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Justice

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I’m No Fan of Religion

September 7, 2017 by

Setting: Avenida Centenario, downtown Montevideo, Uruguay.

Enter: Girl, crossing intersection. But look again: super-long skirt of unknown make, and to top it off, some sort of never-before-seen head covering.

What planet is she from? Definitely not this one. Foreigner for sure: American probably. But beyond that? Not a clue. No idea what to relate her to. Bottom line: never seen the likes.

Shannon and friend in Uruguay
Shannon and Nancy in Montevideo

Okay, so that’s me. And that’s pretty much the line of cognitive exercise I provide innumerable Montevideanos several times a day here, just navigating the streets of this city. I’ve been living in Uruguay for seven weeks now, and am five weeks into the spring semester here at the Universidad de Montevideo. (As in, Spanish? you ask.) Yep. I and two other sisters from the Bruderhof communities are here studying the humanities in Spanish to gain an academic proficiency in the language.

I love living here. It’s a brand new, unknown environment (my favorite kind), challenging and enriching all at once. I’m out of my known waters, and half the time, I’m paddling way out of my depth. I wouldn’t wish it any other way.  I don’t know how many semesters I’ll get down here, but stay posted – more blogs coming your way from the Uruguayan ether.

People fascinate me – and the Uruguayans are no disappointment. To them, it seems, we’ve dropped in from another world, but I’m planning to make my way as far into this one as possible. What makes Uruguayans tick? What matters to them? What doesn’t? What drives them? Colors them? Fulfills them? Scares them? I want to understand them that well.

Let me guess: if I’d ask you precisely where is Uruguay, you’d have to pull up a map of South America and double check. Hey, listen. Confession: so did I when I first heard of this crazy idea. But once here, I found myself looking for the backstory as to why we feel like such an unprecedented element here.  Uruguay is a tiny country (think Kansas-size) with a fairly homogenous population. Unlike most of Latin America, there’s really no indigenous community – they didn’t survive the conquistador era. Disease, warfare, and massacres reduced their numbers to mere hundreds by 1840 – and that’s already forever ago. Today they claim 1 percent on the population graphs while a startling 92 percent of Uruguay is European. Interior industry is minimal, too: Uruguayans rely mainly on imports. Thus, even their clothing brands are generally the same selections. It’s a relatively single-strata society. They aren’t accustomed to different. This isn’t New York City, where you could probably have blue skin before people would look twice.

I’m not a fan of religion, nor do I believe religion and truth are synonymous—I’ll take the latter.

There’s something else that identifies Uruguay as well: by and large, they’re proudly atheist. I’m not an expert on this stuff yet, but it seems religion never really did take off here. Some tell me that it’s because separation of church and state was only achieved a hundred years after the country was founded in 1825. Atheists, Marxists, anarchists, and Jacobins chipped away at the  church’s influence (which was never very strong in the sparsely-populated “Banda Oriental”) all the way until 1918, deeply ingraining anti-religious sentiment in the national psyche. Then too, the dictatorship of the ’70s and ’80s energetically promoted all things secular. Its effects certainly still reverberate in the here and now. Atheists and “nones” comprise half of Uruguay’s population today, and the vast majority of those registered as Catholic practice no farther than that. Then, of course, 92 percent have their roots in None-Too-Religious Europe. You’ll find a lot of sites that rank Uruguay in the top ten most secular countries on the globe. Undoubtedly, it’s number one in the Americas. Religion is the big R-word here, something to snort at and avoid at all costs.

That doesn’t actually bother me. Honestly. I’m not a big fan of religion, either. I don’t believe religion and truth are synonymous, and I’ll take the latter. Simply put, I know to whom I owe my life, and He has literal, visible impact on it. I want it crystal clear that I value purity, and I want to be, short of any words, a statement that women are far more than their bodies.

Which involves sticking out of the crowd like a dandelion in a sea of clover. There are those who will actually ask, bless their hearts, which planet we come from. That’s fine – then we can tell them. We always work down a similar elimination repertoire: nope, not nuns. Not even Catholic. Not Mennonite. And no, we are neither uneducated, cloistered, nor any backward hybrid of religion and ignorance. We just follow Jesus.

Baffling. There’s no box we belong in. It seems that the three of us are completely outside of known categories in Uruguay. While our appearance never fails to confound the Uruguayan worldview, they’re genuinely relieved to find out we’re actually pretty normal. (So am I!) Once that happens, friendship follows quickly and easily; we’ve collected innumerable friends already, in all kinds of spheres and settings.

I value purity, and I want to be a statement that women are far more than their bodies.

Yet all those to whom I will ever explain myself are a fractional minority. The fact remains: if you’re driving to work tomorrow morning in Montevideo, I just might be the most confounding sight in your day. What do I do with that? Well, I’m not going to change how I dress, nor be ashamed of the things I know are true. And yet, clothes don’t have to define us; there’s more than dress which presents in a person. You know what else I want you to see? That I’m okay with it. I’ve chosen who I am and what I identify with, and I wouldn’t take an inch of that choice back. In fact, I’m happy! Many faces here strike me as simply joyless. I have something bright to live for; I have reason to be smiling.

So I’m going to meet their looks – and I’m not going to be stared down. At the very least, there’s that moment of human interaction, however brief, which can in itself confirm someone’s humanity. If I wish to be regarded as normal, the next person probably does, too. Without a word I can say, I register that you exist. That’s not a given.

I’m just remembering a quote that hung on the wall of my  senior high school algebra classroom, wisdom from American mathematics educator John Saxon himself, founder of Saxon math: “Mathematics is not difficult. Mathematics is just different, and time is the elixir that turns things different into things familiar.” While that never rang true in my Algebra efforts, I’m seeing that principle play out here. As we get used to each other, relationships keep opening up, and that thrills me. The Uruguayans are a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to studying down here in their midst. If I’m lucky enough to make inroads into their lives, I’m hoping they make as many into mine.

 

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About the author

Shannon

Shannon McPherson

Shannon is studying communications and humanities in Uruguay at the Universidad de Montevideo. Right, as in, Español.

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  • Shannon, thank you, I really appreciate your words; " I’ve chosen who I am and what I identify with, and I wouldn’t take an inch of that choice back. In fact, I’m happy!" That is allowing your Master to live in you and shine through in who you are and what you do. Keep it up. I will try to do the same in London.

    Carol