12/27/2011 07:50 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

Discovering My Faith As A Religious Minority In A Foreign Country

The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one's faith is to be a member of a religious minority--to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in "Christian America." Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber. For me, an unexpected test case is a small vibrant church, St. Andrew's, in Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the seven United Arab Emirates. Located on the southeast side of the Arabian Peninsula, the Emirates are an Islamic state, but far less rigid than neighboring Saudi Arabia. About 96% of the inhabitants, both Emirati and the much greater number of non-Emirati, are Muslim, predominantly Sunni. Many are from South Asia, so geographically close, in the Emirats to earn a living. The other 4% are mostly Christian or Hindu.*

St. Andrew's is Christian, specifically Anglican, part of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. Explicitly and implicitly the question, "How to be a Christian in the Middle East," hangs in the hot, humid air. Surely, this has been true for many centuries for the Christian communities in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, or South India. The top line of the identifying sign for St. Andrew's is in Arabic, the second in English. Religion is neither to be laughed at nor sneezed at in the Emirates. Insults to Islam and Mohammed are prohibited.

When I went to teach in Abu Dhabi for a few weeks in Fall 2011, I had to get a security clearance. Among the questions on the form was one about my religion ("Christian") and my sect ("Episcopalian"). For one moment, I thought of writing "Wicca," but reason rightly banished the self-indulgent imp of satire.

I discovered St. Andrew's adventitiously. A poster in a residential tower for students and faculty announced that a bus to the Anglican Centre would leave Friday at 9:45 a.m. Friday is the Islamic day of prayer, and several other faiths schedule services at the same time. Workers might not be free otherwise. Some students, less fearful of the imp of satire than I, taught me the local equivalent of TGIF (Thank God It's Friday): TAIT (Thank Allah It's Thursday). Though I told the truth on my security clearance, I did not belong to any particular church. My decision to go to St. Andrew's was mostly to learn about religion in the temporary home that I had instantly liked and valued.

Our bus was curtained and air-conditioned against 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside. My fellow passengers were sweet, lively, bright, welcoming students. We stopped at a white building, the Evangelical Center, which houses several Protestant churches. The building was new, as most are in Abu Dhabi, built after the discovery of oil. Then, turning a corner, we were at the Catholic Church, crowded with worshippers, many of them Filipino workers. St. Andrew's was across the street, a small walled compound. A much larger mosque was next door.

I walked into a crowded courtyard. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I had once construed donkeys and camels as ceramic figures in a crèche, palms as special fronds bought from a florist for Palm Sunday, and searing heat as a freakish weather condition. Wrong, wrong, I realized, standing by the sales tables of religious objects--the New Testament in Arabic, small crosses of wood and plastic, CDs of sacred music in South Asian languages, spiritual and psychological self-help books. For the faiths born in the Middle East, donkeys and palms and sweat were the conditions of everyday.

Surrounding the courtyard were a few buildings for meetings, services (one for a Tamil Christian congregation), and offices. The church itself was simple: V-shaped with a wooden cross at the peak of the V, pews, a modest wooden pulpit, a table with a green cloth and two candles, a second table for the bread and wine of communion, and a low-tech machine for wall projections.

In the entry hall, hymnals and programs for the day were distributed. On the wall was a photo from the Sheikh's private collection of the ground-breaking ceremony of the compound in 1968. By then, the Anglicans were a familiar enough presence. The British had established regional political and military ties in the 19th century. Their colonial presence had left among other things a ubiquitous second language; destination points in the United Kingdom; schools; a religion. However, as the lawyers say, the UK is no longer dispositive in the Emirates. The authorities of the UAE are.

The photo shows men standing amidst sand and rubble, men in tribal robes, men in clerical robes, men in the jodhpurs of the British Army with their crisp, half-oval lines. The presence of British clergy and military together is a reminder, not only that the British were a colonial powerhouse, but that the Church of England, a part of the Anglican Communion, is also a state church. Since Henry VIII, the monarch has been the Defender of the Faith. The clothing of all the men signifies identity and position in a region that reads such signifiers carefully. The photo also suggests that St. Andrew's, though Christian, is acceptable, tolerable. Unlike the Jews, who still have no synagogues, the Anglicans have a compound.

Greeting his parishioners was Rev. Andy Thompson, a middle-aged man from the industrial North of England. Father Andy: a remarkable leader, a man of energy without zealotry, eloquence without bombast, warmth without smarminess. He delivers his sermons without notes, standing in front of the pews.

My first began, "You may have noticed I have a speech impediment." Indeed, he did. Then, in the cogent logic of thought and feeling that good sermons have, he related his speech impediment to the theme of the day: forgiveness. He was born deaf, which hampered his ability to learn how to speak. His condition was misdiagnosed. He was bullied in school and thought to be stupid. He was a frustrated, furious boy--until he discovered Christ. Then, he could learn to forgive his teachers and the bullies. However, he never forgot the importance of resisting bullying. Here was a Church Militant without the need for armored Crusades and conquest.
A religious minority needs indelible spokespersons like Father Andy, but the St. Andrew's I experienced displayed the traits necessary for a small minority's survival in a place that is neither threatening physically nor that culturally affirming. Within St. Andrew's, we were vividly reminded about the far greater vulnerability of churches elsewhere--the Sudan, for example. These traits combine flexibility, rock-solid core values, and community.

Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture. Be a prophetic "hand," my notes say, be of service, not a prophetic "voice." I interpreted this as acting helpfully, as many medical missionaries did. Do not blabber and blather on. Or, in the formulaic advice to creative writing classes, "Show, don't tell."

Before one service, I was chatting with a pew mate, a British woman married to an ex-pat who works in finance. She told me that she goes at least once a week to one of the women's safe houses that have been, fortunately, established for abused women servants and nannies.. She says very little beyond polite greetings. Her task is to be amiable company and to sew with the women. Sewing can be a form of sowing.

At the end of another service, an elegant British woman, another ex-pat, came to the front of the pews. Behind her was a sturdy man in long shorts, whom I assumed was her husband, carrying a cardboard box. Father Andy reached into it and pulled out astonishingly elaborate and colorful handbags--all leather and buckles and straps and velvets---and held them up. He draped some of them over his arm. The woman then announced that the handbags, if not new then gently used, would be auctioned at a benefit at a fashionable local hotel for a women's safe house. She and Father Andy were a formidable sales team for tickets to the event. . She concluded with gratitude to a high-ranking Emirati woman who was her partner. We talk to each other, she said, and little by little we understand each other, and things get better.

In the United States, Christianity is often the senior partner in multi-faith conversations. In Abu Dhabi, Islam is. In either situation, the speech of the senior partner may carry more political and social weight. One fear for multi-faith conversations in the United States is that the majority may congratulate itself on being good and generous, on voluntarily abdicating political and social power in these conversations. Down this path moral preening lies.

Bending and negotiating are not the same as bowing, scraping, and breaking. Every creed has sentences that cannot, must not, be erased. Part of the excellence of Father Andy is his clarity about them. He was on fire on the last Sunday of Trinity. Our theme was holiness. Love is the key to holiness. Christians have two commandments, both taken from the Gospel of Matthew. First, one must love "the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Next, one must "love your neighbor as yourself." In my pew, I thought of Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, labeling this an impossible commandment because it ignores our primal aggressiveness. Not so for Father Andy. Love is difficult, but both possible and an imperative.

Father Andy then linked love to a mission for social justice, one undertaken with care--in all the senses of the word. He had helped to bring food one of the more badly-run camps for foreign workers. The men, he said, had not been paid for months. Because they were hungry, they raced for the food truck. Amidst the chaos, the truck pulled away at high speed, throwing out food and water. Father Andy saw a man groveling in the dust for a "bottle of water." "This," he said, "made me angry. This was not love." This man is our neighbor.

Enfolding these commandments can be done in the privacy of prayer, but a minority religion must be a community. The one into which I walked has its singularities. Because of its setting in Abu Dhabi, it consists largely of ex-pats and their families. The ex-pats are guest workers, be they in finance, education, or construction. People come and go, some more rapidly than others. The church is a home for the homesick.

On one Friday, a speaker from the Diocese reminded us to value what is unique about a community. The early, beleaguered Christian communities had their differences from each other as well as with each other. The letters of St. Paul show him paying careful attention to the specificities of each. Then, local groups must enter into "coalitions" with each other. To me, coalitions are the most fascinating of human networks. Each node retains its own identity, but all nodes are connected through currents and filaments of some shared values, hopes, and practices.

The far-flung companions in the Anglican Communion are part of a global coalition, its geographical map a rough overlay of the old British Empire with some significant outliers, its leader the Archbishop of Canterbury. A common ritual is Holy Communion, a sacred meal, the eating of bread, the drinking of wine, the evocation of Christ's last supper. Communion at St. Andrew's was the most diverse I had ever seen, all races, all Continents, parents bringing their children with them to the railing at which we knelt.

At the end of every service, Father Andy would call up the older boys and girls who had been in the Friday Club, what I once would have called Sunday School. The tinier children, the Little Fishers (St. Andrew was a fisherman), were tended to in another room. The members of the Friday Club would tell what they had learned that day---above forgiveness, or love, or Jonah in the Whale. The attention to children was not a goopy sentimental gesture, but the careful formation of the next generation of the community.

For all generations, music is a bond. St. Andrew's had a piano, a small organ (not always played), one or two flutes, a choir of varying numbers. The most powerful music was participatory, the singing of the hymns. Was this the deep, exhilarating organ and choral music of a grand church, an Ascension or St. Thomas in New York? No. Was it as robust and exuberant as the clapping and singing from some of the more Evangelical groups that met in the compound? No. Was it an earnest performance that was also an act of faith? Yes. Leaving the St. Andrew's Centre after a Friday service, the hymns sung with all their stanzas, one could usually hear the call to prayer from the mosques, the sacred music, with its sinuous beauty, of the powerful majority.

One Friday I took another faculty member with me. Religion is one of his scholarly subjects. "I came out of interest," he said as we went back to the bus, "I was moved and impressed." "Yes," I answered. "I am often close to tears there." Back in the United States, I am formally joining a local Episcopalian church, a denomination that is part of the dual archipelagos of American Christianity and the Anglican Community. If I were not, my emotional pew-sitting in St. Andrew's would have been exploitative spiritual tourism.

Like those gleaned through any significant travel, the perspectives of Abu Dhabi enable me to see my country as well as my religion more clearly: our terrible errors (the war in Iraq), absurdities (military personnel wearing camouflage uniforms in sterile office buildings), and our strengths. Primary among them is the Constitution and that minority-protecting First Amendment of 1791, which begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

*Editorial Note: Hindi has been changed to Hindu to reflect the authors intent.