Paul-Gordon Chandler: The Art of Building Bridges Between The East and The West

“Very quickly we began to see how the arts can be a universal language that has the ability to dissolve the differences that divide people when used proactively for that purpose.” Paul-Gordon Chandler

Paul-Gordon Chandler is an author, interfaith advocate, art curator, social entrepreneur and US Episcopal priest.

Having grown up in Senegal, West Africa, he has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East and North Africa in leadership roles within faith-based publishing, ecumenical relief and development agencies and the Episcopal Church Based now out of the Chicago area.

He is the Founder and President of CARAVAN, an international peace-building non-profit/NGO that uses the arts to build bridges between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and West.

He is also a Canon at All Saints' Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt and has authored four non-fiction books in the fields of Christian-Muslim relations, Global Christianity and the Middle East.

Emy diGrappa (00:32):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories asking our guest the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why? Today we are talking to Paul-Gordon Chandler, he is an author, interfaith advocate, art curator, social entrepreneur, and US Episcopal priest. Welcome, Paul-Gordon.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (01:27):

Thank you. That's a mouthful by the way, isn't it?

Emy diGrappa (01:29):

I know. And, you know, I wanted to ask you, how was it that you ended up with two names, Paul-Gordon?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (01:38):

Well, I grew up in Senegal, West Africa, which is a francophone, french speaking country, and they hyphenate names, [inaudible 00:01:46], et cetera. So hence I had the hyphenated name. But I never used it until I actually ended up working in a place, uh, where they already had a Paul G. Chandler at the place. And so part of the condition of taking a, of being given the job was, uh, that I actually have to use Paul-Gordon Chandler to differentiate between the two, that was about 96. So since then I've been using Paul-Gordon again.

Emy diGrappa (02:09):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:09):

But it's a mouthful, it's like a curse here in The United States, you know.

Emy diGrappa (02:12):

(laughs) Well, because we're not used to it.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:14):

Exactly, exactly, you know. And often if I say, I introduce my, introduce myself saying, "Emy, I'm Paul-Gordon." Uh, they often think that's my last name. Of course, you know, so they'll say, "Well, Mr. Gordon here."

Emy diGrappa (02:25):

What was your first language growing up?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:26):

I grew up, first language was French, and then the local language is Wolof, which is a tribal language, it's kind of the merchant language of West Africa, like the Swahili is of, uh, Swahili is of East Africa. But I did go to English speaking schools, especially secondary schools. I went to a boarding school in Cote d'Ivoire, the Ivory Coast.

Emy diGrappa (02:44):

And how is it that your parents ended up in Senegal? Were they US born-

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:49):

Yes.

Emy diGrappa (02:49):

... were they African?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:49):

My parents are American.

Emy diGrappa (02:50):

Okay.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (02:50):

And they moved there, my father was the minister of the International Church in the capital city, Dakar, uh, large city, over a million people at that time, and now it's even much larger of course. And so we were there 18 years. So my first 18 years were in Senegal, West Africa.

Emy diGrappa (03:06):

And then you moved to the states?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (03:07):

Then I moved to the states, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (03:09):

And how was it that you got interested in art and became the director of Caravan? Tell us a little bit about Caravan first-

Paul-Gordon Chandler (03:17):

Right.

Emy diGrappa (03:17):

... and, and how that became a part of your life path.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (03:19):

Sure. I mean, obviously two kind of major components of growing up in Senegal, for me, is that I was surrounded by those of another faith.

Emy diGrappa (03:27):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul-Gordon Chandler (03:27):

Muslims, uh, Islam is the majority faith in Senegal, about 98% of Senegal are Muslim. As is of course West Africa and North Africa there. And the other major component, uh, or atmosphere I was surrounded by were the arts. Uh, Senegal's a very artistic place and very creative people, the first president of Senegal, after French colonialism, uh, was a, uh, an outstanding poet and really bred that into the society, uh, the arts and the value of culture. So I grew up with someone like, uh, I mean, someone in my neighborhood is, his name is Youssou N'Dour. And many people know him, he's one of the world music, you know, celebrities seen from West Africa. I think it was Sting or Peter Gabriel who made him famous.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (04:08):

So in one sense I was passionate about building bridges between Christians and Muslims, or the Middle East and the West, and then also passionate about the arts. But they really didn't come together until I was living in Cairo, Egypt and we lived there for 10 years. I was director of the Episcopal church there, the International Episcopal Church, serving the diplomats, business persons, academics, and the American University of Cairo, and et cetera. And we were involved in a lot of East, West dialogue, or interfaith, intercultural dialogue, largely Christianity and Islam. And to be very honest with you, we just got bored with the traditional approach, lectures, panels, discussions, um, same old, same old. And you see the same people all the time at each of them.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (04:51):

