Enriching interfaith encounters at the workplace

People who live in a multi-religious country like Malaysia have numerous opportunities to encounter people of different faiths.

Feb 11, 2022

“The Church therefore, exhorts her children, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them.” – Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate

People who live in a multi-religious country like Malaysia have numerous opportunities to encounter people of different faiths. As an employee in the corporate sector who has colleagues from various religious backgrounds, interfaith encounters are enriching for me.

Mutual respect
Every year, the organisation that I work for will announce a list of staff who are to be promoted. One particular year, a group of Muslim staff, in thanksgiving for their promotion to senior levels, decided to collectively sponsor satay for a Hari Raya Aidilfitri staff gathering. One of the Muslim staff said that he will chip in on condition that only chicken satay is served. No beef satay must be served at all. As organiser of the event, I enquired why he made such a request. He explained that if pork and non-halal food are not served out of respect for Muslims, the Muslims in turn should not serve beef satay out of respect for Hindu staff. It is mutual respect, he emphasised.

After much negotiation (and grumbling), the rest of the Muslim staff in the group relented and only chicken satay was served at the gathering. I thought that this was a courageous act by a Muslim in standing up for his non-Muslim colleagues; therefore, when the Human Resources Department organised a campaign for staff to write affirmation notes to each other, I commended his stand on having mutual respect for staff from different religious backgrounds.

There was also a time when I asked this same colleague why Muslims detest the LGBTQ community. In a nutshell, he explained that Allah had created every individual as male or female. If the individual decides to transform his or her gender, it is tantamount to going against the will of Allah, and therefore is akin to insulting the Almighty. His explanation certainly helped shed some light on the Muslim point of view on this issue.

Lent and Ramadhan
Fasting is a common act of penance amongst Catholics and Muslims. The Catholic way of fasting is to have one full meal and two small meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The Muslim way of fasting is more challenging, having to abstain from all forms of food and water from dawn to sunset. And they do it for 30 consecutive days in the holy month of Ramadhan. This year, since Holy Week overlaps with the first two weeks of Ramadhan, I am contemplating fasting for a day – the Muslim way, a feat which will require the strength of mind over matter.

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which are days of fast and abstinence, I will inform my lunch buddies that I won’t be joining them. They will then ask questions about fasting. I remember one colleague who felt sorry for me because I was depriving myself of food. She wondered why people put themselves through such torture. Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for me to share about the Catholic faith. For certain Muslims, it is interesting to learn that fasting is also common amongst Catholics, though not much explanation is needed as they already understand the meaning of fasting and the graces that it brings.

Honesty and Forgiveness
A colleague who is Taoist once told me that she has never met a Christian who lies. She claims that her Christian colleagues and friends are always truthful, even if it means getting into trouble for speaking the truth. It was amusing to hear that, and I thought that we Christians must give ourselves a pat on the back for being true witnesses to the Gospel through the lives that we lead.

The same colleague also asked why Christians are so forgiving. She was referring to one of her subordinates, a young Christian girl, whom she reprimands harshly each time she makes a mistake in her work. In spite of that, the subordinate is always friendly and never gives her the cold shoulder, as certain staff may do whenever the boss reprimands them. I explained that the Bible teaches us to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18: 21 – 22), which means to forgive and forgive always. She was amazed when I shared that. She wondered how one could forgive so easily and regularly.

Ambassadors for Christ
With enriching interfaith encounters at the workplace, it is important for Catholics in the secular world to be living witnesses of the Gospel. Members of the clergy, religious brothers and sisters, and the laity who work in the Church may have limited opportunities to witness to people outside the faith as their daily lives are largely confined within the Catholic community. This is where Catholics in the secular world need to become ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20) as we are in direct contact with non-Christians at our workplace and in our daily lives. Apart from witnessing for Christ through our lives, we must also have knowledge of the Catholic faith in order to share it with others. Reading and formation are good ways to build such knowledge.

To end this article, I would like to leave you with words from Mahatma Gandhi. When asked in an interview what Christians should do to contribute to India’s uplift and redemption, Gandhi, who was a Hindu said, “I would suggest four things: First, that all you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, that you practise your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, that you emphasise love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, that you study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good in them, to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”

(Julie Lim Seet Yin believes that a satisfied life measured by one’s heart, mind and soul is better than a successful life measured by worldly yardsticks. She works for a Japanese bank and is responsible for its Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. She serves in various church ministries and charities and can be reached at: [email protected])

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