While I was doing my ministerial training I spent some time “on attachment” to a Sikh Gurdwara (temple) in Birmingham. When I made my first visit I have to admit to feeling very uncomfortable. Everything was strange and, though I didn’t want to cause offence I didn’t want to compromise myself either.
Strangely, what helped me through the discomfort was remembering that these were exactly the feelings I’d had the first time I attended a Roman Catholic Mass. I received a very warm welcome and my greeter made sure I understood what would happen and what I should do. The service, conducted in Punjabi, had much less of a sense of beginning and end than any Christian worship service I have been to, largely because people seemed to feel free to arrive and leave at any time. Although the sermon was delivered in Punjabi, seeing me there always prompted the worship leader to put some key points in English so that I’d be able to follow his drift.
The music of the worship was always exciting, partly due no doubt to its unfamiliarity but mostly because of the energy of those playing it.What impressed me most about the time I spent with the Sikhs was their commitment and hospitality. Because their scriptures cannot strictly be translated, “Sunday School” classes for children took place for two hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings so that they could learn and practice. If ever you’re in a strange town and need a meal, the Gurdwara is one place you’ll always be able to get one. All are welcome to share a meal in the langar, or community kitchen. (The Gurdwara I attended did not have a kitchen as such. Instead, there was a rota of people bringing prepared food. That rota was “booked up” 6 months in advance - for daily worship, twice a day)
Despite some initial discomfort, I never felt that my attendence at the worship of the Gurdwara in any way compromised my Christian faith. Christians and Sikhs have some common ground, but also many differences and it is both unhelpful and disrespectful to pretend otherwise. Even so, there is a huge amount to be gained from a deeper understanding of other faiths and nothing to be lost except prejudice and ignorance.
My experience is that if you really want to understand another’s faith, you have to engage with them in friendship and respect. Reading about it in a book won’t do. Listening to another Christian tell you about them won’t do. This is not about “tolerance”, but empathy and understanding. If Jesus could learn from a Syro-Phoenician woman, what have you to fear from your Moslem/Sikh/Hindu/Buddhist neighbour?