We are currently using a study book based on the movie 'Chocolat' in one of our congregations. Today the session looked out how we deal with people who are different to us. There was one question that I found particularly challenging. It asked, 'What do we notice first when we meet someone new; the differences or the similarities?' On reflection, I thought of two separate but similar interfaith experiences that illustrated the effects of what we notice first.
The first of these occurred a few years ago now in Bali. I was on an exchange trip with the church. Our group of 12 people had visited various Christian programs and villages around the island. On this particular day we were visiting a Hindu temple. We walked up many, many steps until we could go no further. There were tourists everywhere, but they were restricted from entering the holiest part of the Temple that was reserved only for worshippers. A Balinese gentleman who was monitoring those who entered the holy section showed some interest in our group. He spoke with us and, on finding out that we were Christian, invited us to enter the holy area. 'You can come in and spend some time worshipping your God' he said. What a privilege! And what an experience!
The second situation was just last year in Jerusalem. We were taking an opportunity to have a close look at the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent building. For me , however, the opportunity to experience prayer and worship inside was exciting. We copied all of the other people approaching the entrance, covering our heads and removing our shoes, only to be told at the entrance, 'No tourists!'
Now, there are possibly numerous reasons for the different responses in these two places of worship. But, if I reflect in a totally selfish way about how I felt, there was a huge chasm between the two experiences. The Balinese man, although we were obviously not Balinese or Hindu, noticed the similarities we had. We were all people for whom the spiritual was important and valued times of worship. The result - a unique, inspiring and memorable time of worship. The Muslim man at the Dome of the Rock probably had good reason to notice our differences, but that is all he saw.
What we notice does have an impact. Not only does it change who we are as a fellow human, but we may never know how it affects the one we are noticing. So, the challenge for me is to notice the similarities first and then learn to appreciate the differences later.