PAOLI, In. – As I prepared to help lead a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) learning tour to Iran on Dec. 28, 2007, I kept in mind the words of a Muslim friend who had written us from Iran.
In a letter to tour group members, he told us: “…there are lots of things I would like the members of the group to bring: smiling faces, faith, hope, and love, open minds, sincerity, questions, criticism, doubts, respect, appreciation, wonder, patience, forgiveness, sensitivity, piety, fear of God, honor, honesty, alertness, awareness, two books and some coffee.”
We tried to consider such things as essential as all our personal effects. His letter went on to say: “I think it would be good for the people on the learning tour to consider themselves to be on a sort of pilgrimage or visitation to a holy site, because all who are going on the tour have a belief that it is God’s will that we should engage in dialogue and seek friendships with those who are different from us in denomination and background. Whenever we undertake a journey for the sake of God, we are traveling for the sake of encountering Him. So, it is a pilgrimage.”
I, along with 11 others from the United States and Canada, were part of MCC’s third learning tour to Iran. The tours, sponsored by MCC and the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Iran, have been an important way to increase understanding between Iranians and U.S. and Canadian citizens and to work to build relationships and peace.
With our friend’s advice in mind, we seriously considered the gifts which we would carry with us to give those people and organizations that would welcome us and partner with us in peace-building efforts. During the past Advent season peace lamps burned throughout many Mennonite Church congregations in both the United States and Canada inviting prayers for peace between our nation and Iran. As peace lamps burn within our own congregation, we wanted to spread their message among those we met in Iran. One telephone call to Mennonite potter, Dick Lehman, was all it took to get 20 peace lamps to take with us into Iran. These lamps became significant symbols of our desire for light, love and peace between our nations.
The Iranian Red Crescent Society was the recipient of our first peace lamp. MCC has worked with this organization for more than 20 years, providing relief in times of disaster and providing aid to many refugees from Afghanistan. Appreciation was shared for the long, ongoing relationship with MCC and we could see here the spirit of Jesus meeting the needs of the poor through cooperative relationships with our Muslim brothers and sisters. May that lamp of peace continue to burn in the Iranian Red Crescent Society as we together serve the needs of the poor and displaced people.
We met with representatives from the foreign ministry. It was with surprise we entered a room where nearly 70 participants were waiting for our arrival and conversation. Early on in our conversations, an Iranian ambassador and others proposed specific ventures in which we were invited to collaborate with them. Among other things they wished for a round-table religious dialogue. The focus would be the role of religion in addressing the questions related to international politics and justice and a weeklong workshop on peace studies and peace-building. Our hearts burned as we sensed the spirit of God moving within our conversations, leading all of us toward joint adventures of peace-building.
“We are ready,” said one Iranian participant, “to see what religions can do to establish peace.”
Wars and rumors of war threaten our relationships with the Iranian people. I believe suspicion, mistrust, judgmental attitudes and pride are prevalent. May the lamp of peace given as a symbol of God’s light, which guides our feet, lead us in finding ways to make peace a reality.
Our itinerary while in Iran provided the group opportunities to dialogue with government representatives, university professors, Armenian Christians, seminary professors, religious leaders and a variety of other Iranians. While in Shiraz, the tour group was invited to meet with a representative of the Supreme Leader for the province of Fars, and the Friday Prayer Leader for Shiraz. The tour group was introduced as a group of Christians from the United States and Canada who are seeking to bring about peace and calmness in the world.
In a speech entitled “Struggle for Peace” he said: “You who seek peace and friendship must first seek a relationship with God. Whenever the relationship with God is joined, the result will be peace and friendship. Whenever two people make peace with God, they will be at peace with one another.”
At the end of our time together a peace lamp was presented recognizing the importance of the light of God leading us into peaceful relationships. Appreciation was expressed for the gift and then the apology that gifts are usually given to the guests and that he had no gift to give. The next day our bus made an unscheduled stop at the home of this religious leader. Each of us was given a wrapped gift, wrapped in paper on which was written, “I Love You.” This meeting was televised and the morning newspaper contained a large section of reporting on this encounter. As we boarded an Iranian plane to return from Shiraz to Tehran we were asked by crew members if we were the peace messengers from America. As we sat in the plane ready to take off the pilot gave a warm welcome to the “peace delegation from America.” May that lamp in Shiraz province burn brightly with God’s light – a light to our path of peace and reconciliation.
The gift of welcome and hospitality was shown to us daily throughout our time in Iran. “Welcome to our country” we would hear at each meeting. We walked with safety among the people during the day and night. In the hotel lobby at Qom two large posters spoke to these gifts. “As long as a tourist is in an Islamic country, the Islamic government is responsible to guarantee safety and comfort. If a tourist loses his property, the government should support and provide him with the lost property.” The second read: “Feed everyone who enters into this house and don’t ask about his faith, since anyone whose life is of worth to God, of course is worth bread at the table.”
Our trip ended in the home of a Muslim family with whom we shared an evening meal, sitting together around a sofreh, a tablecloth on the floor. The home exuded welcome, friendship and hospitality. I thought of the words in Romans 12: “Love must be sincere…be devoted to one another in love…practice hospitality.” As a peace lamp was presented to our hostess I prayed that God’s light might ignite in us all love, compassion and hospitality to our Iranian neighbors.
May the burning of these lamps, both in Iran and in our Mennonite congregations, be pleasing to God and may our hearts be ignited with the flame of God’s love and peace for all God’s people.
Evie Shellenberger and her husband Wallace were co-leaders of a recent MCC learning tour to Iran. The couple served as MCC workers, studying in Qom, Iran, through MCC's student exchange program with the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute.