Columbia religious leaders offer advice on experiencing different customs

Friday, February 20, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 4:44 p.m. CST, Friday, February 20, 2009

COLUMBIA — Three young girls walking side by side giggle and chat quietly as they walk through downtown Columbia to the Islamic Center. Each wears her hair tucked back inside a silk scarf and is dressed casually in jeans, winter coats buttoned or zipped over long-sleeved sweaters, and tennis shoes. The girls cross the street in front of the mosque but head to the back of the building where they enter the left of two glass doors. Inside, the dry heat funneling from the furnace
exacerbates the rich aroma of a potluck spread. “It’s spicier than usual,” another young girl announces to the three new arrivals, licking her fingers.

The small foyer begins to fill with women and children, each stopping in front of a set of wooden shelves to deposit their shoes. “Hello, how are you? How was your week?” the women ask one another, kissing each other on the cheek and shaking hands before Friday’s jumuah services.

The first time C.J. Trent, a graduate student at MU, went to the Islamic Center was for a class assignment. She said she was terrified.

"It was pushing me so far out of my comfort zone,” Trent says. “I didn’t grow up with religion, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

Unsure which entrance to use, Trent waited outside the mosque for the imam to arrive, but was eventually approached by a kind man who offered to escort her inside. The friendliness and hospitality of the congregation helped ease Trent’s nerves, and by the time she finished her meeting with the imam, she breathed a huge sigh of relief — she had done it and it wasn’t so bad.

Walking into an unfamiliar house of worship or religious service is intimidating : is there a dress code? A different entrance for men and women? Can anyone take communion? When are the appropriate times to sit, stand or kneel? What many people do not realize when entering an unfamiliar house of worship with ostensibly mysterious customs and traditions is that most churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship want everyone —  members and nonmembers — to feel welcome and comfortable.

Dispelling the myths of rigid, prescribed behavior during worship services, religious leaders throughout Columbia emphasize a central desire to welcome and embrace any individual who wants to worship regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, economic standing or sexual orientation.

Liturgical services

As she entered the crematorium, Paula Robinson was very nervous. People were speaking and chanting in a foreign language. “It was very disconcerting,” Robinson says of the Hindu funeral she attended several years ago in Manchester, England. Unfamiliar with Hindu customs, Robinson was intimidated and afraid of offending the family of the deceased. Standing in the back of the room, Robinson quietly, and respectfully, observed as the mourning family and friends prepared for the spirit of their loved one to depart her body. Eager to leave the discomfort of this  environment, Robinson was greatly relieved when the service was over and she stepped back into the streets of Manchester.

This experience, in part, is what drives the now Rev. Robinson to create a welcoming and comfortable environment within her congregation at Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia. From having greeters whose job it is to seek out new faces to writing the church bulletin in first person plural, Robinson tries to lessen people’s discomfort and fear when visiting or attending First Calvary for the first time. “There’s no guarantee. Making your first step into a place of worship can be really intimidating,” Robinson says.

Episcopalian services, like Catholic and Lutheran services, are liturgical, meaning they include a prescribed set of rituals and customs. Because of this, there are specific nuances to the service that can intimidate a newcomer or visitor. For instance, to receive communion, or the taking of bread and wine, Episcopalians approach the altar row by row and kneel to receive a wafer and a sip from the chalice of wine. “Episcopalians are very orderly,” Robinson says, so ushers signal to people when it is their turn to walk up to the altar. Although Episcopalian canonical law stipulates that communion is for the baptized, no one will be turned away at Calvary. If visitors are uncomfortable receiving communion because of conflicting religious beliefs or personal convictions, Robinson says they can remain seated or approach the altar with their arms crossed over their chests to receive a blessing.

The process is similar in most Lutheran services, which are also liturgically based — congregants and visitors proceed to the altar where they kneel to take communion. And, as with Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, anyone can partake of the bread and wine.

Robinson further encourages people to participate in the service by observing. Likewise, the Rev. Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church advises visitors to survey the room. “Don’t get bogged down in the details, just observe," Flanagan says.