And I was, uh, conversing with, at that time, the Grande Grand Imam of al-Azhar, which is the intellectual and the spiritual heart of Sunni Islam, which are the majority of Muslims around the world, and that's based in Cairo. And, uh, we came up with this idea of using the arts, uh, somehow I was talking about art et cetera. And we had a first, the first interfaith arts Festival, and it was called Caravan, on a caravan, meaning we're journeying together through the arts. Christians and Muslims, Middle Easterners and Westerners. And we had about 10,000 people show up, uh, in a week. Uh, it was a city-wide festival. And it took us back with the response.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (05:28):

And of course people that would not normally ever go to anything like interfaith dialogue or anything like that, which has a connotation of boring. And it started, every year we started doing the same thing. And, uh, and then eventually... and that was in 2009 that that, uh, we had our first, uh, arts festival, East, West arts festival. And then in 2013, after the revolution in Egypt, uh, and when the president was overthrown and all of that, public art became a way to express, uh, how people were feeling. So we thought we'd tap into that and we did, we had 50 life size fiberglass painted donkeys. And the donkey of course symbolizes... everybody loves donkeys, right? But the donkey symbolizes, uh, peace and Christianity in Islam. Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a Donkey, Umar ibn al-Khaṭtāb, the second caliph in Islam comes into Jerusalem on a Donkey. All young Muslims learn that story.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (06:23):

So the idea was, this is a symbol of peace, the donkey. It's also a symbol of compassion, 'cause the poorest of the poor use donkeys around the world, especially in Egypt. So we had these 50 donkeys painted by premier artists from around the Middle East, each r- received a donkey, life size. And they were all around Cairo, okay? And saying that the way forward for all of us is in peace and with compassion toward the other. And then we took all these donkeys to London, to St. Paul's Cathedral and lined them up in a caravan in the direction between Jerusalem and Mecca, symbolically. And there were about 100,000 people that came to see them at St. Paul's Cathedral while they were on display there over two months. And that's when Caravan as an organization, uh, began, uh, was developed in, uh, as opposed to just being this initiative. And it's a 501(c)(3) here in The United States. And the goal is to use the arts to build bridges between the Middle East and West, it's a peace building arts organization, nonprofit.

Emy diGrappa (07:26):

That's an amazing beginning.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (07:27):

Yeah, it was a great beginning, you know, for us. And we still get many people saying, "Is, uh, are, are there any donkeys left?"

Emy diGrappa (07:33):

(laughs).

Paul-Gordon Chandler (07:34):

And, uh, there are not.

Emy diGrappa (07:35):

So just to go back a little bit, you became a Episcopal priest before you founded Caravan?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (07:42):

Yes. Care, uh, I've been an Episcopal priest since, uh, 1993.

Emy diGrappa (07:46):

And what was your desire to do that? Because you grew up in a Muslim country?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (07:51):

No. That wasn't why. My father was a minister and I remember thinking, I would never do something. Of course, you know, uh, as you journey through life various things shape you, and speak to you. And I felt led to, uh, join the Episcopal church and serve in that context. And I found the Episcopal church being an all embracing, all inclusive type of community. Uh, the way they looked at the other, and that was very important to me because I'd been, I've grown up around the other, uh, in quotes, uh, was very, was, it was critical. And, uh, so it was the right kind of, uh, environment and platform to be, for me to address a lot of these issues of peace building. Uh, and so Caravan just grew out of one of the churches that I served in in the Middle East, and that was the one that I last served in, and that was in Cairo, Egypt. And we were there from 2003 to 2013.

Emy diGrappa (08:42):

And where did you get your degree from?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (08:44):

I, I went to seminary in England.

Emy diGrappa (08:46):

Okay.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (08:46):

Uh, in Chichester, uh, the city of Chichester.

Emy diGrappa (08:49):

And what do you think is the biggest misconception that Muslims and Christians face between each other, between their faiths that we really need to build a bridge and have understanding? Because is it language? Is it culture? Is it the faith itself? What, what exactly is that?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (09:11):

I mean, obviously fear, uh, and, of the unknown is just that, it's the unknown. And so, uh, there are so many misunderstandings of our Muslim brothers and sisters simply because we're not familiar, and we're not, and we also... we hear the media which hypes up, uh, and mis-portrays. I mean, rarely is there a positive portrayal of the, uh, of a Muslim in the media. And, uh, and yet the irony is that we have so much in common. The way I like to think of it is, do you know the symbol, the Islamic symbol of faith, the Christian symbol of faith of course is the cross, the Islamic symbol of faith is the crescent. And when you see a crescent in the sky, the majority of the moon is dark.

