Have you ever driven or walked by an unfamiliar house of worship and wondered what goes on inside?
Have you ever considered just walking in cold to see what kind of reception you’d receive?
Most of us have curiosity about other people’s religious rituals, but many are reluctant to step inside an unknown religious environment. And indeed it takes a bit of bravery to overcome prejudices, fantasies, and assumptions (mostly erroneous ones) to walk right in.
Fortunately, over the decades I have had eye-opening and rewarding experiences visiting a large variety of religious centers: Mosque, Buddhist and Hindu Temples, Sikh Temple, Armenian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox Churches, Serbian Mother Church, Croatian Church, Mormon Temple (before dedication), a wide sampling of Jewish synagogues, Catholic and Christian denominations, as well as being the subject of a Guatemalan healing ceremony performed by a curandero (traditional healer).
Without exception those events have been enriching, and I have been welcomed from the pulpit and by the congregants.
Last Saturday was no different when I visited the Judeo-Christian Israel Alliance in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was the first time I had ever entered a house of worship that was a blend of traditions — Jewish and Christian. Walking in reminded me of being in a Jewish temple because many of the men wore traditional Jewish prayer shawls (tallit) and greeted my friend LesLee and me with the traditional “Shabbat Shalom” (Peaceful Sabbath).
As a Jew, many other elements were familiar – Israeli style music and dance, use of Hebrew words in prayers and songs; presence of a chupa (wedding canopy); sounds of five shofars (rams’ horns) calling the congregation to prayer. Beyond that, the loving greetings and hugs from the parishioners made us feel very much at home.
Differences caught our attention, too. During joyful dancing and singing by the women, the staff distributed tambourines to the congregation and encouraged us to participate in the music.
Of special significance was a symbol displayed in a wall hanging, on the exterior front door, and worn as a necklace by the pastor’s wife.
Note that the fish, representing Christianity is the bottom part and the top of it is interwoven with the Star of David and topped by a menorah (candelabrum).
Members of the Judeo-Christian Alliance seek to be obedient bond-servants of Jesus Christ yet they also wish to reconnect with the Hebraic roots of their faith. The symbol above is a visual representation of that goal.
While it was daunting to walk through their doors, LesLee and I both felt very happy that we had taken those steps. Regardless of faith differences, we are, after all, brothers and sisters. Being with that congregation, reaffirmed that truth.
It’s easy to avoid stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and that reminds me of an American friend, Rachel, who was living in Spain post-9/11. Her apartment was one building away from an Islamic center that she deliberately avoided. However, one day, while walking along the heavily trafficked street, she fell down near the mosque. Immobilized, her legs protruded into the onslaught of cars. Observing her plight, a man rushed out of the mosque asking, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” as he moved her legs out of the path of the oncoming traffic and helped her up. Rachel believes he saved her life. As a result, she stopped shunning the mosque and from then on walked by it daily with a new sense of community.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who would like to encourage others to visit unfamiliar houses of worship and enjoy learning about others’ religions.