November 12th, 2015 by Phifer Nicholson

A couple weeks ago I was walking back to my room from the Moadon (the dormitory central location) when I was stopped by a peculiar sound. Guitar plucking and strumming reverberated across the stone ground, the soothing vibrato of a violin danced through the air, and a young woman’s voice echoed under the vast night sky.

I froze, and an inner dialogue began:

“Will I disturb them? Well, I was already going to bed anyways….it is about that time…”

A step forward to descend the stairs to my room.

“But…it’s so beautiful. Who are these people?”

After a few seconds, I decided to follow the beautiful voice. When in Israel, right?

Those of you who know me (and maybe even read my last blog) can affirm that I love music. I find much joy in the simplicity and complexity of song: be it in the howling voice of Kurt Cobain, the lyrical mastery of the Avett Brothers, the spiritual honesty and exploration of Josh Garrels, the drums of Dave Grohl, or the harp of Sarah Pagé.

Hans Zimmer’s masterful soundtrack carries us through the emptiness of space and its harrowing realities in the film Interstellar. Music brings laughter and joy as one sees Drake Michaelson dancing up and down the streets of Istanbul to “Uptown Funk” (and may even inspire you to join). It signifies place and occasion: there are songs to be sung at joyous occasions such as weddings, and sorrowful moments of deep heartbreak, loss, and grief. It channels our inner emotions and fuels desire, buries us in pain and lifts us to the heavens.

Song also possesses another powerful quality, which brings us back to the story:

It turned out that the voice and violin belonged to my friend Arielle, who is from New York, and is studying at Davidson College. The strumming fingers belonged to Aehab, who is studying for a Masters in Geography, and Amicam, a PhD candidate in the field of marine biology. They graciously allowed for me to stay and listen, and revel in the notes they were creating.

I sat for about 15 minutes listening to them jam, and through conversation, learned that we shared similar musical taste. I believe it was then that Aehab began strumming the chords for the song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which was one of the last songs performed by Nirvana a few short months before Kurt Cobain took his own life. I began to sing along. And, lo and behold, I am now the male singer in a newly formed band.


We practice often, and are planning a performance sometime late November or early December. Let’s just say that I laugh to myself a bit when I reflect on this new opportunity. There is no way that I could have ever thought this would happen, let alone in Haifa, Israel, of all places!

This is a completely new experience for me. However, I can liken it to a football team: something with which I am well acquainted. Each member is dependent on each other—the drummer must hold the rhythm, the guitarist and bassist form the musical structure, and the singers work together to make mere words melodious.

If one falters, the music ceases. If one seeks to steal the spotlight, the others are harmed.

And, if there is any intra-band conflict, the chemistry is hindered, relationships flounder, and friendships can sour. Any potential of making music would be killed by failed fellowship. This is the case even if the members are world-class musicians.

Relationship, therefore, is the key to beauty.

Oh, and I forgot to mention one thing: we are a pretty mixed bunch. Amicam, the lead guitarist/bassist, is an Israeli Jew. Doron, our drummer, is the same. Aehab, the rhythm guitarist, is Druze from a nearby village called Dalia. Arielle is from America, but is of Jewish and Filipino descent.

The only thing missing is just a touch of Minnesotan…don’t cha’ know?

I have found that music transcends all of these “differences.” Although we may have diverse tastes and preferences, we can come together under the banner of song and, in a sense, become one. One’s background truly doesn’t matter—what matters is if Aehab can nail the transition from guitar solo to rhythm on “Californication,” if Amicam can shred on “Comfortably Numb,” and if Arielle and I can perfect the harmony on “Creep.” A common goal inspires us. The task at hand unites us.

Music, therefore, possesses the power to unify.

Furthermore, the most beautiful songs possess harmony. That is, different notes that come together to compliment each other. Difference doesn’t have to mean dissonance. In fact, it can create something more attractive than anything “sameness” could produce alone.

I may be beginning to sound like a broken record, but I must reiterate that one of the themes of my time abroad has been a heightened understanding of the depth of the brokenness that exists in this world. It is not just in the Middle Eastern problem. It is a people problem. Wherever there are humans, there is suffering and sadness, with it being spread and maintained through inequality, prejudice, greed, racism, classism, selfishness, fear…I think you get the picture.

However, in the midst of these realities, there exists music. Lyrics dance off the dirt and stones, communicating joy and grief, love and hate, peace and fear.

