Learning and growing. Isn’t that the purpose of life? The following article is incredibly touching and speaks to my personal journey over the last few years. Onward I go.
From Bully to Friend: Building Interfaith Friendships – By Sarah Franklin
For most of my childhood, I recall considering myself simply non-religious, as I was too young to choose a religion for myself, yet I knew I did not agree with the religion and beliefs with which I was raised. I grew up in Alabama in the heart of the Bible Belt and my family and most of my small community were Southern Baptist.
When I was invited to sleepovers I was usually expected to attend church with the family whose house I was at, and though I did not mind I could not help but ask questions as I was a curious child. I always questioned what I was told, and in church I would usually question the biblical flood story because it seemed odd to me that God would kill everyone on the earth.
When I began to question/challenge some of the church’s teachings, my new sleepover buddies were suddenly no longer interested in being my friends. I can remember my peers in elementary school coming up to me after such an event occurred and asking me “Why don’t you love Jesus?” or “Jane told us that you don’t believe in God.” I was far too young to even comprehend the meaning behind these questions, much less have an answer to them.
Eventually, in an attempt to fit in, I began to pretend to adhere to a faith in which I did not believe. Until middle school, when I discovered and studied the pagan traditions of ancient Europe and it felt like the faith I had been searching for. After that I proudly called myself a pagan. However, this certainly didn’t help me fit in.
In high school, a classmate named John made it a point to taunt and condescend to those who did not follow the Christian path whenever the topic came up in class or otherwise. He came from a rather conservative Christian background and adhered to the belief that witnessing to people about the Abrahamic god was what he was supposed to do in order to bring souls to Christ. I was the easy target because I openly expressed my religious choices and when asked if I believed in god, I would blatantly tell people that I believe in multiple gods and goddesses but not the god that they worship.
I was the heathen that needed to be converted and John continually singled me out, which made me feel more and more like an outcast. However, I was lucky enough to have my small group of friends who loved me, and I loved them dearly; they were my support system and stood up for me against our peers and even teachers who seemed to think they had the authority to try to tell me that my religion was wrong.
Once I started attending university and was able to move away from my hometown I put those who had bothered me out of my mind. But, surprisingly, I ended up staying in contact with John. He would occasionally message me and just ask me how things were going and if I was happy to get out of our small town. When I came home after my first year at university, John asked if I wanted to hang out with him and a mutual friend that we had from high school. I was curious and agreed to go to dinner and see a new horror movie all three of us had been longing to see.
As we sat down to dinner at a little bar and grill, he spoke of how he had been able to learn and grow since going to college and felt unhappy about how he had acted towards me. I realized that he felt like we had actually been friends in high school and when I told him that I had never considered him a friend but rather a bully, he was shocked. I explained to him all the things he had done to torment me and demean my religious choices. All those years he thought the teasing was good-natured and lighthearted, just friends teasing each other.
When he saw that in fact I had been hurt by this, he apologized, a sincere apology for how he had acted during those years. We ended up having a serious conversation and casual debate about religion and I spoke of how I had done my own research with my religion and made an informed choice about who/what I chose to worship and why. Today I consider this young man a good friend of mine, though we may not agree on fundamental religious values, we respect each other’s right to worship and live according to our beliefs.
Like with John, I’ve found that when I stay true to myself, people sometimes surprise me. When we hide our true self from others, people never have the chance to like and accept us for who we are. And those are the people we need in our lives. The people who love and accept us for who we are; not those who would want us to hide and pretend to be something else.
Last fall, I was looking for community service opportunities and I knew that many volunteer opportunities are associated with religious organizations. I asked some of my friends in the pagan community if they knew of any volunteering opportunities that would be accepting of non-Christians. Most of them recommended one specific church, so I went there and began volunteering.
Out of fear I did not outwardly wear, say, or do anything that was obviously pagan, because I was worried that if they knew I would be told that I could not continue to serve. After working there every Saturday morning feeding the homeless for a month I was faced with a problem. The group always prayed together before we served food. Normally, when this happened I would excuse myself to the restroom and tell them to continue without me. However, one day as I was sitting out the pastries on the dessert table, I was caught off guard when a woman asked me to join them in group prayer. I had to choose to either politely decline and then explain why or accept their invitation and feel incredibly uncomfortable joining a prayer to a God I do not believe in.
As we were talking, the entire service group turned to the woman and me. I could hear the people gathered outside waiting to be let in. The clock was ticking, and I was stunned and unsure of what to say next. I felt there was a 50/50 chance that if I answer truthfully I would be told I was no longer welcome. I was not sure if I was prepared for that possible rejection. I chose to say that I could not join and that was followed by the expected question, “Why?” I told the woman I was not a Christian, so it would not be right for me to participate. Of course, this led to a few more questions and I did my best to give simple answers (so as not to start a long lecture on paganism).
I was taken aback when her only response was, “Oh okay! That’s cool!” I was beyond relieved that there was no obvious panic among the church members about my religious choice, and that they still allowed me to be a part of their service group. After this they accepted that I did not pray with them, and I felt content to quietly busy myself in the kitchen while they prayed in the common room.
Most people I know do not have to worry about losing a friend over religious differences; they do not have to second guess revealing their religious/spiritual background to friends or other contacts. But for someone like myself who does not fit into one of the major religious categories, friendships and other relationships can be built or destroyed based on someone’s religious choice. I have been able to experience both sides of this situation, and I have had the pleasure of building lasting friendships with people I would have once considered my foes. Yet, I have also had people taunt, reject, and disparage my faith without even possessing a basic knowledge or understanding of my religion’s core values and beliefs.
I hold firm to a belief that if we wish to communicate better and create lasting friendships or community partnerships between religious groups, then the first step is to have an open dialogue between the community members. We do not all have to agree with each other’s perspectives (if we all had the same thought we would have no diversity), but we need to be able to openly speak and ask questions and give insightful answers if we wish to bring down some of the walls that have been built around religious discussion.
I hope to see more people of all spiritual/religious backgrounds choose to learn from one another’s experiences and beliefs instead of trying to belittle them. Hiding who we are does not help others to accept us, and it hinders us from using the opportunity to educate others. No one should ever feel like they need to pretend to be something they are not. The world already has enough hatred because of religion, what we need is understanding and tolerance.
Note: Here are some resource that help parents raise our children accordingly: