Sunday, August 22, 2010

Our Visit to Cordoba, Spain

In early June Laurel and I met up with my mom, dad, and sister for a 10-day visit to southern Spain. What I learned about and saw during our short time there was so surprising I needed more time to process before writing on it. Now that we're fairly settled into Tennessee I'm starting to reenter the news cycle again, and the current controversy over the siting of Cordoba House, the proposed Muslim community center and prayer space, near New York's Ground Zero reminded me that I still owed myself (and others?) some reflection on our brief time in Cordoba, Spain.

Our rental car's GPS passive agressively guided us the "direct" (wrong) way down one-way narrow streets in the city's historic center before encouraging us with a chuckle to drive over what seemed to be a small pedestrian plaza to our hotel. Huh: a broad, tree-lined street seemed to lead to our destination as well, but what fun would that have been? After unloading the luggage, we struck out on middle-of-the-day, searingly sunny march for lunch and to get what my dad refers to as a "lay of the land." We made it a few hundred yards before tucking into some tapas, some of our best yet of the trip: rabo del toro (ox-tail roasted tender) was a delicious specialty.

By a stroke of luck, that evening we watched a full-scale public procession from the Cathedral to the center square commemorating Corpus Christi, a Christian holiday celebration for which Cordoba is known. Rosemary, sage, and lavender scattered thickly along the parade route stirred up a rich citrus-y aroma as on-lookers peeked from balconies decorated with hand-painted tasseled silk scarves. Patios, also of Cordoban renown, beckoned from behind iron-grilled gates or appeared suddenly upon turning up a quiet alley -- their potted flowers reflected in the surface of cool gurgling water fountains.

The next morning we entered the Mezquita, the principal tourist attraction of this Andalusian town. Spanish for "mosque," the Mezquita symbolizes and embodies to this day the tension between and the fusion of Christianity and Islam. What a sight it is: Quiet, dark, low-ceilinged intimate space and stretch-to-infinity Moorish arches supported by delicate columns greet us as we enter. Suddenly, in the center of this peaceful labyrinth, a blindingly white, soaring-roofed, Baroque-ly loud and triumphant cathedral appears, stitched seamlessly into the mosque's arches. You got it: not a cathedral built over a mosque built over a church (a dime a dozen throughout southern Spain), but a cathedral built within a mosque built over a church. Regardless of the architectural mixed messages, since the Reconquista victory in 1236 the Catholic Church has treated the sacred space as unambiguously Christian.

In this place history's interpretation matters. After local Muslims expressed an interest recently to resume Friday prayer here, the Catholic Diocese of Cordoba responded with a glossy marketing display emphasizing that "the Cathedral of Cordoba is not simply a monument or a temple of different cultures; nor is it a mosque, but the Mother Church of the Diocesis." In other words: no.

But there is more to a history including a small Visigothic church at this site, its destruction at the hands of the Moors and the subsequent construction of the third largest mosque in the world during the Caliphate of Cordoba, and its Christian co-optation by King Ferdinand III as the Christians marched steadily south, eventually completing the "reconquest" of Spain over the Moors in Granada in 1492. In the twelfth century, while under Moorish rule, Cordoba was the largest city in Europe, the first with lighted streets and indoor plumbing, and producer of some of the finest minds of the Middle Ages, including the great Jewish and Muslim philosophers Maimonides and Averroes.

This period of Moorish religious tolerance and blossoming civilization inspired the developers of the proposed Islamic prayer space and community center to name the project "Cordoba House." While I don't profess to know the ins and outs of the current controversy over the siting of this center so close to Ground Zero, I believe strongly in the potential of the peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) to find much common ground in their overlapping faiths and to build great things from this shared foundation. It happened in Cordoba once. And the Mezquita's Islamic-Christian architecture may one day herald the way ahead: from pain and conquest to dialogue and reconciliation.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Welcome to Tennessee

After brief stops in San Diego and Oregon, Laurel and I (and our friend Breanna!) drove to Tennessee in three days, arriving just over a week ago. Our duplex sits on the edge of a forest chock full of louder-than-crickets cicadas, deer, rabbits, bats, snakes, and fireflies. We're both ready to begin three-year Masters of Divinity degrees at the School of Theology at the University of the South (just named the most beautiful college campus by the Princeton Review!) The first week of orientation has been straightforward, relatively tasty, and annoying only because our moving truck hasn't arrived yet. So Laurel's starting to get tired of wearing the same three or so sets of clothes every three or so days.

On Saturday the school bussed the incoming seminary class down to Hayneville, Alabama, a four-hour drive each way, to commemorate the murder of Jonathan Daniels on August 20, 1965. An Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan answered Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call to clergy to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Unlike most, Jonathan decided to stay and work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee registering voters after the media's attention had shifted elsewhere. On August 14th Jonathan was arrested in Fort Deposit, Alabama along with others, including Stokely Carmichael (later founder of the Black Panther Party), for joining a picket line protesting a segregated grocery store. White men with bats walked toward the picketers, but when those in the line refused to move, they were arrested instead. They asked about their rights, and the men responded: "Here in Fort Deposit, you don't have any rights."

The picketers spent the next six days in the Hayneville jail, and then were unexpectedly released the morning of August 20th. Suspicious of their jailers' motives, the small group waited at the street corner of the quiet town while white 26-year old Jonathan and black 16-year old Ruby Sales walked to nearby Cash's for a cold drink. As Ruby walked up the store's steps, a man appeared with a shotgun in the door frame and told them to leave or "I'll blow your damn brains out." Jonathan pushed Ruby out of the way and was shot in the stomach, dying instantly.

Tom Coleman, the part-time deputy sheriff who shot Jonathan, was found not guilty by an all-white jury after a 40-day trial during which Coleman testified that Jonathan had threatened him with a knife. Jonathan's murder led to reforms that required black citizens to become eligible to serve on juries.

About one hundred folks from several states made the trip to Hayneville on Saturday. We walked and prayed at the now rundown jail, the site of Cash's store (now an insurance agency, pictured right), and shared communion in the courthouse where Jonathan's murderer was acquitted.

Jonathan made sense of his time registering voters in the South through his faith in God's love for all people, and God's hope for justice. He experienced the Spirit urging him to get involved after Mary's magnificat struck him in a new way: God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones,/ And lifted up the lowly;/ He has filled the hungry with good things,/ And sent the rich away empty."

We knelt on the concrete where Jonathan breathed his last and prayed from the Book of Common Prayer: "O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." These sorts of public liturgies are so compelling to me because they demonstrate powerfully that love-inspired action, shared memory (however sorrowful), and the resurgence of hope through God's promise to the community of faith lie at the heart of what Christianity is all about.