I grew up in the gritty streets next to an airport, a neighborhood where the sky rumbles and planes taking off and landing cast shadows that crisscross the ground. The area has always attracted a steady flow of first-generation immigrants. Many flee war-torn homelands. Most seek religious or political freedom. They arrive at the airport and settle under the flight paths to search for work and start their life in a new country.
The kids I played with were caught between cultures. A part of them identified with the land they left, and another part tried hard to connect with the land they had entered. My friends came from India, Africa, and seemingly every nation in Asia. In America, they rapidly became fluent in a new language and culture, but their parents were adamant that the old family religion be passed down. The blocks around my childhood house are still crowded with turban-wearing Sikh men, women in burqas that cover everything but their eyes, Muslims from across the Middle East and Africa, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, and people of a long list of other faiths. Mosques, temples, and other places of worship fill the neighborhood. As a child I could not keep up with all the holy days my friends celebrated, and in their homes. I often saw shrines and altars dedicated to various deities.
I could not help but respect most of my neighbors as good people. They worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and hung together as a family. Most kids worked hard in school. Most wanted to get into trouble in their new country or do anything to shame themselves, their family, or their religion.
For many of the non-Christians in our survey and focus groups—people who have left church or never been part—that scene illustrates an ideal world where religions peacefully coexist. I get how they feel. My friends and I each had our own beliefs. No one had to hide their traditions. And certainly no one ever compelled others to accept their faith. It all seemed pretty simple.
For me things got complicated when I started wondering which if any religion was real and true. One day in college I came to believe the words of Jesus, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Once persuaded of that truth, I suddenly found the stakes higher for me and everyone around me. It mattered to me whether they believed who Jesus is and what he had did for them at the cross. I went from person to person passing along His words that he was the one and only way to heaven. I will not say I always did that perfectly or even tactfully, but I do not doubt my goal was right.
Many non-Christians would take issue with my newfound beliefs and actions. Just under half of our phone survey participants for this project (42%) agreed that “There are lots of religions and I’m not sure only one has to be the right way.”