UK Speaking Tour, November 2017
Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.
Opening Hearts at Springfield Prison
November 7: Today Abrahamic Reunion’s UK tour had a presentation at Springhill Prison in Buckinghamshire, England.
Abrahamic Reunion Peacemakers Sheikh Ghassan Manasra (Director), Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (a former resident of Israel serving as the current Rabbi for Cambridge University, and a trustee for the Abrahamic Reunion in the UK), and I, Reverend Cherag Anna Less PhD, (AR Executive Director) together with Abrahamic Reunion youth leader, Zaynab Manasra, and our UK Abrahamic Reunion team, Michael and Amanda Kenton, and Yvonne Dixon the Quaker Chaplain at Springhill Prison, met to offer a presentation to approximately 80 inmates, staff members and chaplains at Springhill Prison.
Yvonne introduced us to the audience and spoke about Springhill’s history, which served as the training centre for British Special Forces during World War II. She explained that the gymnasium where we were giving our presentation was built by the prisoners and named after Britain’s first Muslim war heroine, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan.
Although Springhill Prison shares the same grounds as Grendon Prison, where the Abrahamic Reunion had presented last year, Springhill has a very different population than Grendon Prison, which offers a therapeutic program for England’s most dangerous and violent criminals.
Springhill is an open prison that supports the needs of about 335 long-term prisoners who are in the last few years of their sentence. At Springhill prisoners train and prepare for their release, and participate in a resettlement program that allows them to work in jobs outside of the prison during daylight hours, and return to live in the prison when they are not working.
The majority of residents in our audience were Muslims and surprisingly for us, there were a number of Palestinians.
The Palestinians inmates eagerly gathered around Ghassan to speak with him in urgent, hushed Arabic while Mordechai and I made our presentations.
After all of us had spoken there was a Question and Answer period, and initially the tone of the inmate’s “questions”, which were directed at Mordechai, began as wounded and skeptical challenges that bordered on being aggressive.
But Ghassan immediately stepped in to skillfully navigate their hostility, and soothe them with quotes from the Quran and the Hadith.
He appealed to their innate desire for peace in ways that were culturally familiar for them, and once they felt their pain had been heard and responded to, they began to soften and calm down.
As Ghassan continued to raise their consciousness to a higher level, they reluctantly began to open their hearts to Mordechai (their preconceived enemy), and me (Mordechai’s naïve American accomplice, who didn’t understand their collective Muslim and Palestinian pain), and an atmosphere of trust, hope and camaraderie began to take over.
By the time the evening was winding down the inmates were asking, “Are there more people like you?” “Are there more people who believe what you believe?” In other words, “Is it really safe, and possible, to love one another?” As they hugged Ghassan and Mordechai goodbye, and shook my hand, they admitted what “a good guy” Mordechai was, and they shared that they had never met people like us, and this evening offered them the possibility to consider a new ending to an old story that always left them feeling like the victim. They asked how they could get in touch with us when they “get out.”
The authorities and staff at Springhill also immediately came forward at the end of the program to discuss our next steps together regarding offering programs, and in-depth trainings, here, and in other prisons they are responsible for.
As we packed our things to leave, we could finally exhale and thank the dedicated staff at Springhill. We send a special thanks to Chaplain Coordinator Brenda Davies and Yvonne Dixon for their support of the Abrahamic Reunion.