Out of the Bible Belt and into Coexistence

Originally published on State of Formation, an online publication for emerging religious and ethical leaders which was founded as an offshoot of the Journal of Interreligious Studies, housed at CIRCLE, a shared Center at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School.

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

I grew up in South Carolina. Yes, the first state to secede from the Union. The one where the Confederate flag flew over the State House until 2000. Land of Dixiecrats and innumerable churches. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and more. Little white church steeples on every moss-hung country road. More churches than people, it sometimes seems. In my home city of Charleston, there is even a law forbidding buildings taller than the skyline’s church steeples. You get the idea. It’s the Bible Belt.

Being raised in such a culture, my exposure to religious diversity was essentially nonexistent. It took a good chunk of my childhood to realize that there were people who did not go to church—after all, in my town, where you went to church was a tell-all for your personality, your social group, and your status. I had two Jewish friends, but other than their bar mitzvah parties, I never quite understood what made them different from all the Christians.

After 9/11, I started hearing more about a different religion—Islam. Information came to me in whispered prejudices and sniggered stereotypes. “They” were terrorists, violent and freedom-hating. Something, even to my fourth grade mind, seemed wrong about those assumptions about people we had never met. I began to read.

I had always been a bookworm. Up until that point, it had been fantasy novels and Greek mythology. I started, however, to read about other places and other cultures. Indian spices and Persian language and Japanese religion. I developed a deep appreciation, over the next few years, for difference.

When I went to college in Boston and out of the South, my book-bound experience was transformed into a living one. I met people from across the world, tasted international cuisines, and explored the mosques, temples, and shrines of the city. I made lasting friendships and learned from difficult questions.

More and more, though, I thought about the people back home. The people still stuck in their prejudices and narrow perspectives. The people I wished I could pull along on the experiences I was having. I knew that so many could be transformed by simply engaging with these people so foreign to them now.

This is why I care about creating a world of interreligious and interethnic community—because I know what a world without it is like. I have seen that we are stronger and richer and more complex together, when we cherish our differences and face our issues honestly.

On an increasingly more connected and more intermixed planet, we cannot choose to deal in bigotry and close-mindedness. You will encounter people different than you. Yet you do not have to label them as “other”—though that is often the easier thing to do.

The reality is that all peoples, all religions, and all cultures are sharing the earth together. We have no choice but to coexist. The only question is whether we will do it as a collaborative act or a combative one. The choice lies with each one of us.