It was a several-hour drive into the desert. The 32 passengers in our motorized caravan were all believers in Jesus, their number equally divided between Jews and Arabs. Not knowing one another, most of the 16 Arabs rode with Arabs, and the 16 Jews rode with other Jews. Soon this would change. The purpose for the special retreat was to build unity.
We arrived at our destination about 10:30 p.m., just in time for brief introductions over a late desert dinner before bed. We learned each other’s names and hometowns. I was the only participant currently living in the United States, though there were a few Americans who had made aliya” (permanently settled in Israel).
Morning came early with the first rays of the warm sun. Slowly slumber gave way to activity, and one by one Jews and Arabs greeted one another. As though directed, almost everyone grabbed their Bible, the Book that united us, and found a quiet place to read and pray. The Hebrew, Arabic or English language of each Bible disclosed the background of its owner.
Suddenly, as though the scene was choreographed, people picked up guitars. The group gathered and began to sing. They sang in English, in Hebrew and in Arabic, teaching the words to the others as they sang. A young Arab gave a devotional talk in Arabic. Then prayers were offered for our safety, for unity to build and for love to grow.
With language as a partial barrier, Arabs still tended to sit with Arabs and Jews with Jews, but some intermingling began. “Sabach el cher,” “Boker tov” and “Good morning” echoed over breakfast as we sat in circles of eight and refreshed ourselves with the morning fruits of the desert.
This meal began the first structured time we would spend together. The first half of the day we were to go camel riding. There were only 10 camels, so that meant groups of three or more for each camel. One person would lead the camel, one would ride the camel and the third and fourth would just walk and talk to the others. After a while they would switch positions. None of us had ever ridden a camel, so we all would be equally inexperienced and uncomfortable. The experience would serve as an ice-breaker. The natural inclination was for those who already knew one another to share a camel, but the goal of the weekend was reconciliation. That would not happen if everyone continued to gravitate to their own people. A directive was issued that each camel must be shared by a mixed group of Jews and Arabs.
We bumped over the rocky desert terrain under the hot sun, and relationships began to simmer as people warmed to one another. It was a far cry from the boiling political hostilities of other times and other places.
I overheard many conversations along the way. The talk was very ordinary. Everyone really wanted to get to know one another, and the way to do that was through simple conversations. Politics were strictly off-limits, and it seemed that the group had no problem avoiding the issue. We cooked lunch in the wilderness, and Arabs and Jews stood side-by-side to prepare the meal. By the time our camel ride was over the group was well-mixed. The distinction “Arab” or “Jew” no longer mattered or made sense.
After the camel ride and a hike through the desert we had some time to relax. People played games, strummed guitars and slept. Small groups exchanged songs. Others just talked. Part of the evening’s agenda was a socialization exercise. Each of us was to talk to someone else from the group (again Arabs and Jews were to mix) and then introduce that person to everyone. The introduction was to include three facts we had just learned about the other person. There was also storytelling. Then music broke out, and Arabs and Jews once again enjoyed spontaneous fellowship of song and worship.
The next day included a longer hike. By now the relationships that had formed were real, not contrived. Jews and Arabs helped one another through the rough terrain as though it were the most natural thing. It was. They were just being friends, doing what friends instinctively do.
We rested at an ancient well and talked more about reconciliation. One Arab woman summed up the sentiments of the group: “Coming out to the desert removes the enmity between us.”
A statement like that might not make sense unless one knew that for some of the Arabs, Israeli soldiers were the only Jews they knew; and for some of the Jews, people who threw rocks at their Israeli countrymen were the only Arabs they knew.
One Jewish believer said, “In talking with these Arab believers, I am finding out that they are real believers, just like me.”
For the most part, those few days seemed like a mellow Christian retreat. We had Bible study, devotions, prayer, praise, worship and fellowship. That was the success of our time together. It was a simple retreat among those who had stood so long as enemies. Toward the end many of the participants exchanged names and addresses. No one had told them to do it. It was a spontaneous reaction to the entire experience.
The time together was so successful that future trips of the same kind are being considered, possibly with some of the participants of this first retreat as counselors. Truly, in Christ we are all brothers and sisters. He heals attitudes and relationships and unites us in the Spirit of love.