I spent two weeks in Turkey this summer mostly traveling on a bus with a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish people. It was two weeks filled with so many encounters and experiences that I will never forget for as long as I live.
I marveled at the sites we saw: the underground churches in Cappadocia, the visit to Rumi's tomb in Konya, the magnificent ruins in Ephesus and standing where the apostle Paul stood. In Istanbul, I was in awe as I gazed around me at Hagia Sophia, a colossal church built in the fourth century. But while all of that was great, it wasn't the highlight of the trip.
The best part was the relationships I made there. Ruins and old buildings are fantastic, but they cannot share a meal with you.
On our second night in Turkey in a town called Kayseri, strangers who didn't speak English picked us up at the hotel in three cars. By the end of the evening, they were no longer strangers as their lives took on names and stories. They took us to a home where we were warmly greeted by the patriarch and the matriarch of a large family. They had welcomed many friends and neighbors to join us that night. After we exchanged greetings and introduced ourselves, we sat down to a magnificent feast, a feast that took days to prepare.
It was a wonderful and memorable time as we chatted and ate and shared stories, but my favorite part was when the father said through an interpreter: "Because we have shared a meal tonight at my table, you are my son."
One night in Konya, we boarded a bus and traveled two hours to a wedding for a couple none of us had met. From the moment we entered the room we danced. I danced with the bride. I danced with the groom. I danced with little girls and old women and old men. One young woman danced with me so much, I was afraid I might be participating in something, unbeknownst to me, that could result in an engagement! Later, back in my hotel room, I wrote in my journal, "Just went to my first Big Fat Turkish wedding. Hope it's not my last!"
Throughout the trip, we took care of each other. Whether someone had a virus or a sinus infection, everyone took part in the nursing. When the sick person got well, we celebrated.
Our last night in Turkey, at a home in Istanbul, we gathered in a circle after dinner, and we sang songs together by someone on whom Christians, Muslims and Jews can all agree: Elvis. As we all joined in singing "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and other familiar songs, our music sounded to me like sacred hymns gifted to us by the king--the King of Rock 'n' Roll, that is.
I contrast that trip with the world I re-entered--a world rocked by terrorist acts in Benghazi, the ignorant and slanderous video that sparked protests across the Arab world, American politicians trading barbs instead of holding hands. Even sadder for me was opening Facebook on the night President Barack Obama was re-elected and viewing the hateful and racist comments by people whom I consider "friends."
In the midst of it all, I thought about my experience this summer and realized that it doesn't have to be this way.
In the New Testament epistle, James says: "So the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" The tongue, he writes is "full of deadly poison." Dangerous words can take lives, as we have seen recently. Worse, they can kill our spirits.
I do not write this with any expectation of changing the world. I write this as someone who grieves for a world that I dream is possible, who longs for the kind of community I shared this summer. I write this as someone who is, frankly, tired of people with poisonous tongues telling me who hates me, who hates my country and whom I am to fear. I write this as one who is exhausted by politicians, in this country and around the world, dictating for us our enemies and using talk that is akin to setting a forest fire ablaze.
I am sickened when people, many whom I know personally, speak disrespectfully about a man, Barack Obama, whom many Republicans and Democrats agree is one of the most intelligent and most inspiring United States presidents this world has ever witnessed.
The solution to all of this division, I believe, is to stop talking so much. In fact, I need to stop talking because the more I write, the more I risk doing what the epistle writer warned us against.
Maybe we all need to stop talking so much because words get us into trouble.
This summer, I learned that we need to start eating together more, especially with people different from us. (The good thing about that is you cannot talk much with your mouth full.) We need to start dancing more; even if you are a terrible dancer, do it anyway! We need to start singing together more because music and harmonies have a way of uniting us in a way nothing else can.
We need more bus trips. They have the potential to transform strangers into beloved friends.
Rev. Rob Hill is the pastor of Broadmeadow United Methodist Church in Jackson where he has served since June of 2005. A native of Forest, he earned his bachelor's degree from Mississippi State University in 1997 and a master's degree in divinity from Duke University in 2002.
CORRECTION: The previous version of this column left out the first word of the first paragraph. The JFP apologizes for the error.