This morning we visited the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf here in Amman. The place was started and is run by Brother Andrew, an Episcopal priest from Holland who has spent his entire adult life in the Middle East. He is a wonder — a perfect example of the servant minister, lovingly tending to his flock of children, speaking alternately in fluent Arabic and Jordanian signing. He also speaks English and Pakistani, and he has a mischievous wit and an absolutely infectious laugh.

The institute serves Jordan’s poorest population, offering state-of-the-art hearing assessment, hearing aides, and education for infants, children, and adults. The boarding school housed there serves 150 children, from kindergarten through high school. The children learn to sign, to read and write, math, science, and art. They also receive vocational training.

The school also provides translators to universities throughout Jordan, which makes the schools accessible to deaf students.

Several of Brother Andrew’s graduates have gone on to university, and some have returned to teach at the institute.

The grounds were beautiful and cheerful, the children as noisy and full of laughter as children everywhere. We visited a kindergarten class and watched a group of boys and girls learning math and signing, then set the entire class in an uproar when we pulled out our cameras. The kids hammed while we snapped away, then crowded around one of my colleagues — Jim Rice, of Sojourners magazine — to see the photos he had taken of them on his digital camera.

As has happened everywhere we’ve been in Jordan, our hosts pressed us to stay for a meal. But we had to leave much too soon for our next experience — a visit to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies and an audience with Prince El Hassan bin Talal, the uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Prince Hassan is a charming, gracious man, and we had two hours of fascinating discussion with him about how Muslims, Christians, and Jews can work together for peace and the betterment of the Middle East. Really, he is a remarkable man. He’s been everywhere and met everyone from President Carter to President Bush (current) to royalty from everywhere to Audrey Hepburn, but his passion is promoting interfaith dialogue.

Funny, articulate, and vastly knowledgeable, the prince engaged our group in a discussion of the role of the media in promoting such dialogue, then spent time answering our questions and posing for pictures. Later, I promise to write more on the wide-ranging discussion. Tonight, it’s after midnight and I have miles to go before I sleep (figuratively speaking, thankfully).

After our “business” stuff was done, we had lunch in Amman at a restaurant where we sat on low couches around a low table and shared sumptuous fare out of common dishes. Then we toured old Amman — the ancient city of Philadelphia — which looks like it has for centuries. All up the hillsides limestone houses are built one on top of the other, with narrow, winding streets our driver took at what must have been 50 miles an hour, just to hear us wail!

Finally, we visited a huge Roman amphitheater. I climbed to the top and the view was unbelievable. The really remarkable thing was a spot right in the center of the stage hundreds of feet below where you can stand and simply whisper and your voice carries all over the theater. Truly an architectural marvel.

The theater itself is more than 2200 years old, and was updated 1800 years ago. Just unbelievable. Everything here is just so old, with so much history. I stood at the top and imagined what it must have been like to watch the actors down below 2000 years ago.

When I first told people I was coming to Jordan, many of them looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. The Middle East? An Islamic country? Right next door to Iraq … and Syria … and Saudi Arabia … and Israel? Our American perceptions of the Middle East as a monolithic, unyielding, fanatic culture could not be further from the truth. The Hashamite Kingdom of Jordan is the very model of a tolerant, welcoming society. While Muslims constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, the country has a thriving Christian community — much of it far older and far more sophisticated than our Western churches. Everywhere we have been, people have been warm, accepting, and gracious.

I know that after this trip my perceptions will never be the same. I will never be the same.

If you haven’t been to Jordan, it’s someplace you absolutely must visit. For its food, for its hospitality, for its amazing history, and for its significance to three world faiths — including, of course the Christian faith — Jordan is truly a wonder.

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