We can learn much from Scripture and the teachings of the church about the value of encountering those different from ourselves.
Certainly, Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42) his dining in the tax collector’s home (Mt 9:10-17) and his parable about the good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37) speak clearly about recognizing the God-given dignity, and the flaws, present in each human being.
More recently, St. John Paul II repeatedly traveled throughout the world to encounter those of different faiths. And in his October 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Pope Francis — as he has throughout his pontificate — encouraged “a culture of encounter” in a world suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and ideological differences.
Such a culture, Pope Francis said, means “a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations.”
All good and necessary. But in this time of polarization in our country and church, there is also something to be said for personal experience, and how it teaches us — reaches us, really — in a way that simply reading about what others have done and said may not.
I would like to share one such story about “encounter.”
It takes place 60-some years ago, in a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles. It involves three girls, a Catholic and two Jewish sisters, each from 9 to 11 years old, who were playing together in front of the Catholic girl’s house after school.
Harmless, right? By today’s standards, we would hope so. But in the early 1960s, Catholics had long been instructed, in schools and in church, that the less associating they did with people from other faiths, the better. The Second Vatican Council and its documents “Unitatis Redintegratio” and “Nostra Aetate” on ecumenical and interfaith relations — telling Catholics, in effect, to treat non-Catholics with love and respect — hadn’t yet happened.
Which meant nothing to the girls playing hopscotch and jump-rope that day — until two other Catholic girls came walking down the street and encountered them. These girls, knowing who all three were, faith-wise, immediately told the Catholic girl, “You shouldn’t be playing with these other girls! They’re Jewish, and the Jews killed Jesus!”
How did the Catholic girl respond to the other two girls, who were bigger and older than she? Did she recoil in horror at what she was doing and beg of the other two, “Please, don’t tell Father or Sister”?
Not exactly. Without hesitation, she shouted, “These girls didn’t kill Jesus! These girls are my friends, and I’m gonna play with them!” Her fellow Catholics, clearly not expecting that reply, said nothing more and continued on their way home.
That’s the story the girl’s mother, who saw this from her kitchen window, shared with me years later, after I had married her daughter. Today, six decades after her encounter and nearly 46 years after we were married, I am happy to say that this child of God has lost none of her passion for “encountering,” befriending and loving those who are different from her — or for speaking her mind when she finds injustice in her midst.
Like me, my wife treasures her public school education experience, which afforded us the opportunity to encounter people of all faiths, races and ethnicities. And while, like me, she loves her Catholic faith, she finds her world broadened, her life enriched and her faith in Jesus strengthened when she encounters people of different faiths who share her love of all humanity, who treat everyone with kindness, who respect the God-given dignity present in all creation.
A few years ago, we took a two-week group tour of Italy, among two dozen folks of different backgrounds and, clearly, different faith experiences. Significantly, we realized, it was the first time after close to 35 years of almost day-to-day involvement in church life and ministry that we had spent this much time with mainly non-Catholic people.
It was one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. And not because of the amazing sites and the wonderful food — amazing and wonderful though they were — but because of the people. Kind, friendly, generous, loving people with whom, I told them at our final group dinner, we would happily travel again in a heartbeat.
We had, you might say, come outside of our “Catholic cocoon” to rediscover the beauty and dignity with which God imbues all creation.
At the risk of sounding impertinent and even heretical, I would humbly point out that Jesus, as far as we know, never said, “Become Catholic.”
He did say, “Follow me,” as in, “Do as I do. Walk where I walk. Do not be afraid to encounter those outside your neighborhood, your faith community, your sphere of influence. Look beyond the externals and discover my presence within them — and allow them discover my presence within you.
“And honor these ‘others’ by treating them as I would — with kindness, love and respect. For they, like you, are the creations of my Father.”
(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Oxnard, California.)