Ramla.  It’s sad to think this is our last day together as a group but then only fitting that I gorged myself on some of the best food of the trip.  Best snack: dates, (Shocker, I know), from the souk; Best Lunch: Falafel (pictured) from, well I can’t remember the name, but it was packed liked gnats to a bulb; Best Dinner: Samir’s. When the pita by itself becomes one of the most delicious things you’ve ever tasted, bread that melted in mouth with a tiny ballet of smokey charred  dancers pirouetting on your tongue, you know you’re in the right place.  There was a lot of hype leading up to this meal and I’m happy to report it delivered.

Earlier in the day we visited Kibbutz Gezer where we had our daily session of class complemented.  Gezer, meaning “carrot” in Hebrew was apparently part of a larger parcel of land that was given to King Solomon through the dowry of one of the Pharaoh's daughters.   Amongst the small gardens and community playground equipment that we heard presentations from a couple of strong women (Let me just say here that I have been rather impressed with the quality of our speakers–Kudos to our faculty for arranging a wonderful cast!).  Amal explained her work at reforming the education system in Israel.  We then heard words of encouragement from Rabbi Miri Gold, a Strong and inspiring woman, for both the direction of our studies as well as an encouragement to remain vigilant in responding to needs social and personal at unexpected moments.  Having become the third ordained woman in Israel and more recently leading institutional reform by becoming the first non-orthodox rabbi to earn access to a state salary admitted to never foreseeing her current role when she arrived at Gezer from Detroit as young woman back in the 60’s.

Such narratives challenge my own disposition amidst uncertainty or struggling to decide to act out of pragmatism or idealism.  For the more I ponder the more I come to believe that glimpses of God’s face are hidden in these moments. Perhaps I should learn welcome these challenges, which I am undoubtedly facing in many fronts, immersed in relaxation of spirit and draped in emotional garments of white as if I was greeting my beloved the Sabbath bride.

The artwork of Nihad Dabeet was incredible.  I was struck by the beauty and raw truth in his work...specifically in the olive tree.  The contrast between the new life associated with the tree which is constructed from the tangled wrap of iron barbed wire and pounded metal.  This was both a reminder of the hope as well as a lingering fragrance of past oppression.  The hope exists in the new life that is birthed out of fragments of remembered isolation and blood.  Peace cannot develop out of a vacuum or in the words and rhetoric of international organizations and pundits.  The voice in my head right now is telling me that peace is crafted by calloused and bloodied hands of the people with full remembrance of the journey.  ­­­­Furthermore, Dabeet believes that an artist can only create once he has experienced pain and darkness.  I’m reminded by the quote, “…make peace not love”

With all of this blood, sweat, and tears given, taken and forced, one wonders if ritual purification has any strength to wash clean said impurities?

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Olive Tree: Nihad Dabeet (Thanks, Ali, for the photo!)
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Speaks for itself...
 
 
Strolling through Jaffa...
 
 
Having missed the opportunity to celebrate the birthday of one America’s most influential minds so influential in shaping both the realistic and imagined cultural memory, I am all the more reminded of his prophetic statement, “There is a time when silence is betrayal.”   I speak here of Martin Luther King Jr. of course.  Although thousands of miles separate me from the land he trod, the residues of his spirit have been memorialized in the lives of a few of the folks we’ve met these last few days. Driven by a love of peace and justice each of these individuals responded uniquely to  the unique and trying situations in which they were placed.  I can only hope to release but a breath of their courageous and creative regional voices.

Now, if there is one fundamental that’s been beaten into my head over the last 18 months at CTU it is that all theology is contextual.  Furthermore, having an awareness to the contextuality of everything will serve as wisdom required to substantively attempt to deconstruct or understand a particular phenomenon, situation, or problem.  Political violence, oppression, religious intolerance are  perfect examples.