I also must mention that among the backgrounds and stories that are present in our unique group, there is one glaring omission: that of the Palestinian narrative.

Therefore, I am not claiming that this particular group of identities is serving to solve a part of the ongoing conflict here, the reason being precisely that there is no representation of this unbelievably important minority community. In my short time here, I have had the distinct privilege of making many Palestinian friends, and will dedicate my next blog to reflect on their situation, their stories, and the immense personal joy it has been to forge these relationships. There is much music to be heard there, and I look forward to the sharing it with you.

I am suggesting this, however: maybe we would do well by learning to sing together. Or, just quiet down enough to hear the songs that reverberate off the forgiveness shown to Dylann Roof by the families of the dead faithful, the sacrificial service of Dr. Tom Catena in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, the continuous impact of my friend Jeremiah Tate’s life well lived on the Wofford community and world at large, and even the band one can hear practicing on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel.











October 12th, 2015 by Phifer Nicholson

I met many in Turkey. I believe that we humans live in and through stories, and so here are a few pieces from my time in the beautiful city of Istanbul.

There is a priest in Turkey who is swamped by his duties to the church and the school in which he teaches. Nevertheless, he managed to connect me to seven of my nine interviews, all free of any charge or gift. Furthermore, he opened his home to me, checked in on me throughout my stay, and shared much of his heart and wisdom with me, which is one of the most precious gifts one can give.

There is also a hospitable Turkish man who dreams of living in Costa Rica, in order to (1) get away from the current government and (2) because he plain loves traveling the world and experiencing people. On my last night in the city, he gave me the necklace he had around his neck. I am wearing it now as I write.

One can also find a Kurdish man whom I met early on during my stay, whose favorite phrase is “rock n’ roll,” and spent much time with me swimming in the Sea of Marmara and wandering around the city. He was arrested at the age of seventeen for uttering his mother tongue outside of his school. During this two-month ordeal, he spent ten days being tortured with electric shocks. He endured all this unjust suffering as a result of simply speaking the Kurdish language, which was banned in Turkey until 1991. Now, he has forgiven the government, citing the forgiveness mandated and made possible by his Christian faith.

In the Taksim area, there lives a Syrian man who fled Damascus at the end of 2013, a month after his wife emigrated to San Antonio because she finally received a visa. He hasn’t seen her since them. Almost two years. After major disappointment in Jordan, he is praying that he will receive a visa soon while he works as a translator in Turkey. He refuses to allow this circumstance to stifle him; instead he is working to serve his fellow Syrian refugees that number about 330,000 in Istanbul.

What is the common bond between each of these unique backgrounds and stories, and my relationship to them? Friendship. These men, along with many other men and women I met throughout my time in Istanbul, I now count as friends. Instead of saying “goodbye,” I prefer to say; “I’ll see you when I see you.” I do not know if I will meet some of these people again in this life. However, I deeply desire to, and am praying this hope will be made reality one day.

I will treasure all of these friendships and the stories I heard from them and created with them as long as I love, and I look forward to the day (hopefully) where we will meet again.

They also share another bond: their nation was recently attacked. On Saturday, two bombs exploded at the central train station in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, which is mere hours away from Istanbul by train. This horrific event took place during a peaceful protest by the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish political party. As it stands now, almost 100 people were killed and 245 people wounded. 48 of those survivors are currently in critical condition.

My Kurdish friend lost fifteen people from his hometown, three of which he knew personally. The priest reached out to me Saturday morning with these words; “You see what goes on…anywhere…anytime…anyone…no safety.” Even as I repeat them, tears are welling up in my eyes. These are my friends, and they have lost friends. They do not feel safe in their home, and this is an experience that is largely alien to me.

This is a hard world. It is a broken world. And, this brokenness runs deep. It is everywhere: be it in the civil war in Syria, the race riots in America spurred on by systemic racism, sex slavery that is that is driven by industries like pornography, bombings in Ankara, and the current violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.

In the last ten days, just kilometers from where I am sitting right now, at least 27 Palestinians have been killed and approximately 1,900 injured. Furthermore, 4 Israelis have been killed along with at least 67 injured. All of these numbers stem from clashes in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Years of fighting back and forth, oppression, and separation have boiled over once again into open violence.