Ellen Forbes, the director of liturgy and music at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, concurs. “I think the best way to be comfortable is not to stand out as different. I would advise someone to blend in and follow the leader.”

Speaking from personal experience as one who sometimes attends Jewish services with her husband, who himself is Jewish, Forbes believes that assimilating into the congregation and not calling attention to herself makes her feel more comfortable.

With its ritualized traditions, the Catholic Mass is historically intimidating. Forbes advises visitors to find a seat in the back and watch. When other people stand, stand. When the congregation kneels at certain times during the Mass, visitors can feel free to kneel or stay seated if that is more comfortable.

“You really can’t do anything wrong,” including taking communion, Forbes says. . Although Catholic custom and belief dictates that communion, or eucharist, is reserved for Catholics who have received their First Communion, , there are no explicit consequences for taking communion if one is not Catholic. If a non-Catholic who is unaware of this belief receives communion, he or she will not be struck by lightning or chastised by the priest. Doing so as a snub or rebuke of the Church then, “that is on their own heart and soul,” Forbes says.

A baptized Catholic, Clare Becker has always been nervous during Catholic services. At the time Becker would have received her First Communion, her parents stopped attending Mass regularly. Catholic custom dictates that only Catholics who received the sacrament of First Communion can regularly partake of the bread and wine during Mass. So whenever the family went to church, mainly on holidays, Becker felt left out when the rest of the congregation went to take communion.

“I felt like everyone was watching me,” Becker says of remaining seated in the pew during communion rites. Despite her childhood experiences, Becker retains a positive attitude toward visiting different places of worship, even the Catholic Church, where she still cannot take communion. “Most people are really friendly,” Becker says. As a piece of practical advice on the Catholic Mass, Becker warns, “that there is one part where you turn and shake hands with your neighbor — watch out for that — it can be pretty awkward."

Non-liturgical/Protestant Services

The first step inside a place of worship is often the most difficult. To help ease this, many religious denominations, especially Protestants, place greeters at main entrances to help guide people inside. At Missouri United Methodist Church, members practice “radical hospitality.” Greeters are positioned at major entrances and escort visitors to one of the wooden pews, and the last 60 seconds of the service are devoted to “visiting” with neighbors, says Diana Mooney, the church's Christian education director. It is difficult to go unnoticed during a service — congregants will often come up and introduce themselves to new faces.

“The Methodist Church has always been a social church,” Mooney says. Visitors are not singled out or asked to introduce themselves to the congregation, however. Mooney points out that people are often uncomfortable and embarrassed when they are treated differently, so the greeters are trained to read body language. If a guest looks uncomfortable or lost, a greeter will come up to that person and ask if he or she would like to be escorted to a seat. If, on the other hand, someone dashes inside with their arms crossed and do not make eye contact, greeters are trained to let such individuals remain anonymous.

Pastor John Baker of First Baptist Church was on sabbatical a few years ago when he decided to attend several different services in Columbia, discreetly. “I could go in and not talk to anyone if I wanted to,” Baker says. For some people, anonymity lessens the unease and awkwardness of being in a foreign situation unaware of appropriate protocol.

“Relax, remember the people you are with are not judging you,” Pastor Kathie Jackson of First Presbyterian Church says.

Protestant services are also, generally, less formulaic than Catholic and Episcopal services. For example, all Methodist churches are different, and the format of Methodist services may vary from congregation to congregation. MUMC offers three services on Sundays, the less formal at 8 in the morning. During this service, the church uses projection screens to display readings and hymns to encourage participation. The mood is generally more relaxed, which helps lessen the unease of people unfamiliar with the service. That is not to say, however, that the more formal service at 11 a.m. is not welcoming.

