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5 Things We Learnt by Experiencing Religion Overseas

Hurry up, mami! We are going to miss the bus! These words are commonly spoken by my husband and children when we travel. They need to remind me of our schedule for the day and the time for the bus, tram, or metro. I get easily distracted by churches, temples, mosques and other religious buildings. 

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Notre Dame Cathedral, Laon-France. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 

We love to use public transportation as a way to better connect with the places we visit. Call us crazy, but we also like to take the bus during rush hour, so we get to see the real life of the commuters, not just a vehicle full of tourists. My children love to hear the different languages that are spoken, sometimes eavesdropping a local talking on the mobile about his day at work. 

But my desire to connect with the locals doesn’t end with the adventure of taking the tram at 4 pm in Istanbul or the subway in New York City on Christmas Eve. No. It extends to the religious sites, from Gothic catholic cathedrals to Byzantine anciente mosques. If you take a look at our itinerary, you will find for sure many temples listed, all of them waiting to be visited by this curious family of five. It would be painful for us to list our favorite churches; we have simply fallen in love with so many architectural masterpieces around the world that it is almost impossible to have predilections. 

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Grundvigs Church, Copenhagen- Denmark. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 

But how these marvelous representations of mankind’s love for their Gods have influenced our view of religion? 

Coming from a country with a very homogeneous religion population, mostly catholic, it was somehow a shock to find out that there weren’t many Catholic Churches in the small town in Texas where I moved to sixteen years ago. It was a nice thing though. I had the chance to visit other temples and meet people of different religious backgrounds that have the same values as me. Also, I came to appreciate more the time spent at church every Sunday after a 45 minute drive to our closest catholic parish. 

Then we had children. My husband and I agreed to raise our children with our same belief system and religion. However, we saw the need to expand their view of religious practices around the world and  we committed ourselves to prepare them for the many different traditions about God that they would encounter in their lifetime. Let’s not forget that moving abroad and traveling include a great deal of exposure to somebody else’s beliefs and values. Let’s remember that many of the problems of history have originated due to religious intolerance. I thought this was enough reason to start promoting religion awareness at home and I think this is also something you should do with your family to develop tolerance to diversity. 

This is what we have learned so far from our expeditions to religious sites and how we apply this knowledge to our daily life:

  1. Many people worldwide believe in a Superior being. Call it God, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah or Brahman, humans tend to look for the answer to the quintessential question “What is the meaning of life?” Our family has discovered through traveling that for many folks trying to find answers to life’s mysteries is the place where the religious impulse begin. It has also given us a better perspective of how and why we want to answer this question for ourselves.  

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    Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an – China. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 
  2. Many people worldwide make religion part of their daily routine. Catholics and the Angelus prayer at noon everyday, Islamics and the five-times a day prayer, Hindu and the personal offerings, all these rituals are incorporated by believers in their day to day schedule. Ever since we saw our driver in Bali attaching his personal offering to the dashboard of the taxi he drove us around, our family constantly tries to integrate some special moment of gratefulness to our day. We realized that as believers, folks worldwide create traditions and celebrate festivities revolving around religious practices. 

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    Saraswati Temple, Ubud-Bali (Indonesia) Photo credits: Little Nómadas 
  3. Many people worldwide are fearful of other religions. Humans are usually scared of the unknown. Humans are constantly bombarded with out-of-the-context information about other cultures by the media. But believe me, it is so different from what you experience once you visit a place of contemplation, a religious site, a mosque during prayer time. Prepare yourself with different tools: books, videos, online articles and then try to understand why certain folks behave the way they do. Look at yourself and your own biases. Are your own prejudices holding you back from discovering more about a country and its religion? Our family has learnt to criticize less when referring to the behavior of others. We now understand that their religion influenced the way they communicate and operate in society. 

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    St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 
  4. Many people worldwide communicate better due to religion awareness. You don’t need to be Muslim to learn about Islam, you don’t need to convert to Judaism to understand the history of Jews in Poland, you don’t have to be Catholic to marvel at the degree of love showed by pilgrims that visit Saint Peter’s Basilica every Easter. We have met so many people open to learn about others’ traditions and how amazingly they communicate interculturally, that our family has added to our priorities to read about any religion at least three articles a month. Our ability to communicate cross-culturally depends greatly on our level of knowledge of other people’s religious beliefs. 

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    Hagia Sophia, Istanbul-Turkey. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 
  5. Many people worldwide deepen their own beliefs by getting to know other groups’ traditions.  There are many people that think their beliefs would be in danger if they visit a temple or site from other religious denominations. The truth is that we can actually improve our relationship with our own God by experiencing first hand the traditions of other folks. Learning about Yom Kippur with our neighbors, visiting the Blue Mosque during the sunset prayer and washing our bodies with the holy waters of Tirta Empul haven’t made us doubt our Catholicism. To the contrary, our devotion and beliefs have grown deeper, as well as our respect for other people’s traditions and ceremonies. 
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Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik- Iceland. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 

So now I invite you to reflect on your own beliefs, biases, and expectations. This is the time to raise cultural awareness at home, work and school, and religion plays a huge role in many distinct countries in the world.  Don’t forget that humanity’s search for the meaning of life is one of the main reasons that people are drawn to religion, one of the many reason human history has been so enriching and perturbing at the same time. The answers to our questions, althought different from religion to religion, give people’s lives purpose and hope. Learn about it, grow with it. 

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Cologne Cathedral, Cologne- Germany. Photo credits: Little Nómadas 

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