An Immigrant’s Perspective # 3 – Religious Conversion?

Living in Houston for the first three years upon coming to the US introduced me to two strange phenomenon:

(1)    Everyone was “friendly” because – after all, everyone said “Howdy”; or asked, “How y’all doing?” whether I knew them or not; and

(2)    People tried to convert me!

Being greeted by a total stranger was completely foreign to me.  No one in Israel would greet you if they didn’t know you … not even a smile!  In Israel, you’d greet who you know, and pass by the rest like they’re weren’t even there.   Of course, you’d look at what they wearing, and make a mental note – but that’s about it.

So, you can imagine my surprise when strangers started greeting me with big familiar smiles.

Howdy!

Howdy! (Photo credit: katerha)

At first, I thought they mistook me for someone they knew, but then I realized it couldn’t be true because there were too many of them. Later on I started struggling with responding to them. After all, just because they were being weird didn’t mean I needed to partake in this strange habit. But, after a while, I decided not to push against this friendly gesture, and I tried to accept that everyone was just nice and friendly, so I responded back and quickly realized that the greeting was just that – a greeting. Unfortunately, it didn’t assure friendliness, but it was just a polite way of relating.

I got used to it, of course, but I still remember my mom visiting and asking me how come people seem so happy here, because they all smiled at her, and greeted her – even as she looked at them so bewilderedly.

More difficult to adjust to, was the fact that people who got to know me would try to convert me, which happened more than once.

One particular encounter comes to mind:

An older couple (neighbors) introduced themselves to me as we sat by our pool at my first apartment building.  We became good friends, and soon I was impressing them with vast knowledge of the Old Testament.  (Immodest, but altogether true!)

They would invite me for dinner from time to time, and through them I was introduced to the Jell-O mold, and macaroni-and-cheese, which resulted in  gaining 10 lbs. They also introduced me to Barbara Walters on TV, while whispering to me that her origins were similar to mine. I wasn’t sure what they meant because I knew nothing about Barbara Walters.  However, from watching her periodically I did conclude she had an annoying voice.

more jello molds

As our friendship deepened they started to let me know they were worried about my soul. I had no idea what they’re talking about, and I assured them that my soul was just fine – thank you very much.

Being born in Israel, I had a very strong Jewish-Israeli identity, but I was not at all Jewish-religious, as could also be said of my family and most close friends.  As a matter of fact most Israelis are secular and not religious. There was a two year period when I struggled to find a belief in God, but after attending some philosophy classes at the university, I concluded that I was a heathen, and there’s not much to be done about it.  Honest, I really tried. I made a concerted effort to believe in Something, but to no avail.

Back to Bob and Linda, and the Evening of Tears …

Bob and Linda didn’t relent, and then came the evening when they were in tears, telling me that they were so fond of me that they just could not let me die and go to hell!   To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.

Hell

Despite all my protestations, and my assurances that (A) I didn’t believe in hell and (B) that even if hell existed, I was too young to go because I hadn’t done that many bad things yet … still, they beseeched me to consider conversion to Christianity, since they were positive I would end up in hell. And, I still remember my amazement at their descriptions of Christ as loving and forgiving, while at the same time foretelling my fate of fire and brimstone.

I was(?) both stubborn and comfortably agnostic, so after a while they gave up on me.  We remained good friends until I moved to LA and there was the year when I received a card from Linda telling me that Bob had died.

I felt sad, and I had a moment of regret for not assuring him that I would eventually become a Christian.  Not because I ever intended to, but because it would have made him happy to believe I would be saved and we would meet in heaven.

What I also didn’t tell them then, because I was young and thoughtless, was that their concern for me touched me deeply.  They were my first friends in the US, and they made me feel that there’s heaven on earth.

Paradise itself

Paradise itself (Photo credit: sbisson)

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About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in Atheist, Christianity, Immigration, Religious Conversion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to An Immigrant’s Perspective # 3 – Religious Conversion?

  1. Maurice Labi says:

    Speaking of being overly-friendly — I tried this prank on a cashier at the local grocery store in L.A. She asked me “How’s it going today?” while she started to scan the items. So I told her and told her and told her. That was too much for her. “Paper or plastic?”

  2. Truett says:

    Your description of the conflict that comes from such a loving place is an all too familiar dilemma. Imagine if Bob and Linda were your mother, grandmother, aunt or uncle.

    • rachel bar says:

      Dear T, if Linda and Bob were my family, and if these conflicts were my daily experience, you would need to visit me in an insane assylum… In my family of origin, I was allowed to say “Don’t bug me.”

