Many times I’ve been asked how to get started in the area of interfaith relations.  There are a variety of ways to answer this question, and, as is often the case, the most useful answer depends on the person asking it.

For the careful, one might suggest some study first, especially of one’s own tradition, before actual engagement with people of other religious traditions.  For those ready to harmonize all religions together into one mush of “spirituality”, a visit to a startlingly different tradition may be the place to start.  For those with some basic grounding in their own tradition, person-to-person conversation across traditions is often the best beginning.

This question always startles me, though.   Some part of me wants to say, “What’s to discuss?  Just start!”

The reason for this probably lies in my own childhood and family.  I learned, very early and without being able to articulate it, an awareness of how differently the same events and things looked to different family members, depending on their different religious traditions (or different Christian traditions).   The gift of a Bible every year from our Jehovah’s Witness branch of the family was received with reasonable suspicion by my Jewish father, and with a resigned tolerance by my Christian mother.  Our resolutely secular household, in which no religious tradition was practised or taught,  nevertheless found ways to honor the religious celebrations, by other parts of the family, of Passover, Easter and other holidays.  And the golf ball from the hole-in-one shot by my mother’s father sat in a glass case, bearing the name of the country club which would not have acepted my father as a member.

Outside our home lay the crazy quilt of Pittsburgh, PA, and its ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods.  My parents’ friends, medical colleagues and patients included Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, African Americans, WASPS; mill workers, labor negotiators, restaurant owners, etc.  Each group seemed to have their own picnics, which we attended, and food — and ways of seeing the world.

Out of all of this, it became second nature to me, when entering any situation or group, to quickly try to orient myself:  to ask, Where am I now?  In whose world?  What are the parameters? Where are the “do not enter” markers?  The most natural starting point for me in relation to people of other religions, cultures, walks of life, is that of orienteering.

One conversation in particular crystallized my understanding of the basis for this approach.  At a gathering in Santa Fe, NM, a film-maker from the Taos Pueblo said, “People come to see our dances.  And they wander all around the pueblo, taking pictures and looking at everything.  They walk all over sacred places, and go into areas where no one should go.  I just wish that they realized that once they step over the boundary and onto the pueblo, they do not know where they are!”

To get where you want to go, you need to know first where you are.  In building relationships between people of different cultures and/or religions, if your destination is better understanding or friendship, step one is to ASK where you are!

In some situations, especially those in which there has been injury, violence, or conflict, this may take patience.  We might need to ask, and ask, and ask again, before being admitted even the least bit into the world of another human being or community.   We are, after all, asking for nothing less than an orientation into another’s reality.