Last year about this time, I spent a month in Malaysia, at the invitation of Alpha Omega International College, a school in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. I was rather surprised at the initial invitation, since AOIC is sponsored by the Assemblies of God and I myself am a feminist Roman Catholic. To put it mildly, the two denominations tend not to be “on the same page” on various aspects of the Christian tradition, so I wanted to ensure that the college administrators knew what they would be getting if I were to come. Happily, the AOIC president who had proffered the invitation confirmed that indeed they did want me to come for the guest lectureship, so the beginning of October saw me making my way almost exactly to the opposite side of the globe, to run my New Testament ethics seminar at the college and to spend time learning from Malaysian Christian and Muslim leaders about interreligious dialogue and inter-ethnic relationships in their country.
Malaysian hospitality was faultless—generous, thoughtful, inviting—and everyone made time to tell me about their cross-cultural experiences and their concerns for the religious climate in Malaysia. I continually was impressed by the sincere convictions of these religious leaders and their constituencies, and by the political and cultural difficulties they faced in any kind of collaborative endeavor or even attempts at dialogue. Wherever I looked, will or nil, boundary issues continued to arise. Although other ethnic groups had the right to choose their religious affiliation, the Malay ethnic group was legally defined as Muslim. Within the Christian tradition, certain denominations traditionally were connected with one ethnic group or another.
Various neighborhoods seemed to be divided upon ethnic and religious grounds. Gender also raised dividing lines. As a privileged American, I was allowed to transgress many such boundaries, but this did not blind me to their existence. I became more and more aware of the practical difficulties inhibiting attempts at interreligious dialogue and inter-ethnic cooperation. The sheer number and durability of the dividing lines made me begin to wonder whether such mutuality simply was beyond reach at this point in the country’s history.
Toward the end of my stay, I was playing the tourist, sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur. The National Mosque was my first stopping point. Although I’d been careful to dress appropriately, I discovered nevertheless that all non-Muslims who sought admission to the masjidwere required to wear a colored hooded over-garment to set them apart from the Muslim worshippers. Much of the space inside the Mosque is wide open, but then one
comes to a stringent (and relatively new) dividing line: a velvet rope marks the inner court of the prayer space, the spatial boundary across which non-Muslims were forbidden to pass. While the building itself was quite impressive, these stark lines of division felt jarring, and I left the Mosque feeling somewhat demoralized about Malaysian prospects for interreligious cooperation.
Soon afterwards, I went to meet with a representative of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, to learn more about the Catholic Church in Malaysia. Fr. Clarence pastors a parish named after a French saint, in the Indian neighborhood, not far from the National Mosque, and right up the street from shops selling Hindu and Buddhist religious supplies. That conjunction should have tipped me off, but it didn’t quite.
I went into the church in time for the Saturday evening Mass, which I thought would be a pretty routine and predictable experience. Instead, it rendered the most striking icon of hope from my entire month-long journey in Malaysia. Flannery O’Connor once defined the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody.” This parish fit that bill: the worshippers represented nearly every ethnic group in Malaysia—Indian, Chinese, and European. Some left their shoes at the door; others kept them on; but each accepted the other and drew no distinctions from such traditional differences. Everyone offered each other the gift of peace, bowing the Namaste before sharing the one bread and cup. Everyone sang together, spoke together, and listened together, following the same pattern as some had done for a few days or weeks and others for their entire lifetimes.
I sat pondering why such a scene of acceptance amid diversity could arise in this particular place. Then I noticed the birds. In my experience, it’s atypical for birds to fly freely inside churches (or buildings generally). I’ve seen them in airports or warehouses on occasion, but not in houses of worship. That’s not because religious people dislike birds; it’s just that birds, having no opposable thumbs to open doors and such, typically cannot get into religious buildings. But here was a religious space with birds. Why?
This church has no walls. Instead, a decorative iron screen runs the length of each side, supporting the roof. The openings in the screen allow the breeze to keep the space cool. At about six inches square, they also are large enough to let sparrows fly in and out. Talk about aggiornamento! Who needs to open windows in a church with no walls?
Malaysia has many gifts to offer to believers interested in cross-cultural cooperation and inter-religious dialogue, but this one image is the most precious to me. What prevents such dialogue and cooperation but the walls we erect for ourselves? How can we get past such obstacles? Imagine a church (or mosque) with no walls.
Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D. is Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at John Carroll University. She specializes in feminist biblical studies and New Testament and is the author of multiple articles and works including the anthology Celebrating Romans (Eerdmans, 2005).