Dr. Guingona-Africa's journey from a child terrified by God into a passionate interfaith peacebuilder is inspiring. It proves that incredible religious transformation is both possible and a blessing for all.
Celebrating Easter as a Religious Minority
For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to have a religious holiday completely ignored. Perhaps ignored is not the right word. Not celebrated may be better.
Growing up as a Protestant Christian in the United States, my religious beliefs have been graciously accommodated for my entire life. All of the most important Christian holidays are also national holidays, meaning that I’ve never had to choose between going to school or work or observing a meaningful holiday. Grocery stores are always well-stocked with holiday decorations and ingredients for traditional holiday meals. In the winter, streets and houses are decorated with Christmas trees and in the spring, Easter bunnies and eggs.
But in Thailand, there are no jellybeans, no chocolate eggs, and no Easter bunnies. Easter Sunday is not a national holiday. Grocery stores do not carry ham or lamb roasts. There are no decorations. In Thailand, no one really gives Easter a second thought.
Observing Easter in Thailand tested me more than I anticipated. I missed celebrating the most important religious holiday of the year with my family. Knowing that they were all gathered at my house for a special dinner without me was sad. I also missed out on going to church on Easter weekend, which always reminds me what it is that I’m celebrating and helps prepare my heart for the big day. I missed saying “Happy Easter” to people. No one wished me a Happy Easter in Thailand.
For the very first time in my life I celebrated a holiday as a religious minority. But unlike millions of religious minorities struggling across the globe, my day had a happy ending. I knew that my family was together and that they were celebrating in safety, without any threat to their lives. I was able to live stream my church’s Easter service on my laptop on Sunday evening, which lifted me up and made me feel close to home. I exchanged emails and Facebook messages with family members wishing them a Happy Easter, which made me feel less alone. I was able to pray and meditate on the meaning of Easter throughout the day, while I explored a waterfall and drove around a stunningly beautiful island with a friend. And at the end of the day, I said a final prayer and went to sleep feeling happy.
A Minority’s Experience
The experience of celebrating a holiday as a religious minority is influenced by a number of factors, the most important of which is religious freedom.
In countries where religious freedom is a constitutional human right, celebrating your own religious holidays should not put you at risk of persecution or discrimination by the government or your employer. Although your right to celebrate is legally protected, you still may face discrimination from other members of your community, like an Arizona family whose homemade menorah was vandalized in their front yard during Hanukkah. (1)
In countries where citizens have limited religious freedom, celebrating religious holidays can be downright dangerous. In Burma, where religious tensions are high, violence can spike around the time of religious holidays. During Ramadan in 2016, a Muslim woman was killed, which started a deadly riot. (2) This puts religious minorities in the unjust position of having to make a choice between their personal safety, and that of their family, and observing important religious holidays.
A Refugee’s Experience
When I celebrated Easter alone and in a foreign country, I did so by choice. Many religious minorities who have escaped persecution in their home countries are not afforded this choice — they have their country out of necessity.
Refugees who are also religious minorities in their new country must celebrate holidays without their congregation. They cannot go to their home church or temple to observe the holiday and reunite with friendly faces, like Razan Karoni, a Syrian Christian celebrating Christmas in Istanbul. (3) And many times, refugees are unaware of where their own family members are or if they are safe.
So what did I learn from spending Easter alone in a Buddhist country? I learned that I have it really good. I live in a country that values and protects religious freedom and I may never know what it's like to be discriminated against because of my faith, because I am in the religious majority. I doubt that I will never truly know what it feels like to be a religious minority.
What You Can Do
There are plenty of ways that you can lend a welcoming hand to religious minorities where you live. Here are just a few ideas:
1. Wish someone a happy holiday.
Look up the dates of importance religious holidays for people of other faiths and mark them on your calendar. Wish your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and others in your community a happy Hanukkah, Passover, Eid, Ramadan, or Holi. A simple greeting can go a long way.
2. Invite a refugee family to celebrate a holiday.
Invite a refugee and their family to celebrate a holiday with you. Contact your local congregation and ask if there are any refugee families in the community that need a place to celebrate. You don’t even need to be of the same faith as demonstrated by Rachel Miller, a Jew from Boston who celebrated Passover with the Syrian Yazidi family that is living with them for the year. (4) Opening your home to someone can go a long way.
3. Host an interfaith holiday party.
The best way to show you care is to learn more about someone else’s faith. Arrange an interfaith event to celebrate your own holiday as well as learn more about your neighbors. Interfaith Seders (a special dinner that marks the start of Passover for Jews) have become especially popular in the US, taking place everywhere from Oklahoma to New York to California. (5, 6, 7)