One of the greatest experiences of my life was the opportunity to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a volunteer in Russia and Kazakhstan. During that time as a representative of my church, I was able to interact with and be enriched by the religious practices of a diverse range of individuals with different nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religious traditions.
One specific experience took place while I was living in a Western Siberian city called Tyumen. I had some friends that had never been in a Russian Orthodox temple, and I wanted to show them the beautiful architecture and religious icons that were so meaningful to many of the Russian people. On a holiday evening we went to the Holy Trinity Monastery, and to my pleasant surprise a worship service began while we were visiting. There we were in the dimly candle-lit temple amid a growing mass of people, with the scent of burning incense permeating the air. Everyone was standing together, and I quickly felt as though the mass of worshippers had become a cluster not unlike a human can of sardines. The leader of the worship service chanted prayers in Church Slavonic, the vocal choir replied with a beautifully harmonious strain, and the congregation crossed themselves while praying under their breath. It was such a different form of worship than what I was used to, yet it was beautiful in its own way.
That evening I recorded a few thoughts from my experience in my personal journal: “I saw the goodness of their hearts. It was reflected in their faces how much that opportunity to be there and pray meant to them. It was reflected as I saw a woman with tears streaming down her face worship the Lord – it was personally meaningful to her. It was reflected by this very old babushka kneeling before a priest, struggling due to her age to be on the ground and participating in some form of confession. It was reflected by all those faithful dedicated believers being there on this holiday evening (Russia Day). Their hearts are so good…They are so wonderful, so noble, so easy to love…I hope I never forget that feeling of standing among the congregation, the dark temple interior, the smell of candles burning, the prayers being read and choir singing, the people so reverent – just it all.”
This was one of my many experiences in Russia, but it has had a deep impact on how I interact with others from different religious backgrounds. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has thirteen Articles of Faith that represent brief statements of doctrine we believe in, the eleventh of which states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Essentially, this doctrine states that we believe in the freedom for all individuals to worship in ways that they feel best expresses their connection to the object of their worship, and that that inherent right should be respected by all. I didn’t understand all of the rituals or symbolic meanings represented in that Russian Orthodox temple, but I left understanding that those people were worshipping in a way that was meaningful for them. I firmly believe that all individuals should have that freedom, as well as the respect of others, and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to experience and be enriched by others as they practice their own religious beliefs and traditions.
What experiences have you had with the practices or traditions of other faith groups? How have you responded to these experiences?