Participating in the religious ceremonies of other faith traditions: To do, not to do, or how to do?

by Lisa McKay on May 7, 2013

When I first moved to Laos with my husband Mike, I tagged along on one of his work trips out to a rural village where Mike’s organization had recently helped set up a gravity-fed water system. During this trip, Mike and the staff (and, by extension, me) were the guests of honor in the village we were visiting. This meant enduring some long speeches and eating a lot of food I didn’t particularly want to eat. It also meant that we had the privilege of peering briefly into lives very different from our own, and that the humbling mantle of the village’s blessing was bestowed upon us. For in between breakfast and lunch, the village held a bai si.

The bai si (or su kwan) is a blessing ceremony indigenous to Southeast Asia, and it is performed on many special occasions – marriages, births, housewarmings, when someone becomes a monk, recovers from illness, or at the beginning or end of big journeys. As far as rituals go, it’s pretty versatile.

Su kwan means “calling of the soul”, and the purpose of the ceremony is to bind the personal spirits, the kwan, to the person. Many people in Laos believe that the human being is a union of 32 organs, and that each organ has their own kwan to watch over and protect them. Collectively, these spirits are believed to constitute a person’s spiritual essence or “vital breath”.

The problem with the kwan? Well they tend to wander, you see. Sometimes they stray quite a way from your body, and this is not at all what you want. It throws things out of balance. It makes you sick. You don’t want your kwan out roaming the world, you want as many of them as possible at home where they belong, watching over you.

So, periodically, it’s a good idea to call your kwan back. This is what the bai si ceremony does – it calls your spirits to return home, secures them in place, and re-establishes equilibrium. The ceremony, a communal event, is a way of expressing goodwill, good luck, and good health to those being honored. This was how the village was choosing to commemorate the official handover of this new water system.

Bai si tableWe sat on the floor in a circle around a low table that was decorated with flowers and candles and laden with plates of meat and offal, packets of chips, and the Chinese version of Twinkies. Long, white, cotton strings were draped over the stalks of flowers.

After everyone was gathered, the Mor Pone (the soul caller, the most senior elder in the community) began to chant, calling the lost souls of those gathered to come back to their bodies and asking them nicely to bring health and happiness with them while they were at it. As he finished chanting, we, the honored guests, were presented first with the plates of meat.

Under pressure I made a very, very bad choice and picked up a piece of offal. I’m pretty sure I heard some of my kwan snicker. Just between us, I’m not sure that all of my kwan always have my best interests at heart, no matter what Laotians would have me believe.

After we’d snacked on offal and Twinkies, the soul caller approached Mike and me. Kneeling in front of us, murmuring blessings, he tied strings to our wrists to bind our spirits to our bodies. Other community members followed suit. By the time the ceremony was finished I had so many strings around my wrists that my kwan had resigned themselves to not going anywhere for quite a while.

Bai si blessing 4

Now, a word about the ceremonies and rituals of different faith traditions.

I feel a little as if I’m in a minefield here. I’m well aware that some of my friends and acquaintances may be troubled that I participated in what they would call an animist ritual. Others will be troubled that anyone would be troubled.

More than a decade ago, during a trip to Thailand, a younger me was troubled by a similar ceremony that I participated in there. The world was more black and white to me then, and in that world a good Christian didn’t allow people to chant over them in a language they didn’t understand and tie strings to their wrists. After all, who knew what footholds that could give the devil in my life? And what on earth would Jesus say?

I’m not mocking my younger self (though it’s awfully tempting sometimes). She was sincere in her beliefs and her concerns, and she may have had some valid points. But I am not her anymore and the world looks different to me now.

Now I can come to the bai si with more peace, as a guest and as a learner. I am still not entirely comfortable with people chanting over me in a language I do not understand during a ceremony that is not of my own faith tradition. However, I am far less worried about the possibility that, simply by being present, I may be delivering myself irrevocably unto the dark side.

