Confessions of a Religious Tourist

What if I viewed God with the same reverence as friends of other faiths? Am I more concerned with my claim on God or His claim on me?

religious-tourist_story
I didn’t go to the Hindu temple looking for a religious experience. I really didn’t even want to go in the first place.

When the phone rang, I was getting ready for a quiet evening alone, just me and the remote. My husband was on the other end of the line calling from a pay phone. “Can you come to the Hindu temple right now?!” I quickly said no, without even thinking. But he explained how one of his English as a Second Language students had invited us and it was really important that I come ASAP. I scrambled to find something “appropriate” to wear, even though I wasn’t sure what that was.

We arrive and take off our shoes at the entrance and sit on woven grass mats spread across a bare concrete floor. A man is chanting in Tamil. Bananas and oranges are piled high in front of various day-glow shrines. A young girl rings a bell, her whole body the rope. An old man lets rose petals fall from his fingers. A woman carries a bowl of fire. There is so much to see here, so much to take in. My leg starts to fall asleep.

As our friend explains the ceremony and as we talk with some of the worshipers there, I begin to see the people and not just the religious label. In college, Hinduism was another column on the chart in a comparative religions text book. Here it is bare-chested men hurling coconuts at the pavement, juice splashing into the crowd. Before it was a TV documentary I clicked past. Here it is walking barefoot on city streets in a night parade bathed in neon lights.

After my initial reluctance, I decided to embark on the adventure and buy the gear. I went out and found a headscarf for a trip to a Sikh gurdwara and watched some instructional videos on YouTube on how to wear it. I did a mini pedicure so I wouldn’t be so embarrassed of my naked feet. I had discovered a new and cheaper mode of travel, even if it was only a few blocks away. We live in a city that has a temple or mosque on almost every corner. But I am amazed when I travel back to my hometown in the Midwest at how many there are even in the suburbs.

I bought How to be the Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook on Amazon. More than just a religious cliff notes or “What not to wear” it’s an insightful guide and great reference. Perusing the pages helped me think about how intimidating it is to step inside the door of a foreign worship space and how my own church looks to strangers.

I admit I wanted to blend a little and not look like such a tourist on my visits. But even though I was a little better read and didn’t wear a fanny pack, it was still obvious that I didn’t belong. And I felt a bit emboldened by this unbelonging. I was able to observe as an outsider which is something I sometimes miss about Christianity. It is hard to step back and sort out the good and the bad with an unbiased eye. In the past, I have gone to conferences and events to get closer to God. But maybe stepping away is what I really needed. Seeing my beliefs in contrast with others helped me clarify my faith and question some of my presuppositions. It may sound sacrilegious, but I’m not talking about stepping away from God but away from the comfort of the familiar that can dull our senses. As someone who grew up in the Church, I am thankful for being steeped in Christianity. But sometimes when you have been in something so long you can miss the pleasing aroma of nurturing relationships or the subtle scent of sin.

I didn’t expect a religious experience on these visits, but I found that I was challenged more than by a fiery sermon or altar call.

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At the Hindu temple, I saw all the ages intermingling and thought about how segregated and niche oriented many churches have become. How rare it is to be together without an agenda or a program. I am challenged by the sense of community that extends beyond these walls. I am challenged by the public nature of faith expressions and devotion that have become foreign in an age of don’t ask don’t tell Christianity.

At the gurdwara people come and go all day long. It is open 24/7. You can get a meal here. You can spend the night here. You are welcome. You are family. At so many churches, I could have mistaken them for an airport or a garage or an art museum, but rarely have I felt at home. How much of my beliefs are culturally conditioned? What if I approached God with the same reverence as my friends of other faiths? What if I welcomed people with the same hospitality that has been shown to me? What if I lived out what I say I believe? Am I more concerned with my claim on God or His claim on me?

These are questions I live with everyday. In the end my forays into other religions didn’t cause me to question my faith but my faithfulness.

I step back into my church now, into the well worn contours of the wooden pews. A man lights a candle. And through the flickering light, I can see the cloud of witnesses. A lifetime of eyes closed and heads bowed amens becomes incense rising toward the sky. Peace is passed with hands and hugs and an old woman starts singing acapella, “I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river in my soul …” The Body and Blood are shared. A sweet tingle of wine in my throat. I can taste and see that the Lord is good. There is so much to experience here, so much to take in. So much my thirsty soul and parched faith have forgotten. And it almost feels like coming home again.

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