  3. Laura says:

    How interesting! When I first moved to Houston from Philadelphia, I met some people who tried to convert me, too! I’ll never forget the evening I was walking through campus (I was in grad school at the time.), and a random student stopped me and started questioning me about my faith and my church-going habits. She then asked me (upon learning that I, too, am a heathen of sorts) if she could pray for me because I needed to be saved I politely told her I wasn’t interested in being saved, although I appreciated the sentiments. Welcome to Texas!

    • rachel bar says:

      Welcome to Texas indeed! The only difference is that since I know that I cause some discomfort to my friends by not being a believer, I encourage all of them (of different religious practices) to pray for me. We have a saying that goes “if it does not help, it does not hurt” 🙂 I believe it makes them feel better!

  4. Debbie says:

    So very familiar. Thank you

  5. Martha says:

    You know about the “Power of Myth” and you’ve just given a perfect example of how strong it can be even among otherwise caring compassionate friends. It was reportedly said by the one in whom they believe “Forgive them, for they know not what they do…” Can’t remember the biblical reference for that.

  6. Atheist born and raised in rural Oklahoma here. I feel your pain. I ran screaming to the west coast and then to Europe to escape it. You ‘re being more diplomatic about it than I usually am. 🙂

    • rachel bar says:

      I’m so envious that you’ve decided to move to Europe. Are you moving to Luxembourg or is it on the way to another destination?

      BTW, since I was not raised as a Baptist from OK, I never felt the pain you were subjected to, so for me it was more an experience of weirdness. I also have issues with people trying to convert other people. As far as I’m concerned you can pray or not, run naked or not, as long as you don’t impose your beliefs on me.

      • Cai says:

        Dear recovering, I know Exactly how you feel! I was raised a strict southern baptist in OK. You were either hot or cold, not lukewarm. (I know you get that reference.) the choice for me then, was cold. I was raised where doubt was sinful. Asking questions was not acceptable! Also, gender norms were tied to godly behavior and being a democrat was unheard of. When I dated a catholic boy my parents wouldn’t let him in the house. So, it was best for me to get on out of the state. On my way to atheism I found Chrisopher Hitchens and then there was no turning back.

      • It is interesting to hear the reaction of others to the “friendliness” in the South. I grew up in one of those “no one locks their doors at night” towns where I was free to ride my bike wherever and whenever I wanted, I was allowed to go to movies alone as young as 11/12, and my friends and I would camp out in eachother’s backyards with no sense of danger. But the “friendliness” could also be interpreted as nosiness; people could be very cliquish and provincial at best, downright racist at worst. If you weren’t a Christian who went to church regularly, you were treated with suspicion, and the entire town was about 99.9999999% white. When a family moved from Africa (the father was a teacher), the kids were called N—–s on their first day of school. This was in the 80’s, not the 50’s. And we don’t even need to get into how those folks feel about gays. Many feel it is their duty to convert non-Christians, so that is why I am less diplomatic.

        Oh, and PS. One of the “upstanding” ministers in my home town wound up getting convicted on several counts of child molestation and rape.

        Idyllic towns and Southern friendliness…not always what they seem.

        Sorry for rambling!

      • That is pretty much my opinion now. Believe the way you want, but don’t make it your mission in life to impose that on others. Then we could all get along! 🙂

  7. ermigal says:

    A thought-provoking post, Rachel, and I enjoyed reading about other people’s experiences. I am and have been for a long time, a “spiritual seeker”, trying to figure things out, and I’m fairly confident that’s okay with a “loving and giving” God. For me, it’s all about loving and helping each other here on Earth. I’m very uncomfortable around those who try to force their brand of religion on others. My blood boils when I recall a relative saying he would “pray over” my dying father, who wasn’t a church goer (but one of the purest, giving souls you’d ever want to meet). Love reading your blog–thank you!

    • rachel bar says:

      Agree completely Ermine. I believe that showing kindness is what’s necessary in this world. More kindness, less dogma. I can hear how much you loved your father, and how infuriating it must have been to hear the words of that relative. Glad to hear that you enjoyed reading the blog. The feeling is mutual. I enjoy reading yours.

  8. Martha Carr says:

    I love hearing your stories Rachel! My Austrian dad also often commented on the strangeness of the American smile while walking down the street when he first came here. The closest I’ve come to being converted was in college walking past a Scientology “store-front” and someone asked me if I wanted to take a free “personality-test.” My response left him speechless: “I’m sorry” I said, “I have none!”

  9. Martha Carr says:

    Feel free to use it whenever you want! I thought it was pretty funny too. Occasionally I surprise myself! (My dad was an incredible punster). It’s probably genetic….