It is one thing to have these problems pop up in your news and another to experience limitation in travel, the necessity of bomb shelters, and the reality of such hate-filled violence that exists in the world. However, I think I ought to begin to get used to these contexts, for I believe that I may end up working in places like this long-term. This is a realization that has materialized more fully in my travels, and is one that ultimately excites me, but I look towards with a sober mind. All in all, I am safe and well here in Haifa, and my heart is in a very good place. I do not feel in danger, for I know I am right were I am supposed to be.

One of my favorite bands is called Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and I had the chance to see them live in Greenville with one of my best friends, Tom Bove, before I shipped out. About halfway through the concert, Drew Holcomb stopped the concert and talked a bit about the world we call home. His brother, he said, worked with an NGO in an African country. The depth of poverty and brokenness there deeply impacted Drew, and he made a statement along these lines, “Sometimes, when I look at the world, all I see is darkness, and that sometimes leads me to despair. However, I see music as my way of seeking to shoot ‘arrows of light’ into that darkness.”

Right now, I taste a tiny bit of that darkness through the experiences of my friends in Turkey and the people that surround me here in the Holy Land. It sometimes leads me to despair. There are problems like this all over the world that may lead us to question the possibility of positive change.

However, we each have a choice. We can either allow these realities to paralyze us, or we can choose to shoot our own, “arrows of light” into the darkness we face.

What arrows do you hold in your quiver? What weapons do you hold when you are confronted with hate? Will you respond with fear, racism, ostracism, xenophobia, and ultimately violence? Or, will you seek to take the road of the peacemaker, seeking to reconcile and restore the brokenness we face?

There are no easy answers to these problems, and I do not claim to have any or all of them in my young, limited understanding of this world. But, may we continue to do the hard work of trying to find the answers.

It is not easy. But, in my opinion, nothing worth it is ever easy. Let’s endeavor to shoot some light together, and labor to see some of this darkness disappear in the light of day.

“Oh, Really?”

September 25th, 2015 by Phifer Nicholson

Last week, I had a conversation with a man who elucidated for me a fairly typical exchange that takes place while teaching at university in Istanbul. He speaks perfect Turkish, and has no physical characteristics or exterior adornments (such as necklaces, etc.) that betray his heritage.

Therefore, most Turks assume that he is “Turkish,” in every sense of the word. As defined by the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920’s, the prototypical “Turkish” person is of a common descent (which is in of itself a problematic category historically) and is Muslim (Sunni, of course, but not TOO religious, for that would be problematic as well).

However, he is not ashamed of his heritage, and it thereby often surfaces when in conversation with colleagues or students. And, the two words that almost always follow the revelation that he is not truly Turkish in those limited senses are:

“Oh, really?”

He explained that an entire book could be written about the meaning of these two small words. To him, they communicate, “You are a good man, or you are a skilled man, how could it be?” How could it be, that this man is actually a member of the group of which is synonymous with the word “traitor” in Turkish?

An Armenian. It confounds the mind, and confronts deep-seated prejudice.

This is an example of something that I have seen repeatedly in both America and Istanbul. It is the prejudice or fear of another because of a lack of understanding. We are often fed a narrative and do not question it, for we have nothing to compare it to. We, in short, are ignorant.

In America, some are putting forth this narrative: if one is a Muslim, they are naturally inclined to wish hurt upon you, to oppress women, and are all-around undesirable people to be around. Many don’t even give it that much thought. Muslims are different, the “other,” and therefore ought to be feared. Enough said.

My experience could not be more different. The Muslims that I have had the privilege of befriending are some of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most generous people I know. The power of relationship to subvert the narrative we are often fed is real—and I have experienced it personally: be it in Anum Ahmed and Kulsoom Haq at Wofford, or Jimmy the grocery store owner and the local garbage man (I cannot recall his name, but he has been a daily source of welcome) in my neighborhood called Tarlabaşı. Perhaps this is why I am doing a project focused on interfaith relationships.

I am now going to take a swim into possibly muddy waters and address my fellow Christians out there: those who follow Jesus, and hold Him as their treasure. One thing that Christian tradition holds is the doctrine of Original Sin, that is, that people and the world have a fundamental brokenness as a result of disobedience to God. Jesus paved a way for redemption through this mess, and that is why he is the pillar of our faith.

When one looks at the world today, it is sometimes not difficult to see powerful examples of this brokenness. Some of this brokenness results in people having to leave their homes. They become refugees, and are forced to flee to find a new home because of war, famine, and the like. Recently, many have drowned in the Mediterranean, and thousands run the streets where I currently reside.

