Growing up, my best friend Jenny and I shared many things. We both had a passion for reading, a fascination with ballet, and the ability to belt out the entire score of “Annie” by heart.
One thing we did not share was religion.
On Sundays, I went to Mass at St. Simon’s Catholic Church, where I knelt before an altar featuring a crucifix and life-sized statues of Mary and Joseph. Jenny attended a non-denominational Bible church, where she and the other kids read Scripture stories in a Sunday school classroom. Before dinner, my family recited the traditional grace, “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts…” At Jenny’s house, her dad led their family in a spontaneous prayer, all holding hands around the table: “Loving God, thank you for this food, and for having our good friend Ginny here with us tonight…” Over the years, Jenny and I had many opportunities to experience each other’s faith. She and I went together to a Protestant summer camp, where we sang about God under the redwoods and the counselor talked about accepting Jesus into your heart. Jenny was present at my First Communion ceremony, where I, in a white eyelet dress and short veil, tasted the body of Christ for the first time.
We never really talked about religion; there were far more exciting things to do. But there must have been things she liked about my faith life, just as there were things I instinctively enjoyed about hers. I liked the picture framed on her bedroom wall, an image of a smiling Jesus sitting in a sunny meadow, surrounded by kids in modern clothes. I found it far more inviting than the picture in the hall of my parochial school, showing Jesus looking solemn, his red heart glowing in his chest. When I attended Jenny’s church with her family, the people there sang their praise with loud voices; it was a huge change from the music-less 7:30 A.M. Mass my family usually attended.
I don’t mean to imply that Jenny’s faith was warm and lively while mine was serious and boring. To say that is to ignore the humor of the nuns at my school, the beauty of events like May Crownings, the fun of parish activities. But her religious background added a welcome something to my own: a complementary perspective, a slightly different way of seeing the same things. And it gave me a conviction that has only strengthened now that I’m a mom: a belief in the value of making friends outside of one’s own religion.
These days, as an adult who has been on her own journey out of and then back into Catholicism, I’ve been greatly enriched by interactions with people of other faiths. My friends these days come from many different belief systems: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, agnosticism. I don’t choose friends on the basis of their faith, one way or another, but I have found that being around people with different beliefs makes me feel a certain kind of alive. When faith comes up in conversation, there is something to learn from each other. It’s an opportunity to articulate what we believe and why we believe it – a process that can be just as illuminating for the person explaining her beliefs as for the person listening. “Only connect,” wrote E. M. Forster in the book Howard’s End, and it’s a mantra that I’ve always instinctively liked. These conversations are not about trying to convince each other of the truth of what we believe. They are about creating a bridge of understanding where there was formerly open space, building a thoroughfare along which grace can be given and received. And there is a certain headiness to realizing that our shared humanity transcends what, in other times or places, might have been an insurmountable barrier to friendship.
As the parent of two young boys, I think of this often. I harbor a little hope that my own children will grow up with a good friend of a different faith. My parents and Jenny’s parents set a great example for us, whether they were conscious of it or not. I thank them for letting us experience each other’s services and rituals and prayers without feeling that they had to defend one way over the other. There was a subtle message there: Our similarities are stronger than our differences. That message was never preached, only lived.
Jenny and her family live in a different state now, and I haven’t seen her in years, though we still exchange Christmas cards and Facebook messages. And I thought of her when my son turned three, and I wanted to buy him a picture of Jesus for his birthday. I remembered Jenny’s picture of the sunny meadow and the happy kids, the image that had always appealed to me. And though I didn’t find exactly that picture, I did find something similar. It’s a sketch of Jesus holding a smiling little boy in his arms, planting a kiss on the side of his head. It shows warmth and happiness and love, three things that I want Matthew to grow up associating with his faith.
And it shows something else, too, something that I believe lies at the heart of all peace and good in the world: a moment of earnest, joyful connection.
Copyright 2013 Ginny Kubitz Moyer