In the previous blog, I discussed the importance of prayer in seeking to build cross-religious conversations and relationships. This second part looks at asking questions, hospitality, and growing deeper relationships.
2) Ask questions
Aside from praying, another thing I did to be a better learner was to ask lots of questions: about particular religious days, about faith practices, about things I didn’t understand, about things I’d heard or seen. I made sure they knew I was a learner – I’d say “I am sorry I don’t understand… would you mind explaining to me….,” and I encouraged others to ask me questions too.
The first time I was asked the question “Are you a Christian?” I didn’t want to answer ‘yes’ because I knew that most non-Christians have in their heads an idea of what they think a Christian is, and it’s usually wrong. So I fumbled through some complicated answer that just made things more confused. Later, I went home, thought about it, and decided to change tactic. The next time someone asked me that question I straight away asked him back “What do you mean by Christian?” He couldn’t explain, or didn’t know, what he meant, but by asking him a question back instead of immediately answering his question, I was finding out what his preconceived ideas were. From then on I could have addressed whatever truths, partial truths, and misinformation he might have had in his idea of what a Christian is. Asking questions that uncover what preconceived ideas someone might have helps us to be learners.
In my first year of teaching some of my students asked me “What are you?” They wanted to know whether I was a Muslim, or a Christian, or a what. Instead of answering, I asked them “What do you think I am?” One of the students said, ‘You’re an atheist!” I was pretty taken aback, but asked her “Why do you think that?” She explained it was because I didn’t use any religious language in class. Many of my students and colleagues used religious language regularly, so after that reply I made sure I too was using religious language regularly! I’d often tell students and colleagues I was praying for them, and I’d say things like ‘alhamdullilah’ (thanks be to God), or ‘inshallah’ (God willing). Sometimes my appropriate use of these phrases opened up conversation opportunities. In a diaspora context, we can also investigate what we can say or do that would visibly demonstrate our faith to others – could we vocally give thanks to God in a natural and appropriate way? Could we offer to pray with people out loud, on the spot? Could we even think about making our own prayer lives more visible in some way?
My Southeast Asian students would sometimes come to our house to hang out, eat snacks, chat, and play with our kids. After one such time, a student sent me a Facebook message: “I just really love the way your whole family could easily inspire me about a happy family.” Many of my students had difficult family relationships. They were hungry for love and acceptance and were also keen to learn about Australian culture and way of life.
In our countries too, hospitality and food are great ways to connect with people who have usually left their extended families and friends behind. They feel lonely, isolated, and uncertain about how this new culture operates. Everyone here seems to have so much to do and are so busy. They don’t want to interrupt us or bother us, but they’re not used to being alone!
So invite people over to your house, even if it is just for snacks and a drink. If you are worried about what to serve them, ask them what they can’t or don’t eat – be a learner. Being a learner helps them to be learners too – they will feel less stupid if you ask the first questions and show that you are humble enough to not know all the answers either.
Different cultures have different rules about when guests should leave and how they should leave. Ask them what is normal in their culture – how do hosts show guests it is time to leave? Be prepared for them to be late – different cultures have different rules about when it is polite to turn up. My students would never come to a pre-arranged meeting if it was raining – and since most of them rode motorbikes this was eminently sensible, as they’d get soaked!
Grow in relationship
Once we have made a start on the journey in cross-religious relationships, how can we deepen them and continue to grow as learners? Over the years, I have prayed that God will show me who he wants me to spend more time with. Once I’ve identified a couple of people, I’ve deliberately set out to nurture those relationships. This has included inviting them over for snacks and a drink on a more regular basis, going out for a meal together, going for a walk together, sending a quick text message to let them know I’m thinking of them and praying for them, visiting them in their home, and often ensuring I have nothing else on that day so that I don’t feel ‘time-bound’ but can concentrate on being with them. I have also continued to ask questions that seek to uncover a person’s worldview: what they do, their values, their beliefs, and the nature of reality and the spiritual world.
Showing our own vulnerability is also important – have I asked my friend to pray for me about something? Have I shared my struggles, hopes, and fears? Or do I, by not being vulnerable, actually show that this is a one-sided relationship where I subconsciously think I have all the answers and am the ‘saviour’? This too is an area for prayer, for growth, and for learning.
Keep praying. Pray for opportunities to speak with people. Ask God for courage to take the first step and talk with someone you see regularly in the neighbourhood or at a shop. Ask for God’s help to listen well to the person in front of you, and to say things that encourage them towards Christ. Make sure your spiritual needs are also being met through one-to-one prayer and encouragement.
We are not God. We can’t make people believe in Jesus or make them stay on a journey with Jesus. We can only plant seeds and be faithful to him in the relationships and with the people he’s given us.
We need to invest time and effort into growing a couple of deeper relationships. We need to be flexible, perhaps dropping other things when an unexpected invitation comes or putting aside all other commitments to spend time together. We may need to help in a practical way, filling in a form, writing a job reference, connecting them with someone who can help. We need to be vulnerable, asking for and accepting their prayers, help, and encouragement.
We won’t have all the answers, or even coherent answers, at times. We may make mistakes – culturally, socially, relationally, linguistically. But we can trust that God works through us, imperfect and broken vessels, to bring people to himself in his good timing. All we have to do is to keep listening, keep learning, keep praying, and keep persevering under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Image credits with thanks to https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-sitting-beside-tables-indoors-1568342/ (mentatdgt): https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-business-career-close-up-221164/: https://unsplash.com/photos/YrYSlTuBvBA (Clay Banks).
(c) When Women Speak… July 2020
Louise currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and two sons. She helps to equip cross-cultural workers and works as a researcher with When Women Speak… Louise and her family served in Southeast Asia for six years, where she taught English at universities and enjoyed engaging with her predominately Muslim students and colleagues. Her educational background was in Chinese studies, and she lived in China for three non-consecutive years. She has a PhD in East Asian Studies from the Australian National University.