In pursuit of peace - COP26 chairs help foster dialogue in Middle East

Two chairs that were part of a COP26 art exhibition in Glasgow have been shipped to the Holy Land to help bring people together in the name of peace.

They have been taken to Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the north of Israel by Rev Muriel Pearson to encourage conversations between people from different backgrounds.

She has taken up the post of Associate Minister St Andrew's Jerusalem and Tiberias Church of Scotland and will use the wooden chairs as a symbol to try and "deepen understanding, celebrate difference and help forge bonds of common purpose".

Rev Muriel Pearson
Rev Muriel Pearson and the two chairs.

Light and portable with woven vivid yellow string instead of traditional rush seating, they were part of an exhibition called "I will learn to sit with you and I will learn to listen" which was created by visual artists Gardner & Gardner.

It was on display in the Blackadder Aisle of Glasgow Cathedral for the duration of the COP26 climate change conference in the city last November.

A total of 122 redundant rush-seated chairs were arranged in pairs, jumbled and chaotic, symbolising the inequality of many power relationships and conversations.

Space for listening

By chance, Ms Pearson visited the exhibition and spoke to Rev Peter Gardner and his wife Heidi about her hopes for her new ministry, which will see her walking alongside all people in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

"One of the things that has attracted me to the role of minister in Tiberias is the opportunities to help create spaces where people who are different from one another, with different experiences of life and from different backgrounds, can come together and listen to one another," she explained.

"As a person of peace, interested in dialogue and aware that polarising conversation is sterile, I had been reflecting about how space for listening can be created.

"I was struck that amid the exhibition of chairs, jumbled and precariously balanced, symbolising unequal power relationships among individuals, communities and nations, two sat face to face at speaking distance, creating the space to listen.

"I was thrilled and delighted when Peter and Heidi gifted me two chairs and hope they will continue to inspire me to seek ways to create space for human encounter through genuine listening.

"Peace with justice seems a long way off but there are people of peace working selflessly for it and I hope, by just being there, to support this work."

Image shows 122 chairs within the 'I will learn to sit with you and I will learn to listen'
'I will learn to sit with you and I will learn to listen' was on display at Glasgow Cathedral.

The Church has a long history in the Middle East and is active in advocating for a just peace in the region in political and religious arenas.

In addition to the two worship centres, which operate as one congregation, it owns the Scots Hotel in Tiberias, the St Andrew's Guesthouse in Jerusalem and Tabeetha School in Jaffa.

Employed by the Church of Scotland centrally, Ms Pearson arrived in Israel a few weeks ago - a move which was delayed by six months due to COVID-19 regulations and visa restrictions.

She spent the time in Glasgow preparing for her new role – learning Arabic, carrying out research into the region's political past and present and leading online services.

Ms Pearson, who is on a four-and-a-half-year contract, revealed that she has visited the Middle East three times in the past and the most influential trip was in 2016 when she was part of the group looking to respond to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration the following year.

The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government in 1917 during the First World War announcing support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population.

It was issued by Lord (Arthur) Balfour, a former Prime Minister and Church of Scotland elder.

Injustice

Recalling the visit, Ms Pearson said: "We listened to people from both sides, Israelis and Palestinians - and that was a very powerful experience.

"The injustices are profound but the points of view of everybody have validity when you listen to them.

"There is no sense from me that I am about to solve an intractable problem, definitely not, but I hope to play a part in trying to hold the situation in the minds of people in Scotland so they understand the situation better."

Gardner&Gardner
Rev Peter Gardner and his wife and artistic partner Heidi Gardner.

Ms Pearson left her role as the minister at Cranhill Parish Church in the east-end of Glasgow in August last year.

She took up the post in 2004 and worked closely with community organisations and helped develop Cranhill Development Trust – a charity based in the church building which provides a wide range of support services to local people.

"I was perfectly happy in my ministry at Cranhill, a Priority Areas parish, and could just have continued where I was," explained the former secondary school teacher.

"But when I saw the job advertisement and job description for the post of Mission Partner in Tiberias the hum of the question ‘What will you do with your one, wild and precious life?" (Mary Oliver) swelled louder.

"I looked at it and thought ‘gosh, so much of my experience feeds into this'.

"Not just about having some knowledge about Israel and Palestine but the whole sense that there is a need to be entrepreneurial, and be a chaplain at Tabeetha School and the Scots Hotel.

"This post is complex, demanding, fascinating; one I feel my life has been preparing me for and I feel called."

Good listening and dialogue

Ms Pearson said her role is wide and varied and it will take time for her to find her feet.

"The most important thing to do first is to be present and attentive, in listening mode and I need to set aside preconceptions and simplistic solutions," she added.

"I want to meet as many folk as I can and get a sense of what might then emerge.

"There will be a lot to learn about daily life in Israel, and connections – interfaith, inter-denominational and secular - need to be made and sustained in many places including the West Bank and Gaza.

"We have many partner organisations we support in a number of ways.

"The Scots' Hotel and Tabeetha School are places where people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds work and learn together and these are not so common in Israel.

"I am particularly interested to see how I might contribute to the life of Tabeetha School for both staff and students .

"I would like to take the chairs there and use them to talk with the young people about good listening and dialogue."

Pilgrims

Tabeetha has often been described as a "bright light in a very difficult land" where Christian, Jewish and Muslim pupils and staff rub shoulders on a daily basis and learn to live together in a country where that is often difficult.

In addition to leading worship, Ms Pearson said she will be involved in welcoming pilgrims following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Ms Pearson's adventures can be followed through Twitter @murielpearson60, on Facebook and via blogs and short videos. https://wordpress.com/view/murielpearson.com