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A Pilgrimage to Belong

Tribalism is a problem, and the gospel is universal.

In my work as a Christian Reformed Campus Chaplain at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, I often have opportunities to participate in interfaith events. People from different religious traditions and communities gather for some common activity. Surrey, B.C. is very ethnically and religiously diverse, and that diversity is reflected in the student body at Kwantlen. 

One of the most meaningful events I help lead is an interfaith “pilgrimage” across the city. This event is held in Surrey each year as part of the United Nations World Interfaith and Harmony Week (WIHW). The WIHW is a UN resolution for a global celebration of interfaith dialogue, cooperation and harmony proposed in 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan. Since then, thousands of related events have taken place around the world during the first week of February every year. 

Our pilgrimage covers more than 16 kilometres. We trek across the city of Surrey, visiting different sites of prayer, worship and religious community. This past February a group of interfaith pilgrims from different faith traditions gathered on a chilly, rainy Sunday morning at a Buddhist temple. We began with breakfast, coffee and a meditative walk through the temple grounds. Our journey then took us to a United Church, a Hindu Mandir, a Muslim Masjid and three Sikh Gurdwaras. We stopped at each for a rest, prayer, conversation and (at the Mandir and Gurdwaras) delicious Indian food.

The intensity of our long walk and visits in such quick succession makes for a unique experience. What struck me most this time was how these different communities are not merely focussed on prayer, worship and spiritual practice. Without a doubt, these properly “religious” activities do form the heart of their life together. Yet within the various practices, images and holy scriptures of these communities is a deep sense of communal and cultural common life. They are centres of cultural making in which individual persons are embedded in elaborate networks of practices. Some of them are “spiritual,” to be sure. Yet they are also focussed on family, friendship, food and education – anything meaningful, really. 

Cultural ‘baggage’?
While there are certainly similarities across these different traditions, there are also unique cultural expressions that cannot be easily dismissed as merely “extrinsic” or “accidental.” This tension between similarities and differences has captured my interest over the years. In terms of similarities, we might say that these practices show that we all share a common humanity which seeks communal embodiment. We want to share meals, read from sacred texts and connect with friends and family who inherit our ethnic and religious tradition. To be human is to be communal – to relate with others with whom we share important similarities of blood, history and tradition. 

And yet it is that very common element which we share which also points to our irreducible differences. The unique history and tradition of a community is necessarily their particularity. To erase or neglect these differences for the sake of our common humanity is to lose an important part of what makes us human. We yearn for cultural identity and belonging – not just to humanity “in general,” but to a specific people with its own unique memory and practices. 

When we arrived at the Hindu Mandir for our lunch stop there, each of us was invited to walk up to the priest at the front of their worship hall and receive fruit, bread or a traditional dessert item. At the Sikh Gurdwara, someone walked around offering steaming hot sweet porridge, which they placed right into our hands (it nearly burned me!). At the Muslim Masjid, prayer is solemn and quiet. Each community has these sorts of distinctives. 

All this to say, what we hold in common as human beings is also what sets us apart. We need to create cultures and communities, each with its own particularities. You could not simply eliminate the whole network of practices and relationships holding each of these communities together and still find a common humanity underneath. Somewhat paradoxically, our common humanity is found in precisely in these expressions of cultural difference. 

Learning to belong
This is important to remember when we consider common western, Christian-influenced views on culture. We often assume that in a pluralistic society we should engage more and more with those who have differences from us – different cultures, religions and ethnicities – in order to discover a “common core” underneath cultural “baggage” so as to get beyond divisions. There is no doubt something true and important here. Christianity, in its founding moments, encourages a certain transcendence of precisely these sorts of divisions: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Living next to neighbours from all over the world who practice all manner of religious and cultural traditions is an amazing opportunity to broaden our horizons, and open our world to real interreligious harmony.

However, what my experience of the interfaith pilgrimage impressed upon me was the importance and necessity of cultural belonging. We should honour and celebrate the rooted, local and specific expressions of communal life. Communities that give their members a deep sense of belonging are likely to be healthy. Each person feels that they are contributing to a meaningful whole, not threatened by the pressure to abandon their roots and move beyond their identity. Some western notions of culture lose sight of this if the ideal is a universal, ahistorical culture. This usually results in unhealthy forms individualism, leaving people unrooted and casting about for some meaning beyond themselves. 

This is not to say that every expression of a local culture is necessarily good. Nor is it to say that the Christian church should remain locked in enclosed communities. Obviously the universality of the gospel demands a transcendence of different cultural expressions at some level. Tribalism is a problem, and the gospel is universal. Still, what most people need is a strong sense of cultural identity. Attempts to displace local expressions of cultural belonging or even mock them as closed-minded will only lead to unhealthy, unrooted communities which may react in problematic, even dangerous ways. Cultural belonging is a good which, if not affirmed, may lead to defensive, angry tribalism. In a city like Surrey where such diverse cultures co-exist, we have an opportunity to affirm the goods proper to different cultures. Perhaps Christians too can learn something about the importance of robust and distinctive cultural belonging from these religious traditions.  

  • Ethan works as a Christian Reformed Chaplain in the Multi-Faith Centre of Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

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