We begin with theologian and founder of the Al-Liqa, Dr. Jiries Khoury, one of the architects of 2009’s Kairos document entitled, “A Moment of Truth: A word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering” and advocate for Palestinian self-determination.  The Kairos document sought to project a uniquely Palestinian Christian voice to a conflict typically polarized by Jewish/Muslim conflict.  In addition to developing a unique form of what I would consider Palestinian Liberation theology, from my limited reading of the document, I believe this document serves as call to Christian communities around the world to wake-up to a new global consciousness of which includes responsibility of both solidarity and action to “righting” the “wrongs” perpetrated against their brothers and sisters in the Christian “holy land” or “land of the prophets” by Muslims.

It was quite an honor to discuss the document with one of its authors.  Our conversations were fruitful in as much as we were able to discuss the documents power and its challenges.  I feel blessed to have responses from both the Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic Christian community articulated in such an intimate roundtable discussion.  I am moved by the frankness of our host and evermore by his resilience.

Next, I give you Avner.  After years of service as a paratrooper in the Israeli Military Omer began to wrestle with questions dealing with his presuppositions of justice against what he was seeing on the ground as a soldier stationed in the occupied territories.  Interestingly, he is driven to speak because of love for his country and for his people and not by apologetics.  The moral framework that was instilled in him as a child growing up in a conservative Jewish family did not translate, he believed, to the actions taken by the Israeli military. It was his task to give a voice to these and the testimony of other soldiers so that the Israeli people at least can have access to a reality which can ironically seem so distant (its not more than 90 minute drive from Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast to refugee camps outside of Nablus). 

As we drove through the troubled southern Hebron hills I was amazed at the contrast in living conditions between Israeli settlers and those most recently “indigenous” to the territory.  We stopped at one such encampment named Susiya.  Susiya has been receiving a lot of international attention regarding its unique situation. I encourage you to visit here to learn more as I am not up for the task in this short, but growing, entry.

In Susiya we had the opportunity to chat with Omer's close friend and local leader/community activist Nasser.  How beautiful that here stand a Jewish ex-soldier  and Palestinian Muslim in warm embrace.  There is something hopeful here.  Nasser explained the plight of his people and the frustrations he encounters in securing such basic needs as water and electricity.  Sadly, less than a mile away the nearby settlement has comfortable apartments adorned with swimming pools.  As we walked back to the bus I couldn’t help but feel encouraged by the actions of Omer both in his courage to stand-up to what he recognizes as injustices and in his efforts to resiliently seek out answers to questions that brought him to inner turmoil.  He could have remained silent but he didn’t.  This guy is my age, my height, my frame…What am I doing?

I wont go on about the contrast from this area of the country/occupied territory to the cosmopolitan den of Tel Aviv.  Know that it exists.  Its in your face and its uncomfortable.

Finally, I bring you the Hebrew Arabic Theater located in Jaffa, just a couple kilometers south of Tel Aviv city center.  This ancient city holds some rich history and even richer cream stone saturated by the warm colors of its sunsets.  The theater utilizes the arts as a space for meeting and a mode for communicating between two of the regions largest populations: namely Hebrew and Arabic speakers.  These two populations are also bearers of differing cultures that rarely interact never mind share the “same stage” together.  The theater operates as one theater supported by the two autonomous legs–the Arab and the Hebrew. Each leg offers performances from their respective community and occasionally they collaborate on shared projects.  One particular show is performed in both languages accompanied with subtitles.  For me it lifted up another example of how the arts can provide an organic space for meeting, sharing, learning, and experiencing the “other”.  One of the directors commented on how the theatre, "...provides a space for self-analysis and reflection…something that rarely happens anywhere else."

So what can I say to break the silence?  Let me quote point 10. Of subset 10.0 in the Kairos Document, “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope.”

 
 
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A section of the separation barrier.
Today we rose with the sun in preparation for our group celebration of mass at the Franciscan chapel inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Paul presided over the group and must say that I am always touched by the sincerity and depth of his words.  I feel blessed to have such a patient and sincere voice present in our group.  For a single moment the liturgy that he arranged personalized by his words and reflections seemed to bring a moment of clarity to an otherwise emotional torrent.  In conversing with other students it seems as though there has not been enough time for personal reflection and it is beginning to show in the faces of my fellow colleagues.

