God Abroad: Defending Your Spirituality To The Locals

Religion Activism
by Allison Cross Jul 16, 2009
Allison Cross, journalist in Sierra Leone, faces the scrutiny of being agnostic in a traditionally religious culture.

Photo: Allison Cross

God is everywhere in Sierra Leone.

Sometimes he’s Jesus and sometimes he’s Allah, but words praising his existence are plastered all over NGOs, schools, hair salons, stores, restaurants and vehicles.

I hear him everywhere I go, as gospel music blasts from massive, low-quality speakers on the streets and as Muslim calls to prayer ring out five times a day.

If the power happens to be on, one of my favourite restaurants in Bo district plays the same set of Christian music videos over and over throughout the day. I unconsciously hum to the tunes as I munch on rice and fish.

God even finds his way into the exchange of pleasantries. Ask someone how they are in Sierra Leone, and you’ll quickly receive the answer: “Fine. Thank God.” Sometimes they’ll skip the “fine” and just thank God.

This atmosphere of religion doesn’t just come from inside the country.

Hundreds of relief and capacity-building organizations in Sierra Leone are funded by church ministries in Europe, Canada and the U.S. There aren’t many other foreigners in Bo district, but the first ones I met were Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries.

About Faith

Approximately 10 per cent of the population of Sierra Leone is Christian, while 60 per cent practice Islam and 30 per cent practice African tribal religions.

Photo: Allison Cross

The three live fairly peacefully with one another, although there is some pronounced resentment and skepticism expressed between belief circles. Muslims outnumber Christians, but the former are more visible and vocal because of their focus on recruitment.

Few of the people I’ve met know quite what to do with me when I say I’m neither Christian nor Muslim.

My first night in Sierra Leone, one of our drivers, a loud and joyful man named Lamin, asked me if I was a Christian.

I told him that technically I was, as I had been baptized in the Anglican Church. But I told him I didn’t practice any religion and that in my country, people subscribe to many religions. I told him that many subscribe to nothing at all but consider themselves spiritual.

He leaned towards me, a sober look on his face. “Muslim. Christian. It doesn’t matter what you are,” he said. “But you have to pick one.”

Relationship With The Divine

I’ve been invited to church on many occasions, and despite being very curious about the services, I’ve always declined. The obliging Canadian in me wants to say yes, but I know if I give in to one Sunday service, the invitations will only increase.

Photo: Allison Cross

I have difficulty explaining the fact that I don’t go to church. No reason I give seems to satisfy the people perplexed by the fact that I spend my Sundays at home. I sometimes explain that I wasn’t raised going to church.

If I’m feeling brave, I’ll say I don’t agree with the teachings of the Bible and the inconsistent manner in which people follow it. If I want to create confusion, I’ll try to explain that I’m spiritual, and that I believe in “something” – but that I’ve never been able to say what that something is.

They find their joy and satisfaction in their relationship with God, I tell my critics, and I find my joy and satisfaction in my relationships with people, my work, and the world around me.

But most people still don’t like this, and will launch into a diatribe about how I need God in my life. I’ll explain that I have incredible admiration for the devout and for their willingness to help people and to support each other when they need it.

I try to explain that this respect doesn’t mean I am willing to join them in their faith.

It’s a precarious position to be in, one I’m sure is experienced by people living in their own countries and by people living abroad: to attempt to respect the beliefs of those around you, while firmly holding on to your own.

What are your thoughts on god abroad? Share in the comments!

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