Emy diGrappa (09:52):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul-Gordon Chandler (09:52):

And for the sake of an illustration, I would say that that little crescent is what we have different between us and our Muslim brothers and sisters. But the majority of moon, the moon, the dark side of the moon is what we have in common. And the challenge for us is to build our relationships with each other on that dark side of the moon, ala Pink Floyd. You remember Pink Floyd? He had that, he was well ahead of his time in that sense. But I think, in other words, build on the commonalities and learn those commonalities, learn what they are. And as you do that you begin to realize how much, how similar we are. And it goes with our Muslim brothers and sisters, it's the same issue as well. They have, uh, very little understanding often of how similar we are as well. And so education needs to take place on both sides.

Emy diGrappa (10:38):

Do you feel there's a distinct difference between a Muslim who grows up in The United States versus a Muslim who grows up in the Middle East in terms of how they view their, themselves as Muslims, and their culture? Do you think there's-

Paul-Gordon Chandler (10:56):

Actually, not necessarily.

Emy diGrappa (10:58):

No?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (10:58):

No, no. I find that often the most open Muslim friends I have are in the Middle East. And the most all embracing, uh, the most generous in the way they look towards those different than themselves. So I think it relates to the individual as opposed to geography, very much so.

Emy diGrappa (11:15):

Do you think ISIS and the extreme groups like that have destroyed so much of what could be happening between the Christians and the Muslims?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (11:26):

No question, absolutely. I think, uh, because ISIS, which is of course, and similar militant groups, not just ISIS are extreme minorities within Islam. And yet they get all the attention, and of course, uh, rightly they get the attention because what they do is so violent. Uh, and our media is drawn to that kind of thing, the sensational. But it presents a real challenge for our Muslim brothers and sisters, the majority of course, because for them they suffer the most. And the interesting thing about ISIS is who are suffering the most under ISIS? They're other fellow Muslims, not Westerners, not Christians, though yes they have suffered, and other minority faiths. But the majority of those suffering under any kind of terrorism or any kind of militant Islam are other Muslims.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (12:14):

So, um, yes it's a challenge, very much so, you know, and of course a lot of Islamic leaders are increasingly speaking out. Part of the challenge is that they speak out in Arabic, that's their language, which of course doesn't come over here, we don't hear it very much. Uh, I'm often, after I give a lecture on Christian Muslim relations, people, one of the questions is, "Why are Muslim leaders not speaking out?" And I wanna say, "They are speaking out. But the thing is we just don't hear it because it's from another world, another language." And, uh, to translate that both culturally and linguistically over here, uh, is a challenge and it doesn't happen often.

Emy diGrappa (12:50):

Very difficult.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (12:51):

Yeah, very much so. So often as I mentioned, uh, to someone I was just talking with, uh, a minute ago, before we started this interview. Um, I think what's important is that we, uh, as much as possible experience the other. So a lot of the work we do with Caravan, which is using the arts to bridge between Christians and Muslims, and between the Middle East and West is to give an experience of the other. And that begins to kind of reshape the world views, and challenge our thinking and, uh, the, uh, assumptions that we have, and these erroneous stereotypes. Um, and, uh, because we all change by experience.

Emy diGrappa (13:30):

True.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (13:31):

Very much so.

Emy diGrappa (13:31):

Tell me about your experience, or not your experience (laughs), your work-

Paul-Gordon Chandler (13:35):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (13:36):

... as an author.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (13:38):

Yes. Uh, I would, it's interesting, there are writers and there are authors. And meaning, uh, I would see myself as an author. Of course you have to write to be an author, but I write, they're actually projects that I embark on that become books. And the last one is titled In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran. Kahlil Gibran was the Lebanese born poet artist, uh, who was well known, uh, for his best selling book The Prophet, which is actually, still sells about a million copies a year. And, uh, the west... I mean, often when I give lectures on book lectures, right now, and I'll ask for a raising of hands of how many in this room, and sometimes you have two or 300 people, have actually been influenced at one time in their life, um, by The Prophet, the book The Prophet that Gibran wrote. Sometimes it's 95% raise their hand. Yet very few know much about him. And he was this fascinating and profound figure that, from which we have a tremendous amount to learn, especially in terms of bridging between the Middle East and West. And so I embarked on this journey, an exploration really, uh, looking deeply into Kahlil Gibran's life, he died in 1931. And, uh, of course spent most of his life after he immigrated in Boston and New York City.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (15:01):

