"So, what do you do?" This apparently innocuous question has often caused me anxiety. It's typically the first thing a new acquaintance will ask, and justifiably so, because how we spend our days can reveal quite a bit about what we value in life. Of course, some job titles give away more than others. When my father tells people he is an electrical engineer, they might ask him a question about a faulty light switch at home, but his job title does not generate assumptions about his politics or his religious beliefs.
On the other hand, my job as an editor at a Catholic magazine often gets a different reaction. When strangers hear what I do, they instantly make assumptions about me. On some level I don't mind. I work where I do because I believe our magazine does, in fact, help raise awareness of much of what I find good and wonderful about our church. I want to be associated with these things. But there are times I just reply, "I'm an editor" and hope there's no follow up.
It is said that when making polite small talk, one does not discuss religion, sex or politics. But that becomes more than a bit difficult when you work for a church whose keen interest in all three of these topics has been widely discussed of late. Recently a friend dragged me to a networking event in Midtown. While those around me chatted about hedge funds, marketing strategies and cocktails, I was quizzed on abortion, contraception and Christian-Muslim relations.
A few months ago, I stopped for a night at a bed and breakfast in California. As the owner showed me to my room, he asked, "So, what do you do? And why are you in California?" I said that I had been to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress and that I work for a religious magazine.
"I'm not a big fan of religion," he replied. "I don't like people telling other people what to believe." Insulting a customer's deeply held belief system seemed to me to be as poor a business strategy as the fresh-baked cookies in the lobby were a wise one. But there was no anger in his voice. In fact, he seemed sort of intrigued, and even a little surprised by the fact that I was religious, as if to imply: But you seem so normal!
"I'm not here to tell you what to believe," I said.
More recently, I was seated next to a woman about my age on an airplane. We chatted about poetry and the cost of apartments, and we discovered we were both writers. "What do you write about?" she asked. Here we go, I thought. "Catholicism, mostly," I told her. The plane's wheels touched down. "OK," she said, turning toward me eagerly. "Tell me everything you disagree with the Catholic Church about before we get off the plane."
I wanted to sigh. I wanted to scream. Instead, I just said: "What do you want to know?" She rattled off topics, and I told her my beliefs: the ones that are in line with church teachings, others I hold because my conscience deems it necessary and the ones that I'm still struggling with.
The woman leaned in and she listened, even when we didn't agree. It was not the easiest conversation I've ever had. But it was actually sort of fun. I found myself speaking passionately, wishing I had more time. I can only muster so much enthusiasm for discussions about New York City's sky-high rents. But this stuff -- issues of faith and relaltionships and politics -- I love.
I realized that as much as I sometimes dread being dragged into these conversations, most of the time I end up enjoying them. I don't have any interest in hedge funds or the weather. I would rather get straight to something deeper, more revealing. So I try to take these moments as a chance to prove some stereotypes wrong and to add nuance to people's impressions of Catholicism. I try to be honest, compassionate and open. It's not part of my job description as an editor. But as a Christian, it's central to what I do.
A version of this essay first appeared in the May 28, 2012, issue of America, the national Catholic weekly.