Which is where I come to my point: when it comes to things like refugees resettling in Spartanburg, we, as Christians, ought to be the FIRST to welcome these people with open hearts and hands.

I have met refugees from Syria while in Istanbul. I promise you, they are people just like you and me. These are people in need, who have been forced out of their homes because of war and political pressure. Most of us cannot even fathom such a thing—home has always been just that for us: home.

Jesus was a pretty radical guy. In fact, he got himself killed for some of the things he said and did. I think we often forget just how offensive (and crazy) these words are, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-45a, 46). For more fun, let’s take a quick peek at Paul, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14).

Whoa. Actually stop and think about it for a second—Jesus and Paul saying the EVEN IF every refugee and, dare I say, Muslim, is actively trying to hurt you, we as followers of Jesus are to love them, bless them, and refuse to curse them. We ought to pray that they may see Jesus as we do, and embody Christ with our words, our actions, our sacrificial service, and our open arms.

News flash! Fortunately for us in America and Spartanburg, that scenario I just painted of Islam and refugees is patently untrue.

I am not naïve. I am not saying the there are not Muslim extremists that wish (and enact) hurt upon others. I am not saying that nations are to roll over to these people. I am not saying that we are to allow them to hurt and oppress others, both abroad and in our own homes. Also, I am not saying that there will be no difficulties when seeking to welcome these “strangers” to our land.

I am saying, however, that the vast majority of the almost 2 billion Muslims in the world are the kind of people that would make phenomenal neighbors. Furthermore, I admit that it is much easier to engage when someone isn’t trying to kill you, and that is the overwhelming truth considering both the people of Islam and the refugees about to grace our community.

Please do your research. Please reach out to me if you have any questions concerning this. Take a leap and actually try to get to know a Muslim. I think you may be pleasantly surprised, and may even gain a new friend.

This subject is near and dear to my heart. I think that we as Christians must be more responsible concerning Islam and refugees, and die to ourselves (that means our fears and our prejudices) daily in order to embody Christ by loving and welcoming them well.

I will close with these words from Jesus, and the power I think they hold for Christians and non-Christians alike, “For I was hungry and I gave you food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:36, 40b).

Once again, things are great over here and I am sending all my best from Istanbul! Always feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, or snide remarks (as Dr. Byron McCane would say):


Faith, Friends, and Familiarity

September 10th, 2015 by Phifer Nicholson

I must give two disclaimers before I begin. First: I have never blogged before. Ever. So, bear with me. Second: I am a bit jet-lagged and have been running loose in Istanbul for a couple hours…so here we go!

First, I think I should give a quick intro to my project. In Interim 2015, I had the privilege of traveling to Turkey with Dr. Philip Dorroll to study the history and current state of religious minorities in the city of Istanbul. One day, we visited a Jewish synagogue. The reality of its scarred history was apparent from the moment we arrived, from the blast doors to the mysterious black mark on the sanctuary wall. Soon we learned that the mark was the residue from one of two terrorist attacks, that killed over forty individuals in total, and remains today as a constant reminder of the violence perpetrated against this minority community.

The leader in the Jewish community who spoke to us stated that, as a whole, Jews are stigmatized in Turkish media. She revealed, however, that Jews and Muslims are at peace in the communities where they live, and actually share deep friendship. Both groups attend weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals of the other community. She explained that when Muslims meet the members of her community, they call them, “Our Jews,” and therefore are able to see past their prejudices and accept them as one their own.

This is what I am after: stories of interfaith interactions that serve to change the perception one has of the members of differing faith communities. Furthermore, I am seeking to find if deep friendships can be/are forged which are bound in love and respect, and yet engaging the differences in meaningful ways. I have conducted five fruitful ethnographic interviews in my home of Minneapolis, MN with Muslim minorities, and will (at least, as of now) be focusing on Christian minorities while in the Middle East. This is something I am deeply interested in, for I am passionate about learning how to engage difference well as a follower of Jesus. I am happy to say that I have made five new friends in Minneapolis so far in my research, and I am looking forward to more!

Saturday I will meet my first contact: a priest who I met while here in January.

All in all, this trip will take me from Minneapolis to Istanbul to Jerusalem to Haifa to the West Bank (and only God knows where else!). It is about time to delve again into two of the things I love most: faith and people. I don’t know what I’ll find as I seek to collect stories or where the road will take me, but I sure am excited for the ride.

