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Fall 2011

Visiting the Sacred — How to Be an Enlightened Guest

An image of the Reims Cathedral

David C. Dollahite, PhD, stood in the back of a mosque looking for the imam, the prayer leader of the mosque. The imam would soon be added to the list of over 250 religious men and women Dollahite has interviewed in their places of worship for his research on how religious practices and beliefs affect people’s lives, marriages, and children.

As Dollahite moved through the room, he inadvertently walked in front of a man praying toward Mecca. “As I walked in front of him,” Dollahite says, “he reached out, stopped me, moved me around him (while still looking forward), and continued his prayer.”

What Dollahite didn’t realize at the time was that walking in front of a praying Muslim is highly inappropriate; doing so makes it appear that he or she is praying to that person. Having learned from his faux pas, Dollahite gives five suggestions for the church-going traveler.

Be prepared

Dollahite suggests picking up a copy of How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook (edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida) because it shares the basic beliefs and practices of most religions. Dollahite also encourages those planning to visit religious pilgrimage sites to be prepared for displays of intense emotion. People have often made great sacrifices to be there, and they’re “expecting a religious experience.”

Dress modestly

While what is considered appropriate dress changes from site to site, special care should be taken when visiting Orthodox Jewish or Muslim sites. Women should wear “loose fitting clothing that covers the body down to the wrists, up to the neck, and down to the mid-calf or below.” Women should also wear a scarf covering their hair when visiting a mosque. Men should wear loose clothing covering the body from the neck to the wrists and ankles.

Keep your group small

If you are not the outgoing type, visiting a religious site with a couple of friends can ease your nerves. Dollahite cautions, however, against attending a religious site or service in a large group of 10 or more people because of the tendency to whisper, which creates a potentially disruptive and disrespectful atmosphere.

Bring a couple of dollars

Many religious sites depend on donations and, according to Dollahite, “you’ll feel better if you make a contribution, especially when you attend services of other faiths.” Be prepared for people to decline your donation; often those of other faiths prefer to host their visitors free of charge.

Ask what is appropriate

Visiting a religious site or service, says Dollahite, is “like being in someone’s home. You would sit where you were asked to sit, you would ask to use the bathroom, and you wouldn’t just wander. You would try to be circumspect, reserved, a little cautious, and a little careful.” The same courtesy applies when visiting a religious site. It is always best to ask a member of the congregation or clergy what is appropriate for a visitor to do. If photography is permitted at all, be sure to ask what you can take pictures of and what parts of ceremonies you should participate in, if you feel comfortable doing so.

— Danielle Kopotic

Embarrassed in Church

While on a trip to Europe that included a five-day getaway to Paris, France, Anondi Sanchez, a college student from San Diego, California, was able to visit many religious sites, including Notre Dame de Paris: “When I was visiting Notre Dame, they were gracious enough to allow us to stay inside while their boys’ choir practiced for a special Sunday service. They closed the doors to the public but allowed those of us who were already inside to remain so long as we were quiet and did not take pictures during the practice.

“When the doors closed, a quiet hush swept across the cathedral. I was impressed by the trails of black soot that climbed endlessly up the walls from the countless prayer candles that had been lit over the years. I felt I needed to do all I could to maintain that reverence, so I sat down. The voices of the choir were incredible. The acoustics were amazing. As I listened, I was moved to tears.

“One thing that was disturbing to me was the guests who disregarded this special invitation and continued to talk, walk around, and take pictures. To be honest, I was surprised that we were able to take pictures in there at all.”