Several weeks ago, in route to Santiago, Chile to lead a spiritual formation retreat for our Chilean Baptist partners, I felt compelled to pray. All of the feelings consistent with leaving family for a week, visiting a new culture, and traveling at 35k feet for 9 hours weighed heavily on my heart; what’s more, I deeply desired that God use my colleagues and me for transformation among our new friends. I had been praying scattered prayers for days, but now I felt the need to focus my prayers in one moment and place, to pause and pay attention to the presence of God at work in me.
My compulsion heightened as I walked closer and closer to the prayer chapel in the Atlanta airport. As the door came into view, I gave little consideration to the word “interfaith” just above the words “prayer chapel.” Entering, I remembered how cramped the space seemed the last time I visited and thought for a moment about how this space could better stand apart as sacred (read Christian). Settling down in the last row of two chairs on the right side of the aisle, I removed an icon that I recently purchased in hopes of finding a center.
As I began to pray, I heard the door creak, signaling the arrival of a partner in prayer. Expecting him to take a seat, his movement surprised me. Darting up the slim aisle, he made his way to the open space in front of the chapel. I watched him from the corner of my eye as he lowered a backpack to the ground and removed a mat. As I watched him fall prostrate on the mat, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This experience of sharing a prayer space with someone of a non-Christian tradition was entirely new and challenging.
At first, I was terribly conflicted. Jolted from the center I sought quietly to invalidate this foreign distraction. I began immediately to question his motives for prayer and assumed that it was not a desire for God that brought him here; rather a tradition of imposed daily prayers – he was late for Saghrib. My instincts told me to yield the space to him, to leave; however, my senses were struck by his devotion, the beautiful cadence with which he prayed in whispers, and his willingness to risk an interfaith space well inside foreign religious territory (perhaps he observed that Christians seldom used these spaces).
Amidst my voyeurism, the Holy Spirit went to work in my heart. Before the pray-er rolled up his mat, I was under considerable conviction for having judged a fellow pilgrim. During our shared prayer experience, God silenced my lips, pierced my heart, and invited me to simply watch and listen. In the silence of my mind I saw this fellow pilgrim against the backdrop of a sheet descended from heaven. In it, the diverse mass of humanity responded in a myriad of ways to the call of our Creator. Suddenly, I was aware that the thing which seperated us was, in fact, the thing that bound us. Our common search for the Divine made us family, human. Moments later, his mat rolled up, he slowed down just long enough to respect my space and then disappeared into the chaos of the main terminus.
One might think that an experience like this would cause doubt in one’s mind or seed a potential crisis of faith. Surprisingly no; instead, I was never more confident (con + fide = with faith) that the icon in my hand (Jesus as Shepherd) reflected the spirit of the One who makes salvation possible for all, and that “he who began a good work” in us (humanity), would be faithful to complete it.
In such close proximity I caught a glimpse of humility, justice (in the OT sense of the word), and mystery, and peace reigned.
When have you prayed in the presence of a devout non-Christian? How did the experience affect or form you?