“Say it again,” they urged me. I felt like an animal in a cage, surrounded by the watchful eyes of gleeful children who poked at its helpless form with a stick. My fellow college-aged camp counselors hailed mostly from Canada and the Northeastern United States. Much of the kitchen crew came from the United Kingdom. The oddity of my red hair and southern drawl quickly earned me the nickname, “Georgia Ginger,” and now they wanted me to speak on command like a trained parrot.
I hadn’t traveled outside of the Deep South much before and didn’t realize I had a different vocabulary than people from other parts of the United States. When I said I was fixin’ to go somewhere and they laughed, I felt exposed and uncertain of what I’d done that warranted their teasing. I never realized my place in the world unknowingly shaped me in ways that were unlike other people.
Understanding the world
I was young and unaware of how acutely our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God, is formed by the location and people we are born into or by the proximity we allow ourselves to cultures unlike our own. I later learned the word for it in my seminary studies: worldview. James Sire in The Universe Next Door explains a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart” and says a person’s worldview “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”(1)
The place, family, religious tradition, and culture in which we grow and learn shapes our understanding of the world and how we will interact with it. Each person has a unique vantage point shaped by our circumstances, background, and life experiences; but we share common beliefs and commitments to those who are like us, who share our place in the world. This is the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God and the universe God created.
My upbringing in what’s called the “Bible Belt” didn’t just influence the way I speak. The phrases y’all and bless your heart aren’t the only takeaways I gained from growing up in the former Confederacy. As I stepped further outside of the boundaries of the Mason Dixon Line and the Atlantic Ocean, I learned just how much that red clay had been the fertile ground for a particular view of God.
The shock to my body as a young adult who was transplanted into the Western Sahara Desert was nothing compared to the shock to my soul. Wide-eyed and newly married, I sat on the hewn rock pews of the largest church in the Middle East and listened to Arabic sermons next to my new Coptic Orthodox neighbors.
I learned fresh ways of seeing everything I had ever known along with new words for God and the way to understand and explain faith. I must have looked like my camp counselor friends in those early days, mouth agape with shock and delight, “Say it again.” Abouna. Father. Eid. Feast.
I gained more than different practices, though the new ones I experienced were many. I covered my head to receive the communion wine from a silver spoon. I understood for the first time how vital fasting can be to the life of faith. I wept at the beauty of the icons on the walls, the pictures of the great people of faith that had existed in Egypt since the earliest days of the church.
I gained a view of Eastern Theology that split centuries ago from the Western views that were reformed, colonized, merged, and transplanted, over and over into what I thought was the “normal” way to view and worship Christ.
I suddenly saw a place where Allah was someone who cared for entire communities, rather than just the God who was concerned with an individual faith and a personal relationship with me. I understood that the way I loved my neighbor had far more to do with my nearness to God than the way I kept rules of personal piety. I glimpsed a heavy emphasis on the real presence of the Holy Spirit that was given equality with the Father and Son in importance.
As the world of diverse places opened up to me, so did the beauty of the global church. The study of God changed from a black and white page of correct answers to a kaleidoscope of color and light, each lens reflecting back another beautiful facet of who God is.
Each new place I visited gave me another lens, another look at the mystery of God. Two decades of exploring different places and people of faith have barely begun to reveal the rich varieties of ways the Creator is reflected back in his magnificent creation. When I moved back to my hometown after living and worshiping with both an international church and a local house church in Bangladesh, Georgia looked different than I remembered. So did the God I first met on her soil.
As I set up my home office in the place my life began—and perhaps the place I will live it out for many years to come—I place mementos from all I’ve learned where I will often see them and be reminded: An olivewood communion cup from Israel, a rosary from France, prayer beads boasting the colors of Palestine, a wooden cross from Coptic Cairo, an incense bowl from India, a crocheted mat from Yemen. Each item is from a place that touched me, that holds a piece of the puzzle that makes up my picture of God and the way I view the world today.
My experiences have changed how I see my own beliefs and what I have to gain from the faith of others. So much has changed, and yet my roots remain. My red hair has faded to a duller shade of brown with age. I can read three languages but still say y’all instinctively.
I look forward to all I still have to learn. I’ve been to a few places, but still see Jesus in this place. I may yet have more lands to discover, but I can never get the red clay out of the knees of my faded jeans.
- Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009, pg. 20