This sermon was really different this time yesterday. There were 5 of us writing different pieces of this service including several reflections, so mine was pretty short. Really, it wasn’t even a sermon; it was a part of a larger collaboration. Writing my part was easy because I didn’t have to do the whole thing. In fact, I wasn’t doing most of the service at all. Someone else was writing the prayer and someone was offering the welcome- you get the point. It wasn’t all me, so it was easier. And better. And more fun. More social. There was less pressure, at least until I realized with everyone sick today, it’s going to be on me. Me and Kamila.
In Jordan, life is never on one person. Here in the US, we live independently. I’m raising a son so that when he turns 18, he can move out of my house. He may go to college or get a job, but within a few years of graduating high school, he’ll be on his own. That’s our goal as parents. Launch the children. Not in Jordan. Children get jobs so they can stay home and help with the family. Houses aren’t independent free-standing buildings; they’re compounds where tribes live together. Or, in the cities, people live in apartment buildings where their families also live. The whole building is a single family. The goal isn’t separation but enlargement of the core system.
Much of this is done by necessity. The average annual salary is $6000. Things cost a little less, but not much, so $6000 doesn’t go much further there than it does here. The only way to survive is to pool resources. There’s a single family bank account and everyone puts their money in the pot and from that, the bills are paid and everyone gets an allowance, depending on how much is available. If a brother loses a job, if an aunt gets sick, if a parent retires, the family income decreases and everyone takes less each month. And when someone gets a raise or a promotion, the opposite happens.
No one is alone. No one worries what will happen when they get old and can’t take care of themselves or if they get sick or divorced or fired. The tribe takes care of their own. And, everyone is in a tribe.
Today, instead of giving you one, single sermon, I’m offering a series of stories or reflections hoping together you’ll get a picture both of what happened while we were in Jordan and what I think is next for Community Church regarding this trip.
Maybe because Jordan is a nation of mutual dependence, it’s also a nation of hospitality. I arrived in Jordan at midnight. I’d been travelling for 26 hours. I stumbled off the plane bleary eyed, aware of little more than the bright lights and the Arabic spoken in an announcement. While I couldn’t tell what the announcement actually wanted me to know, what it told me most clearly in that moment was that I was far from home.
I was travelling alone. Often when I travel, I’m alone, but I’d never been to the Middle East and being a woman alone in the Amman airport late at night had me feeling more nervous than usual. That feeling, though, quickly dissolved when I turned from the gate to see a man holding a sign telling me I was no longer alone. Ali was waiting for me. He smiled, asked about my flight. He whisked me through the passport and visa process, then led me to find my bag. While I waited there, he flew off to get Carrie, also arriving in the middle of the night. He shuffled her to me, helped us get what we needed including cash and sim cards, then started to the door. Realizing I didn’t have a coat – it was warming a seat back at Heathrow Airport – he took his off so I wouldn’t be cold. With warmth, patience, efficiency and a spirit of hospitality, Ali got us both into a car and took us to our hotel. After getting our bags inside and checking us in and navigating our exhaustion, Ali told us we were ready for sleep and left, telling us to call him if we needed anything.
From the moment we arrived, we knew we were welcome.
Part of being in a nation of hospitality is knowing how to be a guest. On our third day, we visited the archeological site in Umm al-Jimil where we met Summa, a young woman – quick aside, the average age in Jordan is 23, so everyone we met was young – Summa was a member of this Bedouin community. She went to school, found work in IT, then decided she wanted to do something to lift up her tribe, so she and two friends founded an organization called Hand to Hand. In addition to showing this spectacular ancient village, now in ruins, they are culture brokers. They made us a traditional lunch and told us their stories. Because we had a personal connection to Summa through Meagan’s daughter, Summa then invited us to Fatima’s house. Fatima just had a baby,- her 6th- so she couldn’t come out to meet us but she was happy for us to visit her.
When we arrived, our tour guide, whose name is Gheadan, told us that he and our driver Abu Osama, would not be joining us because Fatima didn’t have any male family at home, so it was inappropriate for them to enter the house. The 7 women – the 6 of us from Community Church and Summa who was joining us – got out of the bus and were shepherded into a room attached to the house, but accessible only from the outside. It was designed for receiving guests. Meagan stepped in first when Summa indicated that she’d forgotten to remove her shoes. She stepped out. We all took off our shoes. We stepped back in. The room was carpeted. In the center was a low table and around the room, pushed up against all the walls was what I’m going to call a cushion couch. It was on the ground like a cushion, but had a back against the wall to lean on. We all sat down. Fatima came in with a coffee pot in one hand and two tiny cups in the other. She poured coffee with ground cardamom into the tiny cup and handed it to the first person. She poured coffee into the second cup and handed it to the second person. It was steaming hot. Burn the inside of your mouth hot, but it was also apparent that she needed the cups back because there were seven of us and only two cups. I gulped it down as quickly as I could, leaving the cardamom sludge at the bottom. She filled the cup again and handed it to the next person. We all drank and returned our cups.
