A Muslim, a Hindu and a Mormon sit down together on a plane.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad religious joke, but this is what happened to me recently on a flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta.
The next three hours included some of the best discussion of my life. The Hindu, a college freshman in Iowa, was headed home to Georgia for the summer. The Muslim, an immigrant from Sudan, was on his way to take a test for medical residency. Both men are on track to become U.S. citizens this summer.
Both are deeply religious, and much of our conversation centered around our various beliefs and cultures.
We spoke of marriage and the importance of marrying within our traditions. The Sudanese man will travel home this summer in hopes of finding a wife. While he gets a choice in the matter, his mother is busy looking for suitable companions. He showed me a picture of a girl who might be a good match.
“But we must see if we are compatible,” he explained. “She does not want to wear the hijab, and that is a very important thing to me.”
The Hindu, born in India before his family emigrated to the U.S., will also enter into an arranged marriage someday, after he has graduated from college. He spoke of the importance of marrying within his caste. While the idea may seem strange to the Western way of thinking, both men look on it as a practical matter.
“My parents say, ‘Why change something that has worked for thousands of years?’” the Hindu student told me.
We talked about the foundations of our faiths. My new Hindu friend spoke of the Hindu creation story, from which all life sprang, and about the four eras of man. My Muslim friend spoke of the five great prophets in the Islamic faith: Noah, Moses, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad.
They both described their beliefs about how the earth would end. I told of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and of Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, which sounded remarkably similar to the Hindu and Muslim understandings of the “end,” with just a few variations.
In fact, we found ourselves repeatedly crossing upon common belief. All three of our faiths maintain a strict dietary code. Hindus eat no red meat. For Muslims, their meat must be halal (their version of kosher) and they drink no alcohol. They also keep a strict sexual code. (“I have never even kissed a girl!” my Muslim friend exclaimed.)
Thanks to a wonderful undergraduate religious education, I had a solid understanding of both Hinduism and Islam. This helped me in the context of our dialogue. However, my encounter with my fellow passengers broadened my understanding of their faith as practiced and applied on a day-to-day basis. It reminded me that textual understanding, while useful, is never as powerful as face-to-face understanding.
It also reiterated to me the importance of discussing faith in the public square. Open discussions on faith have become taboo. Yet, a lack of discussion only leads to increased misunderstanding. We may learn about a religion by reading about it, but we come to understand it by seeing the application of that faith.
Thus, a person might claim to know a lot about Mormonism, but until they’ve met Mormons and witnessed how they live their lives, they can’t fully understand what it means to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The same goes for any faith making headlines. When all we hear about Islam is the brutality of extremists in the Middle East, our lens becomes distorted. Religion rarely makes the news for doing good, only for restricting, excluding or marginalizing others.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference for writers of children’s literature. The theme was diversity. The first presenter, an editor from New York City, detailed the many ways in which we need to broaden the themes of race and gender in children’s books.
During the Q-and-A portion, I raised my hand to ask a question I’ve been mulling over for many years:
“Is faith being discussed in regards to diversity?” I asked. “I see very few children’s books including faith in a positive context. Religion is only brought up when used as an example of oppression.”
The editor hemmed and hawed. She said faith was tricky because it could marginalize the readers and produce books that didn’t appeal to a wider audience.
In short, religion and faith did not fit into her current definition of and agenda for diversity. But it needs to. We don’t live in a vacuum where religion is something we think about one day a week. It informs everything we do. To take the faith discussion out of our dialogue, out of our stories and, yes, even out of our educational system, doesn't create an environment of understanding. It produces a society in which no one understands each other.
At the end of my Atlanta flight, I felt steeped in gratitude for good people who hold to their traditions and beliefs. I was sad to say goodbye to my new friends, as it meant the end of our discussion. But I hope, for all of us, it was the beginning of greater understanding.