The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Being a Respectful Visitor

“I have a curiosity about other religions and have thought about visiting various houses of worship. ... I’d appreciate it if your writers could tell me how they accommodate visitors who are not exploring other religions in order to convert, but simply for purposes of cultural edification.”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

“I have a curiosity about other religions and have thought about visiting various houses of worship. My concern is that while it may be a sign of respect to participate in whatever rituals and prayers are offered, I don’t want to perform any action or recite something that would be in opposition to my lifelong faith. I’d appreciate it if your writers could tell me how they accommodate visitors who are not exploring other religions in order to convert, but simply for purposes of cultural edification.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“Cultural edification or interest in conversion— for whatever reason visitors came to my church I was delighted they were visiting! I wish there were more people like you!

“I would encourage you to speak ahead of your visit to the religious leader and explain your purpose of your attending. This way both visitor and congregation will be on the same page. In some congregations there are individuals whose role it is to help visitors understand rituals, language, order of service, etc. There is no need to feel at the least bit uncomfortable. You will be warmly welcomed! It’s okay to not say the prayers or sing songs or participate in other sacraments or rituals, but do respect the context around you. If you are asked to remove your shoes or your hat, to wear a headscarf or covering, do so. When others stand, stand if you are able. During prayers, remain still. It’s okay to take notes!”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“We love having people visit the West Michigan Hindu Temple, and want to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible. I you join us for any of our daily rituals (sometimes several per day) you may sit in a chair right behind those who are participating. Nothing will be required of you other than to sit in respectful silence.

“At the end of the ritual there is a tradition of the priest distributing blessed food known as prashadam. Often it is fruit, but might also be a handful of nuts or something else. This could be seen as similar to the Eucharist. However, normally Communion is offered only to those who proclaim themselves as being Christian. No such statement of faith in intended in accepting prashadam. We would leave it up to the observer as to whether or not to partake. If one chooses to forego this, simply do not stand in line in front of the priest when this portion of the ceremony happens.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“We are very used to having visitors every week. You are warmly welcome to come to our worship service. Unitarian Universalism welcomes all religions, we are an inclusive faith. You are welcome to participate at whatever level that makes you comfortable. I think it would be helpful to tell us you only wish to observe, but again that would be your choice.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Visitors are always welcome to attend Catholic Masses and other worship ceremonies. When visiting a friend’s home, one shows respect and dignity. Please respect that Catholics believe Jesus is present among those gathered and physically in the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle.

“The dos include being quiet and respecting those around you by allowing them to pray in silence. Please feel to walk around the Church after the service to view statues, Stations of the Cross, other art pieces, the stained-glass windows, the sanctuary, the baptistry, etc. Afterward, you may greet those around, ask about the artwork in the Church, and introduce yourself to the priest. Do NOT speak when everyone is quiet, do not enter the sanctuary, do not present yourself for communion, do not disturb those around you, and do not leave early.”

My response:

First, I cannot tell you what words or actions you might encounter in a synagogue service which might conflict with your own personal faith. All I can tell you is that if something does not feel right to you, you should not say or do it. We routinely ask all men to wear a head covering in the sanctuary. Many women do so as well, but it remains optional. Only once in my 29 years has someone who came to visit our service left the building rather than cover his head. I’m still not clear on why covering one’s head could violate this person’s personal faith, but I respect him for maintaining his boundaries.

At the same time, we have certain practices related to our Sabbath observance that we ask everyone to abide by. So even if your personal faith does not require you to refrain from using electronic devices or writing on the Sabbath, our hope is that it is not a violation of your faith to refrain from doing so anyway. Many of these kind of visitor guidelines are outlined on our website.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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