This ritual of coffee was universal. Every time we walked into someone’s home or sometimes into their organization or store, they handed us these tiny cups of coffee. The first time it happened to me, I was standing next to Gheadan and the men he was talking with were speaking only in Arabic. After I walked up, one of them ducked out and back quickly with a tiny cup of coffee. I shook my head to reject the offering which in the US is something one might do, but Ghedan quickly admonished me saying, “take the coffee”, so I did. I drank it quickly and handed him back the cup. I was later told by several Jordanians that you always take the coffee.
At Fatima’s house, we knew we had to drink the scalding coffee quickly. More than that, we knew not to protest the sharing of cups. We were guests. We were living by someone else’s rules.
Fatima doesn’t speak English. Once she was done serving us, she sat with us, surrounded by three or four of her young daughters. Summa was translating until Kamila turned to the oldest of the group – maybe she was 7 or 8 – and asked if she knew hand games. Kamila put her hands out and showed her Miss Mary Mac. The girl played. Then she showed Kamila her own hand game. The two of them sat on the floor playing hand games for quite some time while the rest of us watched and laughed. They’d found a common language.
We are so different, but we quickly learned how to be with each other in friendship.
Every Intern Minister has a project. Carrie created Soul Restore, a monthly online spiritual offering. She was interested in spirituality programming and we agreed that reimagining that kind of work for an online audience is critical in this particular moment. Meagan was interested in international work, which is perfect for us, given our history of work oversees. As we talked, we quickly homed in on Jordan because Meagan’s daughter lives there.
Over the last 18 months, Meagan has been running a program called Bridge to Jordan during which she talked about both the country, its history and culture, and also about what cross-cultural travel can teach or inspire in us. Those conversations are good, but they’re a little groundless without, you know, touching ground. Once we arrived, all that we heard became embodied in our lived experience.
There are several ways forward for us. One is to provide the opportunity to visit this ancient and holy land more regularly. We are going to run this trip, with a few tweaks, every other year. It will be open to our congregants as well as the larger UU world. Meagan won’t be an intern here anymore, but she’s agreed to be the primary planner and guide for these trips.
In addition, we are going to look for ways to connect us with two of the organizations we encountered. Helping Hand, Summa’s group, and Safi Kitchen, another organization run by members of a community to lift their own people. It is my hope that this trip will become part of the fabric of Community Church.
I don’t believe in a god who lives in the sky and watches us, but I have had some powerful spiritual experiences that tell me we’re greater than the sum of our parts, that there is more than we can easily discern. One chilly morning, long before the tourist buses had arrived, we went to the River Jordan. This is the river where Jesus was baptized. Once as large as the Hudson, the Jordan river is now maybe 20 feet across and low enough that we could have walked, a worry the Jordanian authorities made our guide promise wouldn’t happen because Israel was on the other side of that stone’s throw. We stood together at the river, noticing how unassuming it was, noticing how powerful it was, noticing how quiet we were together at that river. The song The Good Old Way kept running through my head – we went down to the river to pray, studying about that good ole way, and who shall wear the crown, good lord, show me the way.
Meagan and Carrie stepped into the water holding hands. They stood silently, and the power of their silence made the rest of us stop moving. For millennia, people have prayed at this river. They’ve confessed their sins, they’ve sought forgiveness, they’ve held hands with other seekers, and we were no different. Jesus went to the river to pray, and people have followed all through time. I often say in my calls to worship that this place is holy because we make it so. The Jordan River is holy because people have made it so for twenty centuries and when you step into that water, you can feel their prayers wash your feet.
This trip left me with some questions that will live in me for some time. “What happens when a religion born in one place moves somewhere else? How does its dislocation and disembodiment change it?” “What happens when one culture assumes that of another? Do we become intellectual squatters? At what point can we take ownership?” “How do we connect with people on the front line of climate change? Will that help us address the problem or shut us down even more?” “Why do we find god so easily in places that aren’t our home?”
I haven’t told you about the water crisis or solar power or the LGBTQ experience or the mosaics or saving the ancient crafts or the massive refugee camps or how the Nabatean trade routes created a culture of religious openness or any of a dozen other things. But, I will. Over time. There is much to say and I’m sure it’ll be said and there’s much to show you and I hope one day to do that. For now, we offer this song in gratitude and a continued deepening and sharing of this journey.