Celebrating 30 Years of Learning in the Middle East
Interview with Doug and Patti Magnuson
In 1993, students from Christian colleges across the U.S. gathered in Cairo, Egypt, for the very first semester of the CCCU’s Middle East Studies Program (MESP). In the 30 years since, the program has relocated several times — first to Jerusalem, Israel, in 2011, then to Amman, Jordan (its present location), in 2014 — and benefitted from the leadership of four directors and countless faculty, staff, and lecturers. But what has remained consistent through the years is MESP’s commitment to providing students a Christ-centered, academically rigorous experiential opportunity to listen, learn, and grow in understanding and loving Middle Eastern neighbors both inside and outside the classroom.
We asked Doug Magnuson, the current MESP program director, and his wife, Patti (who also serves as the program administrator), to reflect on MESP’s necessity, impact, and history. Their comments have been edited for length. To learn more about MESP, visit www.cccuglobaled.org/mesp.
Why is it important for the CCCU to have a Christian experiential study away program in the Middle East?
Doug Magnuson: There are a lot of reasons; I’ll name some, though not in any particular order. One of the greatest challenges for Christians in the world today is relating to the Muslims of the world. These are the two leading monotheistic religions and the two largest groups of religious people in the world. So we often run into Muslims, no matter where you are in the world, and it’s important we know how to relate to them, how to engage and build relationships without being afraid.
Jesus says the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. That encompasses everyone around us, so the question here is, what does it mean to love our Muslim neighbor? You can’t really love someone without knowing them and without relating to them. Unfortunately, often Christians and Muslims end up fighting in one way or another. But it’s imperative for us as followers of Christ not to fight, but to love and to learn how to understand and relate, how to serve, how to exist together in the world. One of the things at the heart of MESP is the opportunity for students to do that — to become comfortable in Muslim settings.
So for example, within the first few days that students are in Jordan, we usually meet with some of our Muslim Jordanian friends in a local mosque. And for many students, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a mosque and had a chance to observe prayer. Afterward, we sit in a circle on the floor in the mosque and these friends of ours share their journey of faith and practice. It’s a disarming event for our students because it makes them realize, “We’re meeting other human beings who are real people like us, and I didn’t know that they might have this kind of experience.”
Another reason to have a program here is that the Middle East is in the news a lot, but often Americans don’t have a full understanding of what is going on. So having MESP here gives students a chance to come and understand this complex and important region, whether it’s some of the conflicts in Egypt or Afghanistan or Iraq, or whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also gives students the chance to enter a situation where there’s difference and polarization and try to understand different perspectives.
For example, with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, we’ll discuss Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” What does it mean for us to be peacemakers in a situation of conflict so that we don’t add to the conflict but instead start to relate to those in the conflict and to the situation?
Patti Magnuson: One of the ways we do that is that our students usually take a trip to Israel and do homestays with both Palestinian and Orthodox Israeli families. So they are literally living with these different narratives — it’s not just reading and studying them. We actually go in and are with these families.
DM: Generally, when you look at the news and talk to people, people aren’t engaging with those who are different from them very well right now. There’s a desperate need for people who have the ability to engage with differences in a more positive way. The Middle East is one of the most complex and difficult to understand regions in the world — there’s nowhere that’s a better testing ground for becoming a peacemaker. Every student who comes, even if they have better understanding of the region, finds their opinions and experiences and understanding shifting quite a bit as they actually engage with the people of the Middle East.
How do you see students growing in their faith in Jesus throughout a semester at MESP?
DM: Well, as we discussed before, we talk a lot about what it means when Jesus says, “Love God with all your heart and soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” and what it means to be a peacemaker. So engaging those two things throughout the semester has a real significant impact on students.
Another thing that happens is that we end up engaging the question of how Muslims perceive us as Christians. How does our self-awareness become informed by other people’s awareness of us? What is some of the baggage — whether it’s historical, social, cultural — that comes when Muslims learn we are Christians? When people hear us talk about Christians or Christianity, what do they hear? And if that creates barriers, how can we relate to people? I think about it like this — Jesus is the Good News, but sometimes we who have the name “Christian” are not perceived as “good news” by other people who are different than us.
