It’s hot. So, so hot. I’m standing with blisters forming in my Chacos as sweat pours down my back and soaks through the thin, green, cotton blouse I’m wearing.
I step into the shade and enter into a completely different sensory experience. It is cool, breezy, people smile and offer me handfuls of snacks. I look around and see students sitting on the stone floor studying for exams. I watch as people from all walks of life gather midday for prayers and a meal.
I’m in India in the middle of a Hindu temple.
It was the summer of 2014. I travelled with twelve other seminarians and our professor all around India for a month—with quick stops in L.A. and Hong Kong on the way—learning about Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
We were invited into so many homes and places of worship; I could write endlessly about the month-long journey.
I think about this trip a lot and it has shaped profoundly the way I think about what it means to feel welcome and care.
That summer was the first time I ever visited a temple or a mosque or a synagogue. I tried my best to be respectful of these places of worship and not intrude upon others while visiting. What was striking to me was how willing people were to invite us in and come alongside me and my fellow travelers and explain what was going on so that we might feel at ease and welcome. I never felt pressured to change my faith or participate beyond where I felt comfortable. Since that summer I have moved into more spaces of interfaith interaction and I am thankful for the welcome I received across the world that planted seeds for these meaningful relationships. I have come to love opportunities to listen, and learn, and in some cases work toward common goals, without having to believe all of the same things.
I described one temple that sticks in my mind in the opening scene of this post. It was one of many that served food for anyone that might be hungry. It provided shelter from the sun and people seemed so comfortable enjoying the space to do everyday things like studying for school.
Later, we visited another temple and got a behind-the-scenes tour of a massive meal that was being prepared. Dozens of people worked around huge pots and sat on the floor kneading and preparing bread so that anyone who was hungry might have a hot meal.
Both temples bustled with activity and it was so moving to learn of the ways these worshippers extend love to their community day in and day out.
It can be overwhelming to visit a new place. India is a beautiful country and I fell in love with it, but I was startled when I got back home to Waco, Texas and noticed how quiet it was, how few people I saw, how few smells of incense and food and humanity there were.
The temples we visited were typically bustling, but there was also a bit of respite from the activity out on the street. There was an air of reverence and a little bit of a slower pace.
When I think about offering hospitality, I think of creating and inviting others into spaces that offer respite. I think of these temples and how they filled hungry bellies while also shielding people from the sun.
Our worship and beliefs and culture may look very different, but this is something beautiful that I think transcends.
I left my time in India wondering how I might invite others into the place where I worship and extend the same sort of hospitality I’ve received over and over again. I’m left challenged about how to create space within my home that invites people to breathe deeply and feel seen and heard around the table. I’m excited to notice places where I can go in my community and connect with folks I might not always run into in my everyday routine.
I’m grateful for the chance to travel and be welcomed in for many reasons, but perhaps at the top of the list is the way the people I met have changed me for the better by welcoming me into their lives, however briefly.