But for a moment, the waves calmed and the world beneath the cresting revealed bottom contours.  Engaging in this particular ritual seemed to lift the group out of reality for a moment as a fisherman’s cast pulls back the line sharply allowing the fly to sit in a quiet suspension before being throttled back into the water.  Paul’s service provided the group with such a space of suspension.  We were pulled out and as we sang the concluding hymn dropped softly back into the waters of reality.

After more belagan observation in the adjacent chapels and foot traffic we made our way to visit our friend Dr. Abu Sway at Al-Quds university for both a tour of the campus and of the Palestinian Prisoners Museum.  It was here in these halls of memorial that I was blessed to have the opportunity to further converse with Dr. Inam Haq to expand upon the three categories of distinct religious knowledge he illustrated in class the day before; human activity or praxis, ones faith or iman; and the inner state or spirituality, ihsan.  Specifically we discussed how tawhīd, functioning as an imperative, becomes a spirituality that itself unifying the three distinct forms of knowledge. 

As we boarded our next bus bond for for Bethlehem deeper into the West Bank, I could not help but feel frustrated with what I had just witnessed at the prisoners museum.  I was contrasting the experience at Yad Vashem to this and wondering how such documented abuse could exist while the memory of the Shoah is still so fresh.  Granted, these are two different experiences, but I think its possible to juxtapose the two. Furthermore, I am a bit uncomfortable with the fact that some of these prisoners, or ‘martyrs’ may in fact be just criminals.  This is not my story so I cannot judge but would be interesting to explore the lines that border perceived martyrdom and the thresholds for justifying violence. A walk alongside the barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank only complicated things further.

I was bounced out of these confusing thoughts as we wound a bumpy road up to Bethlehem University’s gates.  Founded by the Christian Brothers, this university is considered to be the first university in the West Bank/Palestine (depends on your perspective) and has become a foundational institution in educating local Arab youth.  Here Christians, Muslims, and Druze learn with one another side by side.  For a moment I felt adventurous and began fantasizing about taking summer courses here and immersing myself more fully in the language and spirit of this particular form of convivencia.  However, this thinking slowly dissipates as I make peace with the fact that it is indeed fantasy and that my place and voice should find its echo back in the States.  It was but a glimmering distraction from the reality of paper writing and shoveling that I face back in Chicago.  The night concluded with an evening walk through the late night cobblestone of Bethlehem’s central souk.  The smells of cooking meat and toasting bread are lifted by the Isha aydan are becoming a wonderfully familiar greeting.
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Various poster designs from a gallery at the Abu Jihad Prisoner's Museum; Al-Quds University.
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View from my room window in Bethlehem.
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Now pan up...
 
 
Fun with Alleys in the Old City...
 
 
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Dates.  I love them. Nothing compares to the size and juiciness of the local fruit.  They have become a regular snack both at breakfast and as midday snack.  Each time I eat one I am reminded of the Quranic narrative that retells how Miriam (Mary) ate of this sweet flesh gifted from God during her pains of childbirth.  I have always thought this to be a beautiful image even as a Christian.  Ironically, today's subject in class dealt with the subject of Reappropriation of religious elements from one tradition into another–think the usage of Hebrew psalm literature in the Catholic Christian tradition.  Beautiful poetry of which I am contextually ignorant.

So often I, and many of my Sisters and Brothers in Christian faith, forget about the Jewish framework supporting much of our biblical and liturgical literature.  In fact, our reading of the Hebrew Scriptures is read through a completely different lens than both the historic or contemporary Jewish community.  What are the implications for this? I offer not much in the way of solutions but more of reflections.  This is a journal after all J I wrestle with this question as I come to recognize and humbly take ownership of my own personal neglect to learning more educating myself on the Jewish Christian sibling relationship.  One often struggles with questions of faith as s/he works to rave out their respective spiritual identities or role in a larger religious expression and I am certainly no exception.  I have been questioning how firmly I am able to stand when one leg of my supposed Christian body, namely that which represents Judaism, is all but atrophied?