Uh, and I went all over the world, it, I mean, it took me, uh, from Bsharri up in the mountains of Lebanon, where I was last week interestingly for a conference, uh, about Gibran, all the way to Mexico City, uh, where the largest collection of Gibran's writings and art are held at the Soumaya Museum there. And every place you can imagine in between. Taking Gibran with me, going to every place he lived, or the places that, uh, he's influenced, and taking his writings with me, and reading them in the order that he wrote them, everything he wrote in the order that he wrote them at each respective place that he wrote them. And so, uh, it was a long journey for me because it was almost, uh, finding out a way for allowing his, his, uh, his spirit, if you wanna put it that way, the, the ethos of what he was writing and speaking on, uh, to, to soak in it. And, uh, and then out of that share what, I think we can learn from his life.

Emy diGrappa (15:58):

Is he respected by both Muslims and Christians alike?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (16:01):

Very much so. Actually, M- Muslims around the Middle East, which of course are the majority of people in the Middle East, don't even think of him as whether he was Christian or Muslim, they just know that he was this profoundly spiritual, mystical, and beautiful writer from Arab tradition.

Emy diGrappa (16:19):

What do you think was his greatest gift in, in being able to bridge those cultures? And not even, even just be the bridge but just be someone who people don't put in a box?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (16:31):

Yes. I mean, it's interesting what I wanted to do was I... What intrigued me the most in looking at his life was how, here he is, someone born into, at that time in Lebanon, in, uh, a sectarian, exclusive, intolerant Christian community, and ending up becoming someone who not only embraced all in our world, but as a result of that was embraced by all. And I think that is where his secret is in many ways. And he shows us the oneness of humanity, and it's beautiful.

Emy diGrappa (17:05):

I have another question for you because I love that you call yourself a social entrepreneur.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (17:11):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (17:12):

What does that mean?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (17:13):

That's a good question. What does that mean? I think it means that you're creatively entrepreneurial but for humanitarian purposes as opposed to for profit purposes or business purposes. And, uh, and you just keep creating and, uh, pushing the boundaries of possibilities, but toward a deeper purpose.

Emy diGrappa (17:35):

Right. So it's, it's more towards the betterment of society-

Paul-Gordon Chandler (17:39):

Of-

Emy diGrappa (17:39):

... or of human kind?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (17:40):

Of human, of humanity, right, right. Hence the peace building theme for me, very much so.

Emy diGrappa (17:45):

Right.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (17:46):

In showing us what we have in common and, uh, facilitating greater harmony in our world. Um, and which I think is critically needed, you know, very much so.

Emy diGrappa (17:58):

What is your message to young people today?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (18:01):

Uh, that's a good question. Well, one of the reasons I wrote this book by the way is because he's very much known by my age and older, and I'm 53, uh, here in the West. But he's not so known, Gibran by, uh, the younger generation. Even though they resonate profoundly often with his world view, that of being all embracing, looking generously and kindly on the other, uh, et cetera. And, uh, so but the, the message I would say is, uh, the challenge I would say is, is to encourage friendships with the other however that comes about, whether it means you need to go somewhere, that means befriending someone in your community that's very other than yourself. Because I, the way I like to see it is this, our world is this beautiful divine, if you will, global mosaic, and each little chip, each little piece in that mosaic is a different cultural expression, uh, of- of life. And we're only whole, we're only complete when all of those little pieces are present. And ultimately we all want wholeness, uh, however one sees that, and I think it's fundamental that we associate with those that are very different than ourselves to complete ourselves.

Emy diGrappa (19:15):

That is a great view and also a great goal to have, to really look at life as each of us filling one colorful piece of that puzzle that makes up humanity.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (19:28):

Mm-hmm (affirmative) mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (19:29):

Do you have any parting words for us?

Paul-Gordon Chandler (19:33):

Well, I, I like this. This is, this exhibition that we're here for right now with Caravan at the Center for the Arts, is the Middle East coming to the wild west. And of course some of the Middle Easterners will be here, uh, as they, uh, or for the opening night. And they'll learn of course, it's not just us learning from them, it's them learning from us. It's an exchange. So I would just say keep an open heart, keep an open mind, and I think the, the thing I'm always most impressed with is the value of kindness. What was it that, uh, one of the, I think one of the old desert fathers said, treat everyone gently because everyone that you encounter is facing a personal battle or something like that. And it's true, there's a sense, we all are struggling and journeying through life, and we have the highs and lows, but look kindly on the other. And I think in doing so we are ourselves will be transformed.

Emy diGrappa (20:27):

That's excellent advice and wisdom. Thank you so much, Paul-Gordon.

Paul-Gordon Chandler (20:29):

Thank you. It's great to be here, very much so.