Now that the summer has come rolling in and the spring has promptly come to an end, two things will inevitably increase: the temperature of the weather and the occurrence of weddings. I don’t know if this is true for you, but it has certainly been true for me. Already, with the summer barely two days old, the temperature high in metropolitan Atlanta where I live is 94 degrees and as of today I’ve already attended two weddings. So at least for me, summer is in full swing.
Now as I mentioned, I have attended two weddings this June already, and certainly I’m aware that attending two weddings in June is not an anomalous event. However, unlike any two weddings before, these two weddings had a profound impact me, primarily because attending these weddings was a cross-cultural encounter for me. The first wedding was the union of two Caucasian friends of mine and the other was the wedding of a Hindu friend’s brother. And as you might suspect, these events were like day and night. So I thought I would take a little time to illuminate the differences.
The Caucasian wedding was fashioned with an assortment of classical music like Bach, Paschelbel, and Widor, while the Hindu wedding was peppered through and through with traditional Sanskirt mantras 35 centuries old, that were chanted by the priest. The Caucasian wedding promptly began and ended in 30 minutes flat, while the Hindu wedding was at 2 ½ hours when we left and for all I know, it could still be going on. The Caucasian wedding featured a homily centered on God’s purposes for marriage, while the Hindu wedding featured a ritual known as Akhand Saubhagyaoati which is where a few married women from both families whisper secret blessings into the ear of the bride. The Caucasian wedding was egalitarian as it relates to gender and focused on both the bride and groom as co-partners, while the Hindu wedding was focused mainly on the groom and his family accepting the bride. The Caucasian wedding was quiet, contemplative, and cerebral, while the Hindu wedding was loquacious, festive, and frantic. I repeat, these events were culturally and religiously like night and day, and as a student of religion and culture I found this absolutely fascinating.
And if attending these two weddings were not enough, I also attended the ordination of a close friend of mine who was being ordained as a Reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This, of course, is the historic African American denomination that grew out of the Free African Society, which was founded by Bishop Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787. Some years later, in the early 19th century the AME denomination would be formed after successfully succeeding from the white Methodist power structure of the day. Today, this denomination that began with one African American congregation in Philadelphia has grown to include over 2,000,000 members, 8000 ministers, and 7000 congregations in more than 30 nations in North and South America , Africa , and Europe.
Historical backgrounds being established let me state clearly and in full disclosure, that I was baptized, raised and socialized in an AME congregation, so I am miles away from being impartial or objective on this matter. In fact, as quiet as it’s kept, even as I sat in the ordination service singing the songs and participating in the worship, feelings of nostalgia began to flood my soul; but of course, I promptly rebuked those feelings as being from the ecclesiastical devil itself.
This service was as entertaining as it was enlightening. To begin with, AME church events are notoriously filled with a ready supply of pomp and circumstance. And this event was no exception. This particular service featured gospel singing, random shouts, impromptu whooping, and oddly entertaining grandstanding by the presiding Bishop of the conference. The dress was very churchy with individuals dressed in three piece suits, clergy collars, Wesleyan robes, and cassock getups. And yet, in the midst of all this, I still managed to feel the divine presence in the place. Now culturally, the service lasted for 3 plus hours—something unheard of in the Presbyterian circles I tend to travel in these days. But in all fairness, this was the closing event of the annual conference so there was quite a bit of business to conduct, like the ordaining and commissioning of clergy and the collecting of monies to keep the institutional ship going. You know how it is.
After attending these (3) events so close to one another, what I realized was that at our core, we as humans celebrate the same things. We celebrate the gift of love, abundant life, and the attainment of cultural fulfillment. What differs is how we express these virtues and how we seek to attain them.
After much reflection, I view cultural religious difference as an indication of our need to see all life and human experience as a sacred text. In doing so, it will allow us to view all cultural experiences as an encounter with God or the Divine presence. I think this is a significant point, because often we view cultural religious difference as purely divisive, which is quite unfortunate. However, my prayer is that we would learn that our differences can be sources of reconciliation and renewal, and not division and dissent.
Compassionately and Critically Yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.