In conversations with colleagues and friends I often reference the work of Richard W. Bulliet and his work The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004) which identifies the sibling relationship between the two resepective traditions.  But what about my Jewish Sisters and Brothers? Time to pivot the other direction I suppose…Some of the internal swells began to flatten as our conversations moved into descriptions of the ritual cycles within Judaism.  I don’t know how he managed to do it but Rabbi Sandmell managed to present a slough of information with utmost clarity.  I feel as though I am finally beginning to quarry some new stone to construct a phenomenological monument to the Jewish tradition.  My summer as camp councilor at a Jewish Community Center day camp didn’t do much in terms of offering theological education.  Maybe it attempted to, but the college freshman ten years ago was probably more interested in wooing his co-councilors than observing  Jewish orthopraxy.  Lets transition shall we?

As the group walked to celebrate a Shabbat service as guests of the. The waters of frustration began to churn again as my mate Paul and I discussed my current devotional void.  I’m waltzing with an absent spiritual exercise and am searching for a new window into my prayer life. Yes, I’m studying theology and I am struggling with prayer.   

Yet for a moment I found some peace and rest in humming and singing during the Shabbat ceremony.  With eyes closed, the tensions in question were released with the hums and notes released in collective song.  Remembering the words that closed our Shabbat service: 

Kol haneshamah;                     Let everything that breathes;

Tehalel yah Halleluyah!          Praise God; Praise God

 
Perhaps I’m going through some of my own spiritual growing pains and Miriam and her dates are sustaining me.  Afterall, learning how the “other” shapes oneself is at the core interreligious dialogue.  Right now, at least, reappropriation of themes and narratives from other traditions may not be so bad after all…so long as they are dissected and viewed in the particularity of their unique interpretations. For now, I look forward to walking alongside. Tehalel yah Halleluyah!


 
 
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Dome of the Rock
Holy balagan!  I recently learned this new word and I’m finding it a very fitting description of both the historic and contemporary dynamic of Jerusalem and its many communities. Holy balagan, or “holy mess”, encapsulates this distinct dysfunction/harmony (depending on how you want to look at it).  But it also holds the feelings I'm currently experiencing in perfect suspension. The last two days have been filled with an array of experiences that have led me to both joyful and sickening awe.

Yesterday our group began the day with an exploration of the Haram al-Sharif (of which we were given an exclusive viewing of the Dome of the Rock) and ending with prayers at the western wall.  I couldn’t help but revel in the craftsmandship and  beauty of the calligraphic work, the tiling, and the patterns blanketing both the al-Aqsa mosque, often referred to as the the "farthest mosque" (Q 17:1) and the Dome of the Rock.  Here’s an interesting tid-bit of information, the Gold plating that now adorns the Dome was crafted in Ireland.  I knew I felt a connection to this place (I'm of Irish/English/Polish blood).  But in all honesty, as student of Christian-Muslim dialogue visiting, touching, and smelling space dating back to the Ummayad period was particularly thrilling. 

From here we gratefully departed our host and guide Dr. Abu Sway, the current Al-Ghazali chair of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University, to meet with Hana Bendcowsky from the Jewish Center for Jewish Christian Relations for a walking tour through the old city.  I am normally a little skeptical of participating in big group tours for feeling like sheep herded helplessly through city streets, but today proved my doubts otherwise.   Hana delivered an incredibly thorough and provocative history of Christian presence in the old city.  It was Hana that introduced the word balagan to the group in context of the web of relationships between the various Christian communities manifested most wonderfully/horribly (again, your perspective) in the current carving-out of space in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Who would have thought this Jew would; 1) Be an expert in Christian History; and 2) Be way more energetic and engaging than any Church history teacher that I can ever remember having?  The day closed with the at time humorous and stimulating perspectives of Rabbi David Rosin, current ambassador for the American Jewish Council.

