To Pray or Not to Pray

18 May

I was handed an interesting dilemma when I volunteered in the Philippines. It was one that was seemingly minor and I did not discuss it with my fellow volunteers nor anyone else during the trip. But certainly it played on my mind. The part of the Philippines I was stationed in held deeply Christian believes. I, on the other hand, am deeply non-religious. The only times I have set foot in a church I was there for weddings or funerals and, even then, a lot of the religious rhetoric went completely over my head.

This lack of knowledge in regards to Christianity was not so much of a problem at the Bahay Tuluyan (BT) boys’ centre where I spent the majority of my time, as we ate our meals separately from the boys and, thus, I was not obliged to take part in before-meal praying. When I visited the girls’ centre, however, I was faced with a new situation. We ate together and before each meal, everyone stood and chanted out a prayer, followed by the Sign of the Cross (I think that’s what it’s called?). At first I decided it would be tactful for me to pretend to pray and to stumble my way through the Sign – at times I think I touched my nose instead of my forehead and belly instead of my chest. (By now you should really have the idea of how truly clueless I am when it comes to Christian ritual.)

After a couple of days, it started to rankle on me that I was putting forward this deception. Was it more offensive for me to pretend to pray than it was for me to simply do nothing? By hiding my own non-religious identity was I completely contradicting the human rights (which included the right to freedom of religious beliefs) that my group were helping to teach?

In the end I decided that I would no longer pretend to pray nor continue to decimate the Sign of the Cross. Instead, I simply stood when the girls stood and did nothing when the girls prayed. No-one called me out on this so I think it was the right decision. But what does everyone else think? Should I have continued to pretend for the sake of tact? Also, I want to know, has anyone else been in a similar position where your beliefs did not match those of your host country? What did you do?

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2 Responses to “To Pray or Not to Pray”

  1. huongness May 22, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    I can really relate to you and your desire to ‘do the right thing’ within the cultural and social situation you find yourself in. While in Vietnam, I found I was trying not to offend people a lot of the time. One of my most significant day-to-day challenges was how to address whoever I was speaking to, as I couldn’t say “you” or “I”, as everything is relational. For example, choosing between “Aunty, please give niece (me) the cup” or “Older sister, please give younger sister (me) the cup” was always difficult. Should I call that lady an aunty or an older sister? She could be offended either way.

    Anyway, back to your questions, I can give you a couple of general pieces of advice as a practicing Catholic. I think that as long as you are and look respectful of what’s going on, people will appreciate that. So be a ‘passive participant’ by being quiet, sitting and standing when necessary is a start. I don’t think pretending to pray is a good idea, as people would be happy that you’re there and sharing in something they consider important.

    My experience in Vietnam was almost the binary opposite to yours’. Vietnamese aren’t particularly religious as Communism, and now, socialism, generally takes over as the overriding hegemony. My parents and many other Catholics fled Vietnam during their war because of persecution. Catholics still experience persecution and discrimination in Vietnam. There was a violent incident in a town near Hanoi involving the local police beating Catholics and it took place while I was volunteering in Hanoi. At my local church, the parish priest printed out a notice of the incident and asked the community to pray for them, but we couldn’t do anything further. I felt the need to downplay my participation and subscription to Catholicism, even though the young people I worked with were pretty open-minded and didn’t mind at all. I think the situation will get better in future decades.

    • scronk May 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

      Thanks for giving me a bit of a Catholic perspective on my experiences. I’m glad that I managed to do the right thing in the end!

      Your own experience in Vietnam … I cannot even imagine how that would have felt. It must have been hard to subvert the Catholic part of yourself and so harrowing to discover that the persecution still exists.

      I really hope that it does get better, not just in Vietnam but across the entire globe. No-one should be persecuted because of the spiritual beliefs that they do or do not hold.

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