Our Palestinian friend Khaled, a respected elder in the local Arab-American community, called last week: “We’re planning a prayer vigil for peace at a downtown church. Could you call some of your Jewish friends to join us? I don’t know many.”
It took a flurry of faxes, e-mails and in the end personal calls to a number of our suddenly cautious Jewish friends, because something had gotten lost in the wording of the printed flyer and some were getting stuck in old inherited ruts: “He should have made it more inclusive!” Once again, Khaled, with his quiet disarming voice, entered the scene to counter half a century of Mideast madness that could still turn to stone the supplest of hearts. Then, despite the not-yet polished written wording, we all came to the vigil.
We stand on the steps of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church across from Lake Eola. A little Arab boy full of fun comes rushing up offering candles. Young women under checkered shawls float about like saints. Macho young men strut their stuff—the same age as those who would blow up themselves and others, I can’t help thinking. I also cannot help wondering at it all. Grey heads occupy islands of stately calm. Lively dark eyes everywhere are darting, and the air is full of excitement and tension as a police car rides by. Television crews bustle about checking mikes and white balances, while pretty reporters begin chatting informally with some of us. Something’s about to happen. Maybe something good.
Years ago, my dynamic Arab-American wife was involved in something she calls simply and fondly The Foundation: Arabs and Jews in Orlando come together to make peace among themselves as a first step—the only available step, they reckoned—toward peace in a region a world away that so far still knew little peace. The work was manifestly never easy and as people joined, they lugged their prejudices along with them. But they came nevertheless. Many joint activities were conducted, many lasting relationships forged, and who knows how many hearts were turned. After some years, Foundation members eventually drifted back into their separate lives. As a result of those positively charged years, however, my wife, and now I along with her, find our home in a circle of cherished Jewish friends with whom we get together regularly to pray, grieve, celebrate and revel in one another’s lives.
Here on the steps of St George’s another miracle was in the making. As we stood amid a number of our Jewish friends with our lit candles waiting—and waiting, for what seemed forever, for no one was telling us what to do next—people mingled and introduced themselves. All at once Khaled quietly approached a young Jewish friend of ours, asking him if he’d like to step over to the camera for a joint interview. As a result of that one simple move, both later determined it was time to begin again the work of peacemaking here in Orlando, and a date was set for a first meeting.
In the meantime, I was beginning to pick out faces. These were not exotic angry demonstrators but very ordinary Orlando neighbors, some of whom I recognized, come to join hands. Suddenly some old edges I was still carrying for one man shrank down to size. Then, with the crowd packing us closer and closer together, a pair of lovely, earnest dark eyes caught mine, flashing a smile that melted me on the spot. Under the white headdress the words tumbled softly my way, “I’m so glad you came.”
I thought back on our busy afternoon, already a lifetime ago, Adele and I racing around trying to do all those little things that want to get done just when you need to free yourself up for something else. Now something, maybe everything, had changed. We had come. We had lit our candles. We had prayed. Maybe it was enough.
As a result of contacts made at that same prayer vigil, we have come together here in Orlando as Palestinian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and concerned friends and supporters dedicated to making peace—first among ourselves, then doing what we can to stop the bloodshed and violence in the Holy Land by prayer, activism and example. Our three meetings so far have been filled with compassionate listening to one another’s stories, with all their pains, as well as hearty munchings, much laughter and endless discussion. We pray, sing, cry and laugh together. We are becoming friends. It’s a start.