Bai si blessing 2For I looked into the eyes of those who approached me with strings in hand that day and I was profoundly humbled by the warmth and gentle goodwill I saw. I live a life more privileged than many of them could imagine, yet they were delighted at this chance to bless me. The elders of this community – those who have earned their years and their wisdom the hard way – knotted the strings with reverence and tenderness. Their sincerity in wishing us well was unmistakable.

I’m still not entirely sure what Jesus would say about this. The stories of the gospels suggest that he wasn’t too keen on things like commerce in the temple courts, meat sacrificed to idols, spirit-worship, superstition based in fear, and religious rituals undertaken for show. But they also suggest that he had a knack for discerning attitude and intention, and that these two things counted for an awful lot in his sight.

I suppose it’s possible that Jesus might tell me, “Lisa, it’s not super wise to make a habit of participating in ceremonies that you do not really understand. There are powerful spiritual forces for good and for bad out there, and you should not lightly trespass upon these realms.”

But I think it’s also possible that Jesus might smile a little and say something along the lines of, “I know and love your kwan, and they could do with a good calling now and again for they are a wilful and unruly lot. And, look, try your best to eat the offal that has been presented to you today in the spirit of happy gratitude, because that is the loving thing to do.”

Someday, I hope I have the chance to ask him.

How do you navigate invitations to participate in the religious ceremonies of other faith traditions?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Megan Elliott

    I ran away. We were two months into a two year stay in Nepal and just coming into the big festival season. My husband left for a village trip with out team leader, our team leader’s wife was in the states because her daughter had just had a baby and our other teammates were in another part of the country on a marriage retreat. So there I was, 6 months pregnant with a 20 month old on my hip, pretty much alone. Our land lady upstairs invited me up through her 12 year old daughter who was the only one who spoke english in the house. At first I thought it was just for a meal but through more explanation I realized that the next day was Bai Tika, Brother worship. they didn’t have a son so they wanted to use my son in their ceremony! I had pretty much zero language or cultural sense at this time and no one around to help me out. So I called two (of four or five) families that I had met since arriving and invited myself to their house for the entire next day! I know, I know. It was terrible. They were so disappointed when I showed up later that night and had missed everything. As it turned out their Christian (english speaking) cousin would have been around and helped me out and really they just wanted to have me over for a meal while my husband was gone. Getting to use my son as part of their ceremony was just a side perk. With the Hindu culture we eventually learned that it was really okay for us to say ‘no, thank you’ to being part of any ceremony. We explained that our God was a jealous God and didn’t like us worshiping other gods. This made sense to them and they would just move on. But I still feel like a jerk to this day. that was nearly 4 years ago.

    • I appreciate your honesty here Megan. This is especially tricky without language abilities or cultural contexts/understanding. So, being new, I think your reaction is quite understandable. And, its clear that you’ve learned a lot from it, which is huge.

      I think Richelle brings up a valuable point in that we need to be careful in how we react to other expat’s choices in these things. That can cause as much pressure/conflict as with our host country friends.

      I’ll also just say, briefly, that we feel pretty free to participate in things, though within the context of dialogue and relationship. Example: when my youngest was born, a close family wanted to do a sacrifice for her. We explained why we didn’t think that was necessary and about the one-time sacrifice for all as being sufficient. They still wanted to, basically because they wanted to have a party for her and for us. So they suggested instead of a full-grown sheep that they use a baby sheep and acknowledged what we had shared as important to us and as meaning that we didn’t share the same beliefs about the sacrifice, and then we had a fun party (with delicious roasted lamb!).

      • Dialogue and relationship. So true. So important. Thanks Rachel. (And, PS, roast lamb. Yum. I wish that was part of the bai si ceremony :))

    • Oh Megan … I’m six months pregnant now and have a 21 month old on my hip much of the time and … it all feels hard a lot of the time. Life, that is. I still don’t enjoy navigating social settings in Laos without my husband with his superior language and cultural knowledge by my side. I really suspect that I would have chosen the same path under those circumstances. Sometimes I still feel the urge to run away. Sometimes I still do run away :). Thanks for sharing your story.

