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Spiritual destinations: Attending religious services far from home

By Ellen Creager

Detroit Free Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The picturesque Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba is perched on the island's windswept shoreline.

Ellen Creager, MCT

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She was walking down the street in Monrovia, Liberia, feeling angry.

Then she and her friends heard singing. And it was gospel music.

And they followed the sound right into a church.

"It sounded like a Baptist church choir, just like home," remembers Carolyn Stallworth, 65, of Rochester Hills, Mich., of that trip in 1988. She and her friends, all Spellman College alumni, were furious because they'd had to surrender their passports upon arrival in the African dictatorship. But when they heard the choir practicing at the Providence Baptist Church, their mood lightened.

"The next morning, we went to church there," she says. "Not only did they sing the gospel spirituals, but the United States Marine Band also played there, and the U.S. ambassador was there.

"Hearing those spirituals on the street that day, just standing outside, that was an amazing experience."

Some travelers take mission trips. Some take journeys of faith. Some take architecture tours of world churches.

But sometimes, regular people on vacation just happen to decide to attend a religious service — sometimes not even of their own faith — and it sticks with them forever.

"I think that when you travel, the very act of being taken out of your own environment opens you to new experiences. Somebody said, 'We go through life sightless among miracles.' And in part, that is because in the routine of our lives we stop seeing what is going on around us," says Stuart Matlins, editor of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger" (Sky Light Paths, Fifth Edition, $19.99) a guide to navigating religious services of all types. "When you are in a foreign or different environment, suddenly all your senses are heightened. You see the unusualness of life. It's not unlike witnessing miracles."

Matlins is Jewish, but he has attended multiple services around the world, from cathedrals in Frankfurt and Barcelona to a mosque in Pakistan and a synagogue in Krakow.

"Sit in the back is really the best advice for anyone going to any religious service with which they are unfamiliar," he says. "In every circumstance, sit in the back, and you can't go wrong."

It takes a leap of faith to attend a religious service that is not your own. Even services of one's own faith can have twists.

But often, the experience is so vivid that it sticks with travelers who are far from home and find themselves enamored with what they see and hear.

Ann Langford of Howell, Mich., was humbled while visiting New York when she decided to attend Times Square Church, which has 8,000 members.

"Housed in a former Broadway theater, the congregation captured the true spirit of New York," she recalls. "The volume of the singing matched many rock concerts I've been to, and the Christian testimony made our eyes well up.

"It was literally the highlight of our weekend in the city."

TIPS FOR ATTENDING SERVICES WHILE TRAVELING

The guidebook "How to be a Perfect Stranger," as editor Stuart Matlins puts it, "equips each of us to enter into the religious realm of our neighbors." The guide is not theological, but practical.

Divided into chapters for each religion — and including helpful information for attending a wedding, baptism or funeral in each faith — this guide is helpful for curious travelers who don't want to make a spectacle of themselves. Some of its advice:

Where should guests sit in a Buddhist Temple? If there is seated meditation, a guest will be directed to a meditation cushion.

Should non-Catholics take communion at a Catholic Church? No.

What books are used during a Methodist service? The United Methodist hymnal and the Bible.

What is a Sikh manji sahib? A platform covered by ornate cloths that hold the sacred writings at the front of the room.