Although one may say that Chattanooga, Tennessee is WASP territory, I for one have relatively diverse friends who are extremely willing to both share their own religion as well as explore other religions/cultures. This summer, I've been fortunate enough to have visited a Hindu temple, African American church, Jewish Reform synagogue, Presbyterian Church, and a Muslim mosque.
Why have I dedicated a part of our summer to visiting different places of worship?
For me, visiting different places of worship helps me to better understand people who come from different backgrounds. Although religion is great at bringing people together and providing a sense of community and support to its members, I find that religion can also divide people (usually this is a political and cultural divide rather than a theological divide.) Additionally, I’ve always wanted to become more of a “global citizen” rather than to simply learn about many religions through a textbook or argue a country’s position in Model UN. On the contrary, my deepest intentions are to understand the history of the people around me by acquiring a deeper understanding of each culture, religion, and its practices. And, to be very honest, I don’t want to seem uninformed and ignorant as I enter college in two weeks, and would rather not embarrass myself during encounters with an extremely diverse group of people.
For one friend who was raised in a relatively Orthodox Christian community, where the Bible is taken literally, she viewed this as not only an educational experience but a chance for introspection and spiritual discovery. She has always been interested in theology and philosophy, and this summer provided an opportunity to learn more about the reasons certain religions engage in specific rituals, as well to understand the most complex theology behind each religion. She is one of those effortlessly brilliant people (the one we both admire and envy for excelling at school without “trying”) and it amazes me that she has been able to step back from an upbringing inundated with so much bias and is capable of viewing other religions with an open mind.
For my other friend who feels strongly about social justice, visiting different houses of worship and reading the Quran helped her to better understand groups of people who are often demonized for their religion. She was president of our school’s Amnesty International club and co-president of our chapter of Model United Nations. As you can imagine, she was a true scholar in and out of the classroom. In fact, one of her goals as a college student is to be arrested. Yes, you read that correctly, but not arrested for a reason that typically come to mind. Instead of getting arrested for drinking underage (which is an activity I definitely DO NOT see her participating in), she hopes to get arrested for protesting on behalf of one of the many social injustices people face today, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
When stripped down to its basics, religions mostly preach about being a good human, showing love, and forgiving those who do wrong. While I don’t necessarily have faith in everything that people of other religions do, getting this exposure to different houses of worship, speaking to those who practice the faith and understand the deeper theology behind their religious practices, and reading external materials (online sources or holy books, such as the Quran) has helped me to better understand my fellow brothers and sisters.
However, my mother views this exploration with some trepidation.
“Are you converting?” she questions me the morning after I visit a Wednesday night church service at the Church of the First Born, a predominantly African American church, characteristic of moving sermons and joyous singing.
“No, mom!” I reply in exasperation.
If anything, visiting different houses of worship has actually made me more strongly believe in my own faith, rather than convert me to another faith. For me, religion is not about the random rituals or supposedly important holidays, but rather about the spirituality found when meditating in any house of worship. I see visiting religions as another step toward becoming a more empathetic person. By better understanding different religions, which often plays a role of paramount importance in an individual’s life, I am (hopefully) able to better understand other people. Now, I hope you too will venture out and visit religions other than your own.