It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and bright, as Zambian days can be after a night of windy rain. I had given out several peanut butter sandwiches and cups of cold water to some of the older kids, middle school age. As I went back to washing dishes, I heard voices raised. The volume and intensity of the interaction increased. It became clear that a child was quite upset. She ran out of the yard, yelling something over her shoulder as she left.
"Violet," I asked. "What was that all about? I didn't like the tone and sound of what the kids were saying." (The argument had all been in Bemba.) "They were teasing Nyla because she isn't Christian," Violet replied. (She is part of the only Muslim family on campus.) "They would not believe her when she said she worships the same God, and she became upset. She said she would come back with a gun and shoot them."
I went out to have a conversation with the boys who had been teasing Nyla. They were astonished to learn that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God and shared some of the same scriptures and prophets. "But she worships Allah," they insisted. It took quite awhile for us to become clear about the common core of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and then we turned to a discussion of how it felt to be disrespected and teased. I'm not sure how much of our conversation stuck with them, but they did listen. Some of them consider me an honorary grandmother, with whatever credibility that designation brings.
Cultivating understanding and mutual respect for different religions can be challenging for all of us. I recently read The Faith Club, an account of the exploration of their religious traditions by three women. Their group was formed by a Muslim woman after September 11, when she was afraid that her children might experience discrimination because of their identity. She reached out to a Christian and a Jewish woman with the idea of writing a children's book to promote better understanding of the common elements of the three major monotheistic faiths. The women came to see that they needed to explore their understanding of their own traditions as well as their beliefs about the other faith traditions before they could undertake the writing of a book. Their story is honest, rich and complex.
Zambia matter-of-factly calls itself a "Christian nation." Public schools use Scriptures and Bible stories quite naturally in everyday teaching. There are a multitude of diverse Protestant and Catholic churches here, and most of their services are packed on Sunday mornings and other worship times. Having one strongly predominant faith tradition means that opportunities for interacting with, understanding and respecting different faith traditions is less likely, unless one makes an effort to study or to reach out beyond one's natural community.
I suppose that it is human nature to consider our particular belief system and world view as "right." We may not even be aware that there are alternatives if we live in a mostly homogeneous society. But why, when we encounter difference, don't we automatically think "that is interesting" rather than "that is wrong" or "weird"? How can we cultivate an openness to discovery and understanding rather than fear and apprehension about alternative faiths, political systems, and traditions? Appreciation need not imply acceptance, much less conversion. It does imply a willingness to listen to other perceptions and systems of thinking and an awareness that there are many ways to travel in the journey of life.
My hope is that we will continually seek opportunities to explore the beliefs and traditions of others, and to reflect on our own. Through this exercise, we may come to appreciate the rich diversity in the pathways of the world, as we simultaneously find, create, or confirm the particular path that allows us to live in the light and to radiate light to others.