Every student is at a different place in their faith when they come into the program, so everybody will process these things differently. But regardless, there’s generally a lot of impact on how they think about themselves as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, about who Jesus is to them.
PM: I have had so many students that have shared that they feel they’ve never examined their own faith in such deep ways as they have when they’ve met with Muslims, with followers of a very historical and long faith. Those moments challenge a lot of their misconceptions about what they think that Muslims believe, but they are also challenged by how they see Muslims and Christians here understanding things like sovereignty and God’s will. Those moments can cause students to go back to the Bible and go deeper into scripture to answer some of these things, and also maybe to broaden their perspective on the awesomeness of God and who he is because of meeting believers who see those traits so strongly.
Our students also come with a lot of questions, and they end up asking even more throughout the semester as they’re exposed to these discussions. It’s exciting to realize how big our God is. God’s not afraid of any of their questions, even the hard ones. I think sometimes students are fearful of questioning some things, and it’s an incredibly powerful experience to be studying something difficult and to realize there’s nothing to be afraid of — God is bigger than these questions. It helps things become centered in a much deeper way than they’ve experienced before in their lives.
Broadly speaking, how has the program made a direct impact on some of the alumni of the program in their vocation and calling?
DM: MESP students have a wide range of vocational interests — some come interested in working in the foreign service or in long-term ministry in the Middle East or in a Muslim context. Some come with an interest in NGO work or relief and development. Some come not quite knowing what they want to do and end up getting direction throughout their time here.
Afterward, some might find their trajectory strengthened and continue on in that career path they were planning on. And then some take their experience back home in unique ways, even if they weren’t planning on it. We have one couple, both MESP alumni, who got married and settled back in Canada, where they were from, and a large family group of Syrian refugees arrived there. Because this couple had been in the Middle East, they were basically the local experts to help this family get settled. They realized they needed a bit more Arabic training, so they came back to Jordan for a time to learn more Arabic and then returned home to continue working with refugees and refugee resettlement. All of that from their one semester at MESP.
We’ve also found that MESP helps prepare students uniquely for other experiences. There’s a school in Jordan where some of our students will do a service project. The school is often looking for American teachers, and so some of our alumni will come back and teach there for a few years, and they are far more likely than other Americans who have been recruited to be able to make the cultural adaptation and be willing to stay for more than a year, even if they were technically less qualified as teachers. We’ve had other students who have received fellowships — Boren and Fulbright — to study in the Middle East and have shared that with us MESP gave them the preparation and training to get the most out of those experiences.
As MESP celebrates its 30th year, what does that mean to you? Can you reflect a bit on the history and impact of the program?
DM: So the program was started in Cairo, Egypt, in 1993, and the first director was Cliff Gardner and his wife, Marilyn. We were in Tunisia in the time, so we didn’t know them at the time, but we have since become good friends with them. We moved to Cairo in 1996, the same year that Rick Cahill became the second director. We met him early on and were involved with the program throughout the seven years we lived in Cairo — we did some teaching of different courses, hosted students at our house, and led the trip to Israel-Palestine one year when Rick and his wife were expecting. So we got to see how the program developed and expanded and the incredible impact it was having on students.
Then David Holt became director in 2002 and served for 11 years. The program continued to expand in those days, and there were so many opportunities for students to learn about major events — the Israeli Palestinian talks, the Oslo Accords, the aftermath of 9/11 — and hear directly from people involved. Then the program moved to Jerusalem when the Egyptian revolution happened in February 2011, where they laid a new foundation for the program using the connections and context they already had there. Then we came on board in 2013, and then the program moved to Amman in 2014. So we’ve been able to build on what we’ve inherited and added in some of our own connections and experiences into the program.
PM: What’s fascinating to me is that the same four classes that were offered in the beginning are still what we teach. The content has been updated and tweaked, of course, but it’s amazing that those who launched the program had the foresight to lay that kind of foundation.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, the introduction said MESP moved from Cairo to Jerusalem in 2012; the move happened in 2011. The error has been corrected.