It was a Saturday morning in February of last year. Snow was still piled up alongside the roads in Teaneck, New Jersey, but the road conditions did not matter much. Nobody was driving outside. Once inside the building, I smiled weakly and tried to hide behind my friend Adva.
Ronit Hanan, Adva’s mother, came up to us and took me by the arm. After she led me to a group of her friends, she announced, “Everyone, this is Maggie, Adva’s friend from college. We’re giving her a Judaism 101 class today.”
I don’t know why I hoped nobody would notice me, since I am most obviously not Jewish. I was hoping to quietly observe while remaining unseen. I wanted to learn about Judaism, yes, but I did not want it to be heralded before me with trumpets and fanfare. I felt like there was a great big neon sign above my head that flashed the message “This Girl Does Not Belong.” For some reason, I thought that if I was pegged as an outsider, I would be shut out from having a true experience with Adva’s synagogue. I thought, ‘if they know I’m a Christian, they’ll think I’m trying to convert them all, and I don’t want that.’
Why would I think that? I wasn’t trying to convert anyone.
It was the same kind of feeling I got in Indonesia from time to time when I would hear the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer sounding from the mosques. I felt like some grand religious interloper, disrupting thousands of years of tradition. Why did I feel like that? I was there to build peace and promote cross-cultural dialogue. Honestly, though I know my intentions were pure, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if they had accused me of some kind of modern crusade.
Most service or missions trips available to North American youth focus on building projects or teaching English to orphans. Both religious groups and college groups come to these programs and spend minimal time engaging the local culture. Church trips are both the best and the worst. On all of the Christian mission trips I’ve been a part of, I’ve come away from the trip with a renewed fascination in God and deep friendships with the other Americans on the trip. However, I still don’t know very much about Peruvian/Amazonian culture, I don’t have any Mexican friends from that trip, and I don’t have a clue what is going on in the Dominican Republic. I went on short-term trips to all of these places, two with a church group, one with a college group. Even though I spent time working and helping on these trips, I don’t have a connection to those people or places.
Walk the Peace was different. We weren’t just Americans or Christians marching for peace during the day while separating ourselves at night or in spare time. We were Americans and Indonesians, Muslims and Christians, living and working together toward a common goal. Everything we did was in community. The strength of this community continues to baffle me. I keep in touch with the Indonesian participants more than I do with the other Americans. I would return to Indonesia in a heartbeat, and I would have local friends to see. It would be nice to visit Peru again, but I don’t know a single person there.
In the end, of course, nobody shunned me or lampooned me for coming from a different faith background. I was welcomed and accepted–loved by Adva’s family and by my Indonesian friends. At our roots, we are all very much human, very much the same. From what I’ve seen of the world, providing you don’t go Bible/Qu’ran/Tanakh thumping, trying to force people to change the very core of their lives, people are warm and inviting. More often than not, people I’ve met are curious and caring. With just a pinch of respect and interest, we can transcend the religious strife that seems to define having a faith.
Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:14).
So what cross-cultural/inter-religious experiences have you had that impacted you?