Try-Alls and Tribulations: Interfaith Etiquette

 On the past two weekends, I’ve gone a-souljourning to a Sikh gurdwara and an Islamic masjid (mosque).  As a Christian, I have a lot to learn from these faiths.  That’s still true after having souljourned to both sites on many previous occasions and spent a lot of time with Sikh and Muslim people.  Both of these souljourns reminded me that uncertainty about etiquette is a real stumbling block for people to feel comfortable in visiting a house of worship of a tradition unfamiliar to them. (For excellent help on this topic, see the Etiquette Guide of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.)


I took teenagers from my church, Mt Hollywood Congregational United Church of Christ, to the gurdwara in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  The kids were a bit like deer in the headlights, experiencing exotic sights and smells as we entered the gurwara, a big building with domed turrets that glowed brilliantly in the morning sun.  The aroma of Indian food wafted out from within.  Women in saris and men with turbans above their magnificently bearded faces walked up the stairs and into the vestibule, where they took off their shoes, put them in cubbyholes, and then washed their hands.  We followed along.  A basket full of orange bandannas sat in this room, and we each took one and helped each other tie them around our heads.  Then we walked single file into the sanctuary.  The carpet was covered with white sheets. Women sat cross-legged on the left, men on the right.  We walked up to the throne where sat the Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikh faith – a huge book behind which a man waved a fly-whisk over its open pages.  (A human dignitary in India traditionally would get the same treatment.)  In front of the Sikh’s paper “guru” – they consider the book to be their teacher, the last in the line after their ten founding gurus – we made an offering of money and then bowed down with our heads to the ground.  (Does this bowing imply assent to Sikh doctrines?  Can a faithful Christian or Muslim or Hindu bow down before the Guru Granth Sahib in good conscience?  I do it, but I am sure there are others who would feel very uncomfortable doing so, for good reasons.)  Usually at this point we would go to the left of the book to receive and eat a lump of pudding called prasad, but it wasn’t ready yet.  (Would it be proper etiquette to compare the prasad, or prashad, to Christian communion?  Is there a Sikh out there who would care to comment on this question?)  Then we found places on the sheets on the carpet to sit and listen to the kirtan, the musical rendition of the Guru Granth Sahib.  Three imposing bearded men in white robes and white turbans sat on a raised platform, singing and playing harmoniums (hand-pumped organs), and a young man sat to the side playing tabla (small round drums sounded by the fingertips and wrists).  I was mesmerized by the minor key of the chanting and the enchanting rhythm of the tabla.  On a screen to their right, the text of the scripture being sung was displayed in Punjabi and English.


After a while, we stood up and went out of the sanctuary, and as we did so, an older fellow, with a turban and a beard, followed us out and eagerly greeted us.  Prem Singh made himself our host, and urged us into the langar hall – the dining room where a (free) meal of Indian vegetarian food awaited.  People of all ages sat on long strips of carpet on the floor, eating off of styrofoam plates.  We got food and sat down and had a chat with Prem, who introduced us to the Sikh faith.  The teens asked great questions.  I noticed that the boys were wearing shorts, but nobody else in the gurdwara was soing so.  So I asked Prem if we had violated any etiquette with the shorts.  “Oh!  No problem!  Young people – they are visitors – of course it is okay!”  As polite a way as I could imagine of letting us know to wear pants next time.


Just before leaving, one of the teenaged boys noticed a series of pictures on the wall of the langar hall that left him with a slackened jaw.  Pictures of people being drawn and quartered, sliced and diced in horrific ways.  “Oh, those are our martyrs, people who died in its early days when Sikhs were persecuted,” said Prem with a smile on his face.  It was a contradiction for me to see those pictures of violence in a house of worship filled with the most peaceable and hospitable people one could imagine encountering.  But then, I remembered that I’d seen the Book of Martyrs in Amish country in Pennsylvania.  The Amish are pacifists, but many of their households prominently display a book in old German, with fraktur type and old woodcut images graphically describing the gruesome deaths of Christian theological non-conformists at the hands of the medieval Catholic church.  (Is it polite to stare at such pictures in a gurdwara, with one’s mouth hanging open in shock?  I’m guessing not…)


Last Friday I went on a souljourn to the Omar Masjid in Los Angeles with a group of students from the University of Southern California, located across the street.  One woman student came well-prepared: she had looked online to see how to tie a scarf appropriately for vising a mosque.  We were shown a warm welcome, as obvious visitors, even as we mounted the stairs.  As we entered, being a bit late for the Friday sermon, we skipped an important part of the ritual of prayer in Islam, which is to go downstairs to wash the hands, arms, faces, and feet.  (Did anybody notice, and take offense?  How much slack is given to visitors like ourselves, on this account?)  Inside, we saw the United Nations at prayer – people of every race and ethnicity, all aimed in the same direction, in silent worshipful submission.  As at the gurdwara, we stashed our shoes in cubbies inside the mosque, its floor covered in carpet with stripes aligned to face Mecca to the east.  Women sat behind an airport-style barricade of posts and ribbon.  Men, by far the majority present – as women are not expected to go to mosque as men are – sat facing an ornate wooden pulpit structure in the far eastern corner.  From there, a man with a trim beard, a white robe and white skullcap, spoke in Arabic and English.  His sermon was about the quest for happiness.  Yes, it’s fine to be happy, and to pursue happiness, but only if that happiness pleases Allah, he said.  I sat with the male students in the very back of the men’s area, where we could follow what the people in front of us were doing.  (Do Muslims take offense when non-Muslims follow along in the standing, leaning, and bowing of the prayers?  Do we disrespect our own faiths by showing obeisance to Allah as do Muslims?  What’s really the etiquette here – both from the point of view of Muslims and the point of view of faithful people of other religions?)  After the prayers at the end of the sermon, we filed out and were greeted by several Muslim USC students who answered our questions graciously.


Perhaps being a souljourner requires the same willingness to look foolish that is required in order to learn a language.  I remember the crazy stuff I said when I was studying Spanish in Mexico years ago.  I certainly embarrassed myself – and turned others beet-red a time or two, as well.  But as long as I showed humility and a willingness to get it right the next time, people seemed to cut me lots of slack.  Perhaps the most important ingredients in etiquette are genuine openness, curiosity, and an attitude, if not yet a correct appearance, of respect.


Entrance to prayer was free at the mosque, as was the langar at the gurdwara.  The price of admission was the risk of embarrassment.  But along the path of souljourning, it’s a price well-worth paying!


What are your try-alls and trepidations in visiting houses of worship of traditions unfamiliar to you?

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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California


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