Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges–Post #2

By Rev. Mary Beth Mankin

This is the second of two posts on Debi’s Journey, “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.” The Georigan word debi means “sisters.”

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Rev. Nikita McAlister with a new Muslim friend who is wearing the stole of American Baptist Women in Ministry

While on Debi’s Journey, a spiritual sisters’ adventure in the Republic of Georgia in August, we became acquainted with several women from Georgia and we caught glimpses into their lives—their hopes, dreams, and their struggles. Our group of eight women from the U.S. included four who had been to Georgia before, so we new ones had some experienced guides for this continuing series of friendship building.

As part of our cross-cultural, interfaith experience of “Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges,” our primary hosts were Georgian Baptists from the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. We were also hosted by Muslim families who have become friends of the Baptists in Georgia, through the compassionate support of Baptists when the Muslims were victims of unlawful discrimination.

In Georgia, religious freedom is provided in the constitution, but where 89% of the population affiliate with the some form of Orthodox Christianity, the Georgian Orthodox Church (at 83.9%) enjoys a privileged status in terms of legal and tax matters and property disputes. There have been numerous incidents of harassment and persecution of minority religious groups and interference with their worship activities. Muslims and Baptists, as well as other Protestant groups, have faced opposition to building houses of worship as they wish.

During our time in Batumi where we were hosted by the Georgia Muslim Union, we met Gvantsa, a young lawyer who does research on human rights, including women’s and religious rights. Describing the situation of many women in Georgia, she noted that women are victims of discrimination in their everyday lives because of religious and cultural traditions: a man is the head of a family or business and is seen to have authority over women. Although the Georgian constitution grants equality to women, the cultural norms seem to have a greater effect on what actually happens.

Gvantsa told us that domestic violence and sexual harassment are significant problems, but women tend to believe that they deserve what they get or that a man has the right to control them. One of 11 women report such problems, but since women are shamed by their family or community if they take an abuse or rape case to court, most will not bring charges. Other challenges were noted: early marriages with insufficient income generate frustration and anger; an unemployed husband may be resentful if his wife is employed and try to show his power over her; and, typically, religious leaders tell women to stay with their husbands, even when there is abuse. Divorce has a bad reputation, and women are unlikely to divorce.

Unemployment is a challenge for young adults in Georgia. One educated, unmarried woman we met finds it difficult to get a job that will support her. In our air travel to Georgia, I met three young adults who had left Georgia to find work elsewhere.

The government is working to improve the conditions for women. There are five shelters for victims of domestic violence in the country. To protect minors, there is a law preventing marriage before the age of 18, even with parental permission, if the court does not grant permission. Sexual harassment in the workplace is now a criminal offense, and the government can help a woman sue a boss who is found guilty. Family law cases are private.

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Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, Director of American Baptist Women in Ministry

As I reflect, I realize that many challenges women face seem to be universal. As followers of Jesus, who treated women with respect and dignity, we are called to help women throughout the world gain equal rights for religion, education, health care, employment, and protection from harm. May we, too, find ways to break the barriers of fear and misunderstanding between religions and ethnic groups, and build bridges of friendship and understanding—of education and action for justice and peace. Our hurting world is crying out for us to make the grace and love of God’s kingdom present and alive wherever we go!

American Baptist Women’s Ministries (ABWM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have been invited by the Georgian Muslims Union and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to bring another group of American women to Georgia in November 2017. Watch www.abwministries.org for more information!

Interested in learning more about Baptist Muslim Dialogue? Save the dates for AB Women’s Ministries virtual mission encounter “See Me As I Am,” May 8-12, 2017. Visit www.abwministries.org/vme for more information as it becomes available.

mary-beth-mankinRev. Mary Beth Mankin is a retired pastor, living in Boulder, Colorado. She recently completed her term as president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries of Colorado.

 

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Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges–Debi’s Journey to the Republic of Georgia

By Rev. Elizabeth Congdon

This is the first of two blog posts on Debi’s Journey. The Georigan word debi means “sisters.”

“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” Galatians 6:1b, 2, 3 (The Message)

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Participants in Debi’s Journey in the Peace Cathedral

A Ministry of Reconciliation. The Menorah in front of the cross at the Peace Cathedral is distinctive. It was a gift to remember that Jesus was Jewish and to celebrate our Jewish roots, we were told. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili described the years of interfaith work that the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has pursued. For years the church has worked to find common ground in mutuality and humility and increase tolerance and understanding between those of other faiths, especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians. He described the work as wanting to help Jews be better Jews, Muslims be better Muslims, and Christians be better Christians. During our short stay in the Republic of Georgia, we too lived out the call to a ministry of reconciliation referenced in 2 Corinthians 5:18b. We were building bridges between American and Georgians, between Baptists and Muslims.

