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Amid War in Israel and Polarization in America, the Telos Group Seeks Peace

Tour members have an educational meal during a stop on a Telos Group trip to the Holy Land. (Photo by Kevin Rogers via Telos)

NEW ORLEANS (RNS)— When Greg Khalil and Todd Deatherage co-founded the Telos Group, a peacemaking nonprofit, in 2009, they began by shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Israel, hoping to help Americans — especially the evangelical Christians who remain staunch supporters of Israel — rethink how they see the seemingly unsolvable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The two have since taken more than 2,000 people to the Holy Land, each trip built on the premise that peace depends on mutual flourishing and that a peaceful future for the Middle East is one where freedom, security and dignity are available for every human being. They named their effort after the Greek word for aim, or goal.

But in recent years, the nonprofit has begun addressing another seemingly intractable problem: America’s growing polarization and enduring racial divides.

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On a recent Telos bus tour from New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama, Khalil gave a group of about a dozen New Yorkers a brief introduction to Telos’ principles of peacemaking. Quoting from theologian Paul Tillich, physicist Niels Bohr and Sufi poet Hafiz, Khalil told them that ending any conflict begins with listening.

Greg Khalil. (Photo courtesy Telos Group)

That’s a rare practice, especially in modern-day America, where most people would rather debate than hear someone else’s point of view, especially when encountering painful issues, or simply tune out. “When we turn away from each other and we turn away from these problems they don’t go away,” said Khalil.

Khalil also reminded his audience on the bus that none of us has the whole story. All of our perspectives are incomplete. Listening — even to our enemies — can help us see things we would have otherwise missed. Another core idea: You never know when someone you once dismissed might become a valuable ally.

That’s something Telos’ founders experienced firsthand. The two first met in Jerusalem in 2004, when Khalil was a young progressive lawyer advising Palestinian leaders during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, where Khalil has family. Deatherage was the chief of staff in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, and a conservative Republican. He’d previously served as chief of staff to Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas during Hutchinson’s time as a congressman and U.S. senator.

Khalil had often written off conservatives like Deatherage, who grew up in the town of Fifty-Six, Arkansas, in a church that was so fundamentalist, he said, that they regarded Southern Baptists as liberals.

But the two shared a desire to move their fellow Americans’ understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond partisan camps that tended to side with either Israel or the Palestinians. They set about seeking solutions that serve both sides. “There could be no good future for anyone if there is no good future for everyone,” said Khalil.