  10. dwald@intermedia-advertising.com says:

    I also lived in Texas, albeit Dallas, having moved there from New York. I found people to be extremely friendly. Strangers would ask what I thought about the Dallas Cowboys ( and I learned about them quickly enough). The only odd question I remembered regarding my religion was someone asking “where people like me lived?”
    I recently started going to Houston for business and those Texans are sure still friendly.

  11. godschool says:

    Interesting that southern Americans still feel it’s their responsibility to try and convert others. They are not the only ones. Maybe ‘we’ (ie Christians) should listen to people who find it a turn-off, like you – and learn a few things!

    • rachel bar says:

      I see conversion like a love affair. You can’t “convince” someone to fall in love with you. Faith is of the heart, and just like the rapture of love, it happens from within. My neighbors, who meant well tried to scare me with hell, but if one does not believe in hell, then their argument would fall on deaf ears.

      It used to be that long ago in Judaism, one was discouraged by the rabbis when he wanted to convert. This is not true nowadays, but it’s still not easy. The reason, I believe, has to do with the validity of one’s determination about the conversion. Surely, Christians would not want me to convert just because I’m afraid of hell?

  12. Vasca says:

    Good post Rachel. Both my husband and I were born in OK and raised in a Christian environment. We now live in Texas; a nice city and of course…very friendly…after all, it is Texas. We’re members of a wonderful Christian congregation that is doing well at being open, hospitable and understanding…w/o pushing. It’s like a warm family that’s loving, no matter what.

    I’m one of those ‘smiling’ people; that’s me…whatever, I just feel the urge to smile. Clerks, etc. usually say, “How’re you doing today?” I reply from ‘very well, thanks to not a good day…how about you?’ Somehow, there’s a sense of who wants to spoken to and who does not.

    We visited NYC several times and I did not smile; advised not to so I did as instructed…so, guess I swallowed the urge and was ‘unsmiling’…’no eye contact’. I survived…whee.

    We have lived in Greece w/Greek Orthodox churches and members…in Ethiopia w/Coptic Christians…in Germany w/Catholics…in Wisconsin where the two of us were the only non-Catholic in what is called ‘The Holy Land’. Lastly, in China where we lived w/Buddhists as well as a plurality of atheists. We’ve made long lasting friendships in all of those places w/no haggling over religious or non-religious preferences.

    I appreciate your thoughts, your openess. Our lives are about relationships, caring, sharing and all that’s wrapped in that…no matter who we encounter. Again, thanks!

    • rachel bar says:

      I so love your response to my blog Vasca. I always repect people’s beliefs and lifestyle, and would never try to impose my beliefs on them. At the same time it’s quite demeaning to hear that my way is not the “right” way. Unless one’s religion mandates killing or stealing then it’s fine with me. As long as I lead with kindness, I’d like to world to honor my way. On a different note, my neighbors came from a pure heart as they truly believed I would go to hell. They wanted to help me, and for that love I’m grateful.
      BTW, the last time I visited NYC I smiled all the time ( (I was trained well in Houston:)) and people smiled back!

  13. Amy says:

    Texas sounds a lot like parts of Iowa! Your neighbors/Texas family were very sweet & kind to attempt to “save you.” I love the familiar constant smiling in the Midwest & the South. I’m working on spreading that here in L.A. ;D Recent research indicates smiling at others elevates your mood and that of others around you. Yay for non-psychotropic mood elevators! 😀

  14. aFrankAngle says:

    A smile is a form of friendliness. I appreciate it when I get one from a strange at the store for some reason. My it was in return for making eye contact and maybe I smiled. If a smile leads to getting to know someone, so be it – but with knowing also comes respect. Thus, to use it as in a deceitful way is another story. Good post Rachel! … and I hope you are enjoying your celebration of light!

    • rachel bar says:

      Thank you Frank. I’m not sure I understand your comment about “to use it as in a deceitful way…” Are you referring to the smile or the respect?

      The holiday is nice, just too much of the wrong food groups:)

      • aFrankAngle says:

        Yes … using a smile or any other friendly gesture in an attempt to get something for themselves. For instance, to me, a smile to gain an attempt to convert someone is deceitful.

      • rachel bar says:

        In this particular case my neighbors were not deceitful, they really believed in hell, and they were positive I would end up in there. They truly wanted to save me. I believe their intentions were good.

      • aFrankAngle says:

        I see your point … but even though they were in good intentions within their own belief system, it still see it as a negative.

  15. I found this to be a particularly fascinating article. The comments and your replies also added to make it into an extremely interesting expose of your thinking – we share many things in common.

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