Charlotte's new Olive Branch Center was born "to promote the ideas of spiritual and religious inclusion, as well as global solidarity." It is the brainchild of Jessie Thompson, 54, and Chris Saade, 59, who through the center will host speakers, produce educational materials, and offer classes and retreats that spur conversation about spiritual inclusion.
Saade was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised as a Christian. When he was 17, he joined a Christian peace movement, where he worked with Jews and Muslims for 13 years before and during the Lebanese Civil War. He refused to take arms, but instead sought peace among religiously diverse people.
He visited Christian and Muslim hospitals teeming with maimed children. "Maimed in the name of what?" he asks.
"The irony is that 16 years later, when the war ended, they went back to working together," said Saade "Why couldn't they have started on a level of cooperation?"
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Thompson grew up in Tennessee and lived in Charlotte for 27 years, where she raised three sons. Her faith tradition was Presbyterian, but she hungered for a spirituality that was not introduced to her in church. As an adult she studied spiritual formation and theology, and developed a passion for discovering her own way, rather than the way she'd been raised. Through her studies she learned how many uncivil conflicts were driven by religious divisiveness.
When the two met, they discovered a mutual longing for theology that was not based on dogma or creed, as well as a desire to give something back to the city of Charlotte. They've been married a year and opened the Olive Branch Center in August 2009. In addition to co-directing the center with Thompson, Saade is the director of the Institute for Life-Leadership and Coaching.
The couple believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift of the role religion plays in people's lives. "People are starting to sense that there is a connection between all groups," says Saade. "They are looking for spirituality that doesn't exclude others. And what is very promising in this global shift of spirituality is that it isn't asking anyone to leave their church, or their temple."
Saade is unabashedly Christian, and his studies have led him to a deeper connection to Jesus. "People are afraid that if they open up they are going to lose their religion," he says. "We want to provide information about people like Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa, people who were inclusive as well as passionate about their faith. These things do not contradict each other. Some people feel like if you read about Ghandi you will lose your religion. I've found the opposite to be true."
The Olive Branch opened in a renovated house couched between Dilworth and downtown. The glassed-in porch is a sun-splashed space with a sky blue ceiling. In the common area, deep blue walls are a backdrop to embroidered Lebanese floor pillows and a fireplace. Saade's office walls are rich yellow and sumptuous orange. Sculptures, vibrant paintings and warm fabrics accentuate each room. Books are everywhere, with authors that include Elaine Pagels, Rumi and Carl Jung.
Through their studies, Thompson and Saade have come to believe in the "oneness" of all people. "We are one with the people of Haiti, we are one with the Israelis and the Palestinians," says Saade. "This is a transformation of the way people think, and it leads to action."
Thompson agrees. "In God's eyes we are all beloved, and in those terms, we have no choice than to take care of the oppressed," she says.
Their first big event brings mystic scholar Andrew Harvey to Charlotte. They will host spiritual teacher Matthew Fox later this year. The Center also will hold a series of classes, including "Engaged Spirituality & Mysticism." They are producing a "Cultures of Inclusion Series," which will include presentations of DVDs and educational materials about historic episodes in which diverse religious people lived in peace.
What Saade realized during the Lebanese Civil War was a rigidity of thinking. "Underneath the economic and political ideology there was the idea that my group has the right answer. That leads us, when things are difficult, to take up arms," he says. The Olive Branch Center offers a more hopeful alternative.