We were just sitting there. Eating fresh bread and feeling a bit sad that we had to go home the next day. Time spent in Jerusalem is sacred, and we were soaking in the last moments. Then, out of nowhere, came the encounter that has stayed in our hearts for over a decade. Read and be encouraged.
My husband and I cherish our time as pilgrims in the Holy Land. We have been quite a few times and every time we are filled with the awesomeness of this land which is home to people of all faiths from all the world. Literally. When we are there it is easy to believe, as the ancients did, that Jerusalem is the center of the world. It was in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the area known as The Christian Quarter* that we we encountered a man that reminded us of something I believe every child should be carefully taught from their earliest days.
I was blessed as a child to have had exposure to an enormous variety of cultures. My father was a scientist who worked closely with other scientists from many countries. Regularly there were people of many cultures at our dining room table. I met highly educated people speaking languages I couldn't understand whose skin tones were every shade from the palest white/pink of Northern Europe to the darkest matte black of India/Pakistan and all colors in between.
When I was unable to pronounce their names, these friends would smile and give me an easier alternative. Children are highly valued in every culture, and I remember feeling safe and seen by these visitors. In addition, I was privileged to accompany my parents on business travels to some of these other countries and to experience the world in person.
I have carried that sense of safety and comfort with people of cultures, languages, customs and skin tones with me all my life. That which is learned in childhood becomes part of who you are. You can teach your child to respect and be comfortable with the vastness of human cultures and customs while raising them to revere your family customs and practices.
But back to my story:
My husband and I had walked from our hotel through the Damascus Gate into what is known as The Muslim Quarter* of the Old City. We were strolling slowly so that the atmosphere of this place could settle on our skin. We stared as though our eyes were cameras taking pictures to store in our hearts. We passed through this section savoring all the smell of spices and cooking, the sounds of laughter, shop keepers doing business and neighbors greeting each other. There were travelers like us speaking languages from every continent of the earth, and we moved through the crowds letting them brush against us so we could carry a bit of them home.
We reached the Christian Quarter and decided to spend our last few shekels (the currency of Israel) on some fresh bread from a street vendor. We sat on a low wall to eat it. While we were resting there, an old man dressed in the typical garb of a Muslim of the area noticed us. He passed us, slowed down, hesitated, then came back to us.
"Are you American?" He asked. My husband and I nodded, but knowing that there are strict boundaries in place between men and women in the Muslim culture I smiled politely and let my husband do all the talking.
"Yes." My husband responded. "We are from North Carolina in the southern part of the United States. We have been visiting your beautiful city for two weeks and we go home tomorrow. We love Jerusalem." The gentleman smiled in return, and welcomed us. The middle eastern culture highly values hospitality and his warmth was genuine.
"When you go home to the States, please tell everyone you know that we as a people want peace. It is only political leaders that want war. When people start killing each other that is bad. Every human wants the same thing: to have a safe home and education for their children and to be able to live in peace. All people want this. Tell this to everyone you know"
My husband and this gentleman exchanged words of solidarity and peace among all humans. We promised that we would tell his message to everyone we could from that day forward. We have done this.
He had said all he wanted to say, so he began to go back about his business. As he started to walk away my husband called to him, "Sir? Are You Muslim?" "Yes." The man smiled. "You are Christian?" "Yes." We responded. "One God." The men said almost in unison.
My husband and I finished our bread and continued our walk through the city talking about the encounter. It remains one of our favorite memories. It confirmed to me everything I ever knew since I was very young. People exist on the earth in great variety and it is easy to appreciate each other's differences and learn our similarities when we stop and have a visit. It is when we make assumptions about each other that we are suspicious and full of fear.
How can you encourage this appreciation of all cultures in your home? Let me tell you what I did with my own children who did not grow up with the advantages of travel or having people of the world appear at their dining table.
Place a map of the world in a prominent place at your child's eye level. Put a red dot where you live and then mark other places that are significant to your family. Mark where other family members live, where your family traces their heritage, or places you dream of visiting. Discuss what languages are spoken in those places as well as the food eaten, the music, or the climate. Begin the conversations that help your children imagine how people who seem different are actually very like us.
Obtain picture books of other lands. Prowl through thrift stores for inexpensive books with large photos of the various climates of the earth. Pay special attention to those with indigenous people in them. Ask questions that you have no answers for: What do you think they are having for dinner? What is their favorite thing to do as a family? What game do they like to play? What do they do before they go to sleep?
Watch carefully chosen documentaries about other countries. Watch these with your child, paying close attention to how they respond. Be an interested participant and consider aloud the differences and similarities between the people and climate shown in the video and your own lives. Help your child to see clearly that people around the world are so very much alike and so very different at the same time.
The world and our own communities need more people who love more people. Instill in your child curiosity and hospitality, concern and openness of heart. We are all children of God. Let us love one another.
* Since the 19th century, the Old City of Jerusalem has been defined as the area within the wall built by the Ottoman empire in 1538 CE. This area is divided into four quadrants: The Jewish Quarter, The Christian Quarter, The Muslim Quarter, and The Armenian Quarter. All of these people live and work together in peace. Kindness is shown from neighbor to neighbor. The divisions are merely lines on a map, not in the hearts of the residents.