As I readied for bed I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that I could not be more spiritually moved by my visit to the Holy Sepluchre, a sight so-revered in Christianity for its location atop both the supposed tomb of Jesus and the location of his crucifixion.  Neither Rome nor the Vatican “did it” for me and neither does the liturgical cacophony of the Sepulchre.  Our guide found joy in this holy mess, the so-called status-quo which helped to organize agreed times of worship and space amongst the communities of Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Ethiopian Orthodox, but I only felt sadness and frustration. That after centuries, these Christians, brothers so close in dogma and physical location, have yet to truly find some sort of interpersonal harmony.   Sure, the history of fist fights over moved chairs, ladders hanging from windows, and the fact that a Muslim family has been entrusted with the keys to the building to both open and lock the church since the 12th century, is somewhat humorous.  It is funny and warming.  But it is also challenging in its display of the complexities that exist in an intra-relational peace process.  If such chaos exists in one house of worship one must not think that a swipe of a pen will solve the political crisis in this region–an inter-relational peace process. This mood of solemnity rolled over into the next day as we ventured to Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration.

For some reason this visit moved me differently than any previous engagement with the Shoa.  I was given a presentation of the holocaust that cut much deeper.   I thought I had heard it all, read all the accounts, and was well knowledgeable of the tragedy.  I was wrong.  This time I felt as though I had been hallowed out and left with a swirling wind of uncomfort, frustration, and fear.  The later, I suppose, developed out of a personal identification with both the victim and surprisingly the perpetrator.  For me, the most striking image was a photo (displayed in a collection of items held by survivors) of four friends in what appeared to be some kind of celebration or wedding; 4 men in filial embrace,  crooked ties, shirts untucked, and one in individual was clutching a guitar.  I made an immediate connection to the characters.  I suppose it was the normalcy of it all.  That could be me and my brothers. 

I am not Jewish so connection to this event has been somewhat surface deep. These voices have only come from history books, novels, and the occasional documentary.  But for the first time I made a real personal connection to the pain and violence showcased.   I carried that image throughout the tour sickened by the contrast of the light of their faces to the devastation of the unfolding story. For the first time the gulf between historical world and reality was bridged on this subject.  I am not so much focused on how such horror could be committed but in the cutting realization that the act was committed by human hands, hands that I have, muscles moved by blood that pumps through my veins.  Would I have the strength or foresight to make the tough but moral choices?   We often paint the Nazis as inhuman, and to an extent this is true in as much as their corporate violence demonstrated a complete neglect of any regard for life.  But for the first time I am seeing them as more human as ever in that they did what they did.  We humans are capable of great evil and great good.  I too thought, “Where was God?” 

In our debriefing of the visit Rabbi Sandmel presented some concepts of suffering from within the Jewish tradition.  Somehow his point of contraction resonated with me.  Sometimes, to make room for humanity there has to be contraction or God’s goodness or presence removed somewhat–in that space of contraction suffering can exist.  This is a paraphrase, a bad one at that, but it somehow gave me a bit of hope in trying to understand the presence of suffering within God’s ultimate plan or will.

Even amidst the horror there was hope.  Out of such horrific mess there was light. Such realizations may prove helpful to our journey as children of Abraham.  Humanity is balagan.  Even amidst our struggles to find commonality or to hold tensions our encounters will be messy and that mess is where we need to be.
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Prayers at the Western Wall
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Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
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Dome; Church of the Holy Sepulchure
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Icon; Church of the Holy Sepulchre
 
 
With this blog/journal, I am in a way “writing history”.  Today in class we spoke how, in many ways, writing history is essentially poetics.  Bear with me as I attempt to explore this statement with what may at times read as incoherent ramblings!  But such is dynamic of my inner dialogue...

Feeling a bit groggy having lost the initial battle with jet lag, I awoke to rays of light slowly creeping through the windows that look out to the western walls of the old city.  Our first day of the program began in the classroom and closed with a full afternoon of touring, via bus and guide Doryit (sister, if you read this forgive my probable misspelling), of the Jerusalem surrounding the old city.

