For most of high school, I didn’t usually think too much about the different faiths of my peers. We saw each other at school every day, connected through common interests like sports or marching band, choir or theater. Some of us prayed together before a big game or a competition (not sanctioned by the school, of course, just friends sharing enthusiasm and faith as we worked toward a common goal). But that was essentially it. I rarely discussed differing beliefs and faith with my friends in high school, although I knew many of us attended different religious services. I’m not sure why it never came up.
This lack of awareness, or ignorance, of the spirituality around me changed with one performance—a service my choir director requested of the audition-only choir in my high school. Near the holidays, our director arranged for our group to perform in various venues across the city—the Officer’s Club at the Air Force Base, schools, care centers, and churches. All of these performances brought a warm sense of holiday giving to my teenaged soul, but one experience resonated with me more than the others.
One evening, we’d been asked to sing for the service at a local church. I’d been to churches other than my own before, but this was the first time I saw matters of faith in a new light. The building was small, the congregation friendly and welcoming. The words spoken and the manner of worship has faded into irretrievable memory, but I realized something that night that forever changed me. My commitment to my faith was no different than theirs. Some of the beliefs we had were similar. Some were fundamentally different. The transformative moment for me was when a friendly gentleman, his face crinkled with age, shook my hand and thanked me for the beautiful music we had shared and for the feeling it brought into the meeting. We locked eyes, and a peaceful understanding passed between us. It spoke to my heart in a gentle whisper that told me we both loved God, and that made us part of a larger community—the community of God’s children. In that moment, the concept of service became a wider brush in my mind. Despite differences in our beliefs, the offer of my time and talents had actually supported this man in his own faith. And I had arrived that night to simply sing with my choir.
A while later, I mentioned to the guy I was dating that I’d been asked to sing a solo for my own church congregation and I was searching for a song. He immediately set about to help me find the perfect music. I was a little surprised by his enthusiasm. I attributed it to his natural tendency to be the supportive boyfriend—he was a really good guy—but then, I noticed something else. He had religious music he liked, and he was eager to share it. It meant something special to him. What a delightful discovery! He introduced me to a Christian a cappella group I’d never heard before. I loved it! I bought their music and listened to it in my car. I paid special attention to the songs he said were his favorites, and I understood why he liked them so much. We never sat down and talked in great length about religious doctrine (this was high school and life took us different directions), but from this experience, I learned how simple and equally profound it can be to support the faith of another.
I came to notice the faith and belief of others as opportunities to connect. Despite differences, there is always some common ground. Often, we have more in common than not. I knew my religious friends and acquaintances loved God, whomever they believed God to be. And although our manners of prayer and worship might have been different, they communicated with the God they loved, as I did. I learned that love is the bridge that spans over all murky waters of contention. It reaches across all gulfs of misunderstanding.
Around this same time, one of my best friends came to school one Monday morning and told me her teachers at church had spent the better part of the Sunday service telling her why my church was not Christian. In the spirit of genuine friendship, she asked me to share my view and my beliefs. She said, “I thought it would be good to just ask you, since you know best what you believe.” I was fortunate to have such a friend. Although I don’t remember the specifics of that conversation, I’ll never forget the feeling. She supported me in my faith, and listened to me with a willingness to understand. We learned the language of each other’s religions and respected each other’s standards of moral living. I knew from her willingness to ask me directly and to listen to my answer that she loved me, and even more importantly, she loved the God I worship.
And that realization—the common ground, the love, the mutual respect—was the lesson I needed.