This past June I had the opportunity to travel to Tbilisi, Georgia, with a delegation from the Alliance of Baptists to meet with Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. The bishop had recently spoken at my home church, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, TX, and after describing the ways in which the Yazidi people are continuously targeted for genocide by the Islamic State, he threw down a challenge which rocked me to my heels by saying, “You need to come and meet these brave people and hear their stories for yourself.”
I was thrilled at this opportunity to meet with the bishop again. What I wasn’t thrilled about was coming face to face with these brave people whose stories I knew would be difficult to listen to and absorb. But I did go, I did listen, and everything I learned was riveting.
Dr. Malkhaz Songulashvili is an incredibly thoughtful host and I soon caught on that his life’s work is that of making friends and bringing people together. He shared with us some of the history and present struggles of the Georgian people, the enmeshed roles of church and state, the beauty of the countryside and the hospitality of his people. Most importantly for me, he shared his efforts to reconcile religious and cultural differences and demonstrated “loving one another” in the purest form I have ever witnessed. I found his compassion and dedication wonderfully radical.
Bishop Malkhaz has become a leading advocate in Georgia for the LGBTQ community and Georgian Muslims. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, ethnic Georgian Muslims were being persecuted by Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as by the government and the police in Georgia. Places of worship were confiscated. Employing his clout as Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, Malkhaz published an article in 2013 condemning homophobia on the part of both church and state authorities. In the same vein, he condemned Islamophobia in Georgia. Predictably, controversy and backlash ensued both within the church and the government. He subsequently resigned his position as archbishop.
Peace Cathedral, where Malkhaz serves as one of three bishops, realized its identity and true calling were tightly entwined with Muslims and formed a coalition of both Sunni and Shi’a adherents. That coalition has grown to include Jewish, Roman Catholic, smaller Orthodox Christian communities, and Buddhists who support each other. When we toured Peace Cathedral, we saw at the front of the sanctuary on each side of the Eucharistic table plans to incorporate a mosque and a synagogue so Jews, Muslims and Christians may always have a place of worship to come together as one. In addition, the Cathedral is building a library on the lower level for children and young people to share their faith stories, teach each other about their beliefs and traditions, and make friendships based on mutual respect.
One of the most beautiful revelations of Peace Cathedral’s ministry was contained in the Eucharistic liturgy we observed together on Pentecost Sunday. The following is a very small part of that liturgy.
We break this bread for those who love God, for those who follow the path of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or any other faith tradition, so that one day we may be as one.
We break this bread for all of creation which groans with the pain of childbirth, our green earth and all its inhabitants – human beings, animals, birds and all living creatures – and also for destroyed forests, fields and flowers, and contaminated water and air, that one day God’s creation will be restored.
We break this bread for those who have no bread, the starving, the homeless and the refugees, that one day this planet may be a home for everyone.
We constantly felt grateful around Bishop Malkhaz. Christlike in his focus and simplicity, he clearly belongs to the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized and outcasts. He feeds them, clothes them, brings them together and loves them. He advocates for their rights, rescues them, and uses his powerful voice on their behalf. I became aware of what Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven looks like on earth in the here and now when Christ’s disciples are committed to inclusion, compassion, healing, reconciliation and love. All those words we say and pray are alive in the Spirit in Tbilisi.
Finally, on the last day we gathered to hear stories of the Yazidi people, learning of their oppression at the hands of Kurds in Iraq. The stories of ethnic cleansing are filled with agony and desperation. It was the first time for me to hear stories from victims of religious and political persecution, and it was enormously revolting. Families have been torn apart, and women and children have been kidnapped and sold as sex slaves to Islamic State militants. Thousands have been murdered and innumerable mass graves have been filled with their family members. They have suffered countless horrors and cruelties.
We heard stories of Yazidi people living in refugee camps in Iraq who complained to the Kurdish authorities about the need for food, and that without their fields and crops they had no way to feed their families. The Kurds told them if they wanted to go back to their homes and replant their crops they could do so. So some of the men returned to their burned-out village, pitched tents and planted fields of pistachios. Then, just before the harvest, their camp was raided, their crops burned and the men murdered.
We promised to take the Yazidis’ stories with us, search our hearts and minds for ways to create awareness of their suffering and grief, and keep them in our prayers. As far as I can tell, we have very little in common with the Yazidi people other than our humanity. And that is what I have come to see as so sacred: Christ’s calling is to be willing to help anyone, anywhere, who is oppressed, with no thought of gain or benefit. I have caught a glimpse of what it might be like for us to live together in a world of harmony and respect where these too can live in peace. And so we have been humbly folded into Malkhaz’s community of oneness. Divine Oneness.
I am now home and surrounded by family, but my head and heart are still in Tbilisi because I have seen what it means to have a loving, accepting heart that recognizes no boundaries with anyone, anywhere. I have participated in coming together with strangers to become friends. It’s no small thing for people to break bread together, celebrate together, share their hearts’ stories, forgive and promise to be a voice when others have none. And isn’t that what Christ invites us to do when we come to his table?
I have come to understand that first of all suspicions, fears, prejudices and worse must be confronted and erased. In this world of so many differences, we must find paths of reconciliation and respect for one another to learn to live as one. My journey to Tbilisi gives me hope that we can live in a world not only of tolerance but of genuine respect for one another. What greater responsibility and hope do we have in our angry, troubled, threatened world?