While gazing out across the horizon whose contrast is supplied only by the blue of the sky, the follicles of trees, and the gold of the Dome of the Rock fixed like a golden ring upon an earthen finger of cream stone, spatial understanding of my universe immediately shrunk. 

This place, this city, known previously only in myth and imagination, has gone the way of most and like most encounters with the unknown, destroys the mystery and is swallowed by moments, however brief, of disappointment.  This disappointment is not a value judgement on the beauty of the place or a rejection of the blessings I recognize in having the opportunity to visit this mythical land.  This disappointment is in losing a sense of innocence that has been locked away is suddenly released.  I fear that I have, in a way, penetrated the veil, entered the holy of holies, and am left asking, “really, is this is it”?

However, I am more inclined to think that the mystery I have shattered exists as a thin shell around the existence of a much larger “holy”.  One that presupposes the romantic images of centurions, charismatic teachers on crosses, and Ottoman Sultanates.  Perhaps I had to shed this layer, this skin, before I could really begin to understand and appreciate a unique form of sanctity for the people of the book. No, not containment of Shekinah; no, not the footsteps of Jesus, and no; no its location of Mir’aj.   Below these defining memories . It is instead through the countless generations of intentional prayer and pilgrimage that has eroded this rocky landscape like some ethereal riverflow.

As I gaze out into the distance searching for insight I am left with even more questions. Medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi wrote, “My heart is in the east...” but certainly somebody else’s heart lies there too.  How many hearts can lie on top of each other before it becomes just a pile of hearts?  Rather, how many layers of variant religious tradition can be applied to an axis mundi (in this case Jerusalem) before a tradition loses its ability to authentically interpret the initial connection to the sacred?  Furthermore, how do we, as a contemporary society, brothers and sisters of the book, navigate shared claims to sacred sites in a way that respects the particularities of the “other”? I don’t want to get into semantics but there seems to be a huge difference in the word “tolerance” and “respect”.  Personally, I find tolerance to be static, whereas respect supposes a form of engagement.

 
 
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Greetings Friends,

I will be embarking on a two-week long academic journey through Israel and Palestine and am inviting you to tag along through word and image.  I will use the space to reflect and unpack the riches from each day.  With God’s graces I’ll have the creativity to integrate the conceptual resources gathered in the classroom with the sensory encounters with space, place, and face.

After seventeen hours of air-travel, four airports, and a bus ride west, I find myself in Jerusalem.  Even now, after 24 hrs. of acclimation, it all still seems a bit surreal.  I have not yet fully grasped that I am completely surrounded by a city swollen with religious and political substance/significance, or what Karen Armstrong describes  as the “mythology of sacred geography” in her book  Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths ( one of our required reads for the course).

I am filled with both excitement and curiosity.   Sure this is a country full of new cultural fragrances.  But at the moment, I can’t help but feel like I am on a bit of a vacation.  However, I know that I will be challenged theologically and epistemologically.  I am sure to be challenged in the very ways of thinking; namely, to struggle with authentically listening to the various voices of a regional narrative– Muslim, Jew, and Christian–that has been layered with conflict, complexity and misinterpretation.  I hope to leave with a redefined interpretation of historical and contemporary relations between the popularly titled Abrahamic faith traditions.  And perhaps, even more, I hope to harvest fruits that will help nourish the sustainability of a newly developing discourse among religious communities; one not centered solely on tolerance but instead of respect and affirmation.

I awoke this morning annoyed and slightly frustrated to sounds of bulldozers and jackhammers right outside my window facing the Jaffa Gate.  At first I thought, “This is not what a sleep deprived fellow needs right now.”  But slowly, I realized that, indeed, there could be no better introduction to a city whose historical identity has been chiseled out of conflict, destruction, amalgamation, reclamation, demarcation, rejuvenation, and sometimes encouraging synthesis, than the rough but hopeful clamor of rock meeting metal in fresh construction.


 

    Author

    My name is Brendan Dowd and I am currently a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in Interreligious Dialogue at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL.

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