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Bethel professor hopes Iran delegation plants seeds of dialogue

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Patricia Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College, has well over two decades of experience in the Middle East. But her journey to the Islamic Republic of Iran was unlike anything she’s done before.

Shelly has been leading groups of students, pastors and others on tours in Israel-Palestine, Gaza and Jordan since the 1980s. But in Iran, the people speak Farsi, a language much different from Arabic. From the moment she stepped off the plane in Tehran, Shelly and every other woman had to wear – by federal decree – a veil at all times unless they were in the privacy of their hotel room or home or occasionally, in the case of Shelly and the American delegation she was with, in a Christian religious setting.

In fact, Shelly had just returned from her most recent Jerusalem Seminar experience when J. Daryl Byler, director of Mennonite Central Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., as well as a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board, as is Shelly, asked her if she would consider being part of a religious delegation traveling to Iran to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his invitation.

“I had been totally immersed in such a different context,” Shelly remembers. “I didn’t have my equilibrium back. But I couldn’t say No to this. The only thing harder to imagine than doing it was not doing it.”

Shelly went with the delegation, organized by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee, as the official representative of MC USA, since Byler felt that he needed to represent MCC rather than MC USA.

“I went feeling I could learn a lot – and I hope to be a channel for that experience for the people of my community [at Bethel, locally and churchwide],” Shelly says. “To go as a representative of MC USA was especially meaningful. I felt I was carrying the concerns of even more people.”

“Just this delegation going was so important at this time of escalating rhetoric,” she adds. “Our governments need to have ways of talking to each other besides shouting through the media – CNN and Tehran news – to have civil disagreements and to understand what each other means even if we disagree.

“Our hope was that our group in some small measure made a small contribution to the ongoing dialogue.”

Now that she’s back in south central Kansas, USA, she notes that she hears two things frequently: One, relief that she “made it back safe”; and two, the question: “So, what did you accomplish?”

The first comment, she says, reflects the fact that “we [in the United States] are so isolated from Iran and Iran from us.” The group was received with warmth and respect everywhere they went, she says.

As to the second: “One conclusion that I came back with is that you never know where compassion will lead you or what the consequences of your actions may be. ‘What did you accomplish?’ is an important question, but I’m very content not to know.”

She noted that MCC – with whom she spent four years in the late ’90s as an administrator for the Israel-Palestine program, living in East Jerusalem – has been involved in relief work and relationship-building in Iran since 1990, beginning after a massive earthquake there in June of that year killed tens of thousands of people. Over the years, MCC has coordinated student exchanges between American and Canadian seminarians and their Muslim counterparts in the holy city of Qom, Iran.

She also pointed to another important connection. “One of our two meetings with government officials was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the young diplomats in that office participated in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. He spoke of the brilliant ideas, as he called them, of peace, reconciliation and coexistence that he had encountered [at the Institute]. It was in part because of that connection with MCC that this delegation was possible.”

The delegation to Iran, Shelly says, was “both a harvest and a seed-planting. MCC’s 17 years of grassroots work in Iran laid the groundwork. The connection with the diplomat made the meeting in New York [of religious leaders with President Ahmadinejad in September 2006] possible, and then this delegation. Who knew, at any of the junctures, that this would happen? Who knows what other seeds were planted with this delegation?”

On Friday, March 2, Shelly made a brief report and showed a few pictures from the delegation in the regular 11 a.m. Bethel College convocation. “One of my favorite parts of our meetings,” she told the audience, “was the gift-giving at the end of each visit. Our delegation presented two gifts to each of the leaders we met with: a quilted wall hanging, made by women in Pennsylvania, and an oil lamp, made by Dick Lehman, a Mennonite potter in Goshen, Ind.

“Each time we presented the oil lamp, our delegation representative would talk about oil lamps that we hope to distribute in churches in North America – some which our churches already have – which we will light as a sign of peace between our two peoples and our commitment to pray for each other.”

Before she began her convocation presentation, Shelly lit a Dick Lehman lamp and placed it behind her on the stage. “The lamp lit here today is like those which we distributed in Iran,” she said. “It is lit today as part of my hope – a hope I would urge on you as well – for a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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