A Ministry of Healthcare. Time with the Georgian Baptist Saint Nino Sisters—deaconesses who are health professionals—gave us opportunity to learn of their ministry among the poor, old, disabled, and refugees in the community.  These deaconesses serve people in need, whether they are Georgian Orthodox (dominant in Georgia), Muslims, Baptists, or other faith traditions. The Saint Nino Sisters visit in homes and bring care, medicine, and companionship. They make medical appointments for those in need. They serve in the church. They are such dedicated nurses, doctors, social workers, physical therapists, mental health workers, and aides. It is amazing that these Saint Nino sisters assisted by 80 volunteers currently serve over 440 people in 30 stations throughout Georgia. They bear one another’s burdens.

Standing with Those Who Are Persecuted.  “I kept hearing that the Americans are coming,” Peace Corps volunteer Stanley Bizub told us when we arrived in the mountain village of Chela. He stepped inside the village mosque to listen with us to stories told by the imam and members about the

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At Chela mosque

time when the mosque’s towering minaret had been torn down by the solders, verified as “public officials” in a 2013 Report of the Public Defender of Georgia on the Situation of Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia.  On 26 August, 2013, Georgia’s Revenue Service dismantled the minaret without legal basis, alleging that the minaret had been imported from Turkey with incorrect categorization of imported goods at the customs service. With the minaret removed, further persecution ensued. A group of Orthodox Church members blocked the road to the house of prayer, the mosque, making it impossible for the Muslims to gather there for prayer. When the Muslim community protested the damage, employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had brutally treated those who confronted them. We stayed in the home of a Muslim man who had been beaten during the protest. Prior to that, Public Defender’s Report  cited evidence that the “protests of the Orthodox majority was against the religious building of the minority and were followed by the manipulation with legal procedures by the public officials in order to cause the situation favored by the Orthodox majority.”

As we sat in the mosque absorbing this information, the Imam told us, “We have chosen peace.”  They did not respond with violence. They began a long legal process to once again place a minaret at their mosque; it stands today as a testament that this is indeed a mosque.  I remembered that just days before we had learned that although the number of Muslims is significant among the 20% of the non-Orthodox population in Georgia, no Muslims hold public office locally or in state government. Most are entrepreneurs.  Georgia’s constitution assures religious freedom; however, persecution against the Muslims continues.  The words of 1 John 4:21 spoke to me.  “The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” I John 4:21 (The Message).  I felt like I was standing on holy ground in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers.

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Participants in Debi’s Journey

Different Together. We were breaking barriers and building bridges with our diverse group of eight women. Lay, clergy, Muslim, Baptist, black, and white, we were the visiting Americans. People of color are an anomaly in the Republic of Georgia. Georgians would ask to take pictures with our African American sisters. Virginia Holmstrom, Executive Director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, National Director of American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM), co-led the group of Americans coming from New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Kansas, which included Connie Eigenmann, Esmat Mahmoud and Reverends Sarah Hicks, Mary Beth Mankin, Nikita McCalister, and Elizabeth Congdon.

In breaking barriers and building bridges amongst one another as well as with Georgians, we met many people from different lands. For example, at a restaurant in Mtskheta, Georgia, we got acquainted with Akbar Moghaddazi, a Rumi scholar, visiting from Iran with his family. At the mosque in Batumi, we met a father and his five daughters visiting from Saudi Arabia on holiday in Georgia. We crossed paths with them again on the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Tbilisi; this time, it felt like a chance meeting with old friends.

It is difficult to recap the variety of our experiences. We enjoyed generous hospitality at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia’s Beteli Centre in Tbilisi and homestays with Muslim families while guests of the Georgian Muslims Union and the Georgian Muslim Women’s Union.  We were curious tourists in Batumi on the Black Sea, and in the capital city of Tbilisi, and especially as we meandered along the narrow, curving, climbing cobblestoned streets of Old Tbilisi. Visiting mosques and visiting the Mtskheta-Mtianeti Orthodox Cathedral during worship were unique experiences. Communicating with Georgians with the assistance of our delightful interpreters was unforgettable. Being in the Caucasus Mountains was breathtaking. The Batumi ferris wheel and numerous cable car rides afforded us amazing vistas. Visits to Gonio Fortress, Batumi botanical gardens, Zarzma Monastery, museums and other interesting sites afforded us opportunities to learn more of the history and people.

