Becoming Aware of the Religious Other

I lead a scriptural reasoning group at the University of Toronto that has an open door policy. That means in any given week I do not know who will attend and who will not.  It usually means a regular cohort will show up supplemented by newcomers from week to week.  Because our purpose in meeting is not merely to generate “reasoning” from the Scriptures but to also build interfaith friendship on campus, we have a tradition of opening each session with a question aimed at helping us know something more about one another, hearing what our voice sounds like out loud around the table, and inviting us to see one another as the human beings we are.  Recently I opened the meeting with the question “What is your earliest memory of meeting the religious other?”

As the group sought clarification to grasp the nature of what I had asked of them, one member’s question reflects well the dilemma; “do you mean a time when we actually met or talked to someone from another religion?”  She proceeded to describe an upbringing in a Catholic home in a neighborhood dotted with varieties of Christian churches, Mosques, Hindu and Buddhist cultural centres, and the awareness of many Muslim neighbors. Yet she had not interacted with any of these neighbors.  The story she settled on reflected an encounter with those who initiated relationship with her and her family.  She told us of her childhood experience  of her family’s encounter with Mormon missionaries, who were invited into their home to interact with her parents on a number of occasions.  She shared her struggle to understand them on their own terms and why they considered themselves “the one true church.”  She recalled that it was not until she was in University that she met a “Jew person” in the context of a science lab.  Her awareness of this Jewish person’s self-identity as “a neo-liberal, and not someone who paid attention to their hair by curling their sideburns and wearing a hat,” demonstrated that conversation about faith and practice had taken place in their everyday connection at school.  Working in the lab together had created a space where they could share and discuss a part of themselves.

A Jewish member of the group, upon reflection, admitted that he had spent his entire childhood attending Hebrew schools, living in a Jewish neighborhood, and relating to Jewish family and friends. He surmised that his life was rather sheltered so that he never really encountered Christians until attending University.  The same was said for his encounter with Muslims.

Several members of the group had grown up outside of Canada.  In the case of one, her upbringing was in a small homogenous village in a predominantly Catholic country. This existence was radically “interrupted” when the “boat people” were welcomed as refugees into her region.  Her parents were among those who actively sought to offer refuge and a new life to these unexpected guests.  As a result she encountered people of little or nominal Buddhist faith for the first time, but has come to witness their nascent community take root and thrive in her home village, even intermarrying with the Catholic neighbors.  It wasn’t until graduate studies that she encountered Muslims and had the occasion to come to know them well. And, she recounted, until now she has not had any significant opportunity to meet and interact with Jews.

Another participant, who grew up in a Christian family in a village with many mosques, recounted how as a grade school child she first became aware of the “other” when her parents invited a Sikh guest to their home.  It was notable to me that as she reflected on her awareness of others, she didn’t speak of friendship with her many Muslim neighbors.   In contrast, one Muslim man, from a Muslim majority country, spoke of how his best friend, a Protestant Christian, was always a part of his life, from early childhood until the present.  He observed that the first time he met a Jew was when his uncle hosted a Jewish family from Israel, for professional reasons, and that the extended family had been included at the gathering.  For him, as a young adult, his uncle’s hospitality provided the occasion to meet the religious other.

For myself, I remembered becoming conscious that my grade 3 classmate had different practices that allowed him to get out of school at a time that the rest of us didn’t.  I didn’t know he was Jewish at the time, but I remembered that he spoke of the Chanukah lights when he explained his absence from school to us.  It wasn’t until my undergraduate studies, at a church affiliated college, that I encountered my first Muslim.  He was an articulate man, passionate about his faith. We  spent many hours in lively discussions about salvation, scripture, God, and morality.  It was not until I moved to Canada that I became aware of Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and others as people with different religious practices, as opposed to religions that I had read about in books.  It was a common sight in my neighborhood to see Catholics walking westward for morning mass, crossing paths with Tibetan monks who walked north to their Temple, and Hindu families going eastward to their local Temple in a neighborhood house.  But, even though I observed their presence daily in the 17 years I lived there, I never came to know any of them.  Where and when might we have had occasion to meet?

I am so glad I asked my group members the question “what is your earliest memory of meeting the religious other?” Given the extremely multicultural setting of the University of Toronto I found myself quite surprised by the responses.  Even more so, I was profoundly moved by the realization of how important it is to create spaces — through hospitality, formal programs, or by involving people in something beyond their own community– where people can meet and encounter one another in a meaningful way.

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3 thoughts on “Becoming Aware of the Religious Other

  1. This is such a wonderful question with which to open up an interfaith discussion! I will definitely be borrowing this for my own student discussions.

    You raise a very good point about the difference between being aware of various religious communities within our own geographical area and actually meeting individuals and forging relationships with them. There can be a world of difference between discussing Buddhism as a religious tradition in the abstract and collaborating and learning with Buddhists as fellow people. I believe we learn more from the latter, too.

  2. What a great question! It had made me think of a realization I had when I was in high school. I was raised in southern New Mexico which is predominantly Catholic. But my family is Catholic, Jewish, atheist, and some in between. I had one friend in high school who was Muslim and I had friends who were Apache. I was lucky enough to travel from a young age and my family made a point of visiting religious, cultural, and historical sites related to people who were other. I can’t tell you the first time I encountered the religious other because it was so common for me. Which brings me to my high school realization. In reaction to some comments I was hearing in the wake of 9/11, it hit me that this circumstance was NOT the norm. That I was lucky to be raised in the midst of such diversity. It is something that I try to keep in mind in interbelief settings especially with people who are new to the community.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Susan! Good idea! I will definitely be asking this question, too! Next week I will have a question-answer session with students of Adiyan University (Religions and Denominations University) to help them prepare for welcoming and engaging with Christian guests from the University of Paderborn, which is part of an ongoing encounter. I will recommend they have a session to talk about your question!

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