“I have an everyday religion that works for me. Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line.” –Lucille Ball
South Africa is a deeply religious country, one where over 80% of the population identifies as a member of the Christian faith, in one variation or another. These branches of the Christian church present themselves in a plethora of forms, from churches like the ZCC (Zed Cee Cee or Zionist Christian Church) which have 8 hour long services, to churches which intersperse traditional African beliefs amongst Christian teachings, to those we are familiar with in the States including the Anglican Church or the Roman Catholic Church. From my house alone, I can see three churches, and can walk to a fourth in no time flat. At school, and in any major function, religion presents itself through prayer before and after meetings, Christian songs and other language.
I grew up as a reform Jew, attended Hebrew School, holidays with family, became a Bat Mitzvah. As a kid, many of my happiest moments stem from Jewish summer camp, an annual event that undoubtedly shaped my character and feelings toward religion. And while I am far from unfamiliar with being the only Jew, there are plenty of days where I don’t wonder if I am the only Jewish person in the whole of the Northwest Province.
In order to deter continual invitations to church, I informed my staff and host family early on of my beliefs, for while South Africans struggle to comprehend Atheism, and the lack of belief in a higher being, they can understand belief in a different religion. But a surface level understanding (“Oh it’s the one with the star, right?”) doesn’t erase the sense of loneliness. For while I’m more likely to be considered a lapsed Jew than anything else while home, I continue to enjoy the company of a Shabbat dinner (not to mention the matzo ball soup).
So in an era where residents of my country are being actively pursued on the basis of their religious choice, I endeavor to share mine and to learn from others, to deepen mutual understanding, and to diminish perceived difference. I follow in the footsteps of my mom by teaching about Judaism in Life Skills classes, I share my beliefs with curious teachers, and I listen with an open mind to all that I hear. And I am constantly impressed by how much more we share in common than not.