  • i agree that this is a minefield because it is something each one of us had to determine personally for ourselves (and as parents – for our children). those minefields are so dangerous because we “bury explosives” in our judgemental, my way is right attitudes by which we live and fight and die. perhaps that is why i’ve waited and thought and prayed before responding here…

    i think it is highly possible that God has given to some a measure of grace allowing them to participate in such ceremonies without feeling that they’re compromising standards the Lord has impressed on their hearts regarding how to walk circumspectly in this world; others may be as strongly compelled that participation is a sinful compromise. each should be allowed to walk his/her individual path.i think that is the freedom and the liberty of with paul talks when he discusses eating meat offered to idols in the same vein, i need to be prepared to give my reasons of why or why not without taking offense at a brother or sister asking why or become angry at one expressing a differing opinion as long as that difference is expressed in wrapped in genuine love.

    i do see possible risks in possibly communicating a false gospel message, in opening myself up to the influence of spirits i believe real but whom i do not believe are concerned for God and His glory, in falling prey to a mindset that says anything is okay as long as it is couched in acceptance and love and tolerance. I also see the possibility to using beautiful cultural expression as a bridge to share the hope of Jesus with others in a way that speaks to their heart using not only their language but their heart culture.

    thus far, here, i’ve been able to attend religious ceremonies without participating with the explanation that i care for and love my friend, but, similar to what megan shared, not participating in some parts because it would be unfaithful to my God. and in the process, i pray regularly for grace to accept and support other expat faith colleagues in their sometimes differing decisions.

    hard… and loaded… question that we all need to prayerfully consider. thanks for encouraging us to do so, lisa.

    • I think it’s a great point that this, like so many other things, could be a “conscience” issue, and thanks for pointing us back to the bottom line issues regarding love and grace – not just in how we extend and express that to those of other cultures and religions, but those of our own faith group who might make different decisions than we would.

      • Phon

        I’m Laotion & understand a bit about the baci ceremony. I just gave birth to a son & my husband wants to have the ceremony, he & his family are buddhism and me & my family are Christians. My parents raised us the Christian ways so i dont know much about other religions/customs. I dont want to participate if its against my religion but i dont want to let my husband & his parents down by not participating or allowing them to tie my hands or my sons. I know i wouldnt have this issue if my hubby is a Christian but hey we all make mistakes. What should i do????

  • This is a great blog post, and I’ll explore this further on my blog in a bit. (I am very familiar with the Bai Si.) I do not worry about opening myself up to bad spirits anymore. I believe God is greater than that. I *don’t* want to worship the spirits myself. I think it comes down to setting some boundaries while at the same time respecting theres. I don’t think all religions are equal, nor do all maps lead to truth. At the same time neither do we have it all right ourselves, and so some level of tolerance is needed in the way we effectively share our message. Thanks, Lisa.

    • Thanks Lana, when you do write a blog post on this, come back and leave the link on this thread so we can come visit the conversation you’re continuing!

  • I love the way you write. Love your honesty. Love how you can see Jesus in all other cultures. Someone once said, “The seed of the gospel will bloom in any culture. It’s just that the flower will look differently.”

    I’m not saying that this ceremony is gospel, but I love how you look for the bigger spiritual needs of humanity and give the Laotians freedom to taste/see spiritual things differently . . . but not 100% “wrong” as maybe we often assume.

    I hope we meet someday.

    • Thanks Laura. I, too, hope we can meet someday. I think the odds are good 🙂

  • Joy

    How is this different from what Paul experienced in Acts 14:8-18?

    Joy, starting year 11 in Asia

    • My understanding of that passage in Acts is that the crowd thought that Paul was “a god” and wanted to offer sacrifices to him. My understanding of the bai si is not that sacrifices are being offered TO anyone being honored, but rather that the ceremony is honoring spirit/s greater than the person and requesting their protection and guidance.