Now, on to my initial thoughts upon arrival in Istanbul. One thing that struck me was a feeling that I expected, but was so comforting when it actually came.


I must take a second to brag on Dr. Phil Dorroll’s Istanbul interim last year—we spent only twelve days in this massive city, but did so much in that time that when the final day came and we were loading up the shuttle to the airport, we all felt like we could hold our own in this city of fourteen million (!) people. Just to give an example of how valuable this experience was for me: my flat where I am living is in an area I had never been. However, it is near a familiar neighborhood and I was able to navigate my way to the place I’ll call home for the next month.

Phenomenal. Many thanks, Phil.

As I have reflected on that flight home in January, I remember specifically thinking to myself, “I will probably never come back to this city,” as I felt the wheels lift off the runway. Realistically speaking, I would never have that opportunity again.

Lo and behold, I am currently sitting in Gölge Khave with a cup of filter coffee a few meters off of the vibrant neighborhood Taksim’s main street, Istiklâl Caddesi. I am in a state of pure awe. That awe is welling up into thankfulness to everyone that has made something like this possible for me. I could go on for hours, but my family, friends, Wofford faculty and staff, and the countless other supporters that have shaped who I am come to mind, and I thank you (if you are reading this, you probably fit there). I will do all I can to make the most of this opportunity as my (far too small) repayment.

I have been enjoying wandering in and among this beautiful city again, and am looking forward to a good shower and night’s rest (trying to kick that jet lag!).

Always feel free to reach out via email ( or Facebook with questions, suggestions, and thoughts. I am sending all my best from the streets of Istanbul!






Asking Her More

January 14th, 2015 by perretlg

Sitting in the common room of my hostel with a bunch of bummed out kite surfers (it’s raining…again) has given me some perspective how confusing my research question might be to someone who has never met me. Most of my friends and family have been able to ask me follow up questions, some have heard me babble on about it for longer than they might like, and some people are just trying to be polite. But because of the rain, the kite surfers have been asking me questions that boil down to wanting to know the difference between their perspective as kite surfers and my perspective as a student. What do I see that they don’t? What’s going on in this tropical paradise other than vacations? I’ve met a lot of inquisitive people on my journey, and the conversation usually evolves into me explaining that no, I haven’t met the next Malala Yousafzai; I have, however, had the pleasure of talking to some incredibly cool women. Here are some examples of what they are doing:

A woman who was a guerrilla during the Sandinista revolution now works to bring clean water to Nicaraguans.

A single mother in a town with a large out-migration problem teaches her son that staying in his hometown is important, that he should never hurt women, and that you can’t get a girl pregnant by holding hands with her.

A victim of childhood abuse now hosts a radio station that gives women a voice.

A principal encourages children to focus on reading in a community plagued with drug abuse.

A waitress that helps at the local women’s community center plans protests and meetings when she’s not working 12-hour shifts.

These women have no obligation to be doing this work. They simply have seen a problem in their communities, and they’re reaching out with empathy and doing what they can to try to fix it. They’re listening. They’re serving. They’re leading. Every single one of them was excited to share their story, it’s just rare that someone asks them.

This brings me to the other night’s Golden Globes. Let me explain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t watch it, but I was following it on twitter and noticed some trends that I got excited about. Normally, awards shows are a couple of hours of advertisements and some awards sandwiched in between some catty people commenting on celebrities’ outfits and asking them inappropriate questions. The questions posed to women focus on appearance: “What are you wearing?” “How did you lose that baby weight?” “You got so in shape for that role—how did you do it!?” These questions posed to talented women such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, and Amy Adams. Why not ask them questions that men are asked? Their inspiration? Their favorite book? Their first Hollywood job?

cate blanchett

But for the Golden Globes this year, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party, partnered with Miss Representation, challenged that tradition. They started a hashtag, #AskHerMore, encouraging reporters to ask women on the red carpet more thought provoking questions. Now, this campaign has the specific goal of showing the reality that our media often only cares about a woman if she’s wearing heels. But what if we “asked her more” in all situations?

In this project, I tried to be an example of that. I asked everyone questions, from the maids at my hostels to non-profit directors. My goal now is to take that with me to “real life,” as I’ve been calling it. It’s not easy, but it’s important: to listen, to serve, to be empathetic, no matter where I find myself. It’s how you make change, and how you lead it.