Want to write about religion in a pluralistic society? Then get comfortable with people who believe differently -- very differently -- than you.
Godbeat veteran Mark I. Pinsky, now an author based in Florida, wrote about this process in his fine book, "A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Pinsky's tale is an excellent introduction to working successfully with a religious subculture quite different from your own. It's must reading for anyone serious about religion reporting.
My own Jew-among-the-evangelicals story unfolded quite differently. I was reminded of it by the recent death of the well-respected evangelical Christian missionary and writer Elizabeth Elliot.
Her life was dramatically altered by the death of her first husband, Jim Elliot, one of five missionaries associated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (known today as SIL International) killed in 1956 in Ecuador's Amazon region by a group of Huaorani (also spelled Waorani) tribesmen they hoped eventually to convert.
I remember reading about the incident in Life magazine, a mainstay in my childhood home. As I recall, the article was occasioned by a converted Huaorani woman touring the United States with the Billy Graham crusade team. I was fascinated by the story and it stuck with me over the years.
Until 1974, that is.
With my life at loose ends, I decided to seek out the Huaorani as a fresh goal to get myself back on track, and have an interesting adventure in the process. I contacted SIL in the U.S., told them I was a journalist, and asked if they might assist my reaching the tribe. SIL agreed, and off I went to South America.
I've referenced the experience a handful of times in my writing over the years. Here's an excerpt from a piece I did for The Washington Post following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Style section essay connected the importance of recognizing and taking comfort in one's own "tribal" connections -- specifically religious culture and family -- at a time of national or personal trauma. Here's some of it.
In my early thirties, I went to South America in a futile attempt to escape from myself. Another relationship had ended, and I was lonely and withdrawn.
I thought that if I put myself in the middle of an unknown and dangerous environment I would be forced to connect with others, if only for my physical survival. And so I chose as my destination the rain forest of eastern Ecuador, home of the Huaorani people, a nomadic tribe I had read about in Life magazine as a boy in the '50s. The article told how the natives had killed several American missionaries who tried to make contact with them...
Traditional Huaorani culture was extremely violent. It viewed all outsiders as a threat (as most actually were, in one way or another), and dealt with this by making the concept of "first strike" a tenet of society. Huaorani feuds would rage for decades, and they never forgot or forgave. Their neighbors called them Auca, a Quechua [Indian] word that means "savage."
To get around, I managed to hook up with a missionary named Jim [not Elliot; a different Jim]. He belonged to the same group as those who had been killed years before...
I ended up spending time with SIL missionaries in Peru, as well as Ecuador. I joined them in late night Bible classes -- New Testament, of course, which I knew virtually nothing about at the time -- and found the courage at times to openly disagree with their conclusions and even how they related to the Huaorani, as we conversed for hours as tropical downpours pounded on their tin-roofed shacks. Our exchanges were stimulating and wonderful.
I found myself fascinated by their habits, no matter how relatively inconsequential; how these sons and daughters of the Bible Belt -- my memory wants me to say all those I met were from Texas and Oklahoma, though I doubt that's accurate -- still regularly prepared tuna casseroles despite some of them having spent years living in the rain forest.
And I, a city boy, couldn't get over how their teenage sons raised in the Amazon would go off by themselves in a dugout canoe for several days at a time armed with a spear for fishing and a shotgun for hunting and protection. Yet they had also received excellent Western educations back in the States. Talk about free-range parenting.
However, my time in Ecuador with the Huaorani was the peak moment of that journey. Here's why:
One day Jim and I entered a clearing in which an extended [Huaorani] family of a half-dozen or so men lived with their families. The women and children scurried to the rear of the thatch-roofed communal hut as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits or leaf-and- bark genital coverings, approached us offering bowls of masato, a foul-smelling drink made from boiled and fermented manioc tubers.
They giggled and spoke nervously among themselves. One man touched my light brown hair. Another opened my hip pouch to examine a notebook and pen. Others fingered the stitching on my clothes, trying, I assumed, to figure out how it was done. I just stood there, my consciousness having been propelled into an altered state. I smiled broadly and allowed their curiosity free expression, as Jim had advised.
Then the headman -- a squat fellow not more than 5 feet 6 -- asked me the sort of questions he put to all strangers, to determine whether they were friend or foe: Who were my relatives? Where did I live? Whom did I live with?
I thought it best to simplify my response. I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains and left out all details about a son living with an ex-wife, about family members as perplexed as the Huaorani chief about what I was up to. Jim translated my words, and as he did their smiles disappeared. Then the headman, his eyes locked with mine, spoke, and Jim again translated.
He said he was saddened to learn I lived alone. He wondered who hunted for me when I was sick or injured, who fought alongside me when I was attacked, what children would take care of me when I became old?
His genuine compassion touched me deeply. This "savage" knew something that I had missed about the importance of community, and hearing it unleashed my vulnerability. I started to cry, and the Huaorani continued to stand there, his gaze never wavering.
My experience with SIL missionaries and the Huaorani changed my life's course. It led me back to my own faith tradition and family. It also turned out to be tremendous preparation for interacting with the varied religious and cultural groups I would come in contact with as a religion journalist years later.
But you don't need to travel as far as I did to learn this. Everybody seems to live everywhere today. Surely there's a religious culture or two in your city just waiting to be approached that you'll find exotic and fascinating. And from whom you can learn a great deal.
IMAGE: Huaorani men in their communal hut. Photo by Ira Rifkin.