Religion has been a central theme in my life since my childhood. In certain regions in Lebanon, the religion you are born into is considered your belonging and your purpose. It is not purely a matter of personal and spiritual fulfillment, but it is also a societal shield. In my hometown, moving outside the bounds of your religious upbringing was often perceived as a treacherous act, a rebellion that often meant you lost everything. I was fortunate enough to resonate with the Christian faith, but I have also witnessed many who struggled to tear away from their given faiths, eventually finding themselves wounded and alone. Renouncing your religious affiliation was often equated with social isolation and seclusion. In political affairs, religion is also weaponized as the main driver of animosity, by clearly defining where the self ends and the foreign other begins. That, of course, is not the case everywhere in Lebanon, but it was a reality in my upbringing.
Being in the U.S., the tensions changed but did not disappear. While I am free to practice my religion, there is also a burden I have to bear. Being Arab in the United States often comes with an obligation to dismantle stereotypes that have been cemented in the American mind over many years. I often find myself utilizing my Christian faith as a quick mechanism to deconstruct the image held by many people I meet fleetingly. It often makes their ideas of oppressive and homogenous Arab communities uncertain. This unfortunately pushes me to publicly hold on to my Christian identity as visible evidence rather than a private faith and practice.
Being in India was an unexpected liberating opportunity from many of these constraints. Living as an outsider in such a religiously diverse country was a blessing in disguise. It freed me from any internal conflicts between sects, and bestowed the capacity to accept and learn about others without reservations, in contrast to my experience in Lebanon. Being foreign, many of my inquiries are met with openness and enthusiasm, and nothing portrays that more than my visit to a Hindu temple. As I was walking past, I was intrigued by the fine detail of the sculptures and wanted to take a picture. The brightly painted figures reminded me of Greek Orthodox iconography back home. I admired the detail and symbolism in both, especially since they both are modern depictions of events, epics and stories that are centuries old and that have been preserved in varying artwork over many years. As I was examining the detail, a man motioned for me to come inside. Immediately, I was struck by the strong smell of incense that was reminiscent of the heavily scented altars of the church in my hometown. The parallels with Christianity that I found in the short worship ritual that I participated in were striking. They both induce awe and reverence and are centered around the sharing of certain sacred offerings in the context of community prayer. I cannot say that I now have a thorough understanding of different forms of worship in India, especially since they vary so significantly within the same regions, but I always find reassurance in the constancy and parallels of specific aspects of religious practices. The experience was remarkable not only in its familiarity, but in the novelty of being invited to participate in sacred prayers I clearly did not thoroughly comprehend. In that moment, I realized the privilege of the outsider’s perspective and the welcoming atmosphere Indians provide to strangers, which has allowed me to follow my intrigue further.
With every new place I reside in and every place of worship I visit, my appreciation for the Christian faith deepens. By opening myself to other religious rituals and traditions, I recognize the universality of the human appreciation for the divine and what we bring forth in its veneration. Traveling has allowed me to view Christianity as a dynamic and flexible doctrine rather than a strict liturgy of rules and prayers. In many places, it becomes a reflection of the values of a community, and a hybrid of their cultural norms, convictions and aspirations, rendering it a unique form of worship as seen in these pictures:
While I cannot fully comprehend the nuances and complexity of what it means to subscribe to a certain faith outside of Lebanon, I have still gained valuable insight from the limited knowledge and interactions I have had. Experiencing and learning about these different forms of worship has enriched my view of Christianity, and has allowed me to thoroughly explore what the faith means to me. My faith grows and expands as my understanding of the world matures and develops. I am grateful for the opportunities I have received to challenge and restructure it, and I look forward to many more to come.
Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf is a member of the class of 2019 studying chemical-biological engineering. This summer, she completed an internship at the Shell Technology Center – Bangalore, India.