American Baptist Women’s Ministries (ABWM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have been invited by the Georgian Muslims Union and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to bring another group of American women to Georgia in November 2017. Watch www.abwministries.org for more information!

Interested in learning more about Baptist Muslim Dialogue? Save the dates for AB Women’s Ministries virtual mission encounter “See Me As I Am,” May 8-12, 2017. Visit www.abwministries.org/vme for more information as it becomes available.

liz-congdonRev. Elizabeth Congdon is a retired American Baptist pastor and active in interfaith dialogue.

A Summer to Connect

By Merletta Roberts
0726161404_resized croppedIn early summer my husband and I were on our way to an evening event when we stopped at a fast food restaurant to get a bite to eat. As we were starting to leave, a young man in a long robe and with what seemed to be a concerned look on his face hesitantly approached us and asked, “Do you believe all Muslims are like those who recently bombed Paris and London?” We shared with him our belief that not all people are alike, no matter what their faith; that we do not believe all Muslims are terrorists. I watched as a big tear rolled down his cheek and his face seemed to relax. Together we smiled and went our separate ways. In that brief exchange something powerful happened. We went through all the layers of assumptions and we connected; connected as human beings each caring for the other

In mid-July in the Washington D.C. area, I attended the national American Baptist Women’s Ministries board meeting followed by the national conference for women and girls, “3D” (“Dwelling, Discovering, Discipling”), and after- events. The after-event I chose was Connecting Faithful Women: Experiencing Baptist-Muslim Dialogue. This event was co-facilitated by Virginia Holmstrom, executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and Rafia Sayeed, the founding chairperson of Bridging the Gap, Connecting the Faithful.

Twelve American Baptist women and five Muslim women met for two and a half days to explore what it means to be Muslim and Baptist, sharing our faith stories and getting to know each other. Rafia shared her story of developing “Bridging the Gap, Connecting the Faithful” out of her desire to do something constructive after 9-11. Her belief is that when people really get to know each other, they begin to see each other and relate differently.

As women of faith we shared our stories, our struggles, our joys, our concerns, and our celebrations. Interfaith understanding was certainly at work. The more we shared the more the group seemed to move closer together, talk more softly, and connect in a deeper way. As we respected each one’s uniqueness we found it easier to hear each other and to share more.

When we visited a Muslim Community Center we were warmly welcomed. It was clear that the Center’s focus is on the whole person at all ages. We were privileged to witness their afternoon prayers and to experience the strong connection they have with the surrounding communities.

As we said our goodbyes and shared email addresses and so forth, I realized a strong connection had occurred; that in a relatively short time together we had moved from “us” and “them” to “we.” We had plowed through the layers of assumptions and were real with each other. Wow! Again I realized that in our connecting, we cared for each other as human beings.

Merletta Roberts headshotMerletta Roberts is president of the American Baptist Women’s Ministries of the Pacific Northwest.

My Brother’s Beads: Spiritual Pilgrimage to Republic of Georgia

By Patricia Hernandez

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Republic of Georgia with sisters in ministry as part of a project “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.” Our project is intended to build bridges between Georgians and Americans, Christians and Muslims, clergy and laywomen. While there we had the opportunity to pray and worship with Muslims from several communities.

Meeting with the Spiritual Leader (Kemal Tsetskhladze) of one community, we visited a number of mosques in his home town.

In one mosque, we were struck by the beads that hung from beams in the great hall of prayer.

May 2015 Interfaith, beads 010Black and red, blue and green, even purple.

Beads of silver,

Beads of gold,

Beads of shiny metal and shimmering glass.

Long laced beads.

Short strands.

Beads.

Bountiful beads.

 

As we looked at the various beaded beams,

Kemal reached for one, extended it to us, and invited us to choose a strand for ourselves.

We roamed and reflected, prayed and pondered,

each eventually choosing a beaded band that beckoned to us.

 

20150421_130717Later on, we visited Kemal’s village, a treacherous terrain in which the only connection to one end of the village was by way of a cable car. We were intrigued and wanted to give it a try. However, the village had been experiencing days of continuous rain and thunder, making such travel unsafe and shutting down the cable car.

