Religion can be a hot button topic. But it’s also a topic with some great vocabulary! So let’s get started!
Listen to me tell my story here, while you read the story below.
I grew up in a Catholic house, I went to a Catholic school. Everyone I knew was Catholic.
One day a Jewish family moved into the house next door. I was only eleven years old, so while there were many differences between our two families, a few important ones stuck out to me. Miriam, who was 12, could not play with me on Friday night or Saturday. Nor could I call her on the telephone!
“I can’t play on the Sabbath,” she said. "My parents forbid it."
When she told me that keeping kosher meant she had never eaten a cheeseburger, I nearly fell out of my chair!
One time, Miriam and I talked about Christmas. I understood that Jewish families didn't believe in Jesus, but surely they believed in Christmas! Perhaps Jews ate a different type of Christmas pie? Or maybe sang different Christmas carols? I was curious.
“So, you don't have baby Jesus ornaments on your Christmas tree?" I asked.
“We don’t have a Christmas tree." She said.“Where does Santa put the presents?”
“Uh…who brings the Christmas presents?"
“No Christmas presents."
No Christmas tree, no Santa, no…presents? Wasn’t the whole world filled with Jesus, Santa and Christmas presents?
When we are young, our families surround us with people who think and believe as they do. When we leave this circle of "sameness," sometimes what we find is shocking.
When we are young, our families want to surround us with people who think and believe as they do. It’s only natural. But when we get older and leave this circle of “sameness”, sometimes what we find is shocking.
A few years ago I traveled alone to India for two months in the winter. As Christmas approached, I became homesick I found myself in a small town called McLeod Ganj, where many Tibetan refugees live. Many of them were away from their families too, unsure of when they could ever return to their country.
On Christmas Eve, typically a night for family and friends to gather together, I walked past a small cafe called the Oasis Cafe. A sign on the window advertised “Christmas Movie Night.” I thought a movie would help me forget my lonliness.
There were other people in the cafe, waiting for the movie to start. I took a seat at an empty table, feeling awkward and lonely. Two guys asked if they could sit at my table. I said, “Of Course, Merry Christmas!” and they quickly shook their heads. “We are Muslim. We don't celebrate Christmas.” I was glad to have company, though we didn’t really speak after that.
A waitress served us spiced milk tea, cookies and popcorn before the movie started. It was a Christmas movie I had never seen before about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. Many Christmas movies in America are secular, not religious. Those movies focus on family and Santa and gifts and other aspects of the Christmas holiday.
Before the movie began, a German girl stood up and explained the Christmas holiday to the non-Christians in the room. An Israeli girl interjected and explained that although Jesus was from Israel, and Jewish, Jews don't believe he is the Messiah. The Tibetan Buddhists were quite confused, and even I had to ponder that fact for a moment. During the movie a Tibetan translated for the Tibetan monks, and the Muslim guys read the subtitles out loud. The Canadian at the next table explained to the Indian Hindus sitting with her what the word 'Messiah' meant.
We shared popcorn and Christmas cookies during the film. I thought to myself: What a generous gift these people are giving me: the gift of being curious about my culture.
Get the vocabulary! 50 Audio & Visual cards>>
When the movie ended, the two Muslim guys at my table said, “Wow, that is such an amazing story, how brave Mary was! And Joseph! What an amazing man." They didn’t need to believe in Jesus to be curious about his story. They were more than tolerant—they were interested!
After the movie, I went to a pub near my hotel and sat at the bar next to a young Tibetan guy. He greeted me with “Merry Christmas”. He was young - about 18 years old. He'd recently left his family in Tibet and was unsure when he would see them again. He asked me some questions about the Christian holiday.
I told him, “Actually, although I was raised as a Catholic, I’m not religious.”
He was a bit shocked and he said, “You should be! You must believe in God. You have to carry on the religion of your parents.”
But I was tired of my culture and my beliefs being the center of attention that evening. Instead of telling him about my own culture, I asked about his:
“I'm curious about your family’s religion. Why is it important to you?”
So he told me all about his culture, for the rest of the evening. And I listened and learned something new. And it was fascinating.
So what's my advice about how to talk about other cultures and religions? The most important thing is to be genuinely curious. You'll probably learn something wonderful. And make a new friend or two.
At the end of 2016, I hope we can all give each other the gift of being curious about other cultures and their beliefs. Can you share something about your culture with me in the comments below?