Written in 2003 for Sky magazine
One of the reasons I travel—and travel overseas as much as possible—is to do things I never do at home. Not worry about bills. Not worry about returning phone calls or mail. Not worry about work. Most of all, I travel out of a deep need to become someone else, or at least to see how different I become when I’m abroad. As masochistic as it sounds, I like to find out how I am often wrong and how foreigners are often right.
This means trying to keep an open mind no matter where I am, no matter how strange the place seems, and doing my best to understand why they live and think the way they do. One of the most immediate, friendly ways I’ve found to enter a foreign culture, and even another state of mind, no matter how exotic the place, is to go to church.
Church? It could be a temple, a cathedral, a mosque, a synagogue, or a hut on a beach. All that matters is that it’s where the locals go, a place of worship where, as T.S. Eliot put it, “prayer has been valid.” This may sound hypocritical, since (being a jaded American who lost patience with organized religion in this country some time ago) I rarely attend any services back home. I do, however, nearly always enjoy other cultures’ sense of wonder and community; I learn more in a church than by going to a cafe or a sporting event, which are fun but less idiosyncratic.
Now, obviously, my motives are far from purely religious—but they are communal, for no other human activity so efficiently cuts through barriers of class, profession, and all the rest, and shows you a foreign society writ large. It’s also a great way to meet people.
I’ve never found it mattered much whether I witnessed some important holy ceremony; the ordinary days tells you just as much, and sometimes even more. I got a better sense of Balinese belief from wandering into every stony temple courtyard where I happened to hear gamelan music pinging forth than from successfully chasing down that tourist grail, the cremation ceremony.
And I’d even argue that many cultures are incomprehensible unless you get a look at their religious life. How can you ever understand the Italians if you’ve never been to mass? (It may be just as important what people are consciously rejecting as what they’re unconsciously accepting.) Not to mention the Balinese? It always amazes me that people will visit Egypt but never set foot inside a mosque.
In what was formerly Rangoon, dusk prayers at the Shwe Dagon pagoda—ceaselessly gold-leafed by the faithful in one of the poorest countries on earth—will tell you more about the Burmese than any political analysis. Ditto any of the pandemonic processional dances in Morocco, like the festival of Fes, when you can see people whipping themselves through the medina into a mass frenzy. And someone lucky enough to visit, say, Raiatea in the South Pacific, or Lamu off the coast of Kenya, or Eleuthera in the Bahamas—or any island anywhere on the planet that’s not utterly urbanized—cannot begin to know the people unless he goes to a Sunday church service.
The wonderful surprise is how warmly one is usually welcomed. The more outlandish destinations come to mind first—like the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, in Amritsar, up in India’s Punjab—a small jewel box burning at sunset in a vast pool of brimming water, where the turbanned, dagger-toting worshippers give you hearty grins and congratulate you for coming to watch them gently dip their hands into the holy nectar. It is to my mind every bit as majestic as the Taj Mahal, and spotless besides: to see it helped me understand why the Sikhs are so very confident and enthusiastic. It made sense that they welcomed foreigners, while throughout India non-believers were often barred from the great holy temples of Hinduism. (Imagine a sign at Nôtre-Dame, saying Non-Catholics Keep Out!)
At the other end of the architectural scale, but no less moving, was St. Philips Native Baptist Church, in Smith Bay, on Cat Island, in the Bahamas. I had been to an absolutely raucous dance the Saturday night before, till quite late; here, transformed, were the same faces—the women fanning themselves in broad hats, pearls, floral dresses, the men far the worse for wear, sweaty in their suits, mopping their brows. The little choir was accompanied by a bearded guitarist, playing almost a calypso beat; the reverend was a speaker of grave eloquence who received “Amens” with every phrase and reminded me of how, all over the world, there seems more true religious feeling in the small churches than in the grand.
Then there was the tiny village of Taunovo, on the small island of Vatulele, in the island universe of Fiji. It is difficult to explain the well-being one feels in South Pacific churches; perhaps it comes from the communicants’ evidently profound belief. Most of the village’s three hundred residents were here for the Methodist service—the women swishing plaited palm fans and invariably in white, the men in short sleeves and sarongs. The singing was full-voiced and heartfelt, its harmonies setting off the dynamic Fijian syllables. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” became Cavu tu na i valu and shook the rafters—and I was invited back to the village the next day to meet the chief for a kava ceremony.
Equally imposing was a service on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, with the service conducted in both Maori and English (which sums up the natural welcome of the people) followed by a thunderous call-and-response singing of urgent joy, full of high-pitched cries and cross-rhythms—the equivalent of the complex dancing that was intoxicating in quite another way. In such societies, where church is the high point of the week, the fact that you are freely taking part, wanting to get to know them, immediately sets you off from the common tourist. Had I never gone to that lovely church in Titikaveka and enjoyed that phenomenal musical experience, I’d never have been invited to the night-long ceremony of stories around an umu kai (sand oven) on a hidden beach.
In Havana a few years ago the contemporary frustrations of the people were obvious. It wasn’t until I went to Sunday mass at the glorious 18th century cathedral, and saw, after the service was over, a teak-colored man in his best clothes, ragged as they were, intoning a prayer to himself, that I understood the city’s timeless solaces. As he was finishing, in the plaza outside the cathedral an orchestra began playing.
At these services I sometimes met people I saw again on my journey. In any case, afterward, to a modest degree, I always felt I belonged, was part of the place in a way I hadn’t been a few hours earlier. I still remember people whom I never met, remember their faces bent in prayer or joyously singing, because they showed me their private selves in a public place, among friends. They also allowed me my private fantasy, of being part of their community and even imagining what it might be like to live there. At least until I had to go home.