Navigating Religion: Entering Community

So. We are here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast working with The University of Mississippi’s Institute for Community-Based Research and Visions of Hope, a locally-based non-profit, to do some real-live, on-the-ground, Community-Based Research. We are a group of 8 students — mostly graduate-level — from both the University of Mississippi and the University of Michigan, originally hailing from all over the globe. What an incredible opportunity!

But how does a group like this “enter a community” and produce useful findings in five short days? Prior to graduate school, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia. There, “community integration” was a painfully slow process. I learned time and again the importance of being respectful of the values and social norms of the people around me. At the outset, the idea of successfully engaging with a community for a single week seemed entirely unrealistic to me. But I trusted the group organizers to have a working plan in place and assumed that I would be able to fall back on my past experiences to help me navigate this new context. As it turns out, I was right to put my faith in our supervisors, but was nonetheless a bit too sure of myself afterall.

This is about lessons in mindfulness and humility learned in the field.

Religion is a touchy subject. As an American who identifies as non-religious, I often find it tricky to navigate conversations about religious faith and beliefs. In Mongolia, the majority of people are Buddhist. Since the shift from a planned economy in 1991, there has been an increased presence of Christianity in the country. While this has been welcomed by some, many feel that Christian missionaries and development workers pull people away from their ancestral traditions and values.

Thus, when I met people in Mongolia, it was not unusual for them to ask me — with some degree of suspicion — “So what do you do here? Does it have to do with Jesus?” To which my knee-jerk response was, “Oh no, I’m an English teacher. I’m not religious.” This was generally received with a more relaxed: “Oh, okay. So whereabouts are you from?” I became well-programmed to nip this problem in the bud.

One year later, I’m sitting in an apartment on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I’m reminded of how relative cultural norms can be. We are discussing some aspects of the local community with the woman of the house, and she asks, “Are you all Christian?” And almost before she gets the words out, I have answered with a short, emphatic, “No!” Thinking back, I realize that my words were only part of the message. I sat up straight and my hands flew up as though to push something away, as thought to say “No don’t worry, I’m not one of those!”

It took a second for the confusion on her face to register. “What do you mean?” she asked, “are you Baptist then…?” As I sat there stammering in confusion myself, my colleague fortunately intervened with her own response. Finally, I was able to recover enough to explain, “Well, I was raised Catholic,” to which the woman seemed both relieved and understanding, responding, “Well as long as you’ve got something.”

That was when it dawned on me. My finely-honed “culturally sensitive” and assimilation-minded instincts were still well-calibrated for Mongolia, but were completely misleading for me here in Mississippi. This has helped me to realize and to re-learn the importance of approaching any new community or area with an open mind and humility.


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