My wife and I recently visited a fascinating place near Pittsburgh.
I’ve studied many different religions. I’ve, in fact, taught college-level classes that were designed to help students understand the ways that world religions are similar to each other, and the ways that they’re distinct. And so, when my wife and I learned that there is a Hindu Temple just a few miles from our home, we decided to visit it.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple is located in Penn Hills, an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. It’s one of the earliest traditional Hindu Temples in America. The Sri Venkateswara Temple originally cost millions of dollars to construct, but donors were willing to support the project because they wanted to create a place where they could maintain ties with the culture of India. The Temple sits on an impressive hillside, and its snow-white walls make it easy to locate. Two sides of the Temple represent hands. The top of the Temple represents the head. The Hindu god named Venkateswara, a representation of Vishnu, sits in the innermost recess of the Temple. All-in-all, I would say that the temple is quite impressive on both the inside and outside.
My wife and I quickly noticed that we represented both a religious and racial minority as we walked up the wooden steps that led to the Temple. We noticed that the Temple was buzzing with activity as we stepped through the doors and removed our shoes. People were chatting with each other and walking through the halls without acknowledging us. We were paralyzed! We couldn’t figure-out where to go, or what to do. The large board that had been placed above the heads of those who were welcoming pilgrims contained words that we didn’t understand. Suprabhatam. Nitya Seva. Annaprasanam. Kalyana Utsavam. The people were certainly very friendly – but no one took the time to talk with us, to make us feel welcome, to answers the questions that were spinning in our minds, or to explain what was happening all around us. And after a few short minutes, my wife and I began to feel that the “wall” that existed between ourselves and all of other people was insurmountable. We decided to leave.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My wife and I didn’t leave the Temple because people at the Temple mistreated us or made us feel particularly uncomfortable. We didn’t decide to leave because people were mean, or rude, or unpleasant. We decided to leave because we didn’t understand what was happening all around us. We chose to return to our car because people were using words that we didn’t understand. We came to the Temple to simply “explore” something we wanted to better-understand. But, the “learning curve” was too steep. Our heads began to spin.
So, what does all of this have to do with Christianity and the Church? Some Christians will probably condemn me for setting my feet in a Hindu temple. I have learned through the years that it’s easy for people to simply condemn things that they wouldn’t consider doing themselves. But we can learn many things about life when we’re not afraid to stretch our wings. God might even use very unusual episodes in our lives (like a trip to a local Hindu temple) to teach us about Christian living and about ministry in Christ’s Church.
That’s what happened at the Sri Venkateswara Temple near Pittsburgh, PA.
We all want to believe that our churches are friendly places. We put signs on our lawns to let visitors know that they’re welcome to join us. We carefully design our websites to present the “story” of our ministry to people who want to learn more about us. But, what happens when visitors actually walk into the doors of our church buildings?
Do we welcome visitors with a friendly smile and introduce ourselves, or do we just walk past them as we’re hurrying toward our destination? Do we take time to guide visitors to classrooms – to our sanctuary – to the coffee pot – to restrooms, or do we assume that visitors will find their own way in a strange building? And speaking of our “sanctuary,” how many times do we use words that visitors don’t understand in conversations, and in our preaching? Sanctuary. Narthex. Justification. Grace. Do we take the time to introduce ourselves? Do we invite the visitors to participate in conversations we’re having with our friends? Do we help visitors participate in worship by helping them to find the songs that we’re singing in our hymnals, or do we leave them confused and disoriented? Will visitors experience our warm embrace and welcome, or will they return to their cars overwhelmed (and perhaps even numbed) by the time that they’ve spent in our midst?
I’m sure that the vast majority of people who visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills are “good” people. My wife and I weren’t mistreated or ostracized in any way. My wife and I didn’t experience any particular behaviors that repelled us or drove us away.
But, my wife and I both learned an important lesson about hospitality. We gained some insights into how visitors feel when they walk through the doors of a church building for the very first time. And we, also, learned how “numbed” visitors can feel when they’re left to find their way through a building they’ve never entered – when they hear strange words that they’ve never heard at any other point in their lives – and when they’re left standing against that walls of a building while “good people,” who are feeling quite at home, simply walk past them without introducing themselves or helping to point visitors in a helpful direction.