I teach theology and Bible at Nyack College, a Christian school. I was a pretty run-of-the-mill vanilla prof until I found a passion for Christian history and liturgy.
I soon realized a call to bring unity among the three Christian traditions (Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic) through mutual understanding. That’s when I started teaching what I call “conversion classes.” Students start the class thinking we’ll critique every perspective but our own. By the end, they’ve converted from judgmental and prideful to respectful and appreciative of the other’s perspective. They’ve realized they don’t have the corner on everything about Christianity. They walk away knowing there is value in these other perspectives, even if they don’t fully agree. And they are now aware that we actually do agree about a lot.
Never did I think that I’d be doing the same in my marriage.
I met my husband in Syria, and our relationship bridged seven time zones, two cultures, and two Christian traditions. He’s Antiochian Orthodox, and I’m an American Protestant.
He came to my time zone for marriage and life together with kids, I attend his Sunday morning tradition, and together, we live a complex interaction of cultures.
My lacrosse coaching friend told me that men who coach women must understand their interactions with players as cross-cultural. If he’s right, that means there’s a cultural difference in any heterosexual marriage: female and male (I can hear your applause on this one).
Further, even if two people are from the same culture, they still come from different families. Each individual family has a distinct culture. This basically means that any marriage is cross-cultural to an extent, thus requiring some cultural understanding.
And then there are marriages like mine that add hailing from different regions of the world and faithful commitment to different Christian traditions to the mix. Wait — are there other marriages like mine? Maybe we should form a support group.
What a combo my husband and I are! It is truly rich. And I can see how my life’s trajectory brought me here.
I’m still a Protestant, working at a Protestant college and licensed with a Protestant denomination. But I attend and serve at an Orthodox Church. I cross boundaries every day — no actually, I straddle the boundary with one foot solidly in each world. At first, it made me anxious. Now it just makes me, me. I’ve somehow embraced that maybe the hard boundaries we’ve made are human, not divine. We do all believe in Christ for salvation, after all.
Thing is, I’m really comfortable loving one thing about Orthodoxy and another thing about Protestantism. I somehow mold the two together to create the perfect Amy Davis Abdallah theology.
Not so with the cultural differences.
You see, I can study the Christian traditions, but personal culture? That’s felt more than studied. It’s implicit more than explicit. It takes lots of listening — both to what is said and to the unspoken. Gah! It’s hard work. And I tend to act like there’s one right way to do things. That way is mine.
But marriage is my “conversion class” in which I’m being converted from judgmental and prideful to respectful and appreciative. I’m realizing I don’t have the corner on what’s right and let me tell you: It’s taking far longer than a one-semester class.
In this process, I’ve learned much. Here are two principles that keep me going:
- Speaking the same language doesn’t translate into meaning the same thing. This one is basic for many — we say Brits and Americans are two nations divided by the same language. I’m learning Arabic, but my husband and I have always communicated in English. Before we married, he spent loads of time in the USA and with Americans, so I thought for sure he was practically “one of us.” Wrong. I often wondered why he thought, communicated or acted in certain ways rather than my American “right” way. I soon realized that much of what seemed crazy to me was simply because he was from a different culture. I also begrudgingly acknowledged that my way wasn’t always best.
- The learning is never done. Sometimes I think I fully “get” my husband and his Syrian ways. And then something happens, and it feels like a curveball that throws my balance. I’m never done learning about him and myself. While it sometimes throws me, it’s also a really exciting and adventurous way to live.
I work at the most diverse Christian institution in the nation. One of our five core values is “intentionally diverse.” Too often, though, I see the real story in the cafeteria. Students only sit with others who are like them. Yes, we all live together, but often, we still live in our enclave of similarities and comfortability, where there is little challenge to our perceived “right.”
They also say that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Maybe it’s time to learn about another Christian tradition. Maybe it’s time to explore another culture. Anything could happen!