Carol Howard Merritt is a minister in her thirties, who has served congregations in Louisiana and Rhode Island. Currently, she is a pastor of Western Presbyterian Church, an innovative congregation in Washington, D.C. and the home of Miriam’s Kitchen, a feeding program that provides a hot, nutritious breakfast to over 200 homeless men and women every weekday morning. Carol has written for several magazines and journals and is the award-winning author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation. She blogs at TribalChurch.organd she co-hosts The God Complex, an Internet radio show with Bruce Reyes-Chow, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
I was about nineteen years old, standing in a Hindu Temple in Chicago, deep in thought as the man before me was spreading butter on a statue.
I must have looked as odd to him as he did to me. Since I was on a field trip with my fundamentalist Bible college, I was wearing a skirt. And since I did not fit in well at the school, it was not the same floral printed dress that my classmates wore. Instead, it was a black skirt, black shirt, with black tights, and black boots.
The man had on a button-down dress shirt and pants, like most men in Chicago would wear. The butter looked like it was still cold. It was thick and yellow as he molded it. I stood too long, I’m sure. After all, he wasn’t there to be on display for a teenage gawker. But, I was fascinated. It was such a strange expression of faith. It seemed so foreign.
I was having a crisis of faith, right there in that Temple.
At the Bible school, we were taught to proselytize freely. In fact, we were required to take a class called “Apologetics,” where we learned how to argue our faith, vehemently. We memorized well-crafted arguments against public enemies like trained biologists, educated feminists, or persuasive Hindus.
I often shared my faith. I wasn’t trying to be as annoying and manipulative as I’m sure I seemed to my friends. It was just that I didn’t believe that very many people were going to heaven, and I had a crushing sense of responsibility. I thought that what I said to them, my power of persuasion would determine whether they would live an eternity in tormented damnation or in heavenly bliss.
And yet, here was this man, spreading butter on a statue.
According to those rules in my head, he was clearly going to hell. But why would God send him to a place where the torture never ceased? He grew up in a particular context, in India, learning a different path. Did it make sense that God would send him to an eternity of weeping and teeth gnashing, along with the billion of other people from India, because he never repeated a prayer after me to ask Jesus into his heart? I know that I wouldn’t send him to hell. And wasn’t God supposed to be much more gracious and loving than I was?
Finally, our guide at the Temple prodded me to join the rest of the group, and I found that these particular Hindus were as good at proselytizing as I was. Better, really. They spoke of different paths, and how they all led to God. I was ready to convert. Except for the butter. That was still just too foreign.
I didn’t become Hindu, but I’m pretty sure that it was at that moment that I realized that I could not hold to such a narrow view of God’s grace. I began to appreciate how people found paths to God outside of our particular cultural context.
The Hindu Temple was not the only place that we visited in our World Religions class. Every Friday, we went to a new place and learned how different people worshiped, and I was equally impressed each time.
Now, I’m not a great expert on world religions. In fact, I guess as I look back, I didn’t really learn that much about other faiths through those experiences. Instead, I learned more about the frailties of my own evangelical tradition. I experienced what it was like to have a belief system that was so enmeshed in American culture that it was often hard to distinguish between God and country (at least…when the Republicans were in charge). I realized that I had a passion to convert, argue, and win that far outweighed my actual appreciation and love for people.
Now, I’m thankful that my daughter won’t have to wait until she is nineteen before she has such a face-to-face appreciation with other traditions. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments that abolished the system of national-origin quotas has made our country into a beautiful, diverse tapestry of people from all sort of cultures, languages, and religions. Her elementary school is filled with children from all over the world. And, hopefully, she’ll learn to love her friends, appreciate their differences, as she recognizes her own.
When we look at all of the shifts in culture and faith, none of them are as important as that Act. And, I look forward to what we’ll keep learning about one another and ourselves, as we come face-to-face with our differences.