughout the world. In particular, the variety within Catholicism and Orthodoxy has been astounding to me.
My experience of Christianity in the US has been overwhelmingly Protestant. I’m familiar with most of the Protestant denominations, if not the particulars of their beliefs, but in my mind if you are not Protestant, you are Catholic – full stop. Here, quite the opposite is true. I am remarkable here for being Protestant (although some other Protestant churches are present here, very few Palestinians belong to these denominations.)
Instead, I’ve been exposed to the vast variety of Catholicism-s and Orthodoxies that are present in the Holy Land. Here, there are Roman Catholics (in all its varieties, but especially the Franciscans) and Greek Melkite Catholics and Armenian Catholics and Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox, Copts and Chaldeans…the list goes on.
Over the past several months, my perspective on these traditions, all of which are much, much older than my own brand of Protestantism, has grown and shifted. While I still know comparatively little about these groups, they no longer feel strange and alien to me. I see beauty and meaning in their practices and in the spaces they care for in the Holy Land.
I’ve never felt more connected to the global Church (with a capital C) before this year, understanding both the differences and the similarities between our denominations. Worshipping with a Palestinian Lutheran congregation feels both familiar and different, and I have been surrounded by the instant connection and solidarity that comes with saying “I am a Christian.”
This place in particular brings out both the most contentious distinctions and the strongest bonds between groups. Here, religious leaders literally fight over inches of space inside the churches and cathedrals claimed by multiple groups. Control over these sacred spaces is hotly contested and jealously guarded. However, this is also the only place in the world that I have seen leaders of all different faith groups come together to pray and support each other in their mourning and their celebration. Christians – regardless of denomination – show up for each other here.
I feel the potential of Christian activism for good here. Despite all of the hurt that Christianity has brought into the world through various betrayals of the Gospel, at the service at the Church of the Redeemer I felt the power of Christianity to do good. The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, selected by the Christian churches of Indonesia, comes from Deuteronomy: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
Reminiscent of the oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” this command leaves no loophole open to consciences eager to slip out of responsibility. There is no room to pursue a compromise, a concession, anything that is not justice in its fullest, truest form. Justice, and only justice.
The service at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer began with these words: “As we pray together, we are reminded that our calling as members of the body of Christ is to pursue and embody justice. Our unity in Christ empowers us to take part in the wider struggle for justice and to promote the dignity of life.”
This call, I think, is at the heart of my belief in God and my choice to live as a member of the Church. Justice, and only justice. Love, and only love.
Because of Christ, I strive to work for justice and only justice in my host community, where oppression and inequality is a daily reality of my companions, where human rights are circumvented and ignored for “security,” where there is neither peace nor justice.
Because of Christ, I strive to work for justice and only justice in my home country, in a place where my fellow American Christians often support tax cuts to the wealthy, wars in foreign countries, a war on drugs that disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, and policies that exclude and harm people of varying genders, sexualities, abilities, races, and ethnicities.
Because of Christ, I strive to work for justice and only justice in the international community, which favors the powerful and disregards the weak, which exploits other countries for their resources, which fails to institute human rights for all people.
Because of Christ, I strive to work for justice and only justice in this world, where humanity recklessly uses natural resources and fails to care for sacred creation.
There is no part of my life that isn’t touched by this call to pursue justice.
Thank you for the call you’ve made on our lives and for giving people like Hannah the strength to follow that call. Because of you, we have the courage to continue to work for peace and justice in the face of oppression and injustice. Help us be a symbol of Christian unity and all that is able to be accomplished when working as a member of Christ.
Hannah J. is a Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer serving in Jerusalem and the West Bank! Hannah arrived to her placement in Jerusalem and the West Bank in August 2018, along with 6 other young adults from Young Adults in Global Mission, a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). YAGM sends 70 young people from ages 21 – 29 to nearly a dozen country placements, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Volunteers with the YAGM program serve for one year and focus on living in accompaniment with the ELCA’s companion churches. You can read more from Hannah on her blog, Yalla, Hannah. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Churches of all faiths are called together to form a vibrant and prayerful witness for Christian Unity by heeding Jesus’s prayer “that they all may be one.” The theme for the week of prayer in 2019, when this blog post was originally published, was “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…”, inspired by Deuteronomy 16:18-20.
The traditional period in the northern hemisphere for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25. Those dates were proposed in 1908 by Servant of God, Fr. Paul Wattson, SA, Founder of the Society of the Atonement, to cover the original days of the feasts of the Chair of St. Peter (January 18) and the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25), and therefore have a symbolic significance. Materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity in 2020 will be available from the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute at a later date.