Many of us recognize the expression "walking a mile in another man's shoes"—the notion that understanding stems from sympathy and empathy toward others. Recently, a delegation from Nazareth College decided to fill some big shoes and walk a great deal more than a mile. The group—comprising Nazareth staff and faculty, and Rochester community professionals, historians, and religious leaders—participated in a venture called Walking in the Footsteps of the Prophets.
The program—in its inaugural year and currently open to members of the Nazareth and greater Rochester communities—involves an annual interfaith journey to the Holy Land and Turkey to explore, study, and build connections among Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the three Abrahamic faiths.
The 13-member delegation began the two-week trip to Israel, Palestine, and Turkey in late May. Three of Nazareth College's senior faculty members organized and led the trip: Muhammad Shafiq, Ph.D., executive director of the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue; Susan Nowak, Ph.D., S.S.J., chair of the department of religious studies; and George Eisen, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for International Education (CIE).
Each day the delegation traveled to sacred and historically important sites such as the Sea of Galilee, where the Sermon on the Mount is thought to have taken place; the Dead Sea, near which the eponymous scrolls were found; as well as the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Shafiq, Nowak, or Eisen provided context beforehand about the sites—their historical significance and reasons why the group was visiting.
Combining the resources of three Nazareth departments helped to develop a unique program that focused not only on visiting sites, but on strategic alliances with different people and institutions. For example, the group met the mayor of Nazareth and heard lectures by scholars from Galilee College (in Israel's northern pastoral region) and Al-Quds University (an Arab university on the outskirts of East Jerusalem). Topics were inspired by and specific to the various locations. While in Caesarea, the group delved into the role of Herod in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths; later in Istanbul, the members discussed Sufism in Islam.
Shafiq underscores the program's uniqueness, explaining, "There are many trips through Israel and Palestine—usually either academic or spiritual. Ours incorporates a scholarly approach with spiritual strength to have a deeper knowledge of the Abrahamic faiths and to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region."
The variety of people and perspectives is also what impressed Barbara Warner, a member of the delegation and coordinator for Christian formation at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y. "Dr. Eisen, Dr. Shafiq, and Dr. Nowak should be commended for their vision," she shares. "As a result of this trip, I feel my mind, spirit, and heart opening increasingly to the Abrahamic peoples. Hopefully we can come to celebrate both our differences and our similarities. An experience like this reinforces my faith in the wonder of humanity."
Since returning, Warner has continued to build community connections by reaching out to organizations such as the Turkish Cultural Center of Rochester, N.Y., and the American Friends of Neve Shalom.
Another participant bringing back her knowledge and experience from the program is Nazareth alumna Lynn O'Brien '88G. As a Rochester City School District teacher and as someone without any specific religious affiliation, O'Brien's approach to the trip was more from an educational perspective. "The visits to historic sites were interspersed with interactions with everyday people, chance meetings in shops or markets. It was great to see both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, which will help me develop curriculum and better teach the theme of oppression to my students."
Despite a myriad of experiences, almost all the participants believe the program would benefit from more student involvement. In response, the trip next year will be open to Nazareth students, with the eventual goal of having both community members and students together on one trip, in order, as Shafiq explains, "to have the next and present generations, here and abroad, in dialogue with one another."
"The solution to conflict and violence," Shafiq explains, "is education about the multiplicity of the world. The Hickey Center teaches that interfaith dialogue and relationship-building can lead to conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence."
And toward that end, the Walking in the Footsteps of the Prophets program is a step in the right direction.