Finding God on your travels

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNNUpdated 22nd January 2013
It's important to be respectful whether you're participating in or observing a religious service.
World-class museums and historic monuments get top priority from many travelers. But for some of us, there's something equally fascinating -- and sometimes much more so -- about visiting houses of worship, even when they represent beliefs that aren't our own.
"But I'm not into organized religion," you might say. You don't have to be religious to appreciate a visit to a place others consider sacred. Even if you're not specifically seeking the religious aspect of worship, there's something special about thoughtfully witnessing and observing someone else's faith in action. So why not get a spiritual boost by checking out houses of worship when you're on the road?
"A lot of the richness in life comes from getting outside your own skin and experiencing the world beyond what you know and understand. If you open yourself up, you can have such experiences," says Stuart M. Matlins, co-editor with Arthur J. Magida of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook." The book shares easy-to-understand background on faith traditions ranging from Baptist to Buddhist, Jewish to Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists to Sikhs.
"Typically, the way you are received depends on the way you behave," says Matlins, who also is the founder of Jewish Lights Publishing and SkyLight Paths Publishing. He and wife, Antoinette, co-founded a Reform synagogue in Woodstock, Vermont, where Matlins served as lay spiritual leader for 19 years.
"I've never found a place where I was not welcome. The larger the place, the more likely they are to be welcoming of strangers, whether it's a mosque, a synagogue or a church. That's why I did this book -- if you know the basics of what's going to happen during the worship or the ritual, you're less fearful of embarrassing yourself and intruding in the space of others."
When I'm traveling abroad -- but also when I'm visiting American cities -- I often get up on Sunday mornings and attend some Christian service. I enjoy the religious aspect of worship, but it's also about savoring local culture in one of its most authentic forms. And when you're on the road alone, as I often am, these communal experiences offer the solo traveler a sense of belonging for an hour or two.
When previous reporting jobs took me to Manhattan, I'd go uptown to Harlem to visit Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the nation's oldest African-American Baptist congregations. And I was hardly alone. Every week, groups of tourists from around the world do the same -- but in such huge numbers that the church specifically addresses first-time visitors by making clear its worship "is not a gospel performance or entertainment of any kind."
Abyssinian now has a tourist entry point where folks must queue for first-come, first-served seats at its 11 a.m. service only. And tourist or not, tank tops, flip-flops and shorts are not allowed.
What's most important to remember, says Matlins, is that even though you're a tourist, visiting a functioning house of worship is not just like walking through a museum.
Regardless of the place's faith tradition, he says, "You're sharing a very special moment with people, and be aware of that. The key thing is to open yourself to the experience so you are not just an observer, even though you are not a participant. You enter a space where you're not participant or tourist, but as one might say, you're in the moment."
But how do you know if worshippers at, say, a Muslim mosque or a Buddhist or Hindu temple will welcome you?
Francis X. Clooney, the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, has found Hindu temples to be fluid places where "smaller and larger rites" take place during the day, not always according to a fixed schedule. But if one is welcomed in, usually one is welcomed for the worship that is in progress."
When in doubt, he suggests "checking in advance, or at least at the door before entering."
Adds Matlins: "If you know people who live in that place, ask them if they can take you to their house of worship, or where they know you would be welcome. I did that in Lahore, Pakistan. I had the same concerns, but we were meeting with someone who was a very religiously involved Muslim.
"I told him of my interest in attending service at a mosque. He said he would be happy to take me." But Matlins has also wandered alone into a Hindu temple in Singapore and Buddhist temples in Japan, which many tourists do.
Of course, it never hurts to do some research before you go, checking out books and websites that offer insight into the cultures and faith traditions you hope to see up close.
For folks seeking out Christian experiences close to home or on the other side of the world, the Mystery Worshipper website offers about 2,000 candid, sometimes tongue-in-cheek reviews of church services around the globe. Its volunteer mystery worshippers drop in and serve up details on everything from sermon length to the comfort of the pews to the warmth of members' welcome.
And it's the friendliness-factor details that give travelers a measure of comfort and behind-the-scenes intel when visiting these places, from massive St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Fiji.
Curious, open-minded travelers also shouldn't let their lack of a personal faith stop them from dropping into houses of worship.
"They don't have to be a gourmet to appreciate a good meal," Matlins reasons. "And you don't have to be a person of faith to appreciate the beauty and passion of a religious experience. It is in a way like theater -- part of the experience is to suspend disbelief, literally."
Thinking about stopping into a living, breathing house of worship on your next trip? Matlins and Clooney suggest keeping these things in mind, regardless of the place's faith tradition:
Be respectful. "You are in a place that is special and holy to other people," Matlins says. "Dress and behave appropriately so you do not disturb their sense of the specialness and holiness of the place."
Pay attention. You want to "be sensitive to what is expected of the visitor -- either to hold back, or to participate more fully," says Clooney. "Being too forward or too passive may both be offensive." Also, "be careful to note where and how far into the space one is welcome. Some areas are more sacred than others."
Follow along. Observe "the customs of the community -- removing shoes, covering heads, the segregation of men and women, talking or not, taking photos or not, in accord with custom," says Clooney.
Listen with your "third ear." "You may not understand the language," says Matlins, "but you can hear the feelings if you open yourself up to them."
Sit in the back. Not only does it keep you from appearing intrusive, but it can minimize any innocent missteps. Suggests Matlins: "Do what you see other people do, unless it violates the tenets of your own faith."
Who knows, perhaps through these spiritual experiences you'll discover what so many travelers find: Despite people's very real differences across nationalities, cultures and faiths, it's what they share in common that matters.