Having been a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’ve learned a thing or two about tolerance and respect for religious belief. It took me a while, but I learned to respect personal belief. Whether the people I met were Catholic, LDS, Buddhist or atheist, it didn’t matter. I respected them. As I learned, I came to understand five great ways to show that I respected people and their beliefs.
One of the first things I learned was that I had to understand people's views and beliefs. If I wanted to understand, I had to listen — I mean really listen. Not just hear the words flowing from their lips but actually comprehend what was being. This is a part of communication and a good foundation for the exchange I would have with my brothers and sisters from other faiths.
The lack of listening usually resulted in me making false assumptions about the other person's beliefs and revealing my general lack of knowledge. I learned that spouting off nonsense about something I didn't understand not only made me look bad but usually led to me being disabused very quickly of those assumptions. It all comes back to the fact that nobody likes to be misunderstood or misrepresented by erroneous assumptions. As a Latter-day Saint, I get annoyed and flustered when people spout off nonsense about my church, so why wouldn't others be bothered when I do the same?
It took a great deal of training, but I got to the point were I felt I was a pretty good listener. This made a world of difference. I made a lot more friends when that happened because people believed and trusted that I was actually listening to them.
Focus on what is similar in your beliefs
Following listening, I found that people were more willing to talk to you about what you both can agree on.
I’ve made a friend with a minister of another faith. I honestly don’t agree with most of his beliefs, but we are still friends because we can agree on a number of things. It’s actually amazing how many things we can agree on.
You will probably find that you will eventually disagree, but who said you ever had to focus on that disagreement? In fact, I would contend that it would be better to move on. That doesn’t mean you have to hide from each other your beliefs. Rather, think of it this way, friends are friends not because of their differences but what they have in common.
Never compare the worst to the best
Thirdly, I discovered there are all kinds of people in the world. Some are good and some are bad. In religion, though, it becomes easy for us to look at the worst kind of people in a religion and think that they are all that way.
Even worse, sometimes we tend to compare their worst to our best. It’s really a great disservice to everyone. Case in point, I served in the Philippines as a missionary where one church in particular had a bad reputation. I am sad to say, I actually thought that this reputation was true.
But one night, I was traveling home with a very sick man. We weren't sure he was going to make it home. Suddenly, a stranger offered us a ride home. I was shocked to learn that this man was a member of that church. I ate a bit of humble pie at that moment. Sure I had had plenty of experiences with that church to develop a pretty negative attitude toward them. But I realized my attitude was misguided. There are some real bad people in that church but there were some really good guys too.
Respect what others hold sacred
I also learned to not mock what people find sacred. I am not a Jew, so I eat pork. But I’d never offer pork to a Jew nor would I make fun of a Jew for not eating pork. Sometimes we tend to laugh and have fun at other people’s expense because of their beliefs. That’s not right.
A lot of people would assume that you mock because know nothing about it and are afraid of it. Mocking is a form of ignorance. The more you mock, the more ignorant you are.
If we think about it, most religious conflict starts on the basis of disrespect of others' beliefs. The modern saying that at some point everything is funny isn’t true. A bit more respect for what is considered sacred by others and the world would be a better place. If we respect what others hold sacred, we build trust and friendship. That's what we all really want.
Don’t be fake and try to be friends for the wrong reason
Finally, I learned that sincerity in friendship counts, especially when sharing religion. People can tell if the only reason you want to talk to them is to convert them. That’s not friendship. You are just using people, and it doesn't work in any relationship, be it friends, co-workers or family.
This doesn’t mean you can’t talk religion with people. But any discussion about religion should be done in a sincere manner. Friendships shouldn’t be faked to convert people to your religious views.
I have a friend who was unsure of where he wanted to go in life when we were younger. For a time, he stopped going to church. Several fellow church members, who ignored him before, suddenly tried to be his friend. These individuals urged him to come back. As well-meaning as these people may have been, my friend could tell the only reason they cared was because he had left. They weren't actually concerned about his reasons for leaving. It was funny to him that these people only noticed him when he had left. This didn't help him. In fact, it probably made it worse.
People, like my friend, are smart. They can tell if you are being fake. We should be sincere when we befriend people. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that makes when people feel that you care.
In the end, respect wins out
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The old golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do to you, took on a whole new meaning for me as a missionary. I learned that religious tolerance and respect won out in almost all situations and made people happy, including me. It may be hard for me to learn to respect what I didn't understand or tolerate what I didn't agree with but it is worth it. I know that doing so creates friendships and fosters harmony. Heaven knows, the world could use a bit more harmony. And that's what I live for, a day when we can see and enjoy that we are all unique and have different perspectives. A day where we truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Loren Brewer is a soon-to-be graduate from Utah State University in comparative politics and broadcast journalism. Send him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org