Regardless of where I travel, I’m comfortable being myself. Sometimes that person is shy and watches from the background; occasionally she is a bit more outgoing and has no problem chatting it up with strangers. But for as comfortable as I am to just be me, there is one topic that always makes me feel a bit squeamish abroad, and that’s the topic of religion.
If you’ve taken the time to read through any of the cultural information in a guidebook (that filler stuff that talks about the history, festivals and other interesting tidbits that don’t specifically relate to certain places and experiences in a destination), then you know that, in most countries, the two topics of conversation that should be avoided are politics and religion.
Well, here’s the problem: I do my very best to steer clear of religion-related conversations, yet it is such an ingrained part of the cultural make-up in many countries of the world. The second problem is this: When the conversation of religion comes up, it’s very hard for me to keep my opinions to myself.
I’m a spiritual person, but not a religious person. As a result, when I’m asked my religion pointblank by someone in another country, I stutter step a bit. I don’t want to offend anyone by stating how I really feel about religion, and yet, by avoiding the question or downright lying about it, I feel dirty and dishonest to myself.
When we joined the Peace Corps, we went through a whole training class on how to negotiate religion. In Kenya, people are religious (either Christian or Muslim), and they consistently go to church every week (for hours upon hours upon hours). We were advised that we would be questioned about our faith, and that we should consider how we would handle this question prior to being asked. I’ve found that most Americans are rather nonchalant about whether their neighbors, colleagues or friends go to church, so I’d never thought to devise some sort of response to the question. In the United States, I’d simply state that I don’t consider myself religious and that I don’t go to church. In Kenya, the same response could lead to a whole series of negative consequences, including losing credibility with our community, a conscious effort to “save” us or the incredulous “tsk”ing from the Kenyan mamas.
In Kenya, my husband and I decided to say we were Unitarian, a Christian religion that absolutely nobody in Kenya had ever heard of before. We followed up by saying that our pastor had given us permission to practice the religion in our home on Sunday mornings instead of attending another Christian church. So, while the church bells in our community, Kihumbu-ini, rang on Sunday and everyone walked down the dusty street in their best clothes, we holed up in our home to listen to the BBC and possibly do a bit of laundry.
I find learning about other people’s spiritual beliefs interesting. Some of my most meaningful travel experiences have resulted in visiting spiritual sanctuaries. In many ways, religion has helped shape cities and countries (in both positive and negative ways), and I like to immerse myself in those experiences in order to understand a place. On my first trip abroad, I played in a brass choir in Westminster Abbey in London. In Kenya, I attended an ordination ceremony at the local Presbyterian church, which went on for hours in the local tribal language. When the opportunity presents itself, I love to wander through grandiose cathedrals. And I love the little details at spiritual centers that have somehow been overlooked by the crowds, like all of the other missions in San Antonio, Texas, besides the Alamo.
When I visited Copenhagen, Denmark, as a college student, I happened to be wandering around the town late one night. As I passed by a church, I noticed the door was propped open, so I slipped inside and discovered the boys choir practicing. I sat down in the pew in the very last row, and for the next 45 minutes, I listened to them sing. Their small voices bounced off the high ceiling and sent goosebumps up my arms. The lights were dimmed except for those shining on the altar where the choir stood, and I hid in the shadows with a few other scattered people. They may have been parents, I suppose, but for me, sitting in on this choir practice was an experience that far outweighed any attraction that required a fistful of change.
I happen upon religion all the time when I travel; I’ve accepted that I’m going to encounter it everywhere I go because it’s such an important and ingrained part of just about every national identity, and I have no problem respecting other people’s religious opinions. But even as I run my hand along the pews in a church I happened upon in Costa Rica and reflect upon what spirituality means in temple in Vietnam, I’m still struck with this thought: I accept and respect your spirituality and religion. Why should I have to feel ashamed about mine?