During one 11 a.m. service, Mooney explained there was an obviously homeless man with threadbare clothes and scruffy appearance who came into the church and sauntered up to the front pew, and took a seat on the floor. Unsure what to do, church staff nervously anticipated unreceptive reactions from some of the more conservative members. Instead, an older gentleman, known for his stern demeanor, came and sat on the floor next to the man for the rest of the service. This demonstration of human solidarity is the essence and fundamental basis of religious worship — breaking down the barriers of class, race, ethnicity, age and gender, to celebrate in common beliefs.


To avoid unintentionally insulting a religious congregation, knowledge and appreciation of different religious traditions and practices is imperative. For instance, Jewish men and women of the Orthodox tradition do not sit together during Sabbath services, or in the synagogue at all; also, women cover their heads with scarves or an elegant hat, and men wear skullcaps. In addition, men wear prayer shawls during morning service. Reform Jews, on the other hand, are more relaxed in these customs — skullcaps and prayer shawls are not required and men and women can sit next to one another.

While attending a Reform Jewish service, such as a Sabbath service at Congregation Beth Shalom, Rabbi Yossi Feintuch relies on the age-old saying “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.”

During an approximately two-hour service on Saturday mornings, congregants may come and go as per tradition, and non-Jews may wear a skullcap as it a cultural rather than religious custom. Wearing a prayer shawl, however, is similar to taking communion in a Catholic Mass. The religious connotations of the prayer shawl do not require people of other faiths to wear the object during Sabbath services.

When determining what to wear to Congregation Beth Shalom, as well as most Christian religious services, there are few rules or dress codes, but common sense usually dictates tasteful attire. “It may be wrong to appear in your swimming trunks,” Feintuch says.

Sometimes seemingly mundane acts, such as taking notes or writing during a Sabbath service, are offensive to congregants because of the Jewish belief that work should be suspended on the Sabbath. Good intentions and respect, however, are never mistaken for rudeness. Also, the staff and congregants at most places of worship are more than willing to answer questions about appropriate behavior during a service.


Unfamiliar to most, jumuah services — just like Sabbath, Protestant or Catholic services — are weekly worship gatherings where members of the Muslim community come together to pray and share in their common beliefs. There are specific customs for the dress code — men should be covered from the knees up to the belly button and women should be covered entirely except for the face and hands. There are separate entrances and prayer rooms for men and women.

But at its core, the Muslim jumuah is not a foreign concept to the human practice of communal worship, and Imam Abdullah Smith encourages people to visit and observe Muslim services: “I love it. It’s my opportunity to teach people what I believe in."

Back at the Islamic Center, the women continue to arrive.

“I am so busy and so tired.”

“I know. I never see you.”

Moving past the floor-to-ceiling shelves of shoes, the women shuffle up the stairs to a small, dark room — the lights are turned off and the overcast skies outside do not emit much light through the small, rectangular windows on the back wall. Below the windows is a row of high-back chairs where several women are seated, hunched over prayer books, their lips silently moving as they recite prayers from the Quran. Before they sit, each of the women “greets the mosque” with a ritualized prayer, repeated two times.

On the opposite wall is a long, glass window looking into a larger room speckled with seated men.

Soon, Smith enters the larger room and takes a stand at the podium in the front of the seated men and women and begins jumuah, or the weekly Muslim prayer service.

More women begin to file quietly into the prayer room. At 1:15, a crackling comes over the intercom, and the imam begins to sing in Arabic. After several minutes of singing and speaking in Arabic, Smith starts to lecture in English on the many obstacles that human beings face on a daily basis.

“Brothers and sisters, there are many good things we would like to accomplish, but there are obstacles, sometimes small, sometimes large.”

The seated men and women remain quiet; every once in a while a man or woman will stand and pray. A young girl, about 2 years old, crawls along the floor, slyly sneaking a look at the women and flashing a cherry-stained grin when she catches their eyes. At the end of the imam’s talk, the congregation stands and forms into rows, standing shoulder to shoulder. The men and women pray and the service is over. The scene that follows is reminiscent of any religious service: antsy children are reprimanded for bad behavior, men and women continue to greet one another, and the prayer room slowly begins to empty.

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