      • Joy

        (Realizing that I’m coming out of nowhere, and this is just some dissenting voice in the comments, I hope that my words will come across as gently and sincerely as I intend them. Life in Asia has been full of lessons in many areas for me as well, and I love hearing how other Christians have grown to know God more–which is part of the reason I’ve enjoyed this blog over the past year–, but it seems to me that–if I am correctly understanding what was written–that this does not match the Bible response.)

        Wouldn’t this fall under “other gods” and be considered an abomination in God’s eyes, esp. in relation to the last part of the last sentence in the above reply to my comment?

        I understand that YOU are not believing this, rather the people who are showing their gratitude, but as a purveyor of Truth, ought this not to be tactfully avoided?

        The strings are only strings, and the Bible teaches us we have one soul, spirit, and body, so we know that what these people believe is wrong. We want to not offend them so that they don’t hear our message of Truth, but sometimes a person DOES take offense at the Truth, no matter how carefully and lovingly it is stated because THEY are so wrong, deceived, or proud. (The sower and the seed parable–the seed was ALWAYS good, but it was the ground that was the problem.)

        In trying to be tactful, by allowing these deceived people to honor you in this way, is it not perpetuating their deception? From the description in the post, it sounds like more than a cultural point, but like the title says, rather more of a “religious” one.

        Has letting them continue in their ignorant tradition brought more respect to you and thus to your message? I’m guessing that is a small part of why you’d go along with it. Is your response to them in participating in the ceremony a thing of, “well, we know this isn’t really anything and we don’t want to cause trouble when they are trying to be nice…”? Respecting and understanding cultural differences is one thing, participating with an accepting attitude in false religious ceremonies is another.

        ——

        The way the post was ended doesn’t seem a true summation of the event. Rather than the first response being concerned with one’s own safety in the situation, would not our concern be foremost with offending our holy God, whose name we bear? He says awful things in the OT to those and about those who worship or follow anything other than Himself.

        And, not to be nit-picky, but concerning the second response if you only have a soul, why would Jesus answer about your “kwan?”

        • Joy

          P.s. I was wondering if you were able to learn an honest opinion about this from the Christians that you respect in your area?

        • Hi Joy,

          Apologies for the delay in reply, it’s a busy time here with pregnancy and toddler. I also don’t have as much brain energy as I’d like to tackle topics as sensitive as this.

          I realize this is a sensitive issue and people are going to come down on different sides of the coin on this one. Some of the Christians in Laos choose not to participate in such ceremonies under any circumstances. Their reasons for not doing so are similar to the ones you stated above.

          My husband and I have chosen to participate at time when a community is going out of their way to express gratitude, or when the staff that my husband works with want to pay high honour to us (as they did right before we left Luang Prabang, recently). All of these staff know of our own Christian faith, although many don’t share that faith. They also know that we don’t share their beliefs about kwan per se (my last couple of sentances in the post above was a bit tongue in cheek, I do think God has a sense of humour although some might disagree that he would joke about spirits etc).

          We’ve simply decided that our words and actions in other ways help share our faith more effectively than choosing to decline their overtures in this particular way would. I realize this looks as if it’s contravening some of what Paul wrote about not participating in idol worship, etc, but I also would remark that there’s a lot that Paul and others wrote (e.g., women and hair coverings, or women not speaking in church etc) that we no longer feel strictly bound by, either.

          OK, mama duty calls. I hope this helps explain some of the backstory behind this post. Also, I’m glad you posted your dissenting opinion. That’s what this forum and space is for – to help foster discussion like this, even if we don’t agree on the specifics of some issues.

          All the best,
          Lisa

          • Joy

            Thank you for taking the time to explain further your thought process. It’s now my turn to apologize for a late reply; we are traveling and I’m reading via a phone. Thanks for listening to what I had to say.

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