Studying overseas during religious festivals is a daunting prospect for many students. So daunting that those who can will usually go home for holidays. But sometimes it is not possible. I was a foreign student in Turkey – a country that is not only majority Muslim but very secular in outlook when I was there. So not only could I not take Christmas day off but I was in class. It was a lonely, lonely day. I did not know any Christians at the time so after class I took myself to the only church I knew, which was also my favorite place in Istanbul — the famous Byzantine church of Hagia (Saint) Sophia. When Sultan Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453 he converted it to a mosque. It did not feel like Christmas but it did feel special so I went back at Easter.
Later in my study abroad year I met not only Christians but Jewish Turks as well. Visiting their homes and places of worship (as well as mosques) gave me such great insights into society that I realized early on that even if you are not religious, learning about the religious dimension of a society is a golden key to cultural understanding. Religion or religions in a country and how they are practiced provide valuable insights into marriage, politics, moral issues, generational differences, family networks and social support systems. I also learned that reading about religion in a foreign country is important but to really understand you need to see it for yourself – you need to enter the building.
Entering a foreign church, temple, mosque or synagogue for worship will be more comfortable for some than others. If you are a frequent worshiper you will probably be reassured by the smiles of the greeters. If you fell off the religious grid years ago you may feel more like they are baring their teeth. But study abroad takes courage so pluck up yours and enter not just the building but a new world of cultural understanding.
I was lucky in that friends in Turkey took me with them to places of worship. This led me into new topics of conversations with their parents, grandparents and neighbours. These conversations taught me that the secular culture of Turkey was real but did not extend to everyone. I also learned that the East is much more cross cultural than we in the US and perhaps Europe acknowledge. The Middle East and the Muslim world are very big places. We speak about the clash of civilizations but I found more cultural mixes than clashes in places where I lived beginning with Turkey. I met Muslim and Jewish converts to Jehovah Witnesses. I went to my first Turkish synagogue with Muslim friends who were invited to a wedding ceremony there and brought me along. I visited mosques with a Jewish Turkish friend who was an architectural student whose favorite architect was Sinan, the pre eminent Ottoman architect. Religious festivals are about family and I certainly missed mine as a student but in the long run my inability to travel home was a great cultural gift. I learned so much about real religious beliefs and practices and from there about society, government and relations between different communities that I have made it a point to visit places of worship and indeed to worship anywhere I go. Worshiping abroad is also a way of finding a space that is yours alone when you are homesick or having difficulty adjusting.
Last summer I went on vacation to the Isle of Skye in the far north of Scotland. The local village Uig (pronounced YOU ig) was pretty remote even for the people in Skye. It is normal to see men in kilts there and on Sunday some were in church. The minister entered and after a few moments of listening to him I thought “where’s the Scottish accent? He sounds like he’s from Texas!” After the service I discovered that the Minister Robert Calhoun was indeed from Texas. Since both he and his wife (maiden name Wallace) have Scottish names they slotted right in — sort of. The parish that included Uig had difficulty recruiting a minister and the Calhouns happened to spend a vacation there. One thing led to another with the result that a community in a remote place that might be tagged as traditional is more cosmopolitan than it might first appear. If you are overseas think about that when you pass an interesting place of worship. And the next time don’t walk by. Walk in. I found kilts and a cowboy. What will you find?
Notre Dame Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_6718517_notre-dame-de-paris-france.html’>loskutnikov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>