(Photos of Church of St. John the Baptist, Jerusalem, taken by the author)
One cherished interfaith experience occurred when I spent a semester studying at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center For Near Eastern Studies. One day a group of five of us students stumbled upon the small Church of St. John the Baptist. Excited to visit everything in the city, we took the opportunity to see the beautifully painted wall scenes. As we started taking pictures, the gruff old Greek Orthodox priest who cared for the church, Father Theophanes, barked at us, “No Pictures!” Dutifully, we put our cameras away. However, as we continued to look around, one student started a conversation with Father Theophanes. The rest of us soon joined in. The next hour and a half passed in minutes as we enjoyed listening while he, often with a twinkle in his eye, explained the beliefs of the Orthodox faith, why the church was designed the way it was, and what the icons meant.
One of our teachers, an avid photographer, heard about our visit to the church, which he had never been in as it was often closed. So one day, he stopped by to see it and take pictures, only to be told off by Father Theophanes. However, unlike us, this teacher pushed back. He told the father, “But you let my students take pictures here the other day.” To which, Father Theophanes said, “Students? What students?” The professor quickly helped him understand that the five inquisitive young men who visited him were his students. Upon making this connection, Father Theophanes exclaimed, “Such good boys! Such good boys!” With the father’s blessing, the professor took pictures, copies of which we gave to Father Theophanes to sell to raise revenue for the building.
This professor helped us get approval from the Center to accept Father Theophanes’ invitation to return to see the church at night. It was an exciting experience, as we were never allowed to visit the historic city center after dark. Our group, which had grown to almost twenty students and faculty, walked through the deserted streets to the church. Father Theophanes greeted us smiling and showed us the interior, illuminated by the flickering light of a small strand of eight oil lamps. It was a beautiful sight! Inspired by the scene, someone suggested singing the hymn “Lead Kindly Light.” We asked Father Theophanes if we could. Winking, he said that although he was not supposed to, he would close the door and no one would ever know. The song echoed beautifully off the church’s small rotunda: “Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;/ Lead thou me on!/ The night is dark, and I am far from home;/ Lead thou me on!/ Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see/ The distant scene—one step enough for me.” Father Theophanes then turned the lights on for the others to enjoy the sites we had previously seen.
On our last day in the city, a few of us stopped by to say goodbye to Father Theophanes, whom we had occasionally visited during the semester. We exchanged pleasantries and told him we were leaving to go home. Then, in his somewhat broken English, he asked where we were going and what we would do when we got home. After we told him, he asked when we would come back to Jerusalem. We said we were not sure but hoped it would be someday. In response, he wished us well and said that he hoped we would return and that he would still be there when we did. I walked out of the church with moist eyes. I will never forget the brief friendship I had with an Orthodox priest and that we made an impact on each other’s lives. You cherish such experiences forever. They change you deep down in the soul.
One of the principle beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that “[i]f there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” (Article of Faith 13). This belief is especially true of people, since we believe that all are children of a loving Heavenly Father. No person, institution, or religion has a monopoly on truth. To draw closer to God, we should willingly gather truth and light from every source. I am a better Latter-day Saint for knowing Father Theophanes and learning from the divine light he brought into my life. For me, this is what interfaith work is all about. Despite our beautiful differences and varied beliefs, we are all part of one heavenly family. By understanding, learning from, and loving our neighbors, we can lift, inspire, and help each other become better practitioners of our faiths as we seek to draw closer to the divine and manifest its light, power, and truth in the world.
Christopher Meldrum is a local attorney and a current member of the IFC Board of Directors. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Classical Studies from Brigham Young University and his Juris Doctor from The George Wahington University Law School. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served a two-year proselytizing mission for the church in Guatemala City, Guatemala. He has also volunteered in several support positions for the local and regional congregational lay leadership and the church’s local interfaith and community outreach efforts.