But that day—by the grace of God— the morning rain subsided, the clouds parted, and the sun even momentarily broke through. So Kemal motioned, “Come on, come on. Let’s go!” And “go” we did, piling into the cable car—all of us, Georgian and American Christians and Muslims, clergy and laywomen.

One car.

Under one sun.

 

As we wound and wended our way across the steep cavern on a wire,

teetering and tottering over the valley below,

I held tight onto that bangle of beads

till we got to the other side.

 

With great trepidation,

I tentatively stuck out a foot, not sure whether the ground below was really within reach.

Thankfully, my foot hit solid rock.

Pay dirt.

I breathed, relieved. We were grounded.

More importantly, bonded.

 

As my foot steadied on stable ground, my fingers released the hold on the beads,

and words wafted through the wind of the conversation from dinner the night before:

 

“What prayer do you use with it?” I had asked.

Kemal had paused, then responded, “No prayer in particular. Just a reminder to pray.”

Just remember.

Remember to pray. Remember each other. Remember God

 

May 2015 Interfaith, beads 010Now back in the States, thousands of miles from that blessed bonding,

as I hold these beads, I am reminded to pray.

I remember the friends we made.

I remember my brother.

And I am drawn deep into our God.

 

My brother’s beads bless and bind me,

connecting me to the community of faith,

one God in and around and over us all.

Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone—or we might even say, bead by bead—with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. (Ephesians 2: 19-22, The Message)

Breaking barriers, building bridges—bead by prayed-over-bead—becoming the body of Christ;

that’s what we are doing.

Join us on the journey….

Patricia-HernandezRev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez serves as national director of American Baptist Women in Ministry and Transition Ministries. Her passion for the life of the Spirit is evidenced by having studied at Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation (www.shalem.org) as well as having spent time at the community of Taize with Brother Roger in France and L’Abri with Frances Schaefer in Switzerland. 

 

Seeing as God Sees: Spiritual Pilgrimage to Republic of Georgia

By Angel Sullivan

But God told Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 MSG)

This past April, I, along with five American Baptist women colleagues, had the opportunity to spend ten days in the Republic of  Georgia visiting with Muslim women and girls. Prior to leaving for my trip I shared with a few people that I would be visiting sacred Muslim sites and visiting and learning about the Islamic faith. The immediate response received was, “Why? Don’t you know how dangerous it will be? Muslims want to hurt Christians! Don’t you watch the news and know about ISIS?”

20150420_231139While I knew that I was visiting with Muslims, a people of a peaceful faith tradition, and that they did not have any intentions of hurting Christians, I still was unclear as to what to expect and how to be. During my time there, I visited a Muslim school for girls, where the ages ranged from 18-27.  I have to admit, prior to meeting the girls I did have my own stereotypes. I thought many wore long dress, skirts, and traditional head wraps, did not engage in any type of pop culture, and focused primarily on their faith.  I was proven wrong. There were, indeed, girls who wore long dress and head pieces, but many wore jeans and t-shirts just like American girls. I had the opportunity to hear girls talk passionately about their faith during a celebration for the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. I engaged in  conversations about their families, hopes, and dreams, that were similar to the girls I know back at home, and I danced. Yes, danced! We had one big slumber party where we ate popcorn, laughed, 20150420_212104and engaged in traditional, free-style, and competitive dance until the girls tired us out. The next morning, the girls surprised each of us with handmade envelopes and letters, expressing gratitude, prayers, and well-wishes for our taking the time to get to know them as people, as Children of God.

It was during the dance that I thought about a Scripture passage found in the  book of Samuel, that reads, “Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.” As I danced, I did not feel as if I was an African-American Christian women dancing with Georgian Muslim women; rather, I felt as if I was a soul dancing with another soul, enjoying the beauty of life and creation as God has intended.  The dance taught me that if we take the time to find common ground and break down barriers and stereotypes, that we can get along, have fun, laugh, work through difficult times, and dance to the rhythm of life until our heart is content.

AngelSullivan2013smRev. Angel L. Sullivan is an American Baptist-endorsed chaplain, serving as Staff Chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital-Bay Care Health Systems in Tampa, Florida. She currently serves as an adult member on the AB GIRLS national leadership team (AB Women’s Ministries), and is nominee for the position of national president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, 2015-2018. Elections are held at the annual meeting of American Baptist Women’s Ministries on June 26, 2015, at